Are we at last to be free?

Crawling until we end Lockdown2, struggling, society dying. We can make it though through a week until it ends – but even then we are not free.

Actually, I have made this lockdown tolerable simply by ignoring it. Apart from the germ-sodden facenappy I am forced to clamp to my mouth when travelling and when entering less accommodating shops, it has been much as normal, apart from the absence of people in the open air, timid people anyway. I travel resentful, but when released from the train and I have coughed my guts up from the induced asphyxia, I am free again to ignore these paper rules.

Now the new Lockdown is coming to an end, the shops will reopen. Life will start to become normal, just a bit. Except that it will not: this is not a liberation – it is tiers before bedtime. The clampdown continues so that while venues can open, they must keep visitors six feet apart, which is not going to revive the cinemas or theatres or anything else really: pocket tyrants standing at the doors forcing you into a mile-long queue for an hour with no promise of being able to get in the door and no, I am not joining in. All these social and cultural venues will close and I have stopped caring about them because they are now a distant, forgotten world. I cannot see how they can come back when the world has moved on. They remaining shops will struggle to their feet again as there are always customers for frocks and whatnot, but art and culture must be our sacrifice for the new, horrid world we have created.

The cure has been far worse than the disease. Now we live with a strange new world of devastation following the plague as they did in the Middle Ages, but it was not the plague which devastated but the measures taken against it.

We can only thrive if we are free. Freedom brings endeavour and innovation. e are crawling towards it again. My worry is that some politicians are too fond of this unwonted power they now wield;  “in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death.” Maybe Boris is genuinely not comfortable with it, but that Matt Hancock, the most powerless become a great power, he always seem ready to tighten the noose around the neck. On the other side of the House, those even less powerful, have called for powers and restrictions, and commissars and whatever their cruel hearts imagine.

There is resistance. The push back for freedom has come entirely from the Conservative benches. If they are accused of living in the past, good for them, for we were free in the past.

The self-justification of power must be broken. Then we can be free to thrive.

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Dissolution Of Common-wealths Proceedeth From Imperfect Institution

Though nothing can be immortall, which mortals make; yet, if men had the use of reason they pretend to, their Commowealths might be secured, at least, from perishing by internall diseases. For by the nature of their Institution, they are designed to live, as long as Man-kind, or as the Lawes of Nature, or as Justice it selfe, which gives them life.

Therefore when they come to be dissolved, not by externall violence, but intestine disorder, the fault is not in men, as they are the Matter; but as they are the Makers, and orderers of them. For men, as they become at last weary of irregular justling, and hewing one another, and desire with all their hearts, to conforme themselves into one firme and lasting edifice; so for want, both of the art of making fit Laws, to square their actions by, and also of humility, and patience, to suffer the rude and combersome points of their present greatnesse to be taken off, they cannot without the help of a very able Architect, be compiled, into any other than a crasie building, such as hardly lasting out their own time, must assuredly fall upon the heads of their posterity.

Amongst the Infirmities therefore of a Common-wealth, I will reckon in the first place, those that arise from an Imperfect Institution, and resemble the diseases of a naturall body, which proceed from a Defectuous Procreation.

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To the Extinction of their Democraty

Once the spell is broken, it cannot be woven again, and democracy relies on keeping a nation spellbound, just as autocracy does. (The rival systems enumerated by Hobbes differ from each other very little in this respect.) Democracy has been the most stable system as it absorbs shocks, but is breaking down and even in America there are whispers. The ‘Death of Democracy’ is a threat exaggerated by commentators by it is a moment’s work, and might be as much a part of the life of the system as its birth.

Mexico is a classroom for students of politics as its history has sampled every political system one might imagine. It has been relatively stable since about 1920; nothing like the cowboy-film version of old Mexico. It still teaches us. In 2006 a year of chaos followed the Presidential election. The losing candidate refused to accept his position, his supporters ran with that. They had reason to believe the election was stolen because in their own narrow bubbles all opinion was one way. Those protesting in the capital could not grasp that Calderón had enough support to have won, because in the capital he did not; outside their bubble he did. This shook the understanding on which democracy must stand, namely that each side accepts when it loses. Mexico is hardly a good example of a perfect, mature democracy because while it has been democratic for a hundred years, it was for most of that time a “guided democracy” in order to ensure stability.

In the United States it is meant to be different. Democracy has been unchallenged, even in the Civil War, for over two hundred years, and in fact to some extent since the first settlers on the eastern seaboard established colonies. There is belief in democracy; if there were not, the roots would dry up and the soil blow away. Where however a population draws itself in, each into his or her narrow bubble of shared norms, it is no different from the protestors in Mexico unable to comprehend that there are any who disagree, and therefore convinced that the election has been stolen.

There is a great deal more to be written on the destruction of political understanding. The danger is in the destruction of political acceptance.

No American President since the 1993s has had his legitimacy unchallenged, and this in a settled, accepted system: Clinton and his impeachment; Bush and the hanging chads; Obama and the “birther” theory; Trump with everything the other party could throw at him, including an attempt to subvert the Electoral College to keep him out; now Joe Biden’s elevation to office is being met in revenge with more law suits. Rumours of an attempt to subvert the College again appear to be smears, but we will see.

It is America though, and that counts for more than all the political shenanigans. Elections have been bought and sold many times in America, so I read, but the essential mindset in the common man, whatever party they support, if any, is that democracy unsullied is the American way, and that attempts to subvert it are despicable. That is mythology because the system has always been corruptible and corrupted, but America has always lived on self-myth, since the foundation of the republic. It is a necessity and the strength that will keep it going.

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Jacobean court farce

The reign of King James I began to fall apart into farce in 1612. The King was no fool, or if he was, he was as the cliché has it “the wisest fool in Christendom”, and in character he was uncertain, fearful and indecisive, which led to his relying on other who were unworthy of trust. Until 1612, he had at his right hand Robert Cecil, who had served Good Queen Bess as had his father and who guided the new, inexperienced king. In 1612, Cecil died and the King was adrift, and the kingdom with him.

King James was a good king to the extent he could be given his limitations. He had ruled in Scotland, and had been impatient to rule his inheritance in England too, making plans based on expectation not experience, and the change from the unruly, poverty-stricken court in Edinburgh to the surface splendours he found in England left him unsure of how to react.

The King also had a nervous complaint which led him to fidget constantly and left him unable to concentrate his mind on the task at hand whenever another presented itself, and make the King unable to govern himself let alone a kingdom. Part of this was his unfortunate fondness for handsome young men, many of whom were promoted in court despite no merits beyond their comeliness, and a court full of handsome young men and many rather personable young ladies was a source of constant intrigue.

Had this dysfunctional royal court been merely a private parlour, one might pass over in distaste it like a tabloid sensation, but these plotting courtiers were governors too, in the absence of control by the King. It led to the collapse of the King’s authority, and worse later.

They competed for favour and gathered positions and titles from an impressionable king who saw these favours as costing him nothing. Two such young men were Robert Carr and Thomas Overbury, who came to London together and wormed their way into the court, Overton by his intelligence and Carr by his face; Oveton gained a knighthood, and Carr was made Earl of Somerset. This is a poor substitute for the competition of merit which the kingdom needed, but it is not unknown to this day.

These games become dangerous. Those competing for favours formed factions of convenience, and whispered accusations circulated, in a dangerous atmosphere where treason was the fear in the wind, as well it might be after Guy Fawkes and after the By and Main plots, and was a fatal accusation, but even an accusation of discourtesy would be fatal to a career.

History books tell better how the breach between friends came, when Carr openly took up with Frances Howard and arranged the annulment of her marriage so he might have her. Overbury’s poem The Wife was a deadly insult to Frances, now Countess of Somerset. She pulled an old and cruel trick: she spread a tale that Overbury had been disrespectful to the Queen. He fell from favour at once and and the next year, though further intrigue he was in the Tower accused of treason, where Carr and Frances arranged for him to be poisoned. Their faction were all implicated.

It starts with personal disagreements, and political rivalry which has personal motives, rarely the good of the nation, fought by personal intrigue, with never a thought to the public responsibilities of office – and when power is purely without responsibility it is precious indeed and to be defended at all costs. Courtiers fought like rats in a sack, and their political heirs still do today. If they stay in the sack it might not bother the wider world until we realise whose taxes are still paying them.

No servant is greater than his master, and it is a weak master who allows them to think they are. That was King James’s failing, and that of several other political leaders down the ages.

The scandal that culminated in the death of innocent Overbury was just one of the many intrigues that scared the Jacobean court, and lost the king the love of the nation. It all continued under his son, King Charles I, which led to the discontent, rebellion and Civil War.

I wish that we had learnt to rise above this sort of thing, but apparently not.

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And then there was silence

The guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It has been for our nations, the victors, a sacred moment remembered each year. It might have been for Germany too, but they were caught up in their own revolutions at the time and it seemed a strange sort of peace with the sound of gunfire ever present. For the great concert of Europe though, the unthinkably brutality of this war was over.

The clean forgetfulness of the public imagination has this moment as an end to war, the war to end all wars, until the next one. Would that it had been. It was a long effort to make a peace though and the treaties were still being argued over in 1920: this year Hungary mourned the centenary of its own dismemberment at the hands of the vengeful Entente allies: three quarters of Hungary was torn away and two thirds of its population left in foreign lands, and not a single yard of its border was unencroached. That hurt has not faded in a hundred years, nor Austria’s for loss of South Tyrol. Turkey in 1920 was dissolved, and its rulers today appear vengeful for it. War did not cease: the new Mitteleuropa states fought to reverse their border losses almost from the start, and the murderous Russian Civil War ground on.

In the west the joy of victory would not be spoiled by foreigners’ tussles. It was a new era, and the revolutionary map of Europe cast a revolutionary mood into the air – only by the skin of our teeth and the common sense of the common man did Britain escape a bloody communist tyranny. The febrile atmosphere in which everything was possible and every idea hailed a revelation carried through until those ideas tumbled Europe into a war yet more bloody, more evil than imagination could have furnished even amongst those who had seen the drowned trenches. The first war gave us poetry: the second gave us films of heroism, and real heroism there was in more places than the who canon of literature can supply, and we can cheer, as long as we do not look too far below the surface of those years as that would curdle the feelings.

The remembrance is important. The names are read, the sermons and the familiar verses; we tramp to the village green, we stand silent awaiting the bugle. It is ceremony, old and familiar, and in this we remember, for it has been mercifully many decades since war came to these islands and we forget, or would forget. Politicians still like to play with soldiers, but every November they meet and remember it is not a game, and there are better men who stood what no man among them would bear, or few.

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