Texas weeping for her children

Incomprehension must not be a reason to stop thinking but a spur to try to understand, nor mourning a reason to put off the day’s work, but to redouble it. We want to say we do not understand the evil that strikes death at children, because otherwise we admit to what humanity is.

To all, we would hope, children are precious, inviolate, a joy to all, and everyone in society has a sacred duty to protect them and see them nurtured, because we were protected and nurtured when as vulnerable, and they are the future of society and all its hopes and dreams.

When a man enters a school and shoots at children, as has happened many times in America, and once n Britain too, it is alien; utterly beyond what we can contemplate. Yet it happens.

I said “to all in society”, but what of the man who has torn himself out of society?  We see in children that boundless joy they have and a remembrance of our own childish joy – what if that man never had that joy or has driven it out of his memory – what if he is enraged in jealousy of that joy?  We see children as the new growth of our towns and nations and humanity – what if he declares all mankind to be his enemy, to be cut off at the root?  Brevik on Utøya slew the playing children because he thought it would cut off the next generation of a political party at its root: imagine the man who wants to kill the whole human race. We see children as sacred – what if this is an invitation to the worst revenge against a society he sees as his enemy?  We know children are vulnerable – what if he takes that as an opportunity to exercise godlike power? Such a mind is twisted by hatred, with a horrible logic behind it.

This is speculation – we cannot see what happens inside the head of a man who would do such acts, and those who have done so end up dead by a police bullet or their own hand. We can though see what has been done even in our age by tyrants and demagogues and mobs. They too have murdered the weak and vulnerable, even children, and it is that latter aspect which raises the worst horror of them in the mind.

We know who those guilty men were and we call them monsters, but they were, are, human beings like the rest of us; they were all sweet, vulnerable children once playing joyfully; and all grew up in society as we all do. The tyrant murderer could have been like the rest, but for the lust for power, which is the primary motivation of man, and the achievement of power creating a promise of liberation from the constraints of social bonds – it may be political power or the personal power felt by holding a gun in the hand, with all it can unleash – that may be enough to be the difference between a normal man and a monster.

The monstrosity is not an abnormal defect but part of the lurking natural Caliban nature. If we choose not to understand it, we cannot counter it.  If we know where to find it, maybe those with pastoral care and political power can mould their response accordingly, but otherwise they yield the floor to the killer and we will weep many, many times more.

See also

Books

Measures, four Measures

The chaos of unruled juvenility in the heart of government has been known about for many years, and it took this lockdown car-crash to expose what should have been a scandal long before.

Whether events took place during the lockdown or not is irrelevant – that is just a hook to hang confected moral outrage on – what matters is that the behaviour described should be scandalous whenever it happened, and that it went by with impunity. That culture of impunity must be dealt with, with zealous severity.

Boris is not the one to do it. He has allowed himself to become the root of the problem, because he is the smiling, hands-off boss who avoids confrontation and can never be cross with anyone for long.  He is though aware of a literary precedent for sending in a strict regent to do the job which must be done.

The appearance, from Sue Grey’s frank, excoriating report, is of staff out of control.  The private sector could not work like that – if I were to get drunk in the office or assault a co-worker and swear at support staff, I would be out on my ear with little prospect of a replacement job on the horizon – in Number 10 it appears that SPADs and junior civil servants have been enjoying the liberty of impunity, which confusion of responsibility brings.

It would be bad enough in a normal office where it all happens only on a personal level. In an office which wields the powers of peace and war, which reshapes vital structures of government and controls 40% of the nation’s GDP, this behaviour goes beyond internal discipline and becomes a vital public interest.

How it happens we can guess. The Downing Street machine contains ministers, civil servants and special advisers, and who controls whom is where the issues begin. Each group has its own chains of command, and if those chains are not pulled tight, they will run out of control. The staff whoever they may be are people, after all. The civil servants cannot command the SPADs and the SPADs cannot command the civil servants outside their specific responsibilities – they have separate priorities, separate duties and codes of conduct, and no way for misconduct to be pulled up tight if the relevant chief is out of the room.  This should have been foreseen when Tony Blair introduced the concept of political special advisers.

For the special advisers, if criticised by senior staff they can always thumb their noses and say their boss is the Prime Minister, and this particular the Prime Minister is a hands-off boss whose very manner encourages the taking of liberties.

Boris Johnson is reluctant and now unable to control the staff. Now let him turn to a play.  The Bard places Duke Vincentio of Vienna in the same position.  He saw himself as the problem, as under his liberal rule the laws had become laxly observed:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

Vincentio therefore left the city in the hands of Lord Angelo, “A man of stricture and firm abstinence”, with the command to restore respect for the laws of morality, which Angelo did with zeal until his own bodily temptations drew him. Boris is Vincentio who has let his people get away with excessive liberties. He needs an Angelo, preferably one less corruptible, to take command and apply excessive zeal to restoring the government machine. Like Angelo, he must receive absolute authority, and like Vincentio, Boris must withdraw to a distance so that his staff will not queue up to appeal to his mercy over the heads of grim Angelo.

The task then for Angelo is to take command and fundamentally, not to be Boris.  Measures he or she can take to bring order should start:

  • A command across all of government: no alcohol may be consumed nor provided for consumption in any government office even after hours in any context, even high-level receptions (those at the top must set an example);
  • Senior civil servants in each ministry and in Number 10 to be given specific authority to rebuke and discipline special advisers in their ministry for breaches of the advisers’ code or for illegal conduct, and vice versa.
  • Whistleblower protection, along the lines of that introduced by Stephen Harper in Canada – no civil servant or special adviser should be afraid to report wrongdoing to his or her supervisor and if necessary to a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. This must apply just as much to devolved administrations and local authorities as to Whitehall and its quangos.
  • Omerta: Blabbing is damaging to the smooth working of government.  Misconduct should be stamped on but privately: both civil servants and SPADs work in a confidential atmosphere and must not leak. The current crop of chatty rats sap our confidence in the integrity of the process and make it look as if Whitehall cannot be trusted with the privacy of our  personal information, if they are blabbers. Anyone can be self-righteous about openness, but private discipline is the most effective, and effectiveness is what is needed. A minister can give a good kicking to a wayward underling in private that he would not do in public. Working with a good, statutory whistle-blower protection, it will clear out the system like nothing else.

The Thick of It is not meant to be a training film. That culture must be ended, without mercy.

See also

Books

Levelling, locality, labyrinth

The showpiece of the Queen’s Speech is the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. It is just the sort of measure which should have been taken many years ago, at least in Part 1. The rest of it has the appearance of a jumbled-together bag of ideas, which perhaps had been sitting in a back draw waiting for a Bill to jemmy them into, giving the look of sections far too hastily put together. It is really four or five Bills stuck together in a vaguely coherent manner to put it generously.

That is not to say that the individual ideas are poor, but they are hurriedly put together, when they deserved better, individual consideration.

Most of the Bill is to be welcomed. The Part I general duty on government to address regional disparities has been talked about by every shade of government for as long as I can recall, but never set out in quite this way. I could say that this duty is a Hobbesian necessity, after all:

The safety of the People, requireth further, from him, or them that have the Soveraign Power, that Justice be equally administred to all degrees of People; that is, that as well the rich, and mighty, as poor and obscure persons, may be righted of the injuries done them; so as the great, may have no greater hope of impunity, when they doe violence, dishonour, or any Injury to the meaner sort, than when one of these, does the like to one of them: For in this consisteth Equity; to which, as being a Precept of the Law of Nature, a Soveraign is as much subject, as any of the meanest of his People.

No one region has any more call upon the benefits of government than any other, which would constitute as Hobbes might put it, πλεονεξία, and for the state to grant it would be προσωποληψία.

There should be no need to spell such a duty out, because the government should always act in that way, but forcing the civil service to produce plans may actually change something. This essentially leads on from the “union agenda” intended to end accidental disadvantages which businesses in Scotland and Ulster suffer because of thoughtlessness in the way that regulations are drawn up.

Part 2 is a mess though. This one could be excised from the bill without harming the rest. It would be given better thought in a bill on its own. In this position it jumps into an already ramshackle system and makes it even more incoherent. Part 2 will create yet another new form for local authority, the ‘combined county authority’: why they call it that when the area can bear no relation to any county is perhaps best answered by assuming it was given little analytical thought.  These new bodies will be appointed by existing councils, plus additional members chosen by the councillor-members, or by bodies they nominate to nominate members, and to give them a purpose, powers will be stripped from local councils and granted by the minister, individually.

This blog has argued before – see “Now for LGAxit” – that the systems of local government are so complicated and so far removed from the assumptions underlying the Local Government Act 1972 that the Act should be wholly repealed, immediately, and replaced by one which reflects reality. Changes over the last decades have accelerated, each one making an exception to the requirements of the 1972 Act – so now it is a chaos of clashing and contradicting provisions, and when we have the new Part 2 (which only marginally coherent itself) then it will be intolerable. When the exceptions from the rule are more common than the original rule, as we have today, then something is wrong with how things are being done – when the assumption is that the original rule  will not apply then it is no more than a legal fiction, and you need to start again.

Mr Gove should not be tinkering at this stage: he should be repealing the old Act and getting a new one.  The new Bill just emphasises it all the more.

Furthermore, the terminology gets in the way of the intention. by suggesting that the new combined areas are in some way “counties” is to bring resistance to them. There is no way that a collection of governmental areas enrolled for mere convenience can be the equal of Yorkshire or Cornwall or Surrey or any of the famous counties of the realm. By choosing that one name, “county”, it suggests to local folk that own own, ancient places are being taken away and replaced by an ill-shapen imposition, and the resultant resistance will hold the plan up.  It can be saved by changing that one word to another, say “combined strategic areas”, as that seems to be what they are, or just “combined government areas”. The Ministry do not know how to make it easier for themselves.

There is a great deal to be said for the Bill, and the many elements  have not even touched upon, but the wise heads need to change Part 2’s self-defeating terminology, or remove it to work on later in the context of ‘LGAxit’ and a rationalisation of local government systems.

See also

Books

The case for declaring war

No, not the current one: that is not our war; but in general an honest declaration solves all sorts of problems and ambiguities.

I cannot think of any occasion since VE Day that the United Kingdom, or the United States come to that, has issued a declaration of war. If this were an indication that peace has reigned, that would be a fine thing, but it has not, and British forces have been engaged in many wars, not just against insurgencies but against states – against China (in Korea), Egypt, Indonesia, Argentina, Iraq twice over, Serbia, Syria and more I am sure, without a single admission that this was war indeed in spite of its being obvious.

This is not peace but mendacity, and it leaves uncertainty about the consequences.

We have forgotten why the Crown declares war (and how to: in August 1914 it was said that the Foreign Office were in a panic because they had not issued a formal declaration of war for so long they had forgotten how). Two points:

  • A declaration of war is not an act of aggression but a recognition of an existing reality;
  • It is a declaration to one own nation more than to the enemy.

When a state of war exists, British subjects are on notice that they may not trade with the enemy; citizen of the enemy state are subject to legal disabilities and their property is frozen; having business with the enemy is a form of treachery, perhaps even treason. How would one know when these apply without an actual statement from the government that a state of war exists?

On the other side of the coin where there is no state of war, Britons are free to do business as we please, and defy all the tutting disapproval of politicians as we do so. There must be a sharp distinction.

It is not obvious when there is a war, when all trafficking with the other side must stop. As Hobbes observes:

For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

In the old days there was no need for parchments and seals and florid language: a Royal Navy frigate would haul over to Normandy and seize a couple of French fishing boats, and that was a declaration that a state of war existed.

Even a paper war is war if unambiguous.  If we read the account by Hobbes of how the Civil War began, it was when “the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known“:

After the sending of these propositions to the King, and his Majesty’s refusal to grant them, they began, on both sides, to prepare for war. The King raised a guard for his person in Yorkshire, and the Parliament, thereupon having voted that the King intended to make war upon his Parliament, gave order for the mustering and exercising the people in arms, and published propositions to invite and encourage them to bring in either ready money or plate, or to promise under their hands to furnish and maintain certain numbers of horse, horsemen, and arms, for the defence of the King and Parliament, (meaning by King, as they had formerly declared, not his person, but his laws); promising to repay their money with interest of 8l. in the 100l. and the value of their plate with twelve-pence the ounce for the fashion. On the other side, the King came to Nottingham, and there did set up his standard royal, and sent out commissions of array to call those to him, which by the ancient laws of England were bound to serve him in the wars. Upon this occasion there passed divers declarations between the King and Parliament concerning the legality of this array, which are too long to tell you at this time.

In the meantime the Parliament raised an army, and made the Earl of Essex general thereof; by which act they declared what they meant formerly, when they petitioned the King for a guard to be commanded by the said Earl of Essex. And now the King sends out his proclamations, forbidding obedience to the orders of the Parliament concerning the militia; and the Parliament send out orders against the execution of the commissions of array. Hitherto, though it were a war before, yet there was no blood shed; they shot at one another nothing but paper.

It soon became more than paper, and what a bloody war it was to torture the guts of the realm. The reality was shown before the first musket ball flew.

If all wars could cease by the stroke of a pen, let that pen be brought forth at once. A generation which has only seen peace at home may not know how there are no words to describe the horror of it but those cowering under the rubble of Kiev, weeping for their sons and husbands or living in uncertain terror from moment to moment may show you. If the obsolescence of formal Declarations meant this could not happen then would be well rid of those poisonous documents. However perhaps doing away with them has made it worse: if no government could begin its war without taking the awesome step of an open, formal declaration, they would not set to war as lightsomely as has been done over these last eighty decades, and there would be far fewer widows in dark rooms cursing to the end of their days. War is no light step, and pretending you have not taken it just because you did not signed a formal document, is dishonesty.

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Books

Hatred, Lust, Ambition, Covetousnesse, Causes Of Crime

As for the Passions, of Hate, Lust, Ambition, and Covetousnesse, what Crimes they are apt to produce, is so obvious to every mans experience and understanding, as there needeth nothing to be said of them, saving that they are infirmities, so annexed to the nature, both of man, and all other living creatures, as that their effects cannot be hindred, but by extraordinary use of Reason, or a constant severity in punishing them.

For in those things men hate, they find a continuall, and unavoydable molestation; whereby either a mans patience must be everlasting, or he must be eased by removing the power of that which molesteth him; The former is difficult; the later is many times impossible, without some violation of the Law. Ambition, and Covetousnesse are Passions also that are perpetually incumbent, and pressing; whereas Reason is not perpetually present, to resist them: and therefore whensoever the hope of impunity appears, their effects proceed. And for Lust, what it wants in the lasting, it hath in the vehemence, which sufficeth to weigh down the apprehension of all easie, or uncertain punishments.

Of all Passions, that which enclineth men least to break the Lawes, is Fear. Nay, (excepting some generous natures,) it is the onely thing, (when there is apparence of profit, or pleasure by breaking the Lawes,) that makes men keep them. And yet in many cases a Crime may be committed through Feare.

For not every Fear justifies the Action it produceth, but the fear onely of corporeall hurt, which we call Bodily Fear, and from which a man cannot see how to be delivered, but by the action. A man is assaulted, fears present death, from which he sees not how to escape, but by wounding him that assaulteth him; If he wound him to death, this is no Crime; because no man is supposed at the making of a Common-wealth, to have abandoned the defence of his life, or limbes, where the Law cannot arrive time enough to his assistance. But to kill a man, because from his actions, or his threatnings, I may argue he will kill me when he can, (seeing I have time, and means to demand protection, from the Soveraign Power,) is a Crime.

Again, a man receives words of disgrace, or some little injuries (for which they that made the Lawes, had assigned no punishment, nor thought it worthy of a man that hath the use of Reason, to take notice of,) and is afraid, unlesse he revenge it, he shall fall into contempt, and consequently be obnoxious to the like injuries from others; and to avoyd this, breaks the Law, and protects himselfe for the future, by the terrour of his private revenge. This is a Crime; For the hurt is not Corporeall, but Phantasticall, and (though in this corner of the world, made sensible by a custome not many years since begun, amongst young and vain men,) so light, as a gallant man, and one that is assured of his own courage, cannot take notice of.

Also a man may stand in fear of Spirits, either through his own superstition, or through too much credit given to other men, that tell him of strange Dreams and visions; and thereby be made believe they will hurt him, for doing, or omitting divers things, which neverthelesse, to do, or omit, is contrary to the Lawes; And that which is so done, or omitted, is not to be Excused by this fear; but is a Crime. For (as I have shewn before in the second Chapter) Dreams be naturally but the fancies remaining in sleep, after the impressions our Senses had formerly received waking; and when men are by any accident unassured they have slept, seem to be reall Visions; and therefore he that presumes to break the Law upon his own, or anothers Dream, or pretended Vision, or upon other Fancy of the power of Invisible Spirits, than is permitted by the Common-wealth, leaveth the Law of Nature, which is a certain offence, and followeth the imagery of his own, or another private mans brain, which he can never know whether it signifieth any thing, or nothing, nor whether he that tells his Dream, say true, or lye; which if every private man should have leave to do, (as they must by the Law of Nature, if any one have it) there could no Law be made to hold, and so all Common-wealth would be dissolved.

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Books