Governing locally and its frustrations

Our tiring system of local councils was created in a political accident. Lord Salisbury wished to replace the Metropolitan Board of Works with an elected body like a giant municipal council, but had a minority in the Commons, and the Liberal Unionists would only support him only if he would erect elected councils across the whole country, from Cornwall to Zetland, which was done in 1888-9. They had other ideas to push too – the district councils that followed, just to ensure there is no escape from politics.

The system which preceded this revolution is perhaps better looked at in a separate article, but placed local administration in the hands of justices of the peace. These magistrates when sitting spent most of their time dealing with malefactors, and the rest on roads and bridges, policing and anything that had not been handed to public health boards, poor law unions and so forth. By all accounts, separating government from law enforcement was a tangled task and magistrates still sat as councillors and vice versa often in the same building. The system had been creaking and starting to break for decades so Salisbury’s accident had to happen at some point in some way.

It was not the first time the national government has tried to reform local government and found it created a monster. Hobbes recounts a reform by Cromwell:

The Protector, being frustrated of his hope of money at Santo Domingo, resolved to take from the royalists the tenth part yearly of their estates. And to this end chiefly, he divided England into eleven major-generalships, with commission to every major-general to make a roll of the names of all suspected persons of the King’s party, and to receive the tenth part of their estates within his precinct; as also to take caution from them not to act against the state, and to reveal all plots that should come to their knowledge; and to make them engage the like for their servants. They had commission also to forbid horse-races and concourse of people, and to receive and account for this decimation.

… Between the beginning of this year and the day of the Parliament’s sitting, which was September 17, these major-generals, resided in several provinces, behaving themselves most tyrannically. Amongst other of their tyrannies was the awing of elections, and making themselves and whom they pleased to be returned members for the Parliament; which was also thought a part of Cromwell’s design in their constitution.

– Thomas Hobbes: Behemoth

You can almost feel Cromwell’s frustration at lack of control. It is the eternal tension between needing to give power to local bodies, and then being annoyed that they are not your clones, and keep they making their own decisions. Legislation even today goes in a yo-yo between praising localism and then cursing and stopping it. The major-generals have not been called back, to ensure puritan rule, but Whitehall is pretty effective at the same job  nevertheless.

(The next ruler who tried to muzzle local magistrates was James II in 1688, and that was a move against established local power which saw him driven from the throne.)

The modern system is a frustration to central bureaucrats, but I think that is the point.

Voters may thinks Whitehall’s inner Cromwell is right to try to abolish councils wherever it can, as the constant elections are a bore. The weary electorate may wish the old system of unelected magistrates had continued. It  would make for unresponsive, distant administration with little care for the interests of those they are meant to serve, but it would mean we are no bothered by village politicians hammering on our doors. Those trudging endless streets with leaflets and a forced smile may agree.  In the cold as it is getting dark and yet another letterbox is hidden behind a bush or jammed, know that the Liberal Unionists are to blame.

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Liberation; revival

The Falklands War of 1982 liberated not just those islands, but the home islands too. It is the story of staunch heroes, who won more than they could imagine they would.

It had to be done.  It was war, there was slaughter, but sometimes war has to be done. It is hard to describe to today’s generation how the war and the victory changed Britain and revived Britain, because of how fundamental that change was. The focus though was the Falkland Islands and their people.

So whatever the revolutionary change that the war made at home, it was at base exactly as it seemed – a liberation of those islands, a limb of the British nation, from a foreign invader, a liberation wrought by the heroism and iron determination of British sailors, soldiers and airmen doing what they do best. It was war for what war is meant to be for, and they fought it and won it well. Theirs is the glory here, and those of us in Britain then abed shall think ourselves accursed we were not there – all the verses and quotes and clichés are weak indeed in comparison to the reality of the relentless battle by flesh and blood over bogs and hills to drive back an enemy dug in on our hills, but that they did, in mere weeks – two and a half months from the invasion and the islands were liberated.  If only all wars were so brief and victorious.

Looking back, it is unimaginable that much of the press was against the war but those newspapers failed and the patriotic ones throve. We emerged a very different country.

When the Argentines invaded, they attacked a nation which had lost faith in itself, where the  dissolution of empire had sapped the vitality out of the soul of the nation, and decades of socialist impositions had smashed the economy to spin Britain into a spiral of apparently irrecoverable decline. Three years before, Margaret Thatcher began to reverse it only for an oil crisis and the necessary destruction of dead industry to cause a massive recession.  The Argentines attacked a nation with no confidence in itself, knowing that the establishment would surrender. They wanted to.  Had it not been for Margaret Thatcher and Sir Henry Leach, the First Sea Lord, that would have been an end.

The decision made, it was the men who sailed those thousands of miles over the unquiet ocean who rescued the islands and their whole nation.

The Argentines attacked a dying, timid land: they surrendered to a resurgent, confident major world power.

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Ireland: spark and anvil of the war

Ireland was not an afterthought for Cromwell, but his urgent necessity since the very beginning. The Civil War began in Ireland, and it was finished here. History books following a linear narrative look at the Cromwellian invasion as a secondary campaign after the shouting but they miss the point: Cromwell fought all through England in order to get to Ireland.

The order of events and motivations gets jumbled as the ages pass. Lives, deaths, votes, decrees, battles – all can be put in strict chronological order, but the motivation is muddled. Those who were there, as Thomas Hobbes was, could provide a view of how it all unfolded.

The first rebellion was against Scottish bishops in 1639, but Ireland touched off the convulsion of the three kingdoms, in 1641. Rebels descended upon Protestant towns and slaughtered all they found: in Westminster, Parliament demanded action and for its own appointees to be put in command, as they did not trust the King – after all, the rebels claimed to be acting in his name and Queen Henrietta was after all a Papist. We can imagine the rising desperation in the Commons at fears that day by day more blood was being shed and nothing done; within months the breach was made.

Hobbes however looks further back: the breach between the rising middle classes and the King had been going on for years. In Behemoth he identifies several classes of men and their motivations – Papists, Protestant radicals, educated men misreading Greek and Roman ideas, the City merchants envying Holland, and men with nothing to lose. It weakened the authority of the Crown, and this weakness, Hobbes says, emboldened the Roman Catholic Irish lords to rise up. When they did, it burst open the breach in the other kingdoms.

From 1642, bloody war raged across England and Wales, a war each side had expected to be brief but which lasted for years. In all those years the Confederates controlled most of Ireland, doing their will, which to the imagination of the Protestant English, and possibly in reality, was a bloody one. By the end of the war in England in 1649, Cromwell was in undisputed command, and he turned at once to the business which had been tormenting for eight long years: Ireland.

Perhaps Cromwell thought the Irish campaign would be brief too, but it was two years of blood. Vengeance is an ugly word but unavoidable. Cromwell set foot in an Ireland divided by language and cultural attachment, and in territory as the Romanist Confederates had been kept out of much of Ulster, County Dublin and Cork, though the rest of the island was theirs.

The slaughters of 1641 were very much in mind, and the rolling back of English-inspired culture.  He set out to terminate the illegitimate government of a cardboard cut-out state that was ruling what naturally is part of the single British-Irish nation, to defeat genocide (as we would now call it) and to de-Catholicise the island. It is a familiar motivation. That the majority still clung to the Church of Rome could only have been put down to  the waywardness of the local lords, who would therefore be extirpated for the better edification of the people. Those still stubborn, not accepting the Gospel, would be driven beyond the Shannon and their places given to sounder men. In the event, more were killed by sword and famine and it placed a vital spark in a determination to resist reformation.

All that followed, followed logically. In our day it looks like vicious persecution and murder, and it felt like that at the time, but it was considered necessary by those who did it.

The war was brief compared to many that had torn at Ireland and brought a brutal peace after centuries of continual turmoil. The collective memory kept it running for centuries though: Flanders and Swann were not far wrong when the sang over-jovially “They blow up policemen, or so I have heard, and blame it on Cromwell and William The Third”. The retelling of grievance over generations, expanded with each telling, is a danger to conquerors and may blow up even three hundred years later.

In our day maybe it can subside.  It is all seems so distant: the unleashing of deadly fury with religious zeal to defend, and then defeat, the Roman religion in Ireland – when that religion is now being freely abandoned by the descendants of those same Irishmen. What another generation will think, I cannot tell.

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How the war began

B.: “But how came the people to be so corrupted? And what kind of people were they that did so seduce them?”

A.: “. . . . . .

Fourthly, there were an exceeding great number of men of the better sort, that had been so educated, as that in their youth having read the books written by famous men of the ancient Grecian and Roman commonwealths concerning their polity and great actions; in which books the popular government was extolled by that glorious name of liberty, and monarchy disgraced by the name of tyranny; they became thereby in love with their forms of government.  And out of these men were chosen the greatest part of the House of Commons, or if they were not the greatest part, yet by advantage of their eloquence, were always able to sway the rest.

Fifthly, the city of London and other great towns of trade, having in admiration the prosperity of the Low Countries after they had revolted from their monarch, the King of Spain, were inclined to think that the like change of government here, would to them produce the like prosperity.

Sixthly, there were a very great number that had either wasted their fortunes, or thought them too mean for the good parts they thought were in themselves; and more there were, that had able bodies, but saw no means how honestly to get their bread.  These longed for a War, and hoped to maintain themselves hereafter by the lucky choosing of a party to side with, and consequently did for the most part serve under them that had greatest plenty of money.”

– Thomas Hobbes: Behemoth

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Blazing trails

Fiction, especially science fiction, requires vision and imagination. Familiar themes of the modern SciFi, of travel to strange new worlds with outlandish peoples, are found in the work of Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle, The Blazing World. It has been called the first work of science fiction, but while it has science and fiction, it is not science fiction.

The nature and origin of science fiction is a whole article. Margaret Cavendish deserves her own.

Many an educated lady read well, but Margaret, unusually, wrote also. She wrote a number of volumes on sciences and philosophy. The work by which she has become best known, The Blazing World, was minor in comparison and written as an amusement and a companion to her philosophical work: it is dedicated to other ladies who have read her philosophical work.

A slip of a girl when she married Thomas Cavendish, she knew Thomas Hobbes well – her brother-in-law was his patron and they were all with King Charles’s court in exile in Paris together. She read and became familiar with the ancient and modern philosophers, in particular Hobbes, though his picture of mankind was perhaps too uncomfortable in its reality.

The book is a fantasy, travelling to another world. There are strange creatures there and a strange mode of life, and a place of peace and paradise in comparison to our own war-torn world. The book is a thought-experiment. Most of the book concerns not adventures as one would expect in a science fiction novel, but dialogues and reflections on theories and discoveries in science. Overall, it poses the question “If a world had no previous experience of philosophy or science, and schools were erected to answer scientific questions, how would they answer without drawing on the understanding or the baggage of the ages?”

It is an odd world, certainly; calmer and without the torments as ours. Here the bird-men can fly up and dismantle a star in order that the Empress can light her temple and her headdress with star stones.

One new world is not enough: the Empress sets out to create worlds in her mind, and this is where the rival schools of philosophy play, the ideas of Descartes and Hobbes amongst them:

she endeavoured to make a World according to Des Cartes Opinion; but when she had made the Æthereal Globules, and set them a moving by a strong and lively imagination, her mind became so dizzie with their extraordinary swift turning round, that it almost put her into a swoon; for her thoughts, but their constant tottering, did so stagger, as if they had all been drunk: wherefore she dissolved that World, and began to make another, according to Hobbs’s Opinion; but when all the parts of this Imaginary World came to press and drive each other, they seemed like a company of Wolves that worry sheep, or like so many Dogs that hunt after Hares; and when she found a re-action equal to those pressures, her mind was so squeezed together, that her thoughts could neither move forward nor backward, which caused such an horrible pain in her head, that although she had dissolved that World, yet she could not, without much difficulty, settle her mind, and free it from that pain which those pressures and reactions had caused in it.

The world constructed by the opinions of Hobbes sounds just like our own, if not like the ordered society of Bolsover Castle.

Because of the fantasy and other-world element, the book has been looked at as a as a science fiction book, but it is not. Comparison is made with a satirical fantasy work by Lucian in the 2nd century : not only was Margaret Cavendish familiar with Lucian but refers to him. At the same time she takes a swipe at ideas from the fevered brain of Jan Baptist van Helmont, from which in fact the name of the book ultimately comes.

Lucian’s World of Lights, had been for some time in a snuff, but of late years one Helmont had got it, who since he was Emperour of it, had so strengthened the Immortal parts thereof with mortal out-works, as it was for the present impregnable.

Lucian again may need another article, and I would not want to lessen the lamp of Margaret Cavendish by comparison.

It has science and it has fiction, but The Blazing World is not science fiction. It is a philosophical game and a love-letter to her husband, and that is a fine think indeed.

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