Holes in the Blue Wall

You only understand an election if you talked to voters on their doorstep: distanced punditry is worthless. I was on the doorsteps in Edgbaston during the first Blair election, and was told there was no danger, surely, in true-blue Edgbaston? But it went red, and has stayed red. In Amersham, the party most in favour of HS2 has won on an anti-HS2 vote. Voices on the doorstep could have predicted this.

Voters do not like being taken for granted. They are not owned by any party – we have seen that in the North. Perhaps this time the local Conservative Association was too cocky? There was no frantic campaigning as has been seen elsewhere: the LibDems though were out campaigning months earlier, while the old MP was on her deathbed, which is obscene, but effective. You cannot expect votes just because you have had them before.

It was a by-election. Boris has a stonking majority, and the result was never going to change that, so a voter knew he or she could do anything and it was not going to overthrow the Conservatives in Westminster, so it is time to have a little fun, to shake things up.

There is reason enough and unavoidable wherever you go thereabout: just outside Amersham all along the roads the once-green fields and woods are now acre upon acre of industrial heaps of earth ringed with security fencing and ten-foot signs, filled with monstrous machines grinding the land away. This is the HS2 project. It not just a pair of steel threads across the hills, but needs the hills scraped away forever. In its wake too will come houses; thousands of indistinguishable box-houses and flats destroying what once made Amersham and its villages such a lovely place to live.

The Liberal Democrats support HS2 and support massive house-building, but they got in, convincingly, by claiming to oppose them. That is not so outrageous: it is a Conservative government which is leading the despoliation of the Chilterns.

Loss leads to loss. I knew Edgbaston only too painfully: once a solid Tory seat, now apparently permanently Labour: in the last two elections their candidate won more than 50% of the vote, when it used to be the Conservatives at that level there. Canterbury was a shock loss in 2017: as true a blue constituency as could be imagined; safe and with a big majority, but then Labour’s Rosie Duffield got in, by a tiny margin in 2017, and then two years later stayed there, with almost a 2,000 majority. Can Amersham and Chesham be won back? Once a constituency’s voters find they can vote another way, they think differently about their assumptions, and they can do it again.

This was an unusual one, with weird voting patterns skewed by the circumstances and a low turn-out, but nothing can be taken for granted. Look at Canterbury, and Edgbaston.

Do I want to write about this, and can I? I would rather be writing about the Sausage War. Still, it is the live topic of the day, so you must forgive my indulgence in my observations. Others who knocked on the endless doors of the villages may contradict me, and really I would prefer to hear from them.

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Hobbes and the Libertarian – 2

The American Constitution is lauded for entrenching liberty, but there is little everyday freedom in the cities of that land. The South African Constitution is at pains to demand personal liberty and equality, but its people live in fear.

America’s prosperity is a factor of their personal freedom as much as it is of the space available to the Americans, and the legendary American work ethic which grows from that personal freedom. There is genuine freedom promised and enjoyed that is greater even than Britons enjoy in may fields, but it remains the case that while I can walk in complete safety, day or night, through any neighbourhood, there are many places in the cities where Americans dare not step from their cars. This displays the libertarian paradox.

In contrast, an example of a truly free society might be the Falkland Islands: crime free, such that no one locks their doors, each islander living without fear from their neighbour or their government. On the other hand, it is a physically constrained society where opportunities are limited, and that is a limit on freedom.

What then is a truly libertarian society?

Hobbes observed that liberty is not to be defined by theory:

There is written on the Turrets of the city of Luca in great characters at this day, the word LIBERTAS; yet no man can thence inferre, that a particular man has more Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth there, than in Constantinople. Whether a Common-wealth be Monarchicall, or Popular, the Freedome is still the same.

This is to say that under any state, the existence of sovereignty abnegates entirely the natural freedom of the individual to exactly the same degree, whether in a free city of his time like Lucca (or like the Anglosphere nations in our own), or in a vicious tyranny like the Ottoman Empire (or any number of dictatorships in our day). One could say that in London one is just as much under the complete command of the laws as in Peking: it is just that in practice the laws are mostly mild and benevolent in Britain.

Actual personal liberty is not a factor just of the relationship with the state, or Common-wealth in Hobbesian terms, but of fact and sensation. Complete legal liberty is enjoyed where there is no Common-wealth, but then we are prey to every passing stranger, “and the life of man of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”.

This consideration ensures that the United States of America, for all the promises of their constitution, cannot be a libertarian land. In America merely walking the the downtown areas of the main cities in daylight is fatal: the first-hand stories I have been told by Britons who did not appreciate this would make your hair stand on end. In reaction, policing in America is brutal and occasionally deadly; not as much as the media or activists portray, but breath-taking from an outside view. Outside the cities if crime is low, the Americans may enjoy the liberty their national myth promises.

Undoubtedly the proliferation of guns in America is a major factor. If Commonwealth countries forbid guns, which is an anti-libertarian move, that ban may produce a net increase in liberty.

A theoretical problem for a nominally free but lawless society is Hobbes’s observation on when a sovereign ceases to be worthy of obedience. This comes from what we might call a libertarian understanding of sovereignty, namely that ‘the end of Obedience is Protection’. He asserts:

The Obligation of Subjects to the Soveraign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by Nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no Covenant be relinquished. The Soveraignty is the Soule of the Common-wealth; which once departed from the Body, the members doe no more receive their motion from it. The end of Obedience is Protection; which, wheresoever a man seeth it, either in his own, or in anothers sword, Nature applyeth his obedience to it, and his endeavour to maintaine it. And though Soveraignty, in the intention of them that make it, be immortall; yet is it in its own nature, not only subject to violent death, by forreign war; but also through the ignorance, and passions of men, it hath in it, from the very institution, many seeds of a naturall mortality, by Intestine Discord.

If the state makes itself weak, in the name of freedom, it ceases to do its fundamental duty, namely to protect its subjects. In that case not only can it reduce actual freedom, but it absolves its subjects from any duty of obedience.

A truly libertarian state therefore must retain complete sovereignty, just as much as that of China or any other tyranny, but be distinguished from a tyrant by its actions in using that mighty power for protecting personal freedom, which is the purpose of its having that power.

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Reading between the worry lines

Delay unnecessary, unwanted delay. Polls suggest it is popular, but the effects will not be. Data demands a full opening up, to end the Lockdown, but it is not to be, at least not completely.

Why, we can guess. It is not following the data, but avoiding the blame in the unlikely event that anything goes wrong. It is not running a country by running scared.

A loud battle has been fought this month by rival press releases from lockers and from openers. It is blatant. The headline writers love it: an obscure medic somewhere wanting publicity can made dire predictions and be plastered over the front pages under a headline along the lines “Government must keep lockdown forever or millions will die”; the sort of hysterics that made the Remainiacs so laughable in previous years, and just as accurate. Then it is snapped back by someone facing bankruptcy unless his business is permitted to allow customers back in, and each story phrased as if it were an official announcement.

There is no sense to it any more. If before the first lockdown the figures for infections and hospitalisations had been those we are seeing today, then idea of locking us up and closing businesses would have seemed madness, for such a petty outbreak.

We are being shown today charts with a dotted line climbing and the question “if this rate continues…”, but it cannot continue, as the medical profession well knows, because the population has reached herd immunity, through vaccination and infection. The climbing figures will be found to be amongst those who have refused vaccination, who happen to be from the same cultural community most directly in touch with the Indian variant. That is a limited pool. They should be cared for and isolated as individuals. They are not going to take us back to the height of the epidemic though.

There is still an opportunity to rescue the nation from the damage of a delayed opening. They could just drop the whole nonsense and open up on 21 June as planned. They could leave a local lockdown in place in the most affected areas. They could remove most of the restrictions on Monday, and leave a few that they are most reluctant to let go. They could exempt from all rules those who have been double-vaccinated.

Continuing restrictions will be largely ineffective anyway, as we will largely ignore them. In the meantime as it drags into the holiday season, seasonal businesses (which make a profit only in July and August) will collapse, unnecessarily and all because of a minister’s cowardice.

The motive for continued restriction is not of principle nor science, but fear of personal criticism. That is a corrupt way to govern.

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Ethiopia, burning paradise

Do not forget Ethiopia. It is not the land of eternal suffering as popular imagination would have it, or it need not be. It is an ancient culture in a land of wonders, ruined by past wars but which was striding towards prosperity, until a new civil war began.

I wrote before about the vital work being carried out to heal Tigray after the Communists ravaged its land and turned fields into desert. Tigray was beginning to regain its old status as a leading province of the nation, but it is Tigray which war has struck.

The news is infrequent. It is not that nothing is happening, but that reporters are not interested in far countries that seem doomed to suffer every misfortune, and so are their audiences for the most part. We cannot write Ethiopia’s story for it though. It is not just a cliché, a charity case, a one-line thumbnail of a country. It is a large and complex nation that had cities and mighty monarchs when Britons lived in dark, Bronze Age huts.

The war is a cruel one. Atrocities have been commonplace, massacres, rapes, crop-burning and village-burning. It scarcely bears thinking about and no wonder we turn away. This is not a moral reflection on either side, as any ill-disciplined army commits atrocities (just whisper ‘Badajoz’ before you leap to judgment): it is a reflection of the immorality of war in general, and of civil war in particular.

Hobbes asserted that the sovereign power must be one, or the state will fall into discord and war and that is exactly what happened here: two authorities contending over who should be master. Civil discord commonly breaks out over who governs and how, but:

the estate of Man can never be without some incommodity or other; and that the greatest, that in any forme of Government can possibly happen to the people in generall, is scarce sensible, in respect of the miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a Civill Warre; or that dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge

The Tigrayans have been at the heart of Ethiopia’s being every since there was a united Ethiopian state, and many times in its history they were the dominant, ruling sub-nation. When Communist rule tottered, it was Tigrayans, in Eritrea and the wider Tigrayan regions, who rose and drove them from the capital, so one might detect in the rebellion a sense of wanting to gain that which their arms won, and which people of their name enjoyed centuries before.

However, rebellion and war are cruel and the suffering far exceeds any imagined gain. The weeping mothers were despoiled by soldier, not by one side or the other, but soldiers, whatever their uniform.

Ethiopia deserves peace. Let us hope there are prayers enough to bring it.

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Some statues must fall

Some statues are a worthy historical memory. Others are a cruel past threatening the current generation. That is their purpose. We can be disgusted at pampered, middle class protestors vandalising a statue here, and I am, but we cheered a mob dragging Saddam Hussein’s idol from its plinth in Baghdad.

The distinction is too fine a one for those with a cause and a bee in their bonnet and testosterone surging. I will defend statues, but I recognise what they are, and it is uncomfortable. Seeing what they are, one may conclude that felling all statutes and melting them down is the unavoidable philosophical conclusion.

Statues are a form of constructed immortality, not for the characters portrayed but for those who erect the statue. Every generation passes away, but its monuments stand in an open attempt to impose the dominance of the dead on the forthcoming generations. The ubiquitous image of Lenin in the pose of hailing a cab was erected all across the Soviet Union as a mark of domination, a constant reminder in the fabric of you home town that it belonged to the Bolsheviks. When the Communists fell, so the statues had to fall.

The statues seen across British cities are important to remind the doubtful in this weak piping time of peace that greatness, that nobility of mind and strength of arm resides in each of us. There was purpose behind the rash of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian statues, raised in gratitude at the memory of a man (who could obviously not see it). Their purpose was to reflect an appreciation of his qualities and give a lesson to the upcoming generation. (It did become too much of a habit, particularly in London, which begins to resemble a graveyard.) If they are worthy fellows portrayed, the number and weight of them all the same shows how our nation can be great.

The statues of our cities are then an inspiration, deliberately teaching the qualities that built a nation and empire: insulting them feels like an insult to all of us who recognise the lesson they teach. Those who attack them know that, do it specifically to topple not the man but the qualities they represent. To defend the monuments is not to defend the ghost of the man or woman portrayed but the qualities which uphold society.

America is different. There are statues which have called to be dragged down. The Confederate hero statues in some southern state capitals are not all contemporary with their subject, the spontaneous expressions of gratitude: they were not erected after the Civil War but long after, in the age of the Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth century. Maybe they were to restore the dignity of communities, but it is hard to see them other than a way to put down a marker. The grey-coated soldiers fought against the United States, to preserve the Old South and slavery, and their statues were erected so as to mark territory: ‘this state belongs to the white man, to segregation and to the Democratic Party which upholds those principles’.

The Americans have plenty of worthies to celebrate, whose lessons should be appreciated. Some monuments though may have a sinister purpose.

Our Neolithic ancestors would understand; they who erected the first stone monuments in the same spirit that we do today. The reasons for even the most ancient ones are no mystery, because man is man and stone monuments do what they have always done: they lay down ownership and demand respect by virtue of their immortality. From an ancient stone circle to a likeness on a plinth, it marks ownership of the future.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Too much statuary becomes habit-forming and worse: as one worthy is memorialised, another’s champions must demand equal celebration. It has becomes a competition. Today it is more clearly a battle of ideology, that ideas must be represented in order that another ideology may not dominate. Therefore it follows that all contrary ideas must have their bronze markers toppled. Statues defend values into future generations, and are therefore on the front line of the culture war. There is continuity between Saddam Hussein on his plinth and Nelson on his column, and a moorland stone row marking the generations of long a forgotten Neolithic tribe.

I do not like an excess of statues. Any statue is distasteful to my first reaction. The Second Commandment speaks loudly:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

We do not imagine that some spirit of the person or a godlet lives within the cold stone the way the pagans did, but we see an idea elevated to divine heights. That is still dangerous, still a graven image. A metal statue of a man nine feet high is worrying, and so is the idea of treating him as a perfect model in bronze apotheosis.

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