A revolutionary in the Ministry

I did not anticipate seeing Michael Gove placed at the helm of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Let the civil servants shudder.

What looks like a demotion may be a move of strategic genius, but the thing about Michael Gove, and about Boris, is you can never tell what they are thinking. What is going to happen next is wreathed in fog. I think that is encouraging, but you can’t tell.

The first thing I want to know is: will he replace the rusted, outdated, fall-apart Act which still tries to govern local government?

The second is: will he recognise that in terms of community, councils and their funny little ways are basically irrelevant to everyday life until we put the bins out, and that we live in places, in real counties, not in Whitehall-invented bureaucracies?

He has been a well known public figure since long before he was hurled openly into politics in David Cameron’s time.  Michael Gove was a famed journalist, senior beyond his years, serving as news editor and assistant editor of The Times, seemingly rising effortlessly as his talent took him. Parliament was almost a retirement job, but for his boundless energy.

In recently years there has been an eminence grise air to what he has been doing in the Cabinet Office, but perhaps we will never find out what it has been.

What do we know? It is said that Gove wants to change the unwieldy name of his Department: that should be no surprise, as it was the first thing he did when he took on Education. The new name may be a clue to his priorities, or not.

The Department for Education (as he renamed it) was shaken to its boots. Free schools were driven through despite fierce reaction from traditional mandarins and the system revolutionised: no one else could have achieved that, and I can say this with certainty because no one else had ever successfully challenged ‘The Blob’. He even distributed King James Bibles (which sit unopened, alas, in display cases).

Faced now with another thankless department, what will he do?

The Local Government Act 1972 should have been dumped and burned decades ago.  It has hitherto escaped repeal apparently simply because the mess is too frightening: it has even outlasted the European Communities Act 1972 (which our Mr Gove had a hand in scrapping) – let us just hope scrapping it does not cause as much fuss as the latter. To look at any reform to allow local authorities to reshape themselves, to empower communities, to allow reform, that Act needs to go

A replacement can be clean and straight-forward, not a poor 1970s tribute act; one that says what it means, not what Ted Heath guessed at fifty years ago.

Legal structure apart, thigs are hovering on one foot with many of the district councils, unstable and uncertain and threatened with predatory unlocal councils. Eric Pickles used to threaten merciless retribution against anyone who suggested local government reorganisation: it s unlikely to be Michael Gove who reverses that position because he knows it would not be sensible, and that it would be is unaffordable, with the Treasury running on fumes as it is. He might though have a trick up his sleeve for prompting smaller councils to co-operate more, to privatise more to save themselves, and to leave more to the community.

Community is indeed the key, as individual volunteers do far more good in their towns and villages than bureaucrats do. It’s just that bureaucrats have big budgets, purloined from their residents’ pockets. It feeds in too to that other role: levelling-up. It may be a mystery as to what ‘levelling-up’ is beyond the sound-bite, but there are wheels which can turn, and if it is incompetent politics which damns certain towns to poverty, then community and commerce must break through and lift them. That may need the sidelining of councils just as they are craving more devolved powers, but if they learn not to be jealous, not to be in control of everything, not to command the news cycle, then flowers may bloom.

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From disaster we must build

Twenty years and the dust was still falling, not even settling, and the nation beneath it coagulating, uniting. It began though an age of nations dissolving.

America is blessed.  In the dust of the disaster, they had unity of purpose and the structure of the nation and the government was unshaken – no one could take advantage and Osama Bin Laden’s boast that the United States would become Disunited, is bizarre. It is a fractured society today in a way it was not twenty years ago, true enough, but that has nothing to do with the events of that day, and it is fracturing of ideas, not of the nation itself.

Other nations are not so blessed. Tumult has destroyed many states in the last twenty years and it is naïve to think that dissolving a tyranny will ensure a free democracy will arise naturally from its ashes. Mankind does not work like that, which millennia of experience should teach us, but we are foolish optimists. America after the chaos of revolution, rose with a working, peaceful and largely democratic state, but that was only possible because the colonies had enjoyed a century and a half of democratic engagement on their own shores born of a centuries-long English culture of freedom and participation and pew-level Protestantism and the education it brought. Without that, chaos breeds only chaos.

Democracy is unnatural: an accident sprung from circumstances of the time in a few lands and surviving only through inertia and necessary myth. It is a strong myth in nations long bathed in it, as the English-speaking word is, but we cannot assume that of other nations.

It is a necessity a Law of Nature in Hobbesian terms, that we seek protection for ourselves and our families and in this is the necessity of creating a Common-wealth. Into this step adventurers. It would be lovely to think that would-be rulers will be benevolent princes accepting the responsibilities of government for selfless reasons, or that liberal democracy would spring up naturally. As we saw though in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in Libya and elsewhere, it is just whoever manages to slay their way to the throne.

Outside the culture of the Anglosphere, a disaster may weaken or destroy a government, and they we may fear an adventurer stepping in to take advantage. A dictator is as good as any in such circumstances.

This subjection of an individual to a new government is of necessity. From disaster we must build; build something however grotesque, to provide some common keeping-in-awe for our own protection. Accordingly it is by covenant and not by a right invented by the political ideas of a moment.

So it appeareth plainly, to my understanding, both from Reason, and Scripture, that the Soveraign Power, whether placed in One Man, as in Monarchy, or in one Assembly of men, as in Popular, and Aristocraticall Common-wealths, is as great, as possibly men can be imagined to make it. And though of so unlimited a Power, men may fancy many evill consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour, are much worse. The condition of man in this life shall never be without Inconveniences; but there happeneth in no Common-wealth any great Inconvenience, but what proceeds from the Subjects disobedience, and breach of those Covenants, from which the Common-wealth had its being. And whosoever thinking Soveraign Power too great, will seek to make it lesse; must subject himselfe, to the Power, that can limit it; that is to say, to a greater.

In the fall of a government, there is desire to create another, but no immediate agreement: Rousseau’s “general will” is a laughable idea. The sceptre is as likely to fall to however first grasps for it, for good or ill. It would seem scandalous to us in nations long used to participatory democracy and equal laws, but not elsewhere, in desperation, and it is not democracy but political wiles which preserve the ruler, just as they raised him to his seat.

In those Nations, whose Common-wealths have been long-lived, and not been destroyed, but by forraign warre, the Subjects never did dispute of the Soveraign Power. But howsoever, an argument for the Practise of men, that have not sifted to the bottom, and with exact reason weighed the causes, and nature of Common-wealths, and suffer daily those miseries, that proceed from the ignorance thereof, is invalid. For though in all places of the world, men should lay the foundation of their houses on the sand, it could not thence be inferred, that so it ought to be. The skill of making, and maintaining Common-wealths, consisteth in certain Rules, as doth Arithmetique and Geometry; not (as Tennis-play) on Practise onely: which Rules, neither poor men have the leisure, nor men that have had the leisure, have hitherto had the curiosity, or the method to find out.

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Tax shot through the foot

It does not work, and they know it does not work. Raising tax does not raise money: at these levels at least, it reduces the Government’s income. Don’t take my word for it: listen to Rishi Sunak. He said repeatedly in the Commons that there is a limit beyond which no more comes in, and we have reached it.

No one was fooled by making it a rise in National Insurance: it is a tax, and we all know it.  The voters know it, which is why the Conservative poll ratings plunged at that moment. It will take a lot to win the trust back.

There is a window to rescue the position, on 27 October. The budget is being worked on, and it could (without going back on the National Insurance hike) reduce taxes that hit us all.

The temptation for any tax reduction is the old tick of raising allowances to take more people out of income tax entirely. This is a mistake. It has minimal effect on most, and those apparently benefited most will only have brief gratitude. We need people to feel personal engagement in the taxation process, and that means not taking them out of tax, but so they see a reduction. To be out of tax is to be told you are poor and failing. As soon as a working man is paying no tax, he loses interest: he might as well vote Labour for all it matters (and yes, he would be hurt mightily by the economy tanking if Labour get in, but if he feels no skin in the immediate game, then this future risk will not be a burden on the attention).

Voters in the North voted Conservative for the first time, as the low-tax, pro-enterprise party. Why did they bother? There is no sign of that party now, and no sign that the Conservatives have honoured the trust reposed in them, if the most cast-iron, attractive manifesto pledge has been dumped with barely a thought.

There is a need for a fight-back to win back the hope the voters once had. It will not come in the middle ground, for if Conservatives sit there, what makes them any different?  It can only work if there is a reason to vote Conservative.

The reasons to vote Conservative, bluntly, are:

  • Low tax
  • Patriotism
  • Reduced bureaucratic interference
  • Getting rid of the nonsense that has been filling the state
  • Being actively on the side of the ordinary man and woman.

There has been little sign of these. Tax has not sunk by a penny, and now has gone up. Maybe someone saw an extra Union Jack somewhere. Government bureaucrats still interfere where there are not wanted nor useful, just to keep their jobs, bullying health and safety directives are multiplying even outside the sphere of the COVID state, and there is no sign whatsoever of cutting the bloated mass of government down. It must have become addictive: even Dominic Cummings could not make his Hard Rain fall.

In the everyday, it has not escaped voters’ attention that Woke nonsense has increased inexorably over the last decade, in all of which Conservatives have been in power, or at least in office: they seem to have no power in the matter at all. A few speeches about protecting statues has not stopped voters losing their jobs to the social justice warriors embedded in the multitudinous layers of the state. The police (once a bastion of Conservative values) are even more ready to leap upon innocent men over ephemeral words in social media posts, apparently finding it easier than to do the dirty business of tackling actual criminals.

What is the point in voting Conservative?

Tax is the immediate battlefield, but the rest is tied in. Make actual, dramatic cuts in the bloated state, and in its largesse to parasites that feed on it, then cut income tax rates dramatically and loudly. That is the Conservative way, and the road to winning trust.


Gnawing inadequacy

We can never be good enough. No hero or saint comes close. Most of us brush it off, but a saint or a vicar lives in a shadow of the knowledge of inescapable inadequacy.

Most of us if we think about it at all, as we should, bumble through, hoping we are good enough, praying for the promised salvation, or hoping our faults will not be noticed, as if we could hide. A vicar lives in the constant knowledge of the presence of God, which should be glorious, awe-inspiring, joyful; but which in the knowledge of sin is terrifying, inescapable unless with the utter certainty of grace.

An insightful vicar used to lead students around a cathedral; he stopped by a pillar and asked his students about good and bad people, ranked on the pillar.  Usually they put Hitler about the bottom and some modern popular saint around the top. He would then ask, “What is the standard God requires?”, to which the students would guess somewhere around the middle of the pillar. The standard though, he revealed, is not the middle of the pillar, not the top: the standard is the sky.

The mediaeval plays put on around villages to frighten the peasants might show a man weighed in a great balance, going to eternal bliss or to eternal fire depending on the fine turn of sin against merit. That is not Christian doctrine though: the standard is the sky: utter sinlessness. That is unachievable even amongst saints; we need forgiveness, and as we cannot earn forgiveness it only works by grace, which is to say forgiveness granted freely by God. We are all at the bottom of the pillar, needing to put ourselves into the hands of God to escape.

It is harder in a mechanical, rule-driven society to accept the position we are in: it should be possible to put in some data and let the computer say “yes” or “no”, and then we can relax.  That is the attractiveness of rabbinical law, or the sharia system, or the Roman system of obligations and penances: it is clockwork salvation. It has never been like that though.

For an ordinary man or woman in the pews, we can get away with not thinking about it until Sunday morning, then dozing through a sermon. To live with this as you everyday, you meat and drink, must be either glorious or terrifying. The terror is in the knowledge of ones inadequacy.

No man can male his own salvation. No man is entitled to salvation. All men are entitled only to damnation, and none can climb out of it. To live with that as your daily contemplation might drive you mad, or drive you to find a clockwork salvation, or might lead you to immerse yourself in the scriptures. That will show you to an answer.

The unreformed, Mediaeval plays put on for those who had no access to the Scriptures, they portrayed the Word of God as full of warning and condemnation, but immersed in the whole Bible you find it full of light, love, joy. The picture of God is not in the fierce and gaudy Romanist art, that takes more from thundering Greek Zeus than from the God of the Bible: the picture of God is in Jesus, who could overturn the tables in the Temple when needed, but who would bless and heal and raise the downhearted and the maddened, whose words are full of love for those least deserving of it. In that context of knowledge of those words, reaching from creation to the end of things, the immediate presence of God is no longer frightening, and the knowledge of utter inadequacy is an encouragement to trust.

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Let them sing

The Police are on the hunt for a dangerous gang, whose crime is – singing a traditional song.

The press have been reticent about naming the song in question but fans were Rangers supporters and it was the ‘Go Home Song’ otherwise called ‘the Famine Song’; a ditty which has for some years had the police and courts all of a flutter. The tune alone when played has caused apoplexy although it is a very popular song in the Bahamas (‘the John B Sails’).

The Famine Song can be hard-hitting, so I am not going to quote it all here, but it is not half as bad as songs belted out in stadiums elsewhere in the land (if you are of a sensitive disposition, do not listen to what is sung at Norwich City supporters, or between East End teams). Rangers’ song is a deliberate wind-up song aimed at Celtic.  The High Court itself in an appeal from the sheriff ruled upon singers of the song, condemning them for a public order offence.

Perhaps they should have considered more deeply than the faux outrage of insulted Celtic fans. After all, a court of law must recognise that Athenry Mike was indeed a thief.  Whether Large John was in fact fully briefed is an ongoing controversy, but that is another story. While that wee traitor from Castlemilk did turn his back on his own, going to play for Ireland instead of Scotland, it is only ‘traitorous’ in football terms, not legally, but we’re singing about football. The killer, for the court was not the verses about Glasgow Celtic’s great scandal and the misdeeds of the Irish Free State; it is the chorus lines, ending “Why don’t you go home?” Apparently that is an existential threat to all persons of Irish ancestry in Scotland.

A bit of background may be needed.

The man who wrote the song is no hot sectarian- he is an Ulsterman, born in a robust city, Belfast, and who grew up with good pals in both communities. He saw the sectarian divide yawning and growing in Ulster: to see it replicated in Glasgow was distressing. In fact there has been a divide in Glasgow since the ships landed in a fiercely Protestant city and disgorged thousands of left-footed Irishmen, but as it should have calmed down in the later end of the twentieth century, it was growing worse, as an echo of Ulster’s troubles.  The song-writer has explained the circumstances leading to his writing it. It was a kick-back response to the sectarians on the other side.

Trying to be more Irish than the Irish is a fault of many living this side of the sea looking back at a mythical past. (I try not to, but the Irish name was lost a couple of generations back so it does not leap out of the page.) The songs sung by Glasgow Celtic supporters were not, are not, direct attack songs, but sentimental songs of Irish nationalism, like the Fields of Athenry alluded to in the Rangers song. Really, the song condemned by the High Court in Rangers supporters’ mouths is not “the famine sing” as if it were the only one – Irish voices and would-be-Irish voices have many songs romanticising the potato famine and blaming all things British for it – that sounds like an attack upon the good citizens of Glasgow to me.

The “go home song” then is a response to the actual famine songs: it says “How much more ungrateful could you be for what your city did for your ancestors?” It does not delight in the dark chapters of modern history, but raises them to burst the bubble of sickly romanticism.

Rage at perceived injustice takes on an irrationality beyond the facts raged against; something we see in many social conflicts of politics, culture, religion or whatever, and reason will not calm the waters but only raise the tumult. I can write my take on the thing, and others will disagree, virulently. They are entitled to, and I can debate or seek nuances and find the common ground or each person’s ideas and unique emphases, because that is how a free and respectful society must work – not with cancellations and bans. You are free to be outraged too, and free to be outrageous.

Therefore, in the name of freedom, let them sing what they like and to mean the words how they like.

As to the line which so shocked Lord Carloway and even UNICEF, I see that as a challenge to the ‘Plastic Paddies’, those who are Glaswegian through and through and still pretend, on the terraces, to be Irishmen: ‘Why don’t you go home?’ has an answer: ‘because you are not Irishmen – you are Glaswegian – and this is your home.’

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