Will Drakeford demolish the castles?

There seems no stopping wokery in the Welsh administration, even as it is being discredited and driven back elsewhere. Its iconoclasm has personal approval from Mark Drakeford, or he is playing coward in the face of its demands.

He has not yet said that he will demolish the innumerable castles of Wales, but logically, if he is consistent, that would be his next step.

Had it been just been that he let the statue-toppling activists run amok and make fools of themselves on paper, that could be dismissed as a weak but harmless bit of virtue-signalling. Instead he actually, unbelievably, seems to be taking them up on it. The activists’ report came out in November 2020 (to outrage from all sides in society the length and breadth of Wales). Then Drakeford scraped back in at the election in May 2021, and has published a government programme that includes a pledge to “Address fully the recommendations from the Monuments and Street Names Audit”. That suggests he actually means to do it.

If you employ a committee to find ‘problematic’ street names and monuments, there are two consequences:

  • Those putting themselves forward to sit on the commission will be the most virulent of activists;
  • They will do the job with glee – they can hardly come back with “there is no problem really”.

“This is not about rewriting our past or naming and shaming”, they say in the report. Actually, that is exactly what it is about. Listing names and placing against each your condemnations is literally “naming and shaming”; and obliterating the memory of heroism and nobility in favour of narrow criteria for condemnation, then effacing the knowledge of the honour of the subject is literally rewriting our past.

The list of those named and shamed could be torn apart easily enough: Nelson condemned by a forged letter; Gladstone, the arch liberal, because he inherited money; Iolo Morganwg condemned not for being a forger and fraud but again for mere passive inheritance. Many are the examples. Intellectually it is so defective, so void of method that it would be scandalous if meant in earnest. Still, if a committee is paid to find names, it will scrape the barrel for them.

If the issue is eliminating the symbols of division, and even street names must go, how can the castles stand?

Welsh castles are monuments to division and hatred and brutal feudalism. The Middle Ages were a ferocious time: rival petty princes ravaged Wales, wasting villages and valleys for personal gain or feud. Norman or Cambro-Norman lords joined them in the mêlée of continuous civil war. This age is portrayed by habit of oversimplification as struggles between Welsh and English, but that is a nonsense, not least because the distinction between the two identities was unreal, lost by generations of intermarriage and adoption of shared customs.

Yet the castles stand, portrayed as a collective monument to tribal war and hatred. The ‘historic’ presentations available in print and on video about each castle cheer or boo and portray the English (however defined) as ruthless invaders and despoilers. It is a ridiculous, sub-Marxist way of looking at it, but this portrayal is widely believed: you will not speak for long amongst Welsh political activists before one tribe is accused of being an eternal oppressor of the other. That is division and hatred at a massive scale.

If therefore a social problem in the far off United States is enough to demand that statues be torn down here and roads people live on be renamed, because of an off-chance that someone will choose to be upset, what of those great stone legacies that, by socialist interpretation, breed tribal hatred? They surely must go.

The castles can be portrayed however you wish. The Iron Ring of King Edward’s castles was constructed to bring peace, by force if necessary, and it did, ending feudal wars so that for the first time the farms and towns of those lands could flourish.

Others see them as symbols of oppression, and a longer lasting one than that in distant islands, a more direct one than the chance of an honest man’s inheriting some money from a slaveholder. Logic then would add every castle in the land to Drakeford’s hit list. They need protection from this madness.

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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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Getting back to competence

The government system has been failing badly for over a year. The excuse is COVID-19. More human factors should take the blame. Recent years should that the system can become competent and efficient, and we must claw that back.

The idea of bureaucracy as universally bumbling petty clerks, tickboxes, computer-says-no and all that has some truth behind it, but looking back at pre-lockdown days, it was quite efficient in many respects, thanks to the systems. Systems can be inflexible and infuriating, but they do carry the majority of business through, and when computerised systems do the donkey-work it allows the brains of the human element to do their job. I never realised how efficient it could be until it stopped being.

The lockdown came. Staff were sent home. The carefully prepared systems stopped working. The COVID excuse could excuse any failure. Once there is an unarguable excuse, failure is inevitable.

Nevertheless, there has been an astounding success in this same time: the vaccination programme. It shows that systems can work when there are dedicated minds and dedicated hands behind it. That sort of efficiency can be brought to the rest of government as we coming out of lockdown.

For now, systems that were once efficient are in collapse. Sometimes it might have been bad planning: talk to any solicitor for more than a few minutes and you will be told about the fall of the Land Registry’s. This was the most efficient of government bodies, certifying land ownership for a fee unchanged for many years, as costs decreased with efficient systems, processing applications almost by return. Then the lockdown hit and staff were sent home. Perhaps managers assumed that sales and leases would stop in lockdown, but in fact after the initial shock the market barely slowed. Without the staff on hand to handle the continuing workflow, registrations they would once have processed by return are taking several months, and those that would have been a week now get an estimated completion time of over a year. This must hit the liquidity of the property market.

Similar tales can be told of passport applications, driving licence applications and other: applications are piled up for months awaiting someone to look at them. Dedicated staff are frustrated, while others are comforted that they COVID gives them a cast-iron excuse, and if those few staff slow down and stop, the rest have no workflow to deal with.

A danger in the phrase ‘the new normal’ is that we will not get back to where we were. Staff will continue to work from home, or work in inverted commas; the target times for processing things will be set by today’s appalling standards; driving licence applications will still be piled high for four months before being processed; passport applications will either hang around until the holidays are over, or to catch up they may be processed too quickly to check for the frauds. The telephones will not be answered, because it has been so restful not to deal with calls, and emails lie unseen.

The vaccination programme shows that the civil service can work hard and well, bulldozing barriers to what is needed. There, COVID-19 was not an excuse but a driving force.

In the commercial world there is no “new normal”: we work to achieve results. The civil service must have no new normal either, unless the new normality is the efficiency shown by the vaccine drive.

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Now for LGAxit

Local government will feature in the Queen’s Speech, but is there hope of actual change? The messages are contradictory: more powers for councils, as long as they all obey central directives; more protection for the environment, but new towns must built on it.

A more fundamental change is needed: repeal the Local Government Act 1972.

Like many bands from the 1970s, the Act is a creaking parody of itself. It had an ill-starred birth, it was passed just after the Act that sent us into the European Communities.  It was knocked together hurriedly when Ted Heath was facing an election: he had unexpectedly won the 1970 election on a promise not to abolish the counties but he went on effectively to do just that. The Act was both a reaction to the Redcliffe-Maud Report, and an implementation of it. The Report was itself a reaction to changes in the 1960s. What we have today as the governing structure of modern local government is a 1970s act that was old hat even then.

The scheme of the 1972 Act did not last; before it came into effect it had to be changed, then 10 years letter Margaret Thatcher threw out one of its key planks, and ten years after that, many of its assumptions were reversed. There have been amendments and corrections, exceptions and provisos every other year since it was passed, but the 1972 Act limped on as the foundation on which stands a structure bearing almost no relation to the assumptions built into that Act.

The scheme of the Local Government Act 1972 is based on a series of assumptions including: universal two-tier government (now rare); a committee system (again, a rarity); strictly defined competences (no longer applicable); discrete employed council staff; and all to be done with paper and face-to-face meetings. On top of this have been added changes which have to be looked up in a scattering of other Acts and Regulations, joint authorities, devolved powers, mayors (whose powers have to be conferred using legal fictions because the Act does not contemplate them) and other bits held together with chewing gum and string none of which did Ted Heath’s text anticipate. It simply does not fit any more.

Even though the Act’s assumptions are all abandoned, Parliament is still forced to follow the 1970s terminology in the Act, and treat every exception to its scheme as an exception, even though there are now more exceptions than conformity.

If there is to be a radical devolution agenda, it simply does not fit the rickety frame of the 1970s.

Maybe this leftover from the age of corduroy flairs and soft-rock has been kept just because it is too complicated to work out what goes where, afraid of ‘ch-ch-changes’, but if we cannot see where the rules are, they must go.

Ted Heath’s legacy must go: the European Communities Act 1972 has been repealed by Boris, and now the Local Government Act 1972 should follow it into the bin.

A new Local Government Structure Act is needed quickly, to reflect the actual structure of local administration and to provide a framework for building anew.

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Whom are you serving?

You are being used, and they will spit you out when they are done. You may gather at a school to make your feelings felt, and you may end a good man’s career this time, and believe that this means you now have power to force society to bend more to your preferred norms, but you are being used. You have no more power than an atheist mob permits to you.

It was a different world in 1989, before the Wall fell.  As the year opened, protests burst out upon the streets of many countries against a Whitbread Prize-winning novel few then had heard of. In Bradford, Muslim elders hung from a stick a book they had never read and burned it in protest – they made at that time no threat against people or property, but all of respectable opinion in Britain was against them. When Persia’s spiritual chief issued an actual death sentence against the author, not just British opinion but that of the world was repelled. It was a turning point, but not in favour of the freedom proclaimed from all ends of social opinion: it was a turning point against free expression.

The shock at that fire in Bradford was not the act itself, burning a book – it is a very good book, but it is only paper. It was the sudden discovery of a new political identity within the population. Before Bradford there were Asians, undistinguished amongst their tribes and sects for most of us. Now there were Muslims.

It was a rollercoaster year, 1989: the Satanic Verses, the invention of the World Wide Web, Tiananmen Square, and the collapse of European Communism, ushering in a new order to the world. The Wall fell, old, oppressed nations began to rediscover themselves and the thrive anew in freedom: except in the first to turn, Algeria, which fell to Islamicists. In the West, socialism was openly disgraced but a backlash began in quiet corners, and the events of Bradford were too good an opportunity to miss.

There was no conspiracy – there did not have to be when men of ill-will were thinking the same thoughts and swapping fake outrage in the Grauniad.

The Communist regimes in the East were no longer there. Their failures and brutality had been exposed to the world. Those who had long hated their own society and culture, who had supported the Communists to destroy that culture, were still there though. They saw in the ash from those book pages a new way to attack the Judeo-Christian normality of society.

After Bradford it became a necessity not to offend Muslims, and that sounds benevolent enough – I really have no wish to annoy Muslims unnecessarily. It was a power game though, and the power game is not about benevolence. There were two groups now, in natural opposition normally but working the same way. There were some Muslims who saw an opportunity to push an agenda of their own; to persuade schools to treat Islam as unchallengeable, for example: there are always people like that in any group. However their games are all far less important than the ‘liberal’ offensive, led by others.

Driving Christian references from public life moved on apace after 1989. The tabloids’ favourite is ‘banning Christmas’, but it goes far beyond that. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher ensured that school assemblies be ‘broadly Christian in character’, but thirty-three years later that seems inconceivable. State and society have been secularised from top to bottom, and discrimination laws so interpreted as to keep it that way.

So it was in 2005 or 2006 that I attended a talk on Islam in British life, and was shocked by something I heard from the mouth of a learned judge. The subject of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons had come up and common commentary in that season seemed to be that they were grossly offensive and should be shunned, even banned. An audience member then asked why the cartoons should be banned when we champion the right to free speech by Salman Rushdie. The judge, a renowned liberal and certainly not a Muslim, said that he thought we had got it the wrong way round, and the cartoons were unimportant but the Satanic Verses should have been banned.

How the world had turned in that short time: as Eastern Europe cast off servitude and embraced freedom, Western Europe has cast away freedom.

The result is not what Muslims would have wanted. Would the average Muslim be happy with what was once a religious society becoming enforcedly atheist? Barely any Muslim is bothered by the public celebration of Christmas, but may be greatly offended by the suppression of religious expression.

Those at that school gate in Batley may think they are defending their religion, but it is a game played by the Guardianista liberal, which is the bitterest enemy of all religion.

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