THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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March 2007

How English am I?

  Link: Sinclair's Musings: Fixing Democracy?

Matthew Sinclair has made me think, with his comprehensive fisking of my piece on the failings of British democracy. He concluded that I am suffering from libertarian pessimism of  the "our country is going to the dogs" variety. I hope he's right. Follow the link above to get his side of the story. You can get Devil's Kitchen's angle on it here, though I furiously deny the allegation that I have started a "meme". I hate memes.

StgeorgeMatthew also made me think by saying that my concerns are those of a typical expatriate who thinks the home country has gone to hell in his absence. He may, on reflection, have touched accidentally on a truth.

I have just read a hugely entertaining book called "Watching the English" by anthropologist Kate Fox. She sets out to analyse our behaviours as another anthropologist might study a tribe of Amazonian Indians. What I have taken from it so far is that my behaviours are not very English.

When I worked as a lawyer in London, I noticed that foreign clients - especially Americans - thought more highly of me than English ones. I put this down to class prejudice. As Fox says, quoting George Bernard Shaw;

"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate him or despise him"

At the time, I assumed the English businessmen were repelled by my flat Northern vowels, but that foreigners neither noticed nor cared. I was wrong, of course. I have since learned that all class wounds in England are self-inflicted. If you don't care, neither will anyone else. If you want to be a victim, then people will happily give you a metaphorical kicking.

Several times during my life abroad foreigners have "complimented" me by saying, "you're not typically English." As a patriot (another unEnglish attribute) I was hurt. I laughed it off by saying "We are not all Hugh Grant, you know. There are plenty at home like me." Reading Fox's book, I am not sure that's true.

Maybe the "otherness" Matthew detected in my attitudes did not develop in my time abroad. Maybe I am not "unEnglish" because I am an expatriate. Maybe I am an expatriate because I am unEnglish?

So what are the characteristics of Englishness that I don't possess? As you may have noticed, I fail to grasp what Fox calls "the importance of not being earnest." An Englishman should speak lightly of every subject, however serious. He should not persist with any topic long, for fear of being thought a bore. If England were to fall like Ancient Rome a real Englishman would have to make light of the matter, even as the barbarians set upon him with fire and sword. This leaves me wondering how we can resist tyrrany, when - as Kate Fox puts it - "the English have satire instead of revolutions."

I don't chat about the weather. I take clothes too seriously. I have bought new watches and cufflinks that should apparently only be worn if inherited. I am not prepared to buy them in pawnshops and pretend they were inherited. I despise such deceptions. This is (unless you are from Yorkshire) apparently also unEnglish.

I am happier talking big political issues than making small talk. The only points I scored in a pop-quiz "How Polish are you?" set by my language teacher were for saying that politics, religion and sex were suitable topics for dinner party conversation. My attempts to persist in serious discussion of "ishoos" often got me into trouble in England.

It's hard to be sure though that my unEnglishness is what keeps me abroad. There are aspects of expatriate life that would benefit anyone. In other cultures, you get a "free pass" on sensitive issues. You can't give offence as easily, because the locals make allowances for you as a foreigner. So they let you off. It's brilliant; almost like being an American in London (which I have long thought would be my perfect existence). Maybe that is the attraction of "abroad" for me? Maybe I am not as repelled by British political authoritarianism but rather attracted by the opportunity to be my unEnglish self abroad, without being written off as a bore?

Memories of the Falklands

Link: Iain Dale's Diary: Memories of the Falklands.

Bomb_alleyIain Dale doesn't need any links from me but, if you haven't already seen it, follow this one to view a "vox pop" movie for 18 Doughty Street about the Falklands War anniversary.

Your blood will boil both at some of the comments on film and in response to his post. Further proof, if any were needed, that as a nation, we are in severe trouble.

"You, the Queen, should be ashamed!" | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

Link: "You, the Queen, should be ashamed!" | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited.

Why draw the line at this? If the Queen should be ashamed of Britain's role in slavery, how ashamed should she be of the conduct of her own direct ancestors; the feudal masters of German serfs? Why don't we Britons apologise, or even pay compensation, to modern Germans for her family's past conduct? It would be every bit as logical as this man's demands.

Toyin_01_largeIf a racist is someone who feels morally superior because of the colour of his skin, then that is exactly what Mr Agbetu is. But who cares? His ideas don't diminish us, they diminish him. Why would any self-respecting man ever want to live the pathetic, shrivelled apology for a life of someone who cannot define himself by anything better than his ethnic origin? Why would anyone but a loser have such a hunger to be a victim?

Try Googling Toyin Agbetu. His every public utterance appears to have been an accusation of racism, or some  nonsense about the correct way to describe black people in Britain. He favours "African British" apparently. According to his organisation's website:

African  British is the term now used to describe the community previously mislabelled [by whom?] as Afro-Caribbean, Black British,  UK Black, Coloured and Black. It embraces all British nationals with antecedents originating directly from  Africa or indirectly via African diasporic communities, such as those in the Caribbean and South America

Good for him. We are happy for him to be British, but if that's not good enough, he can be whatever he likes. He has written and is in the process of directing a couple of movies at present, apparently. I can take a good guess as to the subject matter, but if anyone can prove me wrong, I would love to see a copy of the scripts.

How about this for a programme (again from his organisation's website):

We believe that the key to European progression is European people creating and evolving solutions for and by themselves. While we feel there is a need for certain non-European institutions to acknowledge their exploitation and degrading practices towards European people with a view to rectifying their moral wrongs, we believe it is even more essential that European people construct their own destiny. This essentially means that European people need to be enterprising and establish their own businesses, organisations, educational institutions and material, media, artistic outlets and ultimately a European centered approach to working with and for European people.

Except - you've guessed it -  for "European" you must read "African"

How much better if Mr Agbetu was to win respect by doing something useful, rather than just demanding it for the colour of his skin. I thought that's what anti-racism was about. Evidently, I was mistaken.

A brave experiment that failed?

These days we accept democracy, unthinkingly, as a good thing. I have not heard a serious word against it since University, when some young men of my acquaintance affected to think it “a brave experiment that failed.” I begin to wonder if they were right, at least as to its British incarnation.

Pict0029_thumbnail_2Something is clearly very wrong with British democracy. Our low election turnouts prove that. Our voters do not face bombs and bullets on their way to the polling station, but they show less enthusiasm to vote than the Iraqis who do. Perhaps we should arrange to stain British voters’ fingers with purple ink and have men armed by Iran take pot-shots at them? I am sure President Ahmadinejad would oblige.

One might expect the constant meddling, the authoritarianism, the sheer bloody priggishness of New Labour to drive people back to the polls. They were elected by a minority and they are imposing the views of part of that minority on the rest of us. Yet British non-voters I speak to are way beyond mere disinterest. They are militantly apathetic. They have enthusiastic contempt for the process.
Once every little boy and girl born into the world alive, was “either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” Yet now, we hear the fatal words, “they’re all the same.” So, indeed, they are. Perhaps it is not that our democracy is failing, but that it is working too well? Politicians have views as diverse as ever. There is no view too absurd to be represented in the House of Commons, as George Galloway sufficiently proves. To get and keep power, however, now involves concealing ones opinions. Men and women go into politics to pursue their agenda, but soon the peoples’ agenda is pursuing them.

The only effective “check and balance” in our Parliamentary democracy was the way in which, for centuries, the British divided neatly, sportingly, into two roughly equal political "sides". Whigs vs. Tories, Conservatives vs. Liberals, Labour vs. Conservatives, etc. Our dangerous three word constitution (“Parliament is sovereign”) was not a problem. We could always rely on the swing of the political pendulum to keep government honest.

We still have two major parties, but few feel any allegiance to them. Their memberships are derisory, smaller than a hotel loyalty scheme, larger than a decent-sized fishing club. Both are led by slimy, unprincipled populists. “I’ll tell you what I think” they seem to say, “as soon as I have worked out what I think you want me to think.” All of which means that we ourselves, dear readers, have become the problem. Constitutions protect people from each other, as much as they protect people from the State. In the shambles of our modern democracy, we are each other’s prey.

Alexander Tytler (1747–1813) famously observed that:                                                                        

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits ... with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship.

He had it almost right. In truth, the masses can accept occasional fiscal discipline, but only if first brought to beggary by their own idleness and greed.

2004_03_minolta_014_3_thumbnailWhen Labour last wrecked the economy, the Tories under Thatcher won their reputation as “the Nasty Party". They made a sick nation take its bitter medicine. It had to be done, but no-one enjoyed it. Many who lived through it are bitter that our lives were thus blighted by the greed of previous generations who voted themselves unfunded benefits; so inflated the currency as to repay their debts in base coin and then left it to us to straighten things out. We are even more bitter now that New Labour has made all our efforts vain.

Our generation has paid for everything - twice - only to be told there is nothing for us. Our taxes, our pensions, have been diverted to bribe an army of Government “workers” and the mass of idlers on permanent benefits which now passes for “the working class”. Anyone who does work in Britain, if not for the State, is for much of the year in forced labour to feed the Government's hordes.

As has been sagely observed, “Labour always spends its way out of power eventually.” Cameron may pout, preen and posture now, but the Tories will be called into service as the Nasty Party again.

But enough of economics. What of politics? What, in particular, of liberty? Labour has opened our eyes to our constitutional danger. Though we were joyously ignorant of it, it seems that we were always at the mercy of an over-mighty State. All it took for habeas corpus to be repealed in Britain, was for the political balance to shift, so that one Party could do it without the other crying foul.

Focus groups and opinion polls have had the same effect on political thinking, as wind tunnels and CAD had on car design. They are a more scientific, but also a more soulless, way to do the job. They have led to less choice as politicians adapt their offer to comply with the "scientific" data. Had Jefferson and Washington had focus groups, there would have been no American Revolution. Most colonists favoured the Crown. A majority moved to Canada to remain subjects of King George. But the founding fathers were not followers, but leaders. They built a democracy from undemocratic beginnings.

How safe is a parliamentary democracy to live in when most voters fail to understand that powers given to our rulers for one reason may be used for others? All civil liberties objections crumble today in the face of the word "suspect;" which means no more than someone thought, by a fallible someone else, to have done something bad.

A democracy that works properly, will broadly give the people what they want. We have been remarkably tolerant of that in the past. More than 50 years on from the start of Communism in Central Europe, families whose businesses were stolen still lobby for restitution. Yet my grandfather’s business was stolen in 1946, and - while he did not like it (to say the least) - he accepted it calmly as the “will of the people.”

That my grandfather’s life work should be stolen was bad enough. But worse things than that can happen (and have happened) in a democracy.

What if what the people want is Hitler, as the German people did in the 1930’s? Given the clarity with which he stated his views in “Mein Kampf”, it could be argued that he had a democratic mandate for genocide. Perhaps that’s why our German friends are so keen to suppress his book? It is no worse (and after the Holocaust, is far less dangerous) than many classics of Communism, but it embarrassingly reveals they voted for Hitler in full knowledge of his intentions. Hitler, then, had a democratic mandate for violent use of State power. When he used that power, effectively, to demolish German democracy was that valid? Can one generation democratically deny democracy to the next?23rd_september_2002_085_thumbnail_2

Had Hitler been less mad, his regime might prosper yet. Listen to those who think President Ahmadinejad must be left in peace within his borders. People in the 1930’s said the same of Mr Hitler.

Had Hitler killed only those Jews within his reach; had he sought lebensraum only in the East, the Manchester Guardian readers  of the day would have spoken movingly of “international law” and referred the matter to the impotent League of Nations. Hitler could have begun the Shoah under the same indulgent gaze they now bestow on his successor in Tehran, as he prepares to finish it. And all of this as democratic as you please.

What of Palestinian democracy? The world's most successful professional victims freely chose terrorist killers to lead them. While only a complete idiot believes the Cubans love Castro, it seems no-one seriously questions Palestinian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. No-one who saw their street celebrations after 9/11 would doubt it. Once again, if they confine themselves to killing only those Jews conveniently at hand, they may count on the affectionate indulgence of the Guardianistas.

Are there then then no limits to democracy? In Britain there are not. Our democracy is defective, because we have never clearly defined what power individuals have delegated to the State. Potentially, our lives, our freedoms and our worldly goods can be taken at any moment at the State's whim. That the State is under loose democratic control is of little comfort. Am I any less a serf if enslaved by a majority of my neighbours? Am I any less dead for being slain with their approval?

The State should enjoy only those powers delegated by individuals. Would any of us freely give the right of life and death? Would any of us freely give the right to tax us until we work most of the year for others, like indentured slaves? Democracy is a valuable, but not a sufficient component of a free society. We also need individual rights, which outrank those of the State, because it serves us, not vice versa.  It is those rights that make us free, not the way in which members of the government are chosen.

Churchill said (and he was right) that:

democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried. 

It is a mere human construct. If we do not question it and worry about its political and economic outputs, we condemn it ultimately to fail.

Guthrum blogged here recently about the need for constitutional reform. It has never been more necessary. If the Tories would like to stand out from the crowd and propose something to energise the masses, here is their opportunity.  Sadly, that would require skilful, principled leadership and persuasive, powerful oratory, rather than cheap shots, sound bites and new hairdos.

Don't hold your breath, and keep your passport up to date.

Sicily Scene: a Blogpower Review

Link: Sicily Scene.

That we Blogpowerers have little in common is evident from the most cursory scan of our blogs. However, by undertaking regularly to read and comment on each others output, we have made a neighbourhood in the vastness of the blogosphere. Our self-selecting community  makes it all more manageable, more human.

Welshcakes_thumbnailWithout Blogpower, I would never have spent any time reading Welshcakes Limoncello's blog, Sicily Scene. To begin with, she's Welsh (as am I, partly). Having grown up in the Principality, I cannot even hear "Wales" or "Welsh" without also hearing "narrow-minded."  I had to leave as soon as I could, because village gossip, Socialist envy and "Chapel" judgementalism are just not my things. So I am sorry to say her nom de blog alone would have sent me running.

Then she's a teacher too. So is my wife who feels much the same about teachers, as a group, as I do about the Welsh. In both cases, many are nice enough people. In both, some are intelligent and interesting. One or two even dress well. But, life being short, there's simply no time for the hard work of sifting out the good ones.

Welshcakes blogs about food, mind. Gelatobrioche_thumbnailThat's in her favour. But I am more into eating it than looking at pictures of it. Why a nation which still produces on average arguably the worst meals in Europe (don't talk to me about Gordon Ramsay, check out the motorway services) has such a thing about TV chef shows is beyond me. It's not a spectator sport, people!

Sicily, of course, is also in her favour. The place has dark glamour. Mention Wales, and I think of narrow minded teachers. Mention Sicily and I think of  Michael Corleone's wife, Apollonia, played by Simonetta Stefanelli who sadly died last year. I remember the line that "In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns."

Having said all that, Blogpower brought me along and I am now hooked. I read every word Welshcakes writes and enjoy all her photographs of food, cruel though they can be for a native of one culinary desert, residing in another. In everything she writes her personality shines through, in all her teachery Welshness.

Sicily_thumbnailDespite my firm belief in the time-saving merits of a good prejudice, I have come to like her. The test of a good blogger, is that you never ask yourself why they do it. It's a bizarre notion, in principle, to put your thoughts out on the Internet for any passerby to shoot down in flames. Many bizarre people, in consequence, take to it. But a good blog can justify itself in many ways.

Some bloggers have political agendas. Some are in a kind of self-therapy and appeal immediately to others with the same issues. Yet others just have something so interesting to say that you are happy to let them, and even join in. Welshcakes is one of those, I think. If she betrayed her Welshness by leaving the Principality and condemning herself to a life of hiraeth*, she does so even more by being frivolous. The Welsh don't do frivolity, as a rule. She does it very well. She also writes well, which is less surprising from a countrywoman of Dylan Thomas. It has always pleased the Welsh part of me that a Swansea man wrote the best English of modern times. Welshcakes is not in that league, of course, but she turns a mean phrase.

Take a look at her blog and give it time. Settle into the rhythm and you will find yourself acquiring real insights into another way of life. Seeing Sicily through the eyes of a Welshy is quite an experience. Watching her blossom into a Siciliana, as through the everyday details she grows into the local way of thinking is fascinating. There is a Welsh saying "Gorau Cymru, Cymro oddi cartref" meaning, roughly, that the further you are from Wales, the more Welsh you become. I think Welshcakes may yet disprove that.

Stick it on your blogroll, paesan, and you won't regret it. One day she will be too Sicilian to blog, and then it will be too late.

*A Welsh word for how much more miserable than usual a Welshy feels when outside Wales.

Commemoration day to recall slave trade and make UK face up to past

Link: Commemoration day to recall slave trade and make UK face up to past | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited.

Emancipated_slaves_small2The nation of Shakespeare, Nelson and Wilberforce has no reason to apologise for its ancestors. Not all they did was good by modern standards, but every man is entitled to be judged by the morals of his age. I am sure that much we do today will shock our descendants. Let us hope that they are more merciful than to condemn us for errors we do not understand.

Overall, our ancestors gave the world more than any nation since antiquity. If apology is owed today it is to their memory, for our having allowed the nation they loved and for which they fought and died, so to degrade herself as to be led by such a specimen of modern manhood as John Prescott.

Europe must be united in criminalizing racism, EU lawmakers say

Link: Europe must be united in criminalizing racism, EU lawmakers say - Europe.

EusovietflagAssuming that there has been "...a strong increase in racist acts..." (and leaving aside for a moment who is responsible for most of them) what - properly viewed - is the evil to be addressed by law? Is it the racism, or is it the act?

If someone is attacked, their property damaged or their family's graves desecrated then what does it matter why? It is the evil act that should be illegal, not the evil thought behind it. Of course, the evil act already is illegal. So the "EU lawmakers" are indulging in that filthy vice of lawmakers everywhere; perverting the legislative process to make a political point. They are not proposing necessary laws. They are just yelling "Look at us. We are good people. We are not nasty racists."

I should bloody well hope not, so why don't you just shut up and do something useful?

'Stalinist' Brown comment 'not appropriate'

Link: 'Stalinist' Brown comment 'not appropriate' | Uk News | News | Telegraph.

How I hate the modern weasel usage of the word "appropriate." My New Year resolution was to be "inappropriate" all year - and I am doing well. So, who cares whether or not it was "not appropriate," to speak of Brown's "Stalinist" approach and his contempt for his ministerial colleagues? The only question is, was it true?