Sunday, 20 June 2010

Budgeting for the future

With the full horror of Tuesday's budget not yet upon us, there is a last opportunity to wish that things were other than what they currently are. Let us try a little idealist analgesia before we have to swallow the bitter pill.

For a start I always welcome anything which reduces the size of the State. I confess it and do not repent it! Big states are the answer to big markets, not to big countries. And big markets are the fruit of a philosophy that declares goodness to be the fruit of 'bigger' or 'more'. That's the problem with any lie: it always has a good dose of truth in it. For bigger and more are sometimes 'good'; it's just that they do not exhaust the category.

So, I'm filled with glee at the prospect of any measure which sets about cutting the State down to size ... And yet, now that we're in this situation, I wonder what misery will result from these measures. And here, I speak not idealistically but with the clarity of a flee resting on a part of the body politic which is about to be scratched. I have always worked in the public sector. I work in education. I've been helping to drag up the yoof of this country for over ten years now. And, in my current sector of education, I and hundreds like me already cannot find jobs. So, what the heck are we going to do now? I speak merely for my constituency; I could speak for many others in the same place.

Well, of course one could take the Blarite view that all knowledge which falls short of a tangible measure of social and economic impact is necessarily icing on the cake. But is it? Here we go again: not the philosophy of better and more but the philosophy of the useful. I remember that wing-eared butter ball Charles Clarke asking a few years ago what the point of studying Medieval History was. A lot of people replied by asking what the point of Charles Clarke was. Others replied by declaring that the study of a corrupt poilitical landscape was an act of rebellion in an age of chronic spin.

But they were all wrong. The point of studying Medieval History is for itself and for the moral benefits that the study of history produces generally. Historia magister vitae. We should spend money on 'useless' things; because they remind us that humanity is for something more than wealth-producing, leisure-getting activity. They remind us that the optimum condition under which the country operates is not one in which the economy depends for its meat and drink on our work-a-day stress and our drink-sodden weekends.

Hmm, I'm off my point, to some extent, but the essence of it is this: 'bigger' (and the concomitantly profitable 'smaller', and 'more and more', and 'the useful' are concepts that will be at the heart of this Tuesday's budget.

And I take it we're all going to pay ... well, nearly all!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

It's never about what it's about

I know the readership here includes very few football fans. It includes very few of anybody! But bear with me, non-football lover, just for a moment. Something very illustrative about our public discourse has just happened in the football world and it's worth a few moments of consideration.

Frank Beckenbauer, former captain and obergruppenfuhrer of the German football team, has attacked the tactics practised by the England of Fabio 'Fab' Capello. According to the old Kraut, the England team has gone back to what is called 'kick and rush' football. I understand that to the non-initiated, calling any football 'kick and rush' might seem somewhat redundant; rather like calling boxing 'hit and duck'. But Becksie's point was that England under Capello have achieved the nadir of footballing tactics, abandoned the beautiful game and are lurking in the very worst darkness of schoolboy strategy. The press and the media in general are always eager for any stick to beat an England manager, and were anxious on Monday for an explanation of why England couldn't beat the USA last Saturday. Thus, they seized on these remarks and rolled them around their collective mouth, like an old tramp supping a bottle of meths. Indeed, this was mother's milk to a story-hungry press. Even Henry Winter in the Telegraph got confused and used FB's remarks to reflect on how badly English footballers are served by a foreigner-player driven Premier League.

All of which missed the point, which I note is slowly sinking in in some quarters ... that Beckenbauer's comments weren't about England; they were an assault intended to undermine England's confidence in the highly competitive context of the most important footballing competition in the world. In other words, the last thing we should do is ask whether this is true; the first thing we should do is ask why FB said it! It's not about what it's about.

Personally I find this a very useful rule of thumb. And a rule of thumb it is, since sometimes it is indeed about what it's about. But it's very often not. Human beings generate myths almost as easily as they exhale carbon dioxide. Of course we can and should distinguish conscious and unconscious myth making. The latter always makes me marvel at how much someone can come to believe their own spin. But it happens. Daily. Hourly for some.

I find it comforting in a media age to have to hand the kind of analytic tool we can use to scrutinize what our self-appointed guardians are doing for us. Ask first not whether what they say is true but why they have said it. The good ship Bull Shit can only set sail on a sea of caca.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Look before you leap in

In the last week or so there have been some reports alleging that the plans for the papal visit to England and Scotland in September are in chaos. Venues have not been booked and no clear system of allocating tickets for events exists. Damian Thompson suggests this is the fault of a clerical cabal who, in any case, are close to a Blairite model of Catholicism, and hostile to Benedict XVI. New elements in some kind of culture war have been suggested by the removal of three Oratorians from the Birmingham Oratory. James Preece (with whose conclusions I do not universally agree) reports that these men have been sent away on indefinite spiritual leave, the implication being that they need to be kept out of the way during the run up to the papal visit.

Personally, I'm convinced by neither of these theses. The older I get the less I am inclined to accept the precipitous conspiracy theory. Thompson has something of record in suggestive reporting in this regard. His explanation of why Liverpool diocese blocked the assigning of a church to the Extraordinary Form was wide of the mark for those who knew what was really at stake. I'm not saying his article about the Pope's visit was without virtue, but it remains to be seen what actually happens in September. Lobby in private and let's leave the condemnations for later.

The same applies really with regard to the Birmingham men. Again experience has taught me to be very circumspect about jumping to conclusions, especially where clerical behaviour is under scrutiny. I have no idea why these men have been sent away; neither, please take note, am I opening discussion on the matter. I'm simply saying that the public narratives are often lacking vital facts which cannot be disclosed for very sound moral reasons. I don't think we help the situation by speculation.

This is not a counsel of the blind eye; it's just a counsel of circumspection, which, after all, literally means 'looking around'. The last time I remember Thompson firing from the hip at Bishop Hollis of Portsmouth (concerning Paul Inwood's ludicrous 2007 email about Summorum Pontificum), the story from inside the Portsmouth curia was somewhat more nuanced. The narrative of 'modernist bishop blocks SP' didn't apply since Inwood's email on the topic was done on his own initiative. I'm not saying Hollis is a completely innocent party; his agreeing to blocking Communion on the tongue during the swine flu crisis (the one that killed millions last year ... didn't it?) was a bad case of invertebrate leadership collapsing in the face of middle management (or middle mis-management). But labelling him as an SP opponent is silly. The FSSP is strongest after all in his diocese.

My point being: never underestimate the complexity of clerical rows, whether at Eccleston Square or the Birmingham Oratory. It pays to look before you leap in.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

In which Innocent returns

There was a flood of one get well message from readers in my recent illness, so thanks for that ;-) I'm feeling a lot better, which is a relief for me at the very least, though I'm still awaiting some tests.

Meanwhile, what a week of astonishing events on the public stage. It's difficult to know where to start really. Probably my favourite story was about the Duchess of York flogging introductions to her husband to an undercover reporter from the News of the World. As Gilbert and Sullivan wrote:

The work is light, and, I may add,

It's most remunerative.

In The Gondoliers the Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro provide the essential comic turn; not so much mutton dressed as lamb, as wideboys dressed as nobility. In other words, aristos selling favours is hardly a recent innovation. It's just a while since we had it so magnificently unveiled (thank you, gutter press).

I rather like the line from the same song in the Gondoliers:

I present any lady,

Whose conduct is shady,

Or smacking of doubtful propriety;

When virtue would quash her,

I take and whitewash her,

And launch her in first-rate society.

Er, well, yes, thanks Fergie.

Bizarrely, when Fergie then appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to explain her conduct, she spoke about herself in the third person singular (she, her, etc). No airs and graces she, this appeared to be an attempt to portray herself as a victim of the situation and to elicit compassion.

The kudos of the victim has been one of the more unusual manifestations of our culture over the last few years. It was memorably the cloak under which Diana, Princess of Wales, operated in the latter part of her own tale. The assumption is that it is a sign of our sentimentality, or indeed a sort of dessicated compassion, akin to the 'charity' which drives Britons to raise money so Africans can have free condoms. There is undoubtedly something in that. I'm currently working on another explanation, namely, that only a society with our latent commitment to the pleasures of hatred could have the passion both to vilify and exonerate our chosen scapegoats. The point is though that scapegoats shouldn't do their own exoneration, which is why Fergie got it so badly wrong. Must be hard being a Duchess. Somebody give that woman a salary.


If you want genuine victims you only need turn to the other major story of the last few days. The victims of Derrick Bird will long live in the memory, like those of Thomas Hamilton and Michael Ryan. May they all rest in peace.

Why do such men do such things? We barely have an explanation in the pretexts of family feuds or what have you. Mass-killers on a shooting spree commit suicide without exception, putting what they might have revealed about their actions beyond the reach of analysis. Some people think this has something to do with our gun laws. That may be so, at least insofar as they create the opportunity. But the opportunity is available much more readily in the inner cities where, at least thus far, such massacres have not occurred.

What we can sensibly glean from only three cases is hardly compelling. Does it say something about lone lower-middle class men in contemporary Britain? Are these three killers as random as passing meteorites? Or are they like cracks in the hardened magma crust of a society in which charity has cooled and congealed over a lake of fallen passions? I sympathize greatly with the drive to ensure 'such things never happen again', but I think it is impossible. There is something wrong in the hardwiring of the human being.


Well, that's probably quite enough from me. The weekend beckons with promise of jolly weather and jollier company. In media mortis, summus in vitae. It's a lesson worth remembering at times like this.