Sunday, 18 January 2015

Electing Nuts in May ...

... to abuse the old nursery rhyme, itself a corruption of "love-knots", sprigs of Spring flowers, as nuts are generally not ready until the autumn (a time when before the present Fixed Term Parliaments law was invented in 2010, that Prime Ministers were reluctant to call General Elections, lest the weather be bad, and they get the blame).

So, excepting the possibility of immense crises, this coming election is the one we have known all about from nearly five years ago. There was a radio question just now about whether the Archbishop of York's new book about inequality and poverty was timed deliberately for the election campaign. "The book is published now because it's ready now - it's been four years in the making", said the suave Bishop of Manchester. But four years ago, they knew exactly when this General Election would be, so it's hard to see how the book can be anything else but a critique of the policies - and most of all the values - that have seen a hardening of inequalities in our society, record levels of insecure employment, welfare for those in full-time work, and food banks. The government may wish to dodge the blame for all those things but only at the risk of admitting that it has sat there, powerless, and pointless, for five years. Or maybe defend itself on the grounds that things could have been worse - which is hardly a vote-winner.

What are we to make of the choices laid before us on our ballot papers, for this our once in five years burst of democratic power? To start with, our electoral system means we only have one choice. Relatively few of us are entirely happy with the policies of any one political party, but each party supports one candidate in each constituency, each of whom, unless very sure of themselves, must toe the full party manifesto line. When returned to power, those manifestos are generally discarded, unless a proposal which has subsequently turned out to be unpopular happens to be in them, and a mandate for it can be spuriously claimed, or as a stick with which to beat a government which tries to introduce something controversial which (like the equal marriage law) was not in the original manifesto. And no one reads manifestos anyway, which is one reason why our attention is focussed on the party leaders and those around them, rather than the people who happen to be the candidates in the one constituency in which we have a vote. This is what makes the media so immensely powerful - voting is increasingly impressionistic, and it is through the media that we gain our impressions of our rulers, and would-be rulers. As Russell Brand has been pointing out, increasingly that impression has not been favourable.

My impression is that despite the posturing of the great and not so good, politics has never been so in flux as it is now, so uncertain. There is widespread distrust of the Conservative leadership within their own party - too hard on the disabled, and the poor, too namby-pamby about gays and foreigners, and then what about Europe? Labour has already lost its ancient power base, but to a large extent that's because it has ceased to exist. The Unions have been castrated - although their castrato wail must be shrill enough to cause anxiety for the government to be suggesting still more limits on their actions - and the huge working class work forces of the nationalised industries are no more. We still have the poor, but historically politicians of all classes haven't much needed to worry about a group who rarely turned out to vote anyway (ironically, they were better looked after then), but the rulers of the Labour party look too sleek and rich and plump and plummy to represent anyone who's known financial insecurity and hardship. Then there's the mystery of Scotland and the SNP - which might turn out to be the wild card in May. The Liberals have been morally bankrupted by the compromises of coalition. There is a tragic irony here that after decades of being able to speak with integrity from the sidelines, in the sure and certain hope that real power would elude them and their ideas never be put to the test, now they have the chance of participating in the kind of government that electoral reform would have led to inevitably and always (as opposed to the sheer chance of 2010), they are judged for not being able to win every battle in Cabinet, despite being the minor player. And meantime we have seen the rise and rise of UKIP, and the gregarious Mr Farage, with their councillors, MEPs, and now two defective MPs in the Commons. No one really knows if they have policies apart from Europe, but if they had power, it would take an entire Parliament to deal with that, so perhaps those providing the nation's healthcare, education, social care, and transport, could enjoy a brief respite. Finally we have the Greens - galloping ahead of UKIP for party membership, just overtaken the Liberals, with one respected and not defective MP in Parliament, and slightly less fortunately, a foreigner as leader. No one's much more clear of their policies either, but climate change deniers are thinner on the ground these days, and if the Greens were right about that ...?

Much will be decided on the strengths and weaknesses of the party leaders, not the policies. Most MPs don't understand economics, so there's no reason why the punters should. Of these, Mr Cameron's act is far the most convincing. He is widely trusted in opinion polls on the economy despite perceptions of him as out-of-touch, uncaring, and dodgy on the NHS. He has that effortless manner of entitlement and expectation, and an uncanny ability to deny self-evident truths plausibly. In the end, the peasants will always prefer a Toff over a Boffin, which is the choice they get with Mr Miliband. Absurd really, as both have equally impressive academic credentials, but Miliband looks like the sort of man who will bore you with them, whereas Cameron will tell you a rude story, or gossip about the Queen. Miliband has four months left to find a voice that is convincing, or a devastating policy soundbite. It might happen. What won't happen is any reversal in Mr Clegg's fortunes. The Liberals attract more personal local loyalty to their constituency MPs, so the loss of seats may not be so drastic, but every seat lost is another bargaining chip gone for another coalition, and those who voted Liberal in seats where they didn't last time are unlikely to do so again, as now they are paying their children's university tuition fees which Clegg promised they wouldn't have to. So the overall vote share will go down. Which means that UKIP and the Greens have most to play for. Despite a succession of embarrassments, more over personnel than policies, Mr Farage seems to be the non-stick politician. Just as ruling class as Cameron and Clegg, he gets away with the persona of the outsider with the common touch, and with the hardships of the recession, and European immigration to blame it on, he has a powerful friend in lower class racism (tinged with victimhood). It's not restricted to the lower classes, as Mr Farage and many Tory MPs prove, but "England for the English" is more likely to be said out loud by those who haven't been taught any better. Conservatives and Labour both have much to fear from UKIP. Like Sir Oswald Mosley, Farage will fizzle out in the end, like the house built on sand, but he may well have his day first. And what of Natalie Bennett? Her first task is to teach the nation not to say "who?". If she succeeds, though, the Greens might well clean up the Liberal vote, pro-EU Labourites, and even Tories who aren't Flat-Earthers. It's the most interesting place to watch.

A final mystery is the turn-out. The 1997 General Election was the last time it was just above 70%, falling to just above 60% by 2001, but climbing a little each time since. The largest post-War rises in turnout have been at times when a government was in trouble - 1950, 1974, and 1992. This government is in trouble. We could be in for an exhilarating ride.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
January 2015

Friday, 16 January 2015

Domestic life

"If you happen to feel up to walking into town, pheasants are only a fiver a brace in the Covered Market just now, the shop attached to the fish, near the door into Market Street", I said to HL, as I set off for my 10-hour TEFL training session.

When I got back, nearly thirteen hours later (it's a long walk), "have you fed the cats?" "Oh yes, they've have a great time with the skin from the pheasants and the chickens I bought". "Did you cut it up?" "No, my cats are wild cats".

What did I tread in, in the dark, as I emerged from the bedroom at quarter past four this morning, as I stumbled out into the waking world, unable properly to sleep? Yes! Vomitted pheasant and chicken skins.

I so very much hope that Day Two can only get better. And, which would help a lot, that the Covered Market is shut on Sunday.

One of my favourite parishioners

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the death of one of my favourite parishioners from S. Giles-in-the-Fields. She was ninety years old, and had rejoiced in the name Evangeline - I'd never met one of those before, nor anyone else quite like her, either. She and her late husband Michael were stalwarts at the 8 a.m. Holy Communion service but joined in church life in other ways too - Evangeline even joined the PCC, despite the rector's dislike of old people in general and old women in particular. I doubt she even noticed.

Michael grew frail over time, and when he could no longer manage the chancel step, and then the journey to church itself, I had the privilege of bringing them communion at home, in their huge four-storey townhouse in Great Ormond Street, opposite the famous children's hospital. Being decidedly Prayerbook, there were relatively few short cuts, and they pretty much got the service as written, all attended to most reverently, but the fun part of the visit - at least to me - was learning a little about their lives. They came from a very different world from mine - there was a portrait on the wall of the mansion house in the country which they'd sold to move to London when they thought they were getting too old for hunting; one was descended from a cavalier general, the other from a regicide; at the foot of the stairs there was an embroidered banner with a few Latin words "Oh, that's Michael's family motto, I did it one time when I was pregnant - I was SO bored! - haven't a clue what it means"; and Evangeline herself was a Daughter of the American Revolution, and a mover and shaker in the Benjamin Franklin Society. There was much to listen to.

One late morning I arrived with my sacramental kit from church and found Evangeline flapping about collecting nicknacks for the jumble sale at her sister's church - which was S. Mary Abbots, Kensington, so it was no ordinary jumble sale - and all sorts of bits of porcelain and silver were being scooped up. "But I didn't have a box, and I couldn't think where on earth to find one, and then Michael had such a brilliant idea". And he piped up from his bed, which had by now been moved downstairs, "I telephoned my wine merchant, and they're sending a case over". I'm not sure I would have believed this if the delivery man hadn't knocked at the door there and then, and Evangeline rushed out to greet it. As I sat by the bed listening to the wine being unceremoniously hurled aside in the hall, Michael said with a charming smile, "I get the wine, she gets the box. It's been a very happy marriage."

For Evangeline and Michael Hunter-Jones, rest and resurrection at the last, and thank you, God.