Friday, 21 February 2014

Bishops against Tories

 A hundred years ago it would have seemed an absurd political division.  The Church of England was the Conservative Party at prayer.  In recent times there are constant clashes between the Bishops and leading Conservatives.  Currently the news is not only focused on the letter from the Anglican Bishops to the Government on welfare policy, but criticism from that even more conservative institution, the Roman Catholic Church, in the form of comments in a newspaper interview by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster.  Why has Conservatism, the guardian of our institutions, fallen out so badly so often with our culturally most important institution over the last millennium, the Church?

This is not an irrelevant matter.  Anyone who believes in a Burkean form of Conservatism or gives some credence to the idea of the Big Society, must surely recognise the Church as part of our social fabric, independent of the bureaucratic state.  The criticism of Government policy on welfare has not so much come from an ideological standpoint, based upon obscure theological doctrine, as from an empirical reaction to the facts on the ground, in the parishes.

Anglicanism is often dismissed by those on the Liberal Right as a sort of soft-Socialism led by pink Bishops.  When the blogger worked at Church House however he discovered a far more sincere conservatism on issues like Lords reform and same-sex marriage than that put forward by some ostensibly Right wing politicians.

It is the contention of this blog that since Durkheim, the Left has annexed the concept of organic society from the Right and twisted it to forward its own ends.  The Right has meekly accepted this annexation and has been left on the paltry soil of the reductionist doctrine of liberal individualism.  And yet it is very difficult to articulate a conservative position from a liberal individualist perspective.  So we end up in the absurd position of a Conservative Prime Minister leading an attack on marriage to further a concept of individualism and freedom of choice through same-sex marriage legislation.

Of course the idea of a conservative and organic society that emphasises the importance of the church, the monarchy and the family can be traced back to the French conservative thinker Louis Gabriele Ambroise, Vicomte de Bonald.  For de Bonald liberal individualism was the error behind the French Revolution.  Our social institutions are of divine origin and precede the individual.  It was his outlook that Durkheim relied on for his own Left wing agenda.  Surely the Right needs to start emphasising again the importance of institutions and abandon some of its socially Darwinist attitudes.  In that way, we can answer the Left’s accusations of heartlessness towards the poor in a way that gives a greater role to the institution and not the bureaucratic approach of targets and means testing.  When our spiritual leaders are speaking out against our morally-driven policies then there needs to be reflection. Surely respect for the wisdom of an institution should come naturally to the Right. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Punch and Judy Politics – that’s the way to do it!

The British Parliament is fairly unique in Europe with its tradition, ritual and adversarial debates.  As disillusionment with the political class has grown, the party loyalties have broken down in the nation and people no longer see the point in the tribalism of Parliamentary events such as Prime Minister’s Question Time.

The Speaker of the House, who has little respect for tradition but a great deal for himself, has asked the three leaders of the political parties to consider ways to change the atmosphere of PMQs.  And yet really this misses the point, because the tribal politics of Parliament worked when people were engaged with the system and trusted their politicians.  The sometimes raucous atmosphere was described by Ang San Suu Chi during her address to both Houses as “the sound of democracy”.  We ought to consider why she said that and imagine how controlled the parliaments of authoritarian regimes must be.  A powerful political class likes a quiet Parliament.

The new dislike of Prime Minster’s Questions is due to a twofold and interlinked cause.  First politicians have become more careerist and political conviction and ideology have diminished.  This means that there is less conviction to the adversarial approach.  The new type of politician has aggravated the public, not through his opinions but through who he is – the slippery careerist only interested in the greasy pole, who treats politics as a path to high office.  Therefore the public also no longer believe in the adversarial clashes in Parliament.  It seems empty and meaningless.  So, on the one hand the politicians no longer believe in it and on the other, the public no longer believes in the politicians taking part.

If a primary concern of the voters is immigration but a primary concern of our politicians is same-sex marriage, then there is a disconnection between the public and their political representatives.  Not only that, but as a rule, most politicians take one view on Europe, immigration and the family and the public tend to take another view.  So people no longer feel represented in Westminster.  It may be because of this break in a connection between the political class and the voters that the Nationalists in Scotland have gained some traction (rather than a rejection of our common history by the Scots being the primary cause of nationalism).

Interestingly John Bercow is in many ways the incarnation of much of what voters distrust about politics.  A man whose views changed as the electoral fortunes of his party diminished:  A man who has dispensed with tradition by declining to wear the wig, thereby taking attention away from the office and increasing the focus on himself and a man who seems to have an aversion to the aspects of Parliament that depend on conviction to function effectively.  For example, if PMQs was still a way of addressing the breaches in our own nation then the adversarial nature of it would strike a chord.  It is when the people going through the motions all seem to share a liberal, metropolitan outlook that the clashes in Parliament seem rather to be about going through the motions than sincere debate.

Prime Minister’s Questions should work well by allowing political divisions in society to be brought out and aired with the passion and confrontational nature that means people can go about their lives, knowing their own grievances, passionate beliefs, fears and concerns are being fought out in Parliament, not on the streets.  Instead, parties outside the system are growing to cater for the voicelessness that the public is experiencing.

There is something slightly self-important about MPs fearing that they look ridiculous.  The best thing about the adversarial nature of politics is that it puts the ordinary voter in the position of being the reasonable judge, weighing up both sides. 

Just as in the criminal court, everyone expects prosecution and defence to push their case as far as they can, because the person who is trusted to make the reasonable decision is the juror; so with PMQs the voter can observe with a detached air and cast himself in the role of the reasonable man looking at two caricatures. 

Politicians’ concerns about how PMQs make them look are not just about vanity though, changing PMQs would also be a power grab by the political class.  If parliamentary debate moves towards a more consensual tone, it becomes politicians patting each other on the back, not putting their opponents under scrutiny and pressure, but instead looking at the demands of the voters as an unreasonable force to be mitigated and addressed.  The whole political process would be turned on its head, with the political class becoming more incestuous, more self-regarding and less respectful of the voter, who would no longer be regarded as the reasonable judge of their arguments, but an unreasonable agitator whose anger must be assuaged by politicians working together.

It is no accident that a Speaker who cannot see the importance of the wig, cannot see the importance of adversarial and tribal politics.  A consensual form of politics would suit the political careerists rather than the conviction politician.  Change the atmosphere of politics and we will see yet more of the more slippery sort of politician prospering – the sort of politician who prefers to cast aside tradition and swagger in the empty openness of classical architecture, rather than understand he is only a part of a thousand years of history when surrounded by the Gothic of Pugin.  Such politicians are of course already there, but they must not be allowed to reshape Parliament in their own image.

Parliamentary tradition is there for a reason.  Politicians should stop worrying so much about how they look and worry more about whether the current parties are representing the country at large or just metropolitan London.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Bring back the age of chivalry!

When a gentleman acts courteously towards ladies, he may often receive the welcome comment that “The age of chivalry is not dead after all!”  Of course the age of chivalry was about much more than behaving as a gentleman towards ladies, but it was certainly an integral part of it.  Etymologically the word comes from the French for horse and was the code of honourable and Christian behaviour for the Knights of Western Europe. 

Back to Troy
G K Chesterton saw the roots of chivalry as going back to pagan times and being embodied by the character of Hector, whose epithet in Homer’s Iliad is “the tamer of horses”.  Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man:

“Hector grows greater as the ages pass; and it is his name that is the name of the Knight of the Round Table and his sword that legend puts into the hand of Roland, laying about him with the weapon of the defeated Hector in the last ruin and splendour of his own defeat.  The name anticipates all the defeats through which our race and religion were to pass; that survival of a hundred defeats that is its triumph.”

Hector does seem in many ways to prefigure the Christian Knight – he is a type, albeit from a pagan world.  Hector of course was loyal and loving to his wife, but is primarily remembered for giving his life for his brother’s sins inasmuch as he died for his City to protect it from Greek vengeance against Paris.  Chesterton went on:

“And as with the city [Troy] so with the hero [Hector]; traced in the archaic lines in that primeval twilight is found the first figure of the Knight.  There is the prophetic coincidence in his title; we have spoken of the word chivalry and how it seems to mingle the horseman with the horse.  It is almost anticipated ages before in the thunder of the Homeric hexameter, and that long leaping word with which the Iliad ends.  It is that very unity for which we can find no name but the holy centaur of chivalry.”

The Origins of the Knight
Mediaeval knights emerged from the chaos of the end of the Carolingian Empire, when Christians fought Christians.  The Church and the Knights themselves felt that there was something profoundly anti-Christian about brethren of the faith killing one another.  The chivalric code therefore grew up to control these mounted warriors and initially dealt with how they should deal with their defeated opponents.  Ransoming your defeated opponent replaced the pagan approach of killing prisoners.  So the Church attempted to restrain Christians in war.  Later with the crusades in response to calls for help from the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, Pope Urban II tried to employ Saint Augustine’s much earlier concept of the Just War, which became part of chivalry in the fight to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslim invaders.  Further crusades such as those to drive the Muslims from Catholic Spain led to the just war becoming a positive duty for the Knight.

Courtly Love and Hunting with Hounds
Later the code of courtly love became part of chivalry.  The knight began to serve the lady and the Christian idea of defending and venerating the weaker sex, particularly linked to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, became integral to chivalry.  This is where our idea of behaving as a gentleman towards ladies can be traced.  It is a uniquely Christian cultural approach, where the woman is honoured rather than oppressed.  The lady goes first through the door, not walking behind her man.

One aspect of modern culture where chivalry survives is in hunting with its codes of behaviour.  Hunting was another integral part of being a knight.  The poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a key example of this, where the moral of marital fidelity is combined with long pieces on hunting with hounds.

The Modern Attacks on the Chivalric Code
Today in the modern world there are many forces arrayed against chivalry.  Feminism attacks the gentleness of the gentleman towards the lady as a form of oppression.  Islamist extremists burn poppies when the modern day soldier returns from defending Afghans from the oppression of the Taliban (our armed forces are surely the strongest example of the chivalric code today).  And the anti-hunting movement seems to be motivated not by concern for animal welfare (hunting clearly being the most humane way to control the fox) but through an atavistic loathing of the symbol of the mounted hunter, which can be traced back to the Knights of Christendom.

Of course, even when chivalry was the dominant code there was hypocrisy and a failure to live up to the ideal.  Abuses took place and prisoners were slaughtered.  Because of this, the opponents of all that chivalry represents attack the concept itself, rather than concede flawed humanity will always fail to live up to the ideal.  Does this really mean the knights should have abandoned their code not to kill prisoners because sometimes it was violated?  It is beyond the blogger why the fact individuals fail to live up to a good code should mean the code is wrong.  This seems to be flawed logic.  Let us keep the ideals of chivalry and the gentleman, because those ideals can only be a force for good, raising us up from our flawed nature, however infrequently and fleetingly.

The Moral of Camelot
One is reminded of the story of Camelot.  Of course Camelot failed in the end and part of that failing was Sir Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s adultery.  And yet Malory is clear that the true fault lies with Mordred who exposes Lancelot and thereby brings the whole kingdom down.  Yes Lancelot failed as a human, yet he was still the “noblest knight”.  The real sin was Mordred’s, as revealed at the end of the tale.

Is this not a metaphor for all those who would pull down our inherited moral codes because they detect individual failure.  The exposure of hypocrisy is enough justification to pull down the whole edifice we have inherited from our ancestors.

Living in Ugly Modernity
Returning to Hector, for those of us who believe in that moral code of the knight that evolved into the idea of the gentleman, are we not living in a strange world today?  All that is good and symbolic of that code is disparaged and attacked.  So that like Hector’s widow, Andromache, we find ourselves in a foreign and strange country.  To quote Charles Baudelaire as he bemoaned the loss of traditional Paris:

“Andromache I think of you – this meagre stream,
This melancholy mirror where had once shone forth
The giant majesty of all you widowhood,
This fraudulent Simois, fed by bitter tears,

Has quickened suddenly my fertile memory
As I walked through the modern Carrousel.
The old Paris is gone (the form a city takes
More quickly shifts, alas, than does the mortal heart).” 

Friday, 7 February 2014

Man’s Management Role in Nature

 The current floods are clearly causing much distress, damage to property and physical and economic hardship.  Many of us are affected in one way or another by these floods and this constant rain but our hearts go out to those who have seen their homes, businesses and farms flooded.  This has been a very depressing winter for our island.

It has brought to the fore many attitudes and unthinking assumptions and the mistakes they lead towards:  For example, the long hiatus in the dredging of rivers.  The Environment Agency appears to have a policy not to dredge rivers.  The suspicion is that this is all part of a misanthropic ideology whereby Man is seen as the enemy of Nature, rather than the manager of Nature.  In reality all the countryside that surrounds us has been managed by Man for generations.  The Somerset Levels is a key example of this.  The way it looks is as a consequence of the interaction between Man and Nature.  Take Man’s management role away and we would be faced with a wilderness.  It is Nature as we have shaped it that strikes us as particularly beautiful – the hedgerows, the patchwork of fields on green, rolling hills.

The blogger takes the view that if our countryside has been shaped by us, then we should maintain its beauty as well as its potential to provide us with resources.  We should not feel embarrassed that we are moved by Man-moulded countryside – that surely was our role in the first garden!  The combination of Man and Nature is the most natural state of affairs.

So, while it makes sense to preserve habitat for the songbirds and other birds that enrich our lives, it is important not to lose a sense of perspective.  Nature is there as a gift to us, for us to work, not to abandon.  So if Man needs to dredge rivers to live in the country, rivers must surely be dredged.  The consequence of not dredging may well have led to widespread destruction of habitat and the drowning of animals, particularly those that are hibernating.

It is of course completely possible for Man to abuse Nature rather than manage Nature, but the two should not be confused.  Wiping out the dodo was an abuse; deer stalking to manage the deer population is management.

So, we have a duty as part of our raison d’etre to manage Nature – not to abuse it, but not to abandon it either.  It seems to the blogger that the radical-environmentalist ideologue is as wrong as the greedy owners of log businesses destroying the rainforests; for they both deny our role of responsible management in Nature.  We are integral to the process and indeed, as with the case of river dredging, Nature is there to work for us and enrich our lives just as much as it is for us to honour our duty to manage it.  Building on floodplains is an abuse of Nature; not dredging the rivers looks to be an abdication of responsibility.