Sunday, September 14, 2008

The British Labour Party should dump compassion

Christianity has not done socialism any favours. The Left must embrace progress and winners, not the workshy and the weak -- says Matthew Parris below. He has some interesting points but seems to end up with an attempt to convert the modern British Left to Fascism. Parris is a rather eccentric homosexual conservative

It's time to ask not who should lead the Left in Britain, but where they should be led. Does socialism have a future? Little seems to be coming from the old warhorses of the left-wing intelligentsia these days, so, as the party conference season gets under way today, I thought I'd have a bash myself.

Socialism was never set in stone. In postwar Britain it has been evolving, and a powerful influence on this evolution, especially under the leaderships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has been something called "Christian socialism": the belief that the democratic and liberal Left may have something to learn from, and contribute to, New Testament morality: the working out of God's purpose on Earth. After all, didn't Jesus say "sell all that thou hast and give to the poor"?

I'm not suggesting that most politicians on the Left are consciously motivated by biblical injunction, or are even active believers. It's more subliminal. Ours remains a predominantly Christian culture, with Gospel beliefs about fairness, mercy and helping the poor, sick and weak, embedded deeply among our values; as is a tendency to ennoble suffering, and a guilt about wealth.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, all of us have drunk deep at this well. It does not take the subtlest of minds to make a connection between these values, and the socialist political imperative to redistribute wealth, and care for all classes. Both aim, in their outcomes, for humanitarian goals. But this apparent convergence of purposes is a deception. Far from reinforcing true socialism, Christian socialism has ambushed it, subverting its original message and wrecking it as a viable philosophy of government in a market-driven age.

Marx is about power. Christianity is about charity. Marx is about the authority of the collective. Christian liberalism is about the individual conscience. Marx is about justice. Christian humanitarianism is about mercy. The common causes in which Christians, liberals and socialists have tried to reconcile their differences - personal freedom, the redistribution of wealth and the beneficent State - have in Christian hands proved ruinous to the socialist idea: softening its head, picking its pocket, throwing good money after bad, nursing the weak and neglecting the winners, hearkening to disability and turning away from ability, and leaching its energies into a welter of simpering charitable causes. For most of the second half of the 20th century, Western socialism has hovered around the bedside of the victim, the loser and the marginalised. To win, it should have been outdoors, exhorting the strong.

This wheelchair socialism has sucked the Centre Left into spending people's taxes on unproductive causes, and associating itself with failure rather than success. Nietzsche characterised the driving Christian ethic thus: "It lived on distress..." H.L.Mencken added: "God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos; He will set them above their betters."

It's not for me, here, to defend or attack the Church's absorption with the Prodigal Son rather than his industrious brother, the single lost sheep rather than the rest of the flock; or the way Christianity has made victimhood on the Cross both its mascot and its guiding light. I simply observe that this has absolutely nothing to do with what Marx was trying to say. Socialism was a most unsqueamish creed. If it wished to redistribute wealth, that was not for reasons of mercy but because Marx saw capitalism as a machine doomed to seize up: whereas mankind would fire on all cylinders if labour realised and exercised its potential muscle, and all men pulled together.

A socialist true to these roots, sitting in a modern British Cabinet, and faced with a decision whether to channel Treasury money into (a) scientific research; (b) transport infrastructure; (c) free bus passes for pensioners; or (d) a subsidised national paternity-leave scheme, could weigh socialist arguments for any or all of these purposes; but Christian charity, compassion, or a human-rights-based notion of "fairness" would not be among them.

Properly understood, socialist priorities should never be divorced from considerations of how most effectively to motivate citizens, oil the cogs and drive the pistons. Marx would have been contemptuous of the workshy and mildly uninterested in the disabled. Nor would he have shared Christian socialism's tenderness for the outcast, for individual conscience, and for liberty. Socialism should see little value in personal freedom except in so far as it contributes to the collective good.

Central to socialism is the power of the collective (for the moment, the State): the power to improve the common lot, overriding the individual where necessary. This case for muscular government has always been stronger than we free-market liberals have wanted to acknowledge. Perversely, as socialist movements flounder everywhere, the case for muscular government is actually getting stronger.

This is not an ideological movement I would join, and in a post-industrial age its fixation with organised labour is redundant, but in other ways it remains a perfectly modern if brutal idea that deserves a confident voice in the century ahead.

Not that you would know it from the state of the Labour Party. I'm not in the business of advising Gordon Brown on how to save his skin; that battle is lost. The next election is lost. The election may come sooner than we think - how many more Siobhain McDonaghs wait to fall on their swords?

After that election, a Left Opposition will need to find a voice. It will not hear it from the Manse. It needs to find a crowd. They will not be discovered sleeping rough. It needs to find a class. They will not be the underclass. It needs to find a national purpose. Fairness and Equality will not suffice; Sure Start is not enough.

There's no point trying to out-smooth David Cameron or out-compassion Nick Clegg. Away (the socialist should say) with caring and diversity: let's hear about investment, not subsidy; progress, not equality; about Crossrail (what's the betting Mr Brown cancels it?); about how Britain generates its own power, how we rescue our rail network from impending insolvency, how we get from London to Scotland by train in two hours, and how we stop the planning system throttling every big project; about how we develop a global positioning system that the Americans don't control, how we pay for better highways and uncongested streets with proper road pricing, and how we research and market carbon-free transport, heat and power.

Unless you believe in big, costly, muscular and intrusive government, your voice in all such national causes must be muted. There's a damn good case to be made for strong-arming by the State, and only the Left can make it. This is not a time for Bonhoeffer and playgroups, but for a Left which believes unashamedly in taking command.


British cities spending millions to move "unsafe" gravestones!

Local authorities were accused of "municipal vandalism" after it emerged that they are spending millions of pounds to move gravestones that are regarded as a health and safety risk. Tens of thousands of headstones have been flattened or removed across the country because of fears that they could fall on gravediggers or members of the public, according to figures compiled by the Conservatives. Greg Hands, MP for Hammersmith & Fulham, used the Freedom of Information Act to establish that in London 9,463 stones and memorials have been moved over the past three years. If other UK councils have been carrying out the same level of activity, 76,000 headstones will have been moved at a cost of $30 million.

Mr Hands blamed the Health and Safety Executive, which has ordered town halls to put "memorial management arrangements" in place. "People are 4,000 times more likely to be injured by a bendy bus than by a headstone in a graveyard, yet millions of pounds of taxpayers' money are being blown on ripping down headstones," he said.



This is very big. Over in the UK, a group of Greenpeace supporters trespassed on to a coal-fired power station and started vandalizing it, painting a message to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown about global warming. They were arrested and prosecuted. Their defense strategy was to claim a "lawful excuse" on the grounds that their actions could help prevent significant damage to others' property that would result from global warming. Their defense witnesses included James Hansen, Al Gore's adviser and head of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and Zac Goldsmith, ultra-wealthy heir of Sir James Goldsmith and a wannabe Tory MP. The strategy worked. Yesterday, a jury returned a majority verdict, acquiting the so-called Kingsnorth Six. As The Independent put it, the jury decided the "threat of global warming justifies breaking the law."

The ramifications are huge. Operators of coal-fired power stations in the UK have just been stripped of legal protection from the criminal actions of the environmental lobby (to call them extremists would be wrong - this is the mainstream). It is perfectly possible that a future jury will find differently, but the chances of that happening have fallen dramatically. Investor confidence in coal energy will therefore be damaged. There will be huge political risk in building a new coal plant. Existing coal plants will come under literal attack.

This is, as Matt Sinclair points out, the frosting on a cake of anti-energy pressures: We need to replace a huge share (PDF, pg. 67) of our generating capacity, at a cost of billions upon billions, in around a decade. The companies we are relying upon to do so already face a very tangible prospect of having the returns on their investment confiscated directly by windfall taxes or indirectly by threats of windfall taxes if they don't cough up. Their costs are constantly being pushed up by regulations and, when they pass that cost on to customers, they are demonised, in part by a Government funded pressure group. Now when their property is damaged to the value of $60,000 the perpetrators will be let off...

Coal is out. The same people hate nuclear and will work to delay new nuclear plants. Renewables are marginal, even according to the Renewable Energy Foundation. North Sea Gas is running out, so the only solution to keep the lights on is kowtowing to Vladimir Putin and Gazprom.

Let us also be quite clear why this has happened. The energy industry in the UK and Her Majesty's Government have allowed the environmental groups free rein to delegitimize coal (and oil for that matter). They have invested nothing in defending fossil fuels, legitimizing their product or in advancing strategies to combat global warming that do not involve getting rid of coal. As a result, the jury was, in a literal sense, prejudiced against coal. The benefits of affordable energy for the many must be championed, otherwise we will end up with expensive energy for the few.


Spelling correctly is a bridge to a better and more respected life

In a cheery letter to her son John, Margaret Paston wrote: "Yor sustere recomaundyt hyr to yow, and thankyt yow hertyly that ye wyll remembyre hyr." What? The problem in understanding The Paston Letters is not that they are written in Old English (their period is early modern) but that their authors' spelling was so haphazard.

Now Professor John Wells of University College, London, is egging on the Spelling Society in its attempts to dissuade children from mastering spelling. "It's time to remove the fetish that says that correct spelling is a principal mark of being educated," he says. The Spelling Society needs no egging. Its prime objective is: "To publicise the unnecessary difficulties of English spelling and the benefits that its simplification would bring." That sounds all right, and so does the name Spelling Society. The trouble is that it is an anti-spelling society. It used to be called the Simplified Spelling Society, but it simplified the name, rather misleadingly.

While it is slightly unfair to characterise members of this society as the kind of people who recoil at a lamb chop, shudder at beer and insist on wearing wool next to the skin, one should remember that a stalwart of their cause was George Bernard Shaw - never happier than when sitting in his Jaeger underwear in an ABC cafe, toying with a nut fritter and a glass of milk.

Shaw it was who came up with the tired joke of spelling fish as "ghoti" (gh as in laugh; o as in women; ti as in motion). He left money in his will to fund spelling reform, which caused endless squabbling between rival beneficiaries.

There is no difficulty in devising an alphabet that reflects English pronunciation. The 40 or 50 symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet do a tolerable job. It would expand the minds of schoolchildren to learn it. But that is entirely beside the point.

To limit education by using only reformed spelling would be a great betrayal because it would cut off children, later adults, from reading old books. They'd soon tire of trying to make out the words, just as Germans today puzzle over books printed in their old gothic type. A new elite would be born. In the same way as the knowledge of Latin used to distinguish the educated, so in future anyone who knew only reformed spelling would be stigmatised as being educated to a rudimentary level.

Quite apart from this fatal flaw in spelling reform, the spelling single-issue mob completely misunderstand the function of spelling in English society. It is a pons asinorum, a donkeys' bridge that anyone who learns to read or write must cross. On it depends all future employment. Employers are confused by school qualifications: GCSEs, A-levels, pre-Us, IBs, new diplomas.

Every prospective employer is swayed by spelling in a letter of application or CV. I know someone who almost failed to get an interview because she lived in Guilford Street, London WC1, and the interviewer thought it was her mis-spelling for "Guildford". Spelling does count. Not only does it make communication possible without the headaches of Paston peculiarities, it reflects a stocked and ordered mind. One of the glories of 19th century reform was the banishing of corruption in public appointments by the Northcote-Trevelyan report, which in 1854 recommended competitive examinations.

These did not, like the Mandarin examinations of the sixth-century Sui dynasty, demand that candidates be locked in bare sheds for three days to show flawless knowledge of 10,000 characters. They did expect a modest ability to spell plain English. Learning to spell may be dull at times, but anyone who can learn to speak English and read it should be expected to get it right.

What Thomas Gaisford, the Dean of Christ Church, once said in a sermon about the study of Greek, applies today to accurate spelling: "It not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument".


More insane British bureaucracy

Twin girls born either side of midnight to be split up in school - because they fall in different academic years

As twin girls, the parents of one-week-old Lexus and Amber Conway expected them to share everything as they grew up. But the possibility they will be separated for much of their formative years is already hanging over the pair - and all because they were born either side of midnight. The girls were born just 45 minutes apart on the the night of August 31, but one arrived before it officially became September 1 and one after. A matter of minutes means they are now facing being separated at school because their official birthdays fall either side of the division for academic years.

Under the current rules, Lexus would be able to go to school aged four but because she was born slightly later, Amber would have to wait until she was five. Their parents, Sarah Conway and Ian Caldwell, however, are determined they will not be split up and plan to fight for the next four years to prevent it. Miss Conway said: 'Doing everything together is what being a twin is all about. How could I keep one at home and send one to school? 'I've been told this is a really unique case and I'm going to fight to make sure they go to school together even if it takes me the next four years.'

The 37-year-old administrator gave birth to Lexus naturally at 11.40pm on August 31at the Barratt Maternity Unit in Northampton. Amber was delivered by Caesarean section just 45 minutes later but by that time, it had become September 1. 'The midwife said it was the first time she had ever heard of this happening to twins,' Miss Conway, from Northampton, said. 'It's such a shame for the girls, especially as Amber only missed the cut-off point by a matter of minutes. 'We tried to persuade the registry office to give them both August 31 as their birthdays but they said there was no leeway.'

Mr Caldwell, who is also a twin, said they would teach the girls at home or move to Spain if they cannot start school together. 'My family live in Spain and they have a different academic year so we'd rather move out there than split up the twins,' his girlfriend added.

Keith Reed, chief executive of the charity The Twins and Multiple Births Association, said this was the first case of its kind he had ever heard of. 'It's highly unusual for twins to be born in separate school years and I hope the local authority gives due regard to the individual needs of the children and family involved,' he said.

Northamptonshire County Council, the family's local authority, have also never encountered such a scenario before. A spokesman said: 'We will need to look into this nearer the time Lexus and Amber are due to start school as part of their overall application for a school place. 'Any decision made will be in the best interests of both children as well as taking into consideration the wishes of the parents.'


A very strange church: "The Church of England expressed deep concerns last night about the spread of creationist views as it prepared to unveil a website promoting the evolutionary views of Charles Darwin. Anglican leaders fear that "noisy" advocates of a literal interpretation of the Bible - especially in the United States, where even the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, is a vocal supporter - are infecting the perception of Christianity worldwide. The Church will launch the website on Monday, a few weeks after the 150th anniversary of Darwin's first public proposal of natural selection and amid growing controversy over the teaching of creationism in schools."

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