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Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Sunday School Tendency

There was a time (mine) when you could grow up under the impression that high up on the list of  Morally Important were such things as never telling a lie,  not swearing, walking upright with your shoulders held back, repressing impure thoughts and emptying your bowels daily. Stick to those rules and you were spared both Guilt and Damnation. Failure to do so would bring Shame and Torment.

And you think Muslims have got problems. You should have gone to a Methodist Sunday School.

Bit by bit you do get over these things but always clumsily. Brought up in the Sunday School Tendency, you tend not to have many social skills. Later in life, you may join the Anti-Sex League.

I can still remember the first time I said "Fuck!" aloud (in a classroom at Bromley Grammar School for Boys). And I am still a bit shocked by the fact that the world's most successful people - artists, writers, politicians, businessmen, high clergy - seem to have missed out completely on Sunday School. Completely and utterly. I'm shocked.

Our newspaper editors know that there are a lot us easily shocked and though they themselves are not the types to wear hairshirts, they know that there is money to be made by appealing to the Sunday School Tendency. They know that our shock can be turned into envy and jealousy. And they know that we will not be satisfied until we have seen the mighty fallen, preferably with a little help from the Metropolitan Police (forget the bribe-taking and the evidence-fabricating; they are our Defenders of Morality and Decency. They may kick you in the groin but all of them, without exception, empty their bowels daily).

This is why we end up unable to distinguish serious crimes (Jimmy Savile if we are to believe what we are told) from minor offences or less (maybe Chris Huhne, maybe Vicky Pryce, maybe Cardinal O'Brien, maybe Lord Rennard) or simple boorishness (Andrew Mitchell who swore at a policeman and who, had the policemen not sexed up the story - as if it needed sexing up - would now be condemned to everlasting darkness).

We can't distinguish because we are still caught in childish fantasies about what it means to be Good. We think it means being  Goody Goody. And thus we end up thinking that if a Goody Goody proposes it, it must be all right to fire state-of-the-art missiles into the villages of poor peasants in far away countries. We empty our bowels daily and don't give a shit about other people's lives.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Caste, Class and Classte

I understand caste as inherited social status. A hereditary monarchy is a caste and so is the hereditary nobility just below it. Your caste at birth determines how you are addressed and treated; it may also determine what you can do with your life - or, more positively, it may be that some things are reserved for you. In the UK, the royal and noble castes are rooted economically in the ownership of land and residential property and they have strong military links. Young Princes of the blood still fight in colonial wars.

Class is not inherited in this way. It's determined largely by your income and wealth (from a broad sociological perspective) or more precisely by relationships of ownership and control of the means of production (from a Marxist perspective).

But wealth is passed between generations - the playing field is only levelled very occasionally by war or hyperinflation - and so too is what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls cultural capital. Thus does class become hereditary, your origins determining your destination even without titles or blood lineages.

In societies like Britain's, where there is both caste and class, classes blur into castes and the castes may need to take on the character of classes. In the first case, the rich and powerful seek titles which they can pass on and seek education for their children alongside the children of the upper castes. Wealth passes from one generation to the next. The upper castes, in turn, find it necessary to engage in trade (and not just in war) to maintain their position. Every corporation has at least one Lord on its Board of Directors - and in some cases a good title (Earl or above) can still compensate for deficiency of intelligence.

So we end up with what I will call a classte system. 

Even where a social group is not technically a classte, it may take on features of a classte - as it were, by osmosis. So in the UK, we have a political classte which succeeds in creating and sustaining itself out of strong family, school, occupational and club associations, strong enough  to withstand the challenge of democratic elections. It also creates political cultures, like the procedures of the House of Commons, which set up barriers to challenge from interlopers. Remarkably, it has never had to face a challenge from a Beppe Grillo.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Functionality, Dysfunctionality and Eufunctionality

Sorry about the title. But I will start with something easy.

I had my first proper summer holiday job in 1962. The end of term coincided with my 15th birthday and I was able to go and work for the London Trustee Savings Bank head office in Fleet Street. I commuted up and down from my home to Charing Cross (hating it and vowing never to do it again). I forget how much I was paid.

I worked in an office where the task was to reconcile all the figures from all the branches. This was easier said than done. Some of the work involved phone calls. To avoid ambiguity, the permanent clerks in the office pronounced the number 30 as thur - tie, 40 as four - tie and so on in order to avoid confusion with 13, 14 and so on - these numbers being pronounced normally.

Now to have the pronunciation of numbers like 13 and 30 so similar as they are in English is dysfunctional. The bank clerks had found a fix for the problem but it has not penetrated to a wider society - fifty years later, we still pronounce thirty in a way which allows confusion with thirteen and vice versa.

So things which are dysfunctional - or if you prefer, less than optimally functional - do not always get eliminated, whether by some Darwinian-like process of selection or by conscious decision.

In respect to this little bit of the language, our practice is less functional than French (treize, trente; quatorze, quarante) or German (dreizehn, dreizig; vierzehn, vierzig) or ... the list continues.

But at another level, English has greater functionality than - say - German. German has three cases (Der, Die, Das: masculine, feminine, neuter) and all these prefixes and suffixes which sometimes you split and sometimes you don't. German is a pain in the arse to learn, which is why if the 27 member states of the European Union had to choose just one language to work in they would choose English. Spanish might be the best second (or even first) choice in terms of second language learnability.

But the moral so far is this: dysfunctional and, more generally, sub-optimal states of institutions and practices can persist indefinitely. They don't necessarily get eliminated any more than do pandas (who are terribly ill-adapted to their environment and generally miserable in consequence).

To continue the story -and  to use an example I have used before - consider that the UK has no coherent system of weights and measures in general use and consequently no coherent system it can teach in schools. This has economic costs and will occasionally cause tragedies, as when nurses aren't fluent in the system used to measure medicine doses.

Dysfunctionality can persist at all levels nor is it necessarily the case that people can organise themselves to get into a better ( more optimal) state. As I write, Italians are voting. It seems all but certain that their votes will turn into outcomes which condemn their society to further decline. And they can't stop it even if they can recognise it. Italians are lemmings who know where they are headed.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Chris Huhne, Vicky Pryce and Cardinal Keith O'Brien

How are the mighty fallen.

In the case of Chris Huhne, at great public expense and probably to very little purpose. At the beginning, there was nothing more than a piddling motoring offence ( speeding on a motorway in an area where a speed restriction had been applied). But that got caught up in marital breakdown and as we all know that can become very expensive - in this case, expensive to the public purse and not (as it usually is ) merely lucrative to the lawyers.

Dressed up as "Perverting the course of Justice" it sounds like the sort of thing which should be pursued whatever the cost. I disagree. He did the speeding, she took the penalty points and, but for the marital breakdown, there things would have rested. I doubt there would have been any harm to the Public and pursuing the matter has simply resulted in losses all round. Well, maybe not for the newspapers.

We pay a high price for the newspapers' insatiable demand to cut down the mighty, by foul means if necessary but fair means if it's cheaper.

On balance, if I was the Public Prosecutor, I simply would not have taken this one to Court.


(This section has been modified 25 February 2013 both to take account of O'Brien's resignation and the fact that it seems that the complaints against him were lodged prior to the Pope's resignation but after the Pope had accepted O'Brien's intention to retire).

I have written quite a few hostile Blogs about the BBCs poster boy, Cardinal Keith O'Brien. This morning I feel some sympathy for him. He is on all the front pages (including the BBCs).

In a few weeks, he will be 75 and was due to retire. Before then, he would have qualified to take part in the unexpected Conclave to elect the next Pope. But three priests and an ex-priest  have successfully demanded  his resignation. They claim that this public enemy of homosexuality (Stonewall's recent "Bigot of the Year") has in the past seduced young men (themselves) who were possibly confused about their own sexuality and certainly rather in awe of the man who subsequently became a Cardinal. I should be rejoicing, but I'm not.

It seems that the events complained of date back as long ago as 1980 and that they involved no one who was younger than 20 at the time. I want to say, It's just too long ago, but I know that's not good enough. So let me say, It's just too long ago relative to the fact that the accusations made seem quite minor both on the general scale of things and certainly minor on the scale of things which have been alleged and proven against the Roman Catholic Church but have not deterred three of the complainants from sticking with it as priests and colleagues of the Cardinal.

I wonder what kind of confidence they have in the remaining bunch of Cardinals who will now elect the new Pope. Do they imagine none of them as worse than Cardinal O'Brien?  And what kind of Pope do they think will emerge from the Conclave? The only sure thing is that a bunch of reactionary Cardinals (some gay, some not) will elect a reactionary Pope (maybe gay, maybe not; maybe someone who has seduced seminarians, maybe not).

And if, in their minds,  O'Brien is too evil to take part in the election of a Pope, why wasn't he too evil to run the Catholic outfit in Scotland for the past couple of decades? It seems they don't give much of a fuck about Scotland only about the Pope. The retort to that should be obvious.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

How Many Catholics in the World?

I keep reading this thing about over a billion Catholics in the world and rising. Now I don't really do numbers but I did begin to wonder who produces this figure and succeeds in getting everyone to accept it. It makes the Pope look like a really big Boss,up there with the guys who run China.

The figure comes from the Vatican which publishes an Annuario Pontifico which everyone (including the CIA) seems to accept as Gospel.

They do it like this: they add up all the Baptisms in the last year and add them to the running total of Baptisms from previous years. Presumably, they take away those among the previous baptised who die. That must be trickier. Who tells the Church that a baptised Catholic has died if that person doesn't get processed (last rites, funeral) through the Church?

A  small number of baptised Catholics get excommunicated each year for holding progressive political views and a small number ask for their names to be removed from the books. My guess is that uncounted Deaths add many more than these subtract

But basically it's Baptism which gives us this One Billion figure. There is a small problem that the figures don't always add up and I will mention that first.

For example, if I go to Catholic_Church_by_country at Wikipedia, I get over 8 million Catholics in the UK - over 14% of the population. But if I click to go through to Roman_Catholicism_in_the_United_Kingdom, the figure changes to a bit over 5 million (nearly 9% of the population). In both cases, the figures appear to be from Church sources; they just disagree by over 50% ....

OK, so the Church authorities aren't very good at arithmetic. But  that's not the Big Issue.

The real trouble with counting by Baptisms is that it makes me an Anglican. I was baptised in 1947, the year of my birth, and I haven't de-registered. If you asked me how I feel about the Church of England, on a day when I was feeling benign I would probably suggest that it be dis-established and its worldly assets seized and sold off to reduce the deficit and the debt.

The world is full of lapsed Catholics and worse. The world is full of people who hate the Church for ruining their lives or who loathe the Vatican or have lost all faith in God. Never mind. As far as the Church is concerned, they are all part of that One Billion which gives the Vatican its special status at the United Nations and its  Nuncios all over the world.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Voice of the Vatican or The BBC News Website?

For a long time I used to go to the BBC News website every Sunday morning. There would be no surprises: you would be sure to find some headline about the Pope or, more likely, his Scottish agent Cardinal Keith O'Brien. I used to Blog about this. Then I stopped looking because it was absurd and irritating that this supposedly internationally important website was being run on these Press Releases from Rome and Glasgow. I suspected the hand of Opus Dei.

The Pope's resignation has sent the BBC News website into a frenzy. It's the most important event in world history and every angle on this rather sad end to an unpleasant Papacy is going to be explored at length, and repeatedly. Shortly to be followed by Election coverage: which reactionary Cardinal comes next?

Does no one in the BBC hierarchy ever read their own website? Or are they all in on this shameless promotion not just of one religion but one Church? Does the Church of England never protest? The non-conformists (who?)? The representatives of Judaism and Islam? Is it really so easy for someone convinced they are doing the Work of God to take over like this?

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

What Should We Do With St Helena?

The sun never sets on the British Empire even though it is now reduced to the Crown Dependencies (The Channel Islands and Isle of Man) and some 15 Overseas Territories (some of which have Dependencies of their own - Tristan da Cunha is a dependency of St Helena)). Many of them are more or less permanently in the News:

- The Falklands and Gibraltar because other countries lay claim to them;
- The Caymans and Channel Islands because, courtesy of legislation in the UK parliament, they have been able to develop careers as Tax Havens, sheltering money which otherwise would be taxed in, er, the UK

One of the first questions which a modernising British political party would ask is simply, How do we get rid of them? In contrast, all existing parties are committed to hanging on to them, through thick and thin.

This is bizarre. Some of these (generally) small places impose significant direct outlays from  British tax revenues, notably the Falklands where we have installed an awful lot of bored squaddies. A long list of them, headed by the Caymans and the Channel Islands, deprive the UK Treasury of very significant revenues thanks to their licensed Tax Haven status. Others are more or less criminal, favoured and maybe controlled by money launderers and those who need money laundered. Gibraltar seems to be in this category. One of them is a haven for sex crimes (Pitcairn). Some are just remote and rather depressed (Tristan da Cunha, now a Dependency of St Helena, comes to mind). A couple are the stuff of Mastermind (Name the Overseas Territory situated on the island of Cyprus. Answer: The Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia).

How would I get rid of them all?

They have to be looked at case by case.

The simplest case is that of the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. These should be offered the choice of independence or incorporation into the United Kingdom sending MPs (2) to Westminster, living under UK laws and paying UK taxes such as VAT. If they chose independence, then we could impose sanctions on them if and when we decided we no longer wished to lose so much tax revenue from their activities. They could be squeezed and, if necessary, invaded (something we are quite happy to do in other parts of the world).

For many of the others, a simple strategy would be to renounce the (Imperial) claim to sovereignty - really a claim to the Freehold - in conjunction with an application to the United Nations for a twenty or fifty year Mandate (a Lease) to look after their interests. Such an application would have to be supported by evidence that the local populations wanted us to look after their interests.  This we might not always get.

For example, in the case of the British Indian Ocean Territories (BIOT) we would have to take the views of the Chagos Islanders we evicted when the United States told us they wanted a military base there. The Chagos Islanders might prefer some other country to look after their interests.

Other territories, offered the chance to live as Mandated territories under UN supervision might decide to change their allegiance. Some of them are a very long way from the UK and might prefer some large power closer to hand to look after them.

The Mandate could also work for the Falklands and Gibraltar, since Argentina and Spain would be put in a difficult position if they laid claim to the Freeholds at a time when the UK was inviting the United Nations to accept Freeholder status.

An alternative in relation to the disputed territories would be to sell the Freeholds to Argentina and Spain, respectively, in return for a long leaseback at a peppercorn rent.

The trouble with this is that it still leaves us hanging on to these dysfunctional outposts of Empire. Better just sell them outright. They are more trouble than they are worth and somebody else badly wants them. It's a no brainer. There are plenty of precedents: Russia sold Alaska to America - I don't recall that anyone had to be consulted.

As for the British Antarctic Territory, this is part of a big (and not so big) power carve-up. There is no local population to protect or consult, so really we should be pressing for the Internationalisation of the Antarctic. We should probably offer to throw South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands into any Internationalisation deal.

Last but not least, we have no business claiming Sovereign Territory in Cyprus. If we must have bases in Cyprus (mainly I guess to serve the Americans) then we should be leasing them from Cyprus itself. The bases already use the €uro as their currency (uniquely within the British Empire).

I am trying to think responsibly. There is another option. We could just walk away. It's what we do when we invade foreign countries and lose, so the precedent is clearly there.

For a full list of the remains of  Empire, go to