15 April, 2015

“.......Make haste, ye venal slaves, be gone”

As Pat, my wife, surfed Facebook the other lunchtime she commented that someone by the name of Oliver Cromwell – presumably a nom de plume - had requested that she be a Facebook “friend”. Although we racked our brains as to people that that we knew who might go under this nom de plume, we eventually, laughingly, decided that this must be a Facebook contact from the grave; perhaps the man who became Lord Protector of England in the mid seventeenth century was trying to make earthly contact! I was, as usual, in grumpy mode and added that I hoped he was; after all, went my reasoning, we need a man of Cromwell’s calibre, stature and belief to take over the reins of our country at this general election time. And as we sat eating our lunch I shook my head in disappointment as I watched the news and listened to our pathetic bunch of politicians telling us why we should vote for them on May 7th; each one more uninspiring than the last, each one like a jaded double glazing salesman who has little confidence in his product and just wants to make a sale. None of them a latter day Cromwell but just dismal, uninspiring, second rate people talking without any kind of conviction, commitment or ideal. In short, all of them leaving me with the lasting impression that they cared for little apart from their own self aggrandizement and petty squabbles.
Cromwell outside Westminster

And as I grumbled on two things went through my mind.

Firstly, I went back to a Wednesday afternoon in 1964. I was studying for my A levels at Blackpool Technical College and each Wednesday we had an afternoon of General Studies where various topics were covered as an addition to our chosen academic specialisms. The assassination of JFK had occurred a few months previously, it was the sixties, Bob Dylan was in our souls and we thought the world was ours – to use Dylan’s words we really did think the “the times [were] a’changing....”. The teacher, a gentleman who we nicknamed "Slump" for some now long forgotten reason, was leading a discussion on politics and we students were at full throttle giving our views.  After a while "Slump" commented that we should take a more balanced view, after all, he said, what we read of MPs and parliamentary debate is only what goes on in the chamber. In reality, he suggested, MPs from different sides of the political fence are often good friends outside Parliament. I wasn't the only student in the room to sit aghast at this – how could a Labour politician be a friend of a Tory; how could a Tory drink a beer with a Labour man? Didn't they believe in what they said in the Chamber? Where we all being conned? Was what we read in the papers and heard on the news just a game? Why weren't they arch enemies – had they no soul? Of course, looking back now, 50 years later, I know that "Slump" was right - TV coverage and a far more inquisitive media  makes the private lives of  politicians today much more visible. But as I watched and listened to the politicians yesterday on TV launching their manifestos and telling me why I should use my valuable vote for their party the knowledge still hurt. Hundreds, no, thousands of people in this country and elsewhere have fought for and often died for our democratic right to place a cross on a piece of paper. But I have this awful feeling that many of those for whom the votes might be cast do not really believe or care enough to rage and to be angry or inspired or ambitious enough to fight for an ideal and to fight for what is right simply because it is the right thing to do. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee they fight mock battles in the House and then nip off for a beer together - all a sham. The result? - we are given the politics of the lowest common denominator emanating from the chummy farce which is theatre of Westminster, where playing out the political game and staggering through another financial year or five year Parliament is the best on offer rather than reaching for the stars or righting the nation's wrongs. There is not a UK politician of any persuasion who can articulate a policy or an ambitious dream that will ignite the electorate. If there were then, we would not have the situation that we have at present, and have had, throughout the last five years, where no party has a clear advantage. We are stuck with the mediocre where mediocre politicians put on a mediocre political soap opera, speak their mediocre lines about to prop up a mediocre plot or story line. And the result? - is a mediocre response where the majority of the electorate don’t know who to vote for and probably don’t care because in the final analysis it won’t make a deal of difference which mediocrity edges into government. And then, when the play acting in the Chamber is done MPs of every persuasion will nip off to the Parliamentary bar to celebrate together, their mediocre lines spoken and the electorate placated, confused and hoodwinked for a few more weeks, another episode of the long running soap complete.

And, as I thought back to that 1964 General Studies lesson and to Pat’s mysterious Facebook contact from the mysterious “Oliver Cromwell” a second thought came to mind - some long forgotten words of the real Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. A quick check on Google and there, indeed, were the words that I remembered from my studies all those years ago. The words were spoken on April 1653; a time when the Civil War was recently over, Charles 1st had been beheaded and Cromwell would soon declare himself Lord Protector. The post Civil War nation was in turmoil and government and Parliament viewed with deep suspicion and anxiety and at this political low point Cromwell was unequivocal and his message to Members of Parliament clear: “Ye sordid prostitutes, ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. The Lord hath done with you. Go, get out, make haste, ye venal slaves, be gone.” Oh.......for a Cromwell in these days of mediocre men and women in Westminster where the banal and the unambitious go arm in arm with the unseemly and corrupt; where dodgy expenses claims, infantile Prime Minister’s question times, abysmal debates and broken promises, committees packed with lobbyists, big business bribery, cash for access, cash for peerages, cash for everything pass for government and leadership in this name political farrago. Oh, indeed, how we need a Cromwell, or at least someone of stature and vision, who can give Parliamentary democracy in this country some meaning, some morality, some ambition, some ethical and political foundation, some ideals to live up to and some vision both to inspire and aspire to.
Bobby Kennedy

As any reader of my previous blogs will be aware I have long been of the view that, in the final analysis, we get the politicians that we deserve and as I approach my seventieth year I look around me and am saddened at what a self satisfied lot we appear to have become – and who we vote for reflects this. We while away the hours on our smart phones, complain bitterly and call the times in which we live "austere" yet sales of new cars are at record levels, bars and restaurants in any city centre are heaving and Apple stores and the like have huge queues when the latest must have model is brought out, we live largely comfortable lives and have access to high quality medicine and health care, we are happy with the lowest common denominator entertainment coming out of Hollywood or the various TV channels, we profess our desire to help those less fortunate but are unprepared to pay more in taxation, we brighten our little lives with the latest "must have" and use retail therapy as a kind of drug, we moan about those who seem to be more fortunate than ourselves and at the same time decry those we perceive to be milking the system by claiming for things to which they are seemingly not entitled, or we complain that migrants to this country are taking our jobs or receiving welfare to which they are not entitled but at the same time we totally ignore the fact that if these people, more often than not will do the jobs that we will not dirty our hands with but which are absolutely critical to the basic services that we all need, demand and enjoy. On the one hand we are a self satisfied lot but on the other a nation of moaners, never satisfied with our lives. Against this backdrop I find it not at all surprising that politicians can score easy goals and be mediocre – they simply latch on to the population’s basest desires, moans and prejudices and feed them what they know will bring favour. And, thus, they are relieved of having to have any greater vision or ambition; they simply prey upon our worst aspects. "Give them a tax cut" they say to the greedy so that the electorate with money has even more money to spend on themselves."Cut the aid to the spongers" the politicians say to the envious and the prejudiced - that will make them feel better and more self righteous. "We must balance the books"  - a solution that sounds  appealing  but in reality does little for the most vulnerable for balancing the books in reality means making economies where they are easiest made: at the expense of those weak and those with no voice or little political clout.These and other well rehearsed sound bites spew forth to give the impression of action to placate the electorate and to appeal to their  baser instincts. And the electorate, self satisfied with our smartphones, tablet computers and i-pods happily accept - our basest desires satisfied and justified. In short, through our own self satisfaction we have bred a political class who are unwilling and probably unable to look for something better and we do not demand that those in power raise the stakes, take the hard decisions and articulate a better future.

As I thought on these things my mind went back to one of the great political speeches from yesteryear and I thought that there were some interesting parallels. In 1968 Bobby Kennedy was planning to run as Democratic candidate for for President of the USA. Although the brother of JFK he faced serious challenges. America was suffering a tough time with Vietnam, race riots and other serious issues facing society. Robert was not John F Kennedy – perhaps he did not have the natural charisma enjoyed by his elder brother and inevitably would always be compared with him. And as I thought about the paucity of ambition and ideas of our current political elite in the UK I reflected that Labour leader Ed Miliband, in a small way, reflects the same situation. Ed Miliband won the contest for the leadership of the Labour Party over his more politically experienced a perhaps more popular and confident older brother David. Many, today, feel that David Miliband would be a stronger Labour leader than Ed who is often portrayed as a bit of a geek (whatever that means!). I think that there is perhaps some truth in that but despite my pessimism about our current political class I also believe that deep down Ed Miliband has an innocent integrity too often found missing in the current inhabitants of Westminster. He might not be a politician or potential leader who would inspire one ride into battle but he is, I believe, a decent man with a tough job – and, importantly, a man who sees a better future. Robert Kennedy, although considerably more politically experienced and savvy than Miliband, was not dissimilar – perceived as a decent human being but not as photogenic as his elder brother, not as easy within himself as was JFK and with a tough challenge to meet given America of the late 60s. Robert Kennedy, however, had one capacity above all others – vision. He wanted America to be a better place and he recognised that people were too comfortable, too self satisfied and that things had to change. He acknowledged the great wealth of his country, where in the 1960s Americans had all the “mod-cons” of the time, they were better educated, healthier, better fed than ever before. But whilst acknowledging the material well being of his country he also identified a worm in the very soul of America and the American psyche; whilst most enjoyed these privileges there was great division in the country, many were abysmally poor and disadvantaged, many were ill cared for and unable to live the healthy lives of the majority and many groups were the victims of disadvantage, disaffection or discrimination. And, it went deeper, hinted RFK, the country was in a state of malaise where mediocrity, disenchantment and disaffection were endemic. Kennedy termed this condition, where a people are too self satisfied and unable or unwilling to notice or recognise the ills of their society, “the poverty of satisfaction”. In March 1968 he gave a speech at the University of Kansas in which, amongst many other things, he said: “Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another great task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction a lack of purpose and dignity that inflicts us all.” Of course, as history records, Kennedy never got the chance to put his dream into action - he was gunned down before he could be elected. Which, maybe just proved the point that he was making - there was, indeed,something wrong with the very soul of his country.
Ed Miliband and how he is often portrayed

Kennedy’s speech might well be applied to modern Britain and the current general election – and maybe Ed Miliband might do well to articulate the sorts of things that RFK did all those years ago – and give the electorate of this country some purpose, some dignity and an aspiration and desire for a better Britain. Kennedy’s words could never fall from any Tory’s lips but I believe that Ed Miliband has the integrity and decency to give them resonance. I live in hopes! Amongst the points made by Kennedy in his long speech were: 

"...at the root of it all [is] the national soul of the United States..........America is deep in a malaise of spirit: discouraging....... and dividing Americans from one another, by their age, their views and by the colour of their skin....... Demonstrators shout down government officials and the government answers by drafting demonstrators. Anarchists threaten to burn the country down and some have begun to try, while tanks have patrolled American streets and machine guns have fired at American children........ Our young people - the best educated, and the best comforted in our history, turn from ...... public commitment ...... to lives of disengagement and despair - many of them turned on with drugs and turned off on America...... .

.......... the fact is, that men have lost confidence in themselves, in each other........ I don't think that we have to shoot at each other, to beat each other, to curse each other and criticize each other, I think that we can do better.......

....And if we seem powerless to stop this growing division between Americans, who.... confront one another, there are millions more living in the hidden places, whose names and faces are completely unknown........I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future. I have seen children in Mississippi - here in the United States - with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars -..... with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven't developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children........I don't think that's acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change....... I have seen Indians living on their bare and meagre reservations, with no jobs, with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and with so little hope for the future, so little hope for the future that for young people, for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death amongst them is suicide.........I don't think that we have to accept that.... I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms - without heat - warding off the cold and warding off the rats....... If we believe that we are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.........this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year.

But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task; it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans........

The parallels with Kennedy’s late 60s America and our own are clear – a wealthy nation but one which is divided and unequal, great wealth and great poverty living side by side, a self satisfied people where material belongings such as flat screen TVs or smartphones are seen as more worthy and desirable than things of lasting beauty or excellence, a time of unpopular wars (Vietnam and our own “war on terror”), discrimination, disadvantage and disaffection within the populace generally and in relation to specific groups, a nation where crime and violence are endemic, a society where things of intrinsic worth, of beauty or excellence have often been sidelined in favour of the coarse, the mediocre and the banal, a place where wisdom, faith and devotion are viewed as "old fashioned". Miliband could, indeed, make the same observation of modern Britain as did Kennedy all those years ago: "a malaise of spirit, a poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all.....Too much and for too long.....we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things".

For me – as I suspect Kennedy – the issues identified in his poverty of satisfaction speech are clarion calls to take action, not for political gain or electoral votes,  but simply and more importantly because they are the right thing to do - they are almost moral imperatives. Last week the Labour Party announced that if they are elected they will clamp down on tax avoiders, especially those who avoid paying the required tax by claiming “non-dom status” i.e. UK residents who have their permanent home outside the UK and who, because of an ancient tax loophole, are allowed to pay much less tax. There were screams of horror from the Tory party and the Tory media – many of that persuasion were non-doms themselves and Tory Chancellor George Osborne commented that this was simply “tinkering around the edges” and would do nothing to make things more equal or better. As I read Osborne's dismissive comment my immediate answer was: "That’s not the point – it’s the right thing to do". Osborne was displaying for all to see the “poverty of satisfaction”......I'm all right Jack.....I don’t see any reason for changing things.

Big, idealistic speeches like that of Kennedy’s are probably, and sadly, a thing of the past. Modern politicians have their speeches carefully crafted by speech writers who cost everything before the pundits, the media, the opposition dismantle the words and pour over every letter, syllable and number. And in doing this we have surely lost something – we never see the bigger picture but only the minutia. What we get is the cautious, the bland, the mediocre, the sterile; it is the politics of the accountant rather that the politics leadership, idealism and action. In our self satisfied political world where everything is carefully costed and nuanced the words are structured so that votes will not be lost rather than votes won and there is no place for the great vision, oratory, idealism and integrity of yesteryear.
Cromwell - warts and all - the media men's nightmare

David Cameron, our PM worked in the media before he came into politics and he, like other modern politicians, knows that in the modern world presentation is everything – and we, the electorate, fall for it every time. Politicians of every hue smooth talk us and in reality say nothing. Oliver Cromwell had no such concerns: he would not have understood the role of the media man: in April 1653 he was clear and unambiguous in his comments, he set out clearly his views, unconcerned if they offended: “Ye sordid prostitutes, ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. The Lord hath done with you. Go, get out, make haste, ye venal slaves, be gone.” Kennedy, too, was clear in his analysis and his dream. Miliband needs to do the same. And, while he’s about it, maybe he could take another leaf out of Cromwell’s notebook. Cromwell was not a handsome man, he would have been the media man’s nightmare, but in those days it didn't matter - it was the substance that was important not the media froth. When sitting for his portrait he was clear he didn't want any embellishment or “froth”. The artist Sir Peter Lely was renowned for painting his clients in their best light, often outrageously emphasising particular points to make them look good, but Cromwell was pointed and clear in his instructions: he required his to be shown “warts and all”. Now that could never happen with our leaders today and it perhaps says much about why we are in the state we are – how easily we are taken in by the “froth” and so self satisfied are we that we don’t want to see the honest truths that surround us or have a vision of what might be. There really is a poverty of satisfaction at large in our country and our leaders.

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