Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Northern Powerhouse, the Pilgrimage of Grace, Our Day Out, and Downton Abbey.

NewImageWe have been hearing a lot about the “Northern Powerhouse” recently.

Please forgive me if I am more than a little cynical about the whole thing. The North-South divide is acute and has long been so  - and it is welcome that there should be a particular focus on the woes of the North of England (because of course, this debate is in no way about Scotland, nor indeed about Ireland or Wales).

It echoes the late, great Margaret Thatcher (forgive now, the transparent irony) who spoke of a focus on the cities and, I vaguely recall, was delighted about winning “the Boltons” (as if they were “the Carolinas”). 

However, Mr Osborne, and the Tories in general (if they are to take up Osborne’s baton), will have a tall order. A report today indicates that the North-South divide runs far deeper than just a few years of economic decline. Children aged under five from poor families in the north of England perform less well than even the poorest children in London, according to a report from The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR)

But it goes even deeper than this. The North-South divide is by no means only a recent phenomenon.

Some of us are old enough (just) to recall when the North was, literally, the Powerhouse of the Nation - in the days of manufacturing, of coal, and steel - the days before (here she is again) Mrs Thatcher. 

But even in these “powerhouse” days, there was a North-South divide. Poor children in the North were being educated only as “factory fodder”, as the teacher Mrs Kay states in Willy Russell’s 1977 television play Our Day Out - and by the time the play was turned into a musical ten years later, the teacher adds “but now the factories are closed”. 

These days, the 1980s, saw the emergence of “Loadsamoney”, when the Chelsea supporters waved their bundles of notes to taunt  the fans of Newcastle United. 

But this was just a manifestation of the same, very old divide. Its goes back at least 450 years.

In the 16th Century the North of England rose against the South and was brutally tricked,  defeated and smashed. The uprising against Henry VIII is known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, and was at the time in no way framed as a social uprising nor even a geographic one, but was a revolt against the religious changes enacted under Henry VIII. The outlines of what happened at that time are well known, but perhaps only in a superficial way. 


Henry VIII declared his independence from the Pope. He refused to accept the authority of Bishop of Rome over any matters in his realm. 

But that in itself is too simple a reading of what happened. Henry’s revolution had very little to do with religious belief (he always considered himself to be a Catholic), but was much more to do with greed and egotism. It was in fact radically secular.

Henry’s reform did not mean the rejection of the power of Rome, but rather the assumption of the Church’s power into the Monarch. It was therefore the abolition of any countervailing power in the nation, and the removal of any court of appeal over the actions of the King. The relationship between society and Church was certainly ready for reform, but this was no reform, but rather a concentration of power that was formerly distributed. The Constitution was radically changed, and without even a referendum (such things were unknown, of course!) England moved suddenly out of Europe, and any checks on the authority of the state were eliminated. 

The Monasteries, certainly wealthy, but also centres of employment and learning, of health care and charity, were dissolved. Ancient treasures and manuscripts were destroyed, hospitals and almshouses closed, and centres of employment vanished. Henry took the land and property to himself and much was sold at low prices to a new class of wealthy individuals. It was massive privatisation which led to the destruction of an effective welfare  and educational system, and an extra-ordinary increase in unemployment, in poverty and in vagrancy. 

In the wake of these changes, the North rose up, not perhaps yet aware of the social consequences of what was taking place, but certainly alarmed by Henry’s egotism and greed. The rebels were offered a compromise, and a willingness to listen to their concerns, then tricked and crushed in a brutally unrestrained manner, with no one to enjoin restraint or moderation.

All sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it? 

And so the subjugation of the North of England to the south was established, and is rooted deep into the fabric of England. It took about 400 years for the state fully to embrace the responsibilities formerly undertaken by the Church and the monasteries of mediaeval England. 

Which is why, deep in the North of England, those posh people live in Downton Abbey. 


Monday, October 26, 2015

Tax Credits: Who is the more representative - the Lords or the Commons?

Tax Credits: Who is the more representative - the Lords or the Commons?

I am not a statistician, but I am interested in the strength, persuasiveness and validity of arguments. In recent days it has been argued in connected with the debate on Tax Credits, that the view of the Lords lacks legitimacy - it is unrepresentative. But is this actually the case?

No doubt the most important arguments in this debate are around fairness, justice for the lowest paid, and the injustice of increasing tax relief for the rich while removing it for the poor.

But in the midst of this debate - which, given the resolve of the Tories is unlikely to have much impact on the final outcome - is a constitutional argument, about the role of the House of Lords in possibly holding up what is described as "the will of the Commons". The unelected Lords are not supposed to stop any financial measure from passing through parliament. This is a convention, not a matter of constitutional law - like so much in our British uncodified Constitution - and even though this measure was not included in the Conservative Manifesto earlier this year, and it seems was even explicitly excluded as an option during the election campaign, convention (it is argued) decrees that the Lords must not frustrate the measure, as it is a financial measure, and the unelected Lords cannot stand in the way of an elected Commons on the principle of no taxation without representation.

The argument raises many questions, and no doubt many cynical observations, but just one struck me. Having been, for so many years, aware that the Lords had sat alongside the Commons with a large inbuilt Conservative majority - which had been reined in, from time to time, by these very conventions - I had not fully grasped that the Conservatives no longer have a majority in the Lords. The rather limited changes to the Lords which had taken place under Labour, and the consequence of the practice of appointing peers, had led to something of a lag in the manner in which the Lords reflects the membership of the Commons.

In many respects of course the Lords is very unrepresentative. By age, definitely, by its very design. And also by gender. Certainly also by social class. And - given the refusal of the Scottish Nationalists to appoint to the Lords - it has also become unrepresentative of the political composition of the UK.

It would also seem that the party make up of the Lords, too, is out of sync with the nation. After all, the LibDems have a huge number of peers (112) yet only 8 MPs, and UKIP, who gained a similar percentage of the votes in the General Election has just 2 peers. Of course, the Lords is not designed to be a proportionately representative chamber - but when there are such extreme variations, one might suppose that the argument that the Lords has no right to stand in the way of the Commons has particular validity.

But is this so? I wondered. And I looked at the figures. The results are a little surprising. Making a little allowance for the incompatibilities of the various systems, it would appear that, on this particular issue at least, far from being less representative of the electorate, in fact the Lords is closer to the expressed will of the electorate.

In the 2015 General election, with a clear programme for austerity (even if its details were kept unclear) the Conservatives gained the votes of just 24% of the electorate, which translated into 39% of the vote. Of the 61% who voted otherwise, the great majority supported parties with a much less enthusiastic approach to deficit reduction. This 24% of the electorate translated into 51% of the seats. They won. They have a mandate - but hardly an overwhelming or enthusiastic one.

By contrast, the Conservatives hold 31% of the seats in the Lords - less than their popular vote but still greater than their proportion of the electorate, and much closer to their actual support in the country. Similarly, Labour have just 26% of the seats in the Lords, against 36% in the Commons, but again this is much closer to the election result. Even for the LibDems, the "huge" number in the Lords (14%) is closer to their actual percentage of the vote (8%) than their handful of MPs in the Commons (1%). Of course, for other parties there is less of a correlation, but if we just consider the issue of Tax Credits, the Lords looks more representative than the Commons.

The numbers themselves, and a simple bar chart are below.

Suffice to say that whatever the arguments may be over the rightness of this measure (that's the REAL point), and whatever parliamentary convention may properly dictate, and however the parties may decide to act on these principles, if the argument comes down to whether the Lords lacks the legitimacy to block the measure because it is unrepresentative, it should be very clear - the Lords has greater democratic legitimacy (on this matter at least) than this Tory Government.

And that is why - irony of ironies - the Tories are talking of taking legislative steps to rein in the Lord's - steps threatened in the past only against Tory dominated Lords.

Note: Voter turnout in the General Election was 66.1%. "2015 % corrected" indicates the proportions of the entire electorate, not only those who cast their votes.


Monday, October 12, 2015

The Death of Song ...

For publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel on October 14th 2015


When the newly elected Leader of the Labour Party did not join in the singing of the National Anthem recently, it caused a bit of a stir.

But how many people are there who know the anthem off by heart? How many people even know it has three verses? Wayne Rooney, the England football captain, has admitted he has never sung the anthem, because he never learnt the words. Gary Linker too - who played for England 80 times - says he never joined in its singing.

And this his has nothing at all to do with patriotism. Most people can’t sing the National Anthem, because most people never sing. Like Wayne Rooney, they never learnt to sing. Communal Singing is a practice which is in danger of dying out.

We still hear crowds singing of course - Delilah at the Brittannia, The Wonder of You at Vale Park, Swing Low Sweet Chariot or Cwm Rhondda at Rugby matches - but even then we hear only a few words. These are hardly “songs”, they are more like ringtones - short distinctive snatches of song.
Even Christmas Carols lack the hold they once had. Few people could give you the second verse of Away in a Manger. Carol singing, round the streets from door to door, is now a very distant memory almost of a bygone age.

As a priest I am very well aware that singing is in serious decline. Though they want to, people struggle to choose songs for weddings and funerals - they just don’t know any.

Yet many of us remember when every school day would begin with choral singing. Every music lesson was filled with melody. Often these were Christians hymns - but there were plenty of other songs too. Oh yes, mischievous children would devise disrespectful and sometimes rude lyrics - but not because they didn’t enjoy singing - but because they wanted to make it even more fun. In the churches, especially the Methodists, so much part of the history of North Staffordshire - everyone sang with great gusto. And it wasn’t just churches: everyone enjoyed a sing-song. Men would sing in the pubs and farm workers would sing in the fields. There were bawdy songs, and ballads, and songs of protest familiar to Trades Unionists too. People grew up knowing shanties, and lullabies and carols. Melody helped memorise the words of poetry and verse. Generation after generation had this great heritage of shared song.

Not any more though.

Just like the boarded up pubs, and converted chapels, the heritage of communal song is rapidly becoming a distant and even quaint memory.

There are of course still some great choirs. We are lucky in North Staffordshire to have The Ceramic City Choir, the Daleian Singers, Wetley Rocks Male Voice Choir, and many others, including the Lorna Spode Consort who will be singing at our Annual Carol Service at Sacred Heart, Hanley this Christmas. Yet for all their skill and expertise, these are enthusiasts - communal singing is not an everyday activity.

And yet, it is such a great irony, that while we live in a world which is bombarded by recorded music of all kinds, it is mostly soloists, and hardly ever choirs that ring out their songs.

It will be a very sad loss to our culture, and our future, if communal singing is to continue in this sad decline.

Singing together helps foster friendships, cement communities, and bring happiness to so many people. It celebrates both our joys and our sorrows, expresses our hopes and affirms our identities and allegiances. You don’t even have to be good at it: in the larger choirs and congregations, the odd growler can even add a little texture and variety to the sound. Song lifts the spirit, and fills us a sense of belonging. And for religious people, it is singing - singing together and with others - that raises the heart to God and provides the most basic religious experience.

“He who sings well, prays twice,” said St Augustine, seventeen centuries ago. And so here is a thought - if we live in a society where song dies, perhaps we will never learn to pray.