Countryside Conceptions

on November 30th, 2016 | Filed under Countryside Matters

I must be straight with you, Dear Reader. I’ve been receiving a little behind the scenes coaching from a proper chronicler of man’s humanity, who has pointed out to me, in no uncertain terms, that my current lyricism, brought on as it has been by the Winter-flu, is at the cost of my journalism, and not a reflection of my true self. In an attempt to show due deference, I have returned to a question that has troubled me recently. To what extent do the poor need the rich and vice versa? Or, to put it another way, has the interest in food banks been over-hyped?

In order to require banks at all, one must first have amassed a significant enough amount of any one thing in order to need a place to keep it. It is the very fortunate indeed who hear the sweet sound that breathes upon amassed and purpled foodstuffs, stealing and giving odour. The early hunter gatherers were presumably led by the nose and had little time to dilly dally as they performed the necessary task of cruel self-preservation. I understand that it isn’t until they stopped to grow a little barley to mash that people like my friend Pat had the time to sing arias on the theme of a drunken dream of civilisation.

Early man was a rogue and a vagabond. Surrounded by plenty, he was aware of the fleeting nature of bounty and chased it from pillar to post with a remarkable passion. He had no equal, as for him equality was the boom and bust of the natural cycle. His prey was fully aware of the first rule of nature. No talking. It slows one down and makes one giddy. Our rakish forefathers observed the etiquette and silently dreamed to each other of bigger and bigger hauls. The walls of their cave dwellings bore witness to their aspiration to throw off the shackles of freedom and settle down.

If man invented fire, it was at the insistence of a woman. A quick but knowing glance was all it would have taken to have shaken our lazy troglodyte from his reverie. In his desperate desire to ensure the giver of that look was untroubled by the cold, he would have found collecting twigs and branches light labour indeed. As the crackle and roar of yellow fingers reached to the sky the other animals less human would doubtless have backed away from the heresy of burning part of God’s creation, no matter how attractive the shivering Eve whose desire for baked apple might have been.

Once the fire was established it made sense to stay by it and grow a few decorations. Using only the power of topiary, our hero planted the one thing he needed to turn himself into a gentleman: the crop. Crops are a cultured alternative to nature’s bounty and, mixed with a little fire and water, can produce a passable facsimile of ale. Viticulture brought the wine and the women inspired the songs. Our gentleman farmer was staying put.

Having put so much effort into tending the land that once gave up its fruits freely, it was clearly essential for our fledgling farmer to lay claim to it. After all, the soil beneath his feet was hardly likely to retain its riches unless it signed up to the management of a proper caretaker. The land, safe in the knowledge that the rain falls on the just, was happy to oblige. It gave up its liberty and willingly accepted mastery like a drunken sailor selling his freedom to Her Majesty for a pretty penny.

Do not imagine, Dear Reader, that there wasn’t a cost to this onerous duty. To his credit our hero wasn’t stupid and fully recognised that in having acquired both title and fortune he would also require advice. His brothers kindly volunteered to keep the acquisitive away and the souls of those beneath his dignity pure and unalloyed. What he lacked were the bean counters and the referees. At this point the lawyers and the accountants were born.

The essential quality of advice is that one is able to take it or leave it. Our hero did not feel in thrall to his new found counsellors, although he did spot, out of the corner of his eye, that they were fond of a feast at the expense of his cakes and ale. However he didn’t begrudge them this. Lean and hungry men are best avoided, as they think too much and pose a danger, so Farmer Giles was content to allow his friends to grow fat and dream beside him. Had he paused to consider what ambitious dreams may come he may have made different decisions.

As Bruce Springsteen so aptly describes, a poor man wants to be rich and a rich man wants to be King, but a King isn’t satisfied until he is King of everything. As such the Land Agents dreamed of being Estate Agents and the Doctors pondered their professorships. Clearly there is little to distinguish between high offices if everybody has one so a great deal of folk missed out. This mattered little as Giles was not just a farmer but also a gentleman. He used his wealth to ensure those in need received what they lacked in modest but life sustaining chunks. They were caught in the bonds of gratitude but no doubt welcomed the certainty of position.

So in essence Giles had built a second paradise on the foundations of the first. His conservative and managerial disposition was to the advantage of all. He dreamed it would last forever. He might have got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky Communists.

Engels, a wealthy foxhunter, sponsored Marx, of the grumpy and less amusing Marxes, to write Paradise’s suicide note. He assured the peasantry that far from being the beneficiaries of their lords’ generosity, they were being robbed blond by their lack of a proper share. By proper he meant the lot. The logic of the Marxist was that it was the workers who made Giles rich and it was wrong to want to be rich. They should therefore pluck that mote from his eye and beat him over the head with it.

In an instant the cult of kingship really took off. Everyman wanted both title and share. The banks found it deeply confusing. The love letters they had written to wealth stopped flowing and the people had come between themselves and the bounty that was once generously dispensed to them.

As we follow the twists and turns of current events I end this parable where it began. In the centre of Seaton, the village that dreamed of being a seaside city, a Lady built a foodbank. The locals had voted to paint it orange but the good burghers of Sidmouth proclaimed it should be blue. Trucks trundled up the side of the Axe and down from the hill bringing the much needed fish and lamb that previously local inhabitants would have had to pluck from the river or the newly birded saltmarsh. Visitors and locals alike were welcome to bring their public and private finances to spend on vitals.

Tesco is a massive food bank that charges a reasonably fair price. It is hard to see how it would be more morally bankrupt if it gave food to those who lacked the readies to pay for it. That question is for another day. In the meantime I can assure you, despite my previous scepticism, that the new and improved Jurassic Cafe does indeed make the best salt beef sandwich in the world. Till next time I have been your faithful and loyal scribe. Jamie.


Share This:



Memoirs of an 18th Century English Submariner by Captain J Head

on November 27th, 2016 | Filed under Countryside Matters

A lot has happened in the last 24 hours. I have travelled a journey through a strange and magical land where animals share their silent beauty generously. I have cried inside with empathy for a lost self who has been reborn. I stomped my boots to the mellifluous toll of the church bells hoping to drum up business for the Lord. Beautiful rich strangers were summoned by my frustration and spent their smiles and their gold in Seaton.

Seaton started as a village in the first millennium and transmogrified when an overwhelming ambition for townhood took it over. Captain Warner howled and clicked his heels and the glorious sound could be heard as far away as Birmingham. The mackerel swept West to East across the mile long bay of Seaton beach. Delighted children skipped across the pebbles chasing in their wake. From the tall houses with their fringes reaching boldly to the sky, down past the steamy kitchen windows to the green valley below my feet skipped and clicked pulled along by the inquisitive nature of two hounds. I had spent a long week revelling moonstruck by the greenness of the valley and the snaking river. At night sticky shades clang to me from the shadows whispering of untold riches. More in sorrow than in anger I turned away from their embrace, determined as I was to walk my path courteously.

The call of the sea has gripped me all my life. Something from the deep sings to me gently requesting my company, in lightness or in dark. I peeled off my boots and woollen socks to bathe my aching joints in the salty cold and the relief was overwhelming. There is an emptiness to be found in the screech of the herring gulls that mock the landscape for its stasis. Where the coastline curls to kiss the river mouth kindred spirits allow their yacht masts to bend in the wind. To be perfectly honest is as fantastical as soaring loftily above the mast tips with only a kite and a string for company. Looking down on speedboats is the privilege of youth and experience. For me the real attraction lay deep within the chilly depths. The sun on my back has always been a luxury I have been grateful for in the most profound sense…..

Share This:


1 Comment

On laughter and forgetting

on November 19th, 2016 | Filed under Countryside Matters

There was always a danger when our highest court was called Supreme a time would come when we would have to discover whether a court can be both supreme and independent. A group of parliamentarians is currently lobbying the government to put off that moment and not to appeal a high court’s view, presumably in case a higher court takes a decision they consider to be of lower worth. We live in strange times.

I make no prophesy as to the outcome. Those who tell you what the future will hold forget they weren’t able to predict the present. I prefer to hold my counsel, or at least to dream of it.

So, given it has become my onerous duty to bash out a few meandering thoughts on a Saturday morning, I will continue to reminisce.

We have recently remembered the fallen, as is right and proper. We have also been left with some glamorous images of a past that may have contained more mundanity than we give it credit for. The temptation to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers in the hope that we are more civilised than them is almost overwhelming. We are in a time of precious babies and dirty bathwater. We dress to kill, as we have done since we became fond of scrumping for the truth. I am as guilty as anyone else. I have worn Hugo Boss raincoats and Avirex jackets because I liked the way they looked on me. I have driven Volkswagens because, in many ways, they are the best cars in the world.

The beauty of circles is they have no sides. The beauty of sides is skipping back and forth across them just for the joy of the lightness of life. I will never forget the kind words of a border guard on my way back from TJ when I foolishly rested my pink anaconda boots on the dashboard of the Dodge for comfort. “Sit up straight boy, you’ll give yourself a backache.” I smiled. We drove on. I’m glad he forgot to ask for my passport because I had left it in Long Beach on a Sunseeker.

So while the great and the good talk of cabbages and kings I remember those who have touched me with a fondness bordering on enthusiasm. My grandparents drove a Ford Transit camper van from Portsmouth to Calcutta in the 70s. Across the Khyber Pass and the Persian desert. My Nanny was allowed to drive just the once, on a stretch of sand so long there was almost no horizon. It was the only time they crashed into another vehicle on the entire trip.

It would be a beautiful world in which we could all travel freely for love and return home for money without any being spent on trying to kill us. The baby, incremental steps that would require leave the journey appearing as long as it ever has. Which is no reason to stop travelling.

I do not intend to make a song and dance about this particular piece. If it appears contrived and crass to you put it down to the aspirations of a talentless wannabe. If you like it and it makes you smile I smile with you. I look forward to the prospect of normal service being resumed by Christmas. I suspect we have all made that mistake before.

Share This:



How Mugabe and John gave me my politics.

on November 12th, 2016 | Filed under Countryside Matters

Some people are born political, some achieve politics and some have politics thrust upon them. Families pass allegiances down to their children like heirlooms. The place you live can point to a party of least resistance. Many don’t really care and only half heartedly follow the crowd. For others it is a calling. I was given my politics by Robert Mugabe and a boy called John.

When my broken home sloped back to England to lick its wounds at the beginning of the ’80s I knew little of British politics. I had learnt to love ice hockey in Canada and rugby in New Zealand. I discovered the country I had mythologised all of my life had elected an Iron Lady, who inspired adoration and despisal in equal measure to the two new tribes I encountered. As a teenager I was largely uncommitted.

While my father remained comfortably off on the other side of the world, my single mother scrimped and saved to bring up three children. We had very little but in those days that was something to accept rather than to shout about. Not being able to afford a warm coat for me to wear to school in our first English winter might have made me a socialist, but it didn’t.

One of the reasons was an angel who took us under his wing. He was the Deputy Editor of a national newspaper and the sort of compassionate Conservative that Cameron claimed to be talking about. Not that he would ever have been a Cameronite. He was far more interested in helping people than making sure anyone knew he had. He has been an inspiration to me all of my life. I didn’t take on his politics but he did send me off to find my own.

Out of concern that I may waste a gap year on sloth and enjoyment I was told by my patron that I was to volunteer. An excellent charity, in the days before charities became wealth creation vehicles for middle class aspirants, put me on a plane to Zimbabwe with a boy called John.

John was the son of a judge and an alumnus of a very expensive school indeed. He had found his politics from a firebrand master who taught him the joys of Marx and Engels. John was ready to save starving Africans from colonial oppression and the evils of Western capitalism. I was looking forward to seeing an elephant.

When we touched down in Lusaka on route to Harare, we were cordially informed that the connecting flight would leave in eight hours. John and I decided to get a taxi into the city to do some sight seeing. When the driver asked us where we wanted to go, John cried out in a cut glass voice, “Take us to a shanty town.” Our driver looked bemused but willing.

The Lusaka shanty town we arrived at was an explosion of colour and activity. Laughing children played with makeshift toys in the unpaved streets. Men in bright clothing drank beer outside barber shops. The housing was clearly not expensive but appeared to be functional. I was enchanted by the heat and the light and being in Africa. “Look at the poverty,” said John. “I can’t believe people have to live like this.”

The headmaster of the bush school we were to teach in picked us up from Harare airport. An educated, generous and truly inspiring man, he had fought in the war of independence and now intended to help the children in his area benefit from it. He was the first black man I had ever spent any real time with and I will never forget him.

To get to the school we had to drive 100 miles along tarmac and then 60 miles along a dirt track. The headmaster proudly showed John and I our living quarters. It was a breeze block hut with an asbestos tile roof. We slept on rolled up cardboard boxes and drew our water from a well. While John lay on his cardboard cot listening to U2 and reading John Pilger, I ventured out into the locality. My first port of call was the local ‘bottle store,’ a hut that acted as a makeshift pub. Having bought a beer I noticed two old men playing chess with handmade pieces. “Here is my chance” I thought. I will thrash the locals and become the chess king of the area. My fame will spread far and wide. In the months to come I never won a single game.

The time I spent at the school was some of the happiest of my life. The irony of trying to teach children about the idea of wandering lonely as a cloud, when the only clouds they saw were two miles long and spewed lighting, wasn’t lost on me. Nor was the fact that the children I was teaching had run miles to get to school after working in the fields for their parents. For them education was an opportunity to be grasped with both hands. The people I met were welcoming, funny and fond of a drink. They treated a skinny white boy fresh from the Mother Country like a god.

At morning assemblies the children chanted “Death to the United States” and sang “Ishe Komborera Africa”. It didn’t bother me that they had rejected the politics of my homeland. This was their homeland. What did bother me was the vicious criminal who stole their futures from them. Mugabe owned hotels on the banks of Lake Geneva and rode everywhere in a full military convoy. His goons crushed any opposition to the kleptocracy he created. He turned a vibrant, prosperous country that could have been the bread basket of Africa into a wasteland. John loved him.

A motorcycle accident kept me in Harare for a fortnight. When I returned to school John rushed up to me and said “I’m so glad you are back, I had no one to talk to.” We were utterly surrounded by people.

I still remember John with fondness. We had some good times together and I wish him well. He taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life. If I had never met him I might have drifted into left wing politics and now be facing the misery that Brexit, the Tories and Trump inspire in left wingers. John saved me from that grief and for that and I will be forever grateful to him.

Share This:


Brexit gunpowder treason and plot

on November 5th, 2016 | Filed under Countryside Matters

Remember, remember the 4th of November, it’s the day the legal profession took leave of its senses. Hopefully temporarily but certainly noticeably. It was perhaps unsurprising. It is not often that a constitutional law case which could help define our political future appears on the front of our national newspapers with such a barrage of fireworks. It is easy to be drawn in by the pretty explosions.

The 3rd November marked a win in the High Court for a wealthy fund manager, Gina Miller. This modern-day Guy Fawkes placed her barrels of gun powder directly under the Government, rather than Parliament this time. Her explosive case determined that the Government had no right to trigger Art 50 and inform the EU of the UK’s desire to leave without a vote in Parliament. The sparks from the case caused explosions across the press, with the Mail and the Sun calling the three judges who took the decision ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people.’

Under the headlines, the papers reported that one of the judges was an openly gay Olympic fencing champion. I found this reassuring and inspiring. It is great to know that our judiciary is both open and sporting. The idea of a gay blade on the High Court benches adds colour and romance to this already vibrant tale. They also reported that another of the judges founded a law group that campaigned for greater European integration and therefore questioned his suitability to sit on the case.

The legal profession went into uproar and called on the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, to take action to protect the independence of the judiciary. Interestingly they were not demanding that she found out how a judge with such clear views on one side of the argument ended up hearing the case. The action that my legal brethren wanted taken was for a Minister to tell the papers they should not have asked the question in the first place.

It is very unclear exactly what they wanted poor Liz Truss to actually do, however. Had the Mail and the Sun said anything illegal in their articles it would be a very easy matter for the High Court judges to have protected themselves. They are, after all, very powerful people indeed. Unfortunately nothing said was illegal, merely indecorous. Nonetheless the lawyers on social media and in the press demanded that action be taken by a government minister to curb the lawful expression of opinion by UK newspapers on a matter of national importance.

One highly eminent QC, the ex Attorney General Dominic Grieve, said it made him feel like he was living in Zimbabwe. This is ironic because in Zimbabwe government ministers have no qualms whatsoever telling the press what to write about judges. Labour soon picked up the baton with Hillary Benn calling on Liz Truss to take some unspecified action against the editors of our national newspapers who had had the temerity to do their job. Liz Truss, to her credit, refused to be drawn.

November 4 was not merely a single day of fireworks, Dear Reader. As is the tradition in modern Britain, fireworks season looks set to drag on, as the case makes its way to the Supreme Court. This will be a very special hearing indeed. Not only because for the first time in its history 11 Supreme Court judges will hear the case. Nor indeed because it will be televised and likely to draw an audience of unprecedented scale for a UK hearing. The thing that will make it special is the opportunity it affords for the Supreme Court to consider an issue that is truly of national importance.

In simple terms this case helps define not only the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, but between government and the people. It is fraught with legal sleight of hand, which the wizards on the Supreme Court bench have an opportunity to expose as conjuring tricks rather than real legal magic. Perhaps the most obvious is the argument that Parliament needs to vote on the decision to leave the EU.

This illusion relies on the suggestion that the referendum was merely advisory, so a decision has yet to be made, and that Parliament has not had an opportunity to express a view. Brighter sparks might ask who the referendum was intended to advise. The answer is, of course, the Government, not Parliament. The Government sought the advice on whether to leave on the promise that such advice would be followed. To argue that the Government is unable to accept such advice because it is merely advice is specious. To suggest that Parliamentarians haven’t voted on the issue is equally specious. They voted twice. Firstly they voted 6-1 to have a referendum. Then each and every parliamentarian had an opportunity to vote in the referendum. As did the judiciary, the lawyers and the press.

This is in essence the elephant in the room that the Supreme Court will have to choose to confront or ignore. The people voted, and now the Court will have to determine whether the Government, acting on the will of the people, is supreme, or whether 650 of those people, sitting in Parliament, still rule as if they were a monarch. Are the British people Parliament’s bosses or is Parliament our ruler?

Far greater legal minds than mine have considered the arguments that underpin the case from both sides. My small contribution is to ask whether we will finally confront the question of what parliamentary sovereignty in the UK means. Does it mean, as John Locke and Abraham Lincoln persuaded the American people that it meant; that government is of the people, for the people and by the people? Or does it mean that the powers of a supreme monarch to rule over us have been merely delegated to a committee?

The Supreme Court has a choice as to whether to treat this case as a legal Sudoku that can be solved by reference to case-law and precedent, or to recognise the fundamental legal principle before them and confront it with the full force of their independent judicial brilliance. In my very humble opinion whatever they decide their decision must be clear and comprehensible to all of us that it affects. That is to say all of us. My hope, although not necessarily my expectation, is that they will do the right thing.

That is to say to confirm that our elected representatives in parliament vigorously debate issues and vote on our behalf, but when they hear from us directly on a matter, they defer to the people who gave them the power and allow the Executive to take its orders from source. In that way they could really protect not only the independence of the judiciary, the integrity of parliament and the separation of powers, but they could let off some legal fireworks truly worth watching.

Share This:



A Passion for the Hunted Hunter.

on October 29th, 2016 | Filed under Countryside Matters

On the 10 July 1997, for the first time, I engaged my democratic right to peacefully protest by carrying my 2 month old daughter in my arms on the Countryside Rally. At the time I didn’t believe that even a Labour Government would pass such an illiberal and discriminatory piece of legislation as the Hunting Act turned out to be. I didn’t know then that the Political Animal Lobby had given Blair a donation of £1M to ensure the Act would become law. While the papers spewed bile on Bernie Eccelstone for donating £1M to Labour to exempt Formula 1 from the tobacco advertising ban, this second million went unreported.

We now know from Blair and his contemporaries that the Act was a sop to the Left to soften them up for Iraq, and to be seen as revenge for the miners. This must have confused those miners who loved to hunt, but it warmed the hearts of those townies who felt the ban would hurt the toffs, who they imagined had profited from Mrs Thatcher’s desire not to subsidise uneconomic pits. The rally was, unsurprisingly, not like any protest before or since. Gates across London were closed behind ‘protestors’ and there was less litter in Hyde Park after the Yeomanry of England returned to the Shires. Despite the peaceful nature of the event passions were certainly high. They were passions that I had shared all my life.

This is not to say that I was brought up fox-hunting. I wasn’t. I was born in Ottawa, Canada. My father is a British GP who was employed by the Canadian Government. When I was two years old he was posted to Eastport, Newfoundland, where he was the only doctor for a 150 mile radius of a small fishing village. Eastport enjoyed 10’ of snow for nine months of the year. On Friday nights he would pack the family into his Volvo estate and drive 150 miles through a blizzard to the city of St Johns. He would fill the car with drugs for his surgery and turn around and drive 150 miles back to return to being on call 24 hours a day for 7 days a week. The idea of doctors striking because they don’t feel able to provide a 7 day NHS makes me smile.

Newfoundland was first claimed for Britain in 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert arrived with letters patent from Elizabeth I. The colony that was established in the early 1600s was largely populated by émigrés from the West Country. Cut off from mainland Canada the island was largely insulated from outside influences. The Newfie accent still contains echoes of the Cornish and Devonian settlers who first arrived centuries before.

The passion that I learnt as a child growing up in this sub-arctic wilderness was the passion for community. Eastport, when we arrived, was the sort of hardy, warm, generous, fun loving community that anyone who has spent any time in the hunting field would instantly recognise. They braved the sub-zero temperatures to go out onto the ice and club seals. Having perfected clubbing over hundreds of years they were very good at ensuring that it was a quick and humane method of retrieving the sustainable food source that they lived alongside.

The Newfies would use every part of the seal. The meat was essential food in the long winters. The skins made clothing and other necessities. The blubber was burnt in lamps. Seals were free range, organic and entirely sustainable. As a result the Green lobby hated the practice of using them due to their ticking so many green boxes.

At about the same time we arrived the International Fund for Animal Welfare also arrived in Newfoundland. IFAW were the first ‘Antis’ that I encountered. They demanded that the Newfies stopped their traditions and turned to vegetarianism. Clearly ‘climate change’ wasn’t a green obsession back then so the idea of feeding an entire population of an island where vegetables don’t grow on air freighted tofu was considered ‘progressive.’

My father, as an English doctor, had to steer a careful path between the two warring sides in this crazy debate. He loved the Newfies deeply but was a man of the sixties and showed respect to the hippies and their ideals. One story summed up the conflict then and now for me perfectly.

My father used a boat to visit the outlying islands during the short summer months, when the sea wasn’t frozen and he couldn’t drive across it. As a child it was a great treat to be allowed to travel with him on these journeys. On one trip I remember us seeing two Newfie fishermen pulling energetically on a rope trailing off the side of their boat. As we got closer we saw that on the end of the rope was an IFAW protestor with a loop underneath his shoulders. The fishermen pulled him over the gunwales, rescuing him from the icy deeps.

My father was so impressed by this that he pulled up alongside them to congratulate them. “I know the troubles these people have brought to you and the threat they pose to your traditional way of life. Despite your differences you did the right thing and saved this fellow human from drowning. Well done chaps.”

As he piloted his boat back towards his destination, I could just make out what the two Newfies said to each other.
“Lovely man that Doctor.”
“Yes, lovely man. Doesn’t know a damned thing about shark fishing though… “

Share This:



Let’s talk about Gary

on October 22nd, 2016 | Filed under Countryside Matters

“These couchings and these lowly courtesies
Might fire the blood of ordinary men,
And turn pre-ordinance and first decree
Into the law of children.” Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Act III scene I

Nothing changes. This is the first principle we must accept if we are to recognise the nature of our public discourse. As humans we are locked in a constant cycle of repeating the same mistakes over and over again in the hope that they will turn out to be real solutions to the ills that we perceive. Every age believes that they have moved on from the follies of the past. Every age is moved on from by its successors in a never ending Sisyphean continuum.

Science tells us that the ‘truth’ is always out of reach. Through a process of experiment and analysis we can move closer and closer to the truth but will ultimately never arrive at it. The law, on the other hand, concerns itself with the truth of the past. Again it is never completely unearthed. For the law the process is to closely analyse the available evidence in order to reach a point at which it is acceptable to prefer a particular version. The criminal law requires the tribunal to be certain so it is sure that one version of the past should be preferred over the other. The civil law allows a tribunal to be persuaded by a version of the past that is more likely than not. Both science and the law, at their best, acknowledge that truth itself is not at issue, merely our proximity to it.

Politics takes an entirely different approach, assuring us that everything posited is true and false at the same time. It is and always has been subsumed by tribalism. One tribe chants its truths while decrying the falsehoods of another tribe. The substance of the claims often matter less than the identity of the person making them. Claims made by one tribe described as ‘undeniable’ are shouted down in later years as ‘clearly false’ when repeated by the other tribe. There is nothing new in comparing modern political discourse to the behaviour of football fans. It is ironic that the declamation of a famous footballer threw this issue into such stark relief.

Before we talk about Gary we should talk briefly about the Forum. Ancient Rome had at its heart a huge open space that began as a truce, was used as a market and eventually a centre for public debate. The forum was built, so legend has it, as a neutral space between the warring factions of Romulus and Titus Tatius. It was the original ‘safe space’ although its function was the opposite of the modern concept. Both sides could meet in the Forum and discuss their differences. It is said that this led to an alliance being formed between them.

The Forum became a market for goods and ended up as a market for ideas. An elevated rostra was built so that the political opinion formers could address the elites with their backs to the public; consigned as they were to listening to the wisdom of their betters. Some ancient historians claim that Caius Licinius was the first to turn his back on the elite and address the public directly. Whether that is true or not matters little for my purposes. The symbolism of the act is all.

Many of you will be way ahead of me by now when I suggest that the Forum has been rebuilt in virtual space by social media. The effect of the different platforms has been profound. Rather than standing on the rostra that radio, television and the press provided; lecturing each other and through them the public; the elites must now turn and face the Forum directly; and deal with the full weight of the reaction that they receive from the still discordant wavering multitude. So let it be with Gary.

The tsunami Gary Lineker created was set off by his tossing a pebble into the lake of public opinion. I have no doubt that he only expected a small splash to draw the attention of those standing on the bank; and to be reflected well in the calm waters he anticipated would follow. Instead he opened up the Pandora’s box that is ‘racism’, ‘virtue signalling’ and the freedom of the elites to speak without unwanted responses emanating from the unwashed assembled crowd. This was the pebble our modern day Narcissus threw, unaware of the power of the echo that would follow:


In Gary’s defence he was by no means the first to infer that anyone who felt cheated by a promise that our political leaders had prioritised the needs of vulnerable children, only to find that those at the front of the queue didn’t appear at first glance to possess those qualities, was a heartless racist. The Lily Allens and the Stella Creasys had trod that well worn path before him. We might expect that from them, but not from a man whose brand has been defined by sportsmanship.

The mistake Leicester’s own Narcissus made was not ignoring fawning Echo but believing that his echo chamber was a place of safety. He established a paradigm for ‘virtue signalling’ by placing himself above his vile countrymen whom he asserts are incapable of his capacity for altruism. The altruism of saying the right thing. Of ‘clearly caring’. Gary told the Forum that his beliefs were sacred and those who dared to dissent from them should be pilloried. The Forum was divided in its opinion of his opinion.

At the heart of this row is the ancient tradition of marking out the heretics. Of labelling them and publicly castigating them for the moral bankruptcy of their world view. From the ‘Witches’ hunted by Matthew Hopkins to the ‘Reds under the Beds’ investigated by Joseph McCarthy, those who would destroy dissent first labelled dissenting voices as one or other type of heretic. The fashionable label de jour is ‘racist’.

As with ‘witch’ and ‘communist’ the truth of the accusation is subservient to its power. Unlike its predecessors ‘racist’ is unique in having a very flexible meaning that allows it to encompass a wide range of behaviours. It initially meant treating others unfairly and prejudicially due to a characteristic that did not allow any meaningful understanding of that person’s qualities and attributes. It was a version of unfairness much despised by the British who have always prided themselves on being champions of fairness. Its power rested on the mischief that it described. Everyone should have a fair shake and no one should be refused an opportunity to compete. We learnt to despise ‘racism’ in the same way that we despised the notion of the ‘untouchables’.

The benefit of labelling an unwanted behaviour such as ‘racism’ is the shortcut it provides when trying to avoid it. The risk is that the label becomes a weapon for those who wish to claim another tribe is morally wrong de ipso facto. The mischief behind racism became the mischief behind calling it out. Vast swathes of the population were tarred with a brush that prevents their view being heard, regardless of whether their view conforms with the offence with which they were being accused.

The Leftist trope that anyone who did not see socialism as the way to create social justice was likely to be a ‘racist’ was picked up and carried forward by the Remainers. The Remain campaign used a term used to describe the bigotry of judging sections of society that one doesn’t know individually in order to label half the voting public with. Anyone who wished to leave the EU was labelled a ‘racist’ in the same way that old fashioned racists would label anyone with a different pigmentation to them as ‘other’.

This was the backdrop to an ex footballer and talented broadcaster placing a straw on an overloaded camel’s back. There is no doubt that Gary Lineker is a nice man. I met him once in Barcelona. He was gracious and generous to a group of youngsters in awe of his talent and sportsmanship. I admired him as a player and a captain and I admire him as a television personality. He has always been good at his job and apparently good while doing his job. He has never had a yellow card before, which may explain why the yellow card that much of the Twitter going public held up to him hurt so deeply.

Let us discount the idea that a vociferous reaction from those displeased by Gary’s tweet in any way limits his right to free speech. Let us also recognise that his use of the rostra provided to him by his BBC employment may have crossed the line of independence set by the BBC’s own editorial guidelines, whether or not the BBC Trust finds that it did. When the final whistle blows on this affair, it was not Gary’s wish to stand up for people fleeing towards a better life that caused him a difficulty. It was his belief that he, as a member of the elite, could simply describe his countrymen as ‘hideously racist’ for questioning the validity of a political decision.

I personally do not believe that the BBC should sack him for this error. I do believe, however, that anyone in the public eye should be aware that the days of deference are over. If one takes to the rostra to address the people one must be aware that the rostra only exists at the people’s pleasure and as long as they choose to indulge the elevated position that it affords. This should never prevent anyone from expressing any view, however controversial, that is both considered and sincere. It should give pause, however, to anyone seeking public approval, who resorts to the shorthand of generalisation and rabble rousing.

In the end prejudice is prejudice whomsoever it is directed at. I appreciate the irony that by writing this piece I am placing myself, in a small way, in the same firing line that Gary inadvertently strayed into. We end where we began. In life, nothing changes.

Share This:

Tags: , ,


Article 50 and beyond – One small step for a mild mannered man.

on October 16th, 2016 | Filed under Countryside Matters

I have always wanted to write a novel. I had always hoped to avoid writing a suicide note. Some snowballs, I suppose, are destined to become avalanches. In our blinding and exhilarating new world, our private thoughts and opinions can now leap tall buildings in a single bound and end up instantly to be judged by vast swathes of those we would never before have  considered might share them. This artificial mass telepathy opens vistas as yet undreamed of while pushing anonymity and privacy into a tiny corner that it is more and more difficult to inhabit. So be it. I am warned by those who share my profession that my public profile frightens them. They are right to be concerned. It is the job of a solicitor to advise, not to opine. By taking to Twitter to speak up for various communities whose voices I felt were being drowned out by the public howl, I committed the cardinal sin of standing up to be counted. That bridge has been crossed and burnt. This foray into a fuller exposition of the arguments I have spat out in 140 character chunks is a step along a road that only goes one way. I walk it with only courage and humour to guide me. Wish me well.

Brexit – who should tell the neighbours?

For this faltering attempt at a first blog I have chosen a topic that I feel provides a prism through which to view a far wider political reality that we are currently faced with. The question has been raised by a legal challenge as to whether, following the referendum on June 23, it should be the government or parliament that decides whether to trigger Article 50 and formally inform the EU of our intention to leave. Before I suggest a way of considering this issue I must renounce any claim to any sort of ‘expertise’ on the matter. I can only offer my view, based I hope on logic and reasoned analysis. I claim no authority. My intention is to promote discussion, not to determine the issue or demand that you accept my view as anything more than the opinion of one man who has given this question some thought.

The referendum campaign opened a box that I don’t believe can ever be shut, despite the desperate attempts of those who held the balance of power before the vote took place. It signalled a new and potentially superior relationship between those who govern, legislate and judge; and those who are governed and subject to the law. The idea of a silent mass whose voice is reduced to a cross on a ballot paper once every five years is now a relic of history. Like it or not we have begun to reinvent the forum. In order to persuade, our politicians and judges will now need to engage. In my humble opinion this can only be a good thing.

This new openness forces us to consider the basis of our constitutional settlement. In brief we were once ruled by monarchs, the source of whose power was considered divine. That power has, over time, been ceded to a government, a parliament and a judiciary that wields power with the consent of those who are governed and judged. John Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government, published in 1688, expressed this transition to government for the people by the people far more eloquently than I could. His view helped to shape the US constitution  with its focus on the liberty of the subject. For the Americans it was easy to find a moment to describe a new constitutional settlement because they had fought a war in order to achieve one. For us a similar transition took place without such an obvious moment arising in which to recognise it.

The reason that I say this is that, if parliament is sovereign, there are really only three ways in which it can be. The first is essentially the historical theocratic model in which the power to rule derives directly from God. I do not believe there is anyone who currently argues that the UK government is there by the grace of god. The second, democratic model, posited by Locke, is government by consent. The electorate agree that laws must be made, spending decisions arrived at and rules enforced. The electorate therefore consents that the power to do these things is vested in a government, a parliament and a judiciary. The source of that power is the people. A constitutional settlement arrived at under this model determines what powers have been delegated by the people and guards the extent of those powers. The third model can best be described as tyranny. Under this model the government, parliament and the judiciary, those who wield power, decide how much power they should have and over which areas of life. Regardless of whether or not the electorate are allowed to vote under this model. the result is not democratic, nor can it ever be.

As a result, whether or not we have admitted it openly, I believe that here, as in the US, our government wields power at the behest of the people. Our constitution is based on a fundamental safeguard provided by the separation of the historic power of kings into three branches. The Government, as the executive, has the sole responsibility for executive action. Parliament, as a legislator, drafts laws and holds the government to account. The Judiciary interprets the laws that have been enacted. It is an accepted principle that the independence of each of these three branches must be jealously guarded.

This leads us to the constitutional problem that our membership of the EU threw up and which Brexit must resolve. There is much debate over how much power our government gave away to the EU, but no sane commentator argues that none was given away at all. If you take the time to read Lord Pannick’s argument in the Art 50 case (which can be found here: it is clear that those who wish parliament to make the decision accept that power was surrendered to the EU on joining. The fact that the EU was entitled, by dint of our membership, to make some of our laws and our spending decisions makes it impossible to argue that some of the power that had previously vested in parliament had not been given away. Herein lies the problem. The principle of parliamentary sovereignty is based on a particular set of powers which the people agree are vested in the three branches of government. Those powers entitle parliament, the executive (confusingly referred to as the Government) and the judiciary to operate.  Think of them as a job description for three powerful employees with a great deal of autonomy. The employees can do anything that the job description allows them to, except change the job description without reference to their employer.

This is exactly what happened when we first joined the common market. Our employees, in the form of the government of the day and parliament chose to change the nature of their job description, by giving away some of the powers and duties that we had entrusted to them, without asking us if it was ok. They essentially acted as if the responsibility that we had given them for managing our property entitled them to give it to someone else. I do not believe it did. Our employee, the judiciary, stood by in silence while our other two employees took this decision.

The referendum that followed a decision to join the Common Market was not in any way a government consulting the people on a fundamental change to the constitutional settlement. It was an employee who had given away the cow for a handful of magic beans asking for an ex post facto acceptance that we all now wanted beanstalks.

Difficult though referendums are, it is impossible to conceive of another system for ensuring that changes to the constitutional settlement avoid the tyranny of a government deciding on the extent of its powers to govern or a legislature deciding the extent of its powers to legislate. In June a proper question was put to the UK electorate. “Do you want the powers back that you lent us and we gave away?”A resounding answer was forthcoming.

Article 50 provides a mechanism for dealing with a decision made by a member state to leave the EU. It mandates any state that has made that decision to inform the EU, following which the EU will take steps to disapply the treaties that form the basis of the EU constitution to the member state that is leaving. There is a timetable for negotiations to mitigate any difficulties that may arise from leaving, but in essence that is all that Article 50 does. It forces us to tell the EU we wish to leave and provides the mechanism by which they kick us out.

Lord Pannick has eloquently argued that the process of leaving would remove certain rights granted to the British people by dint of our membership which parliament consented to the EU creating. He therefore argues that only parliament should be able to take those rights away. I respectfully disagree. Parliament cannot take away these rights. Only the EU can by kicking us out having been informed that we wish to leave. More fundamentally than this, however, it is my view that the Supreme Court, in deciding this issue, should recognise that the effect of leaving the EU will be a change to the extent of constitutional power wielded by government, parliament and the judiciary. As a result the decision must be one for the people, who determine the extent of the power we are willing to allow these three branches of government to wield on our behalf. Theresa May should be the person to trigger Art 50, not because she has decided that it should be triggered, but because we the people have decided to leave. Following that her government should negotiate a new trading relationship with the EU as they would negotiate a new trading relationship with any other country. Parliament should be allowed to vote to either accept her negotiated deal or to prefer that trade continues according to WTO rules, as they would in any trade negotiation.

The real opportunity that flows from leaving our formal membership of the EU and its institutions is that it allows us to renegotiate any part of our relationship with the EU whenever we feel it is sub optimal or simply not fit for purpose at any time. It is the opposite of the situation that we were faced with as members, where that relationship was set in stone, unreformable and insulated from change. Ultimately I believe it will be good for both us and them. We must first hold hard to the principles that have formed our democracy and then use the freedom that those principles afford to forge a new future together. I would be very interested to hear what you think.


Share This:

Share This:

Tags: , , ,