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CLARION REVIEW: KEIR HARDIE – Labour’s first leader

In A.Graham, Reviews on September 22, 2017 at 1:32 pm

“What would Keir Hardie say?” Edited by Pauline Bryan   and published by Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh. ISBN 978-1-910745-15-1

Clarion Review by Alistair Graham


 

KeirHardieKeir Hardie can justifiably be seen as Labour’s first leader. He was one of those who helped to found the Independent Labour Party (ILP), in I893 – called “Independent” to distinguish itself from those who’d been elected to Parliament as “Lib-Lab” members – in other words who relied on Liberal support for their seats.

Hardie, who grew up in the Scots town of Cumnock, went on to be the first truly Labour MP in the Commons. He opposed the looming clouds of conflict in the years leading up to 1914 and spoke eloquently from anti-war platforms. But worn out with his efforts he died prematurely in 1915.

This book is a collection from contributors assessing Hardie’s record and his relevance to the politics of today – though as there’s been a over a century of change since his day I found it difficult in places to trace the connections. But there are, of course, common themes that run through the decades.

One of the contributors to the book is Jeremy Corbyn, today’s leader of the Labour Party. Others include fellow political activists and academics.

“A LEGACY FOR THE PEACE MOVEMENT”:

Corbyn sees Hardie’s work as a “legacy for the Peace movement”, and introduces his contribution with an account of the mass peace march in London, in February 2003 in which well over a million took part., to voice opposition to the invasion of Iraq. “It was the biggest ever demonstration in British history.” He goes on to look at the carnage of the First World War, and how it is remembered in his own constituency of Islington.

Another contributor is Melissa Benn – writing in the footsetps of her mother, Caroline Benn who produced a definitive “warts and all” biography of Hardie back in 1997. Melissa makes the point that Hardie had no love for Parliament. (And it’s worth adding, Parliament had no love for him). He saw his role more as an agitator. “Agitation was at the heart of three of the most significant movements of his lifetime – the representation of labour, the struggle for women’s suffrage and pacifism”.

Barry Winter, who has had a long connection with the ILP, remembers two old party members (no longer with us) who had memories of Hardie when he was alive. Bert Lea remembered Keir Hardie asking him to sell copies of the ILP paper, the Labour Leader, which he continued to do for the rest of his long life. And in Bradford. May Allinson was one of the children who performed for Hardie at an ILP concert in 1914. She gave a lifetime commitment to both the ILP and the Socialist Sunday School.

Barry’s contribution is in the main a historical account of the foundation of the ILP (at a special conference in Bradford) through the early years of its growth. Hardie saw the need to forge an alliance with the trade union movement which was then finding its feet. In 1899, the TUC voted to form “a Labour Representation Committee” (though not all unions backed it). Then, in 1906 this Committee transformed itself into the Labour Party, though it made slow progress in its early years.

“MORE THAN A CREED”:

A contribution by Richard Leonard describes Hardie as a “visionary” dedicated to the creation of a Socialist society.” He sees Hardie as a man guided by moral principles rather than by philosophical theorising.” He believed that the truths about Socialism were self-evident, rooted in ethical values and moral courage.

“Yet Hardie clearly understood the class-based nature of capitalist society and the need to appeal to workers as a class. He saw the value of the work of Marx and Engels, but he did not believe in following it rigidly. And Richard Leonard quotes from Hardie’s from Serfdom to Socialism “The economic object of Socialism is therefore to make land and industrial capital common property, and to cease to produce for the profit of the landlord and the capitalist and to begin to produce for the use of the community.”

Many I would hope, would see this as a good summary of their own beliefs when it comes to the transformation of society under Socialism.

HARDIE’S “WELSH ODYSSEY”:

During his Parliamentary career, Hardie represented two constituencies – first was West Ham, and then came Merthyr Tydfil. The account of his “Welsh Odyssey” is written by Owen Smith (MP for the neighbouring constituency of Pontypridd).

Smith starts his contribution with reminiscences of growing up amidst the slag heaps of South Wales, with his grandfather telling him of Keir Hardie campaigning from slag heaps when he gained the seat of Merthyr Boroughs in 1900. He “gave a hundred or more such ‘Cinder Hall’ sermons” before his election.

Hardie had lost his seat in West Ham five years earlier, which gave him some time to visit South Wales, and to build up a following for the ILP as well as for himself as a potential candidate. “This period cemented Hardie’s reputation as a standard bearer for the working class,” writes Owen Smith.

Despite Merthyr’s radical traditions, stretching back to the days of the Chartists, Hardie had his opponents. There was a strong Liberal tradition in the area, but there was also a strong conservative element amongst chapel goers. But Hardie was able to capitalise on the anti-war -feelings, stirred up by the Boer war, as well as his support for the miners in the struggle. He won, and was to represent Merthyr until his early death in 1915.

RELEVANCE TO TODAY:

Owen Smith then turns to the relevance of Hardie’s work to today. “How can a Queen’s Speech in 2015 call up the spectre of Taff Vale with its promise to curb the right to strike and break the democratic power of the trade unions?” He asks. “Perhaps Hardie would have been surprised that we still have so far to travel, and that such hard won progress can be halted with such ease.”

In such a rich collection of fact and comment in this book it’s only really possible to skim the surface in a review such as this. But I will finish with one more contribution – on Hardie’s roots in Cumnock, in Scotland.

HARDIE’S HOME TERRITORY:

Kier Hardie was an internationalist, but according to Cathie Jamieson, the Scots community of Cumnock in Ayrshire was always his home. It was where his family was raised, and where he always returned. And even today the town still remembers him in so many different ways

He and his wife Lillie arrived in Cumnock in 1979. He was then involved with the miners’ union in Lanarkshire.

It was in Cumnock that Hardie developed the political ideas that would shape the rest of his life. “The struggle of the miners he represented was fundamental to his work and his emerging political beliefs,” writes Kathie Jamieson. It was here that he realised that the Liberals would not deliver the kind of changes that the working class needed. He was soon backing a resolution put forward by the Ayrshire miners that “the time has come for the formation of a Labour Party in the House of Commons…”

Later he was to declare: “I am a Socialist, and until industry is organised on a co-operative basis, wherein men shall work, not to make profit, but to produce the necessaries of life for the community, the evils complained of will never be eradicated.”

OTHER BOOKS ON HARDIE:

There have, of course, been quite a few books written and published on the life and times of Kier Hardie. That’s only natural. But this volume is different. It sees his life from so many different angles, and though it contains numerous viewpoints, all are sympathetic to a man who, more than most, helped to create a movement that over the decades has helped to shape our society – and hopefully will continue to do so in years to come. If, of course, we remember the ideals that Hardie worked so hard for.

And it’s a compendium to be read from cover to cover – or just dipped into over a period of time.

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EDUCATION MATTERS: SCHOOLS OUT FOR THE SUMMER BREAK

In R.Richardson, Uncategorized on September 22, 2017 at 1:20 pm

NOTE: we still promote print-first, so if you’d like your Clarion more up to date, then please subscribe to the print edition. Online is FREE, so we need your subs to keep going – that’s why we post to the web a bit later. Although sometimes we do drop the occasional web-only special edition, or unedited longer pieces – so do drop by even if you do read print first. Thanks – your Clarion needs you.


So, schools are out – and what’s been happening in the final few weeks of the academic year?

One consequence of Theresa May’s ill-judged decision to hold a General Election is that a number of her more right-wing policies have had to be modified. As far as education is concerned the abandoned policy which has had most teachers and educationalists cheering is the fact that the grammar school expansion programme will now not happen – not yet anyway, and hopefully not ever.

WASTING MONEY:

Although grammar schools have been put on the back burner, the Government’s free school programme goes ahead. An NUT review of available data found that £138.5 million has been wasted on free schools that have either closed, partially closed or failed to open. This would fund 3,680 teachers for a year.

The report came out days after Justine Greenwood (Education Secretary) announced that 130 more free schools would be created.

Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary, declared that the initiative would fail to provide schools in the areas where they were most needed, and the cost entailed came at a time of unprecedented budget cuts for schools.

SATS FOR THE YOUNG:

Both the NUT and the ATL unions have condemned the “Sats” exams which pupils take in their final year at primary school. In the last two years these tests have been toughened up, and only 61 per cent of pupils have reached the expected standard this year. According to Kevin Courteney (NUT) 95 per cent of teachers say that the tests “reduce pupils’ access to a broad and balanced curriculum”

Almost 40 per cent of 11-year-olds are being given the message that they have not reached the expected standard and are not ready to begin secondary education. Mary Bousted (ATL) echoed these sentiments and said that “SATS are at the centre of a toxic accountability system that is driving teachers and leaders out of the profession.”

PROFITS MADE OVERSEAS:

We have commented before on the profits to be made by private companies from educational provision. In May, the AGM was held of Pearson, the largest such international company. Teachers from Britain rallied to protest against them.

Why were teachers so angry? Pearson is “up to its neck” in the privatisation of schools in Africa and Asia, helping to fund Bridge International Academies, a so-called low-fee school chain. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have also helped to set up the chain. Bridge has received millions from Britain’s overseas aid budget and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has pointed out that using aid money to fund private education is against its principles. Bridge’s academies undermine public education provision, which is open to all in Third World countries starving it of investment and funds. Moreover, the education provided by Bridge schools has been widely criticised. A standardised and scripted curriculum is delivered by teachers following lessons on a tablet and pupils are subjected to endless standardised tests.

In Uganda all Bridge schools were ordered to close because of their use of unqualified teachers and unsanitary conditions. Although Bridge academies with their connections to big business is the most widespread private school chain in Asia and Africa, there are others. One such, reported on recently in the Morning Star is Omega in Ghana (see picture, left).

Omega offers “pay-as-you-go” education, i.e. if a parent cannot afford the school fee on any given day, the child does not attend. The schools are set up in shacks and the teachers are mainly unqualified. The Ghana National Association of Teachers mobilised to urge the World Bank to stop funding the schools, and two of our main teaching unions, the NUT and NAS/UWT, have lent them their backing.

A BIT OF CLARITY NEEDED:

Some clarity is needed in Labour’s education policy re. Student fees and debt. In June, before the election, Jeremy Corbyn said: “First of all we want to get out of student fees altogether… plus reduce or ameliorate the massive debts owed by graduates. “  Subsequently John McDonell endorsed that. But in a Parliamentary debate on July 18, Angela Rayner, Labour’s education spokesperson, said that there were “no plans” to write off existing loans and that her party had “never promised to do so.”, And had only promised to abolish tuition fees from the date when Labour might be elected.

Graduates struggling to pay off huge debts, and indeed some undergraduates at present accruing them might see that as something of a betrayal. It’s true that our party leader failed at the time to clarify what was meant by plans to “reduce or ameliorate “graduates’ massive debts.

Compiled by RUTH RICHARDSON

END OF THE ROAD FOR “BLAIRISM”?

In A.Graham on September 22, 2017 at 1:11 pm

Whatever we want to call it, “New Labour” or “Blairism”, the model that was foisted on Labour Party members back in the lead up to the 1997 election, effectively died in 2010. That was when Gordon Brown lost the election to  Cameron and Ed Miliband was chosen as Labour  leader in his place.

As the Clarion commented at the time,  the “New Labour” experiment has long since run its course. “The attempt to impose a finance-based economy, where the demands of the City are always put first, has now run into the buffers.” (Clarion, June-July 2010).

True, Ed failed to claw back enough of the Labour vote to win the ensuing election, but it was clear that the Party was in no mood to return to Blairism.  Instead the Party took a further lurch to the left with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

But that strange anomaly (let’s call it Blairism) continued in an organised form, based around a glossy magazine called “Progress”, largely funded by Lord Sainsbury.

PULLING THE PLUG:

Now this wealthy backer has decided to pull the plug on “Progress”, and instead put his money into less overtly political causes.  Thus, turning to the “Progress” website, the latest  comment available to us was dated April of this year.

It was, however, an unrepentant defence of Blairism,  or whatever we want to call it.  It kicks off with the declaration  that there is no going back to New Labour , only going forward with its ‘attitude of mind’.

The Progress document obviously feels let down by those MPs  whose support it relied on, by abandoning “their role as gatekeepers by allowing Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper (which, it continues, means that Labour will be extremely lucky to form a government again in the next decade).

“GREATEST EVER VICTORY”?

“As the Party celebrates the 20th Anniversary of its greatest ever victory and subsequently three full terms in power… there is much to reflect upon,” declares the Progress statement. It bemoans the fact that nothing has been done to mark this achievement – and of course blames Corbyn. But, as we on the Clarion see it, it’s difficult to quantify this so-called achievement except in terms of criticism or rejection.

Meanwhile. Ed Miliband was described as being a “poor man’s Corbyn”.

Blair “rightly argues”(sic) that we have got to demystify New Labour. It was, he argues, ‘an attitude of mind’ And that attitude of mind by its very definition never loses relevance.”

REFLECTION:

“So how do we best reflect on 1997 and the years that followed it? On the 1997 election itself, Labour must understand history was not a given, nor would it have won ’with a pig’s bladder on a stick’ as the disgraced former mayor of London Ken Livingstone argues”, according to the “Progress” document.  That, in itself was a point of contention for those who remember back that far.

“Labour is now at a fork in the road. Its brand is being damaged day in, day out by the hard-left leadership and a failure to provide proper opposition. Blair asks “in Tory high command, how much time do they spend worrying about the prospect of a Labour victory at the present time?’ He would guess zero – and you can see why.”

“Those who want to see the Tories thrown from office must internalise this reality.  There is no going back to New Labour, only going forward with its ‘attitude of mind’.”

All this, we must assume was written before Theresa May’s ill-fated attempt to sweep Labour away with her snap election.  Not only was her rationale fatally flawed but so, too, was that of “Progress” and its Blairite followers. Where they go from here must be a matter of conjecture.

no_blair

Alistair Graham


THE CHANGING FACE OF NORTH KENSINGTON

Recollections by A. Graham

The events surrounding the tragic fire at Grenfell flats in North Kensington this summer stirred memories for me. Memories of a brief period of my life, living in the mean streets of Ladbroke Grove back in the late 1950s.

Time brings changes, of course. But some things stay much the same. Back then there were no tower blocks in the area – these came later, in an attempt to get rid of the narrow streets of crumbling slum dwellings that dominated the Ladbroke Grove end. I lived in one of them – a one-room “flat” with only a single window, with a view on to a cramped back yard.

As for the Grenfell Tower, this wasn’t built until the 1970s – and the lead architect on the project declared that it “could last another hundred years.” But between 2012 and 2016 it faced renovation – with a different contractor brought in who offered a cheaper quote.

Back in the 1950s, though, the landscape was very different. Up at the Notting Hill end there was affluence. The houses were expensive, and privately owned. The Portobello road had street stalls selling expensive antiques and crafts. Down the hill towards Ladbroke Grove the street market tailed off into junk and scrap as is and fruit. But overall it was still a shabby, down-at-heel area with neglected, crumbling tenement buildings subdivided by slum landlords into bed-sit accommodation with a constantly shifting population.

ENTER THE MOSLEYITES:

Back then the “colour bar” hadn’t been made illegal, and indeed many of the slum landlords refused to let accommodation to “the coloureds”. It was this that helped to provoke racial unrest in the area in the ‘fifties – and encouraged Oswald Mosley to abandon his strongholds in the East End, and put himself forward as candidate for North Kensington in the 1959 General Election.

The shabby streets of Ladbroke Grove were soon covered with whitewashed slogans daubed by Mosley’s supporters. I did attend a couple of his meetings, where he was given a rapturous welcome by his supporters. They clapped, stamped their feet and raised their arms in the fascist salute.

On the eve of poll, Mosley led a triumphant march through the streets of Ladbroke Grove. Anyone taken in by the cheers might have thought that it was all over bar the counting. But after the votes had been counted, Mosley was bottom of the poll with some 3,000 votes. His intervention had merely helped to concentrate the minds of his opponents – and Mosley himself had failed to realise that there was more to North Kensington than just Ladbroke Grove.

Shortly after the election I packed my bags and slipped quietly out of the area – and eventually out of London altogether.

CHANGES:

Meanwhile, Ladbroke Grove has changed, probably beyond recognition for most. The council blocks (like Grenfell Tower) were an honest enough attempt at the time to supply better living conditions for those who’d occupied the slum dwellings. And the disappearance of the colour bar has produced a much more homogeneous mix in the working class population. The response to the tragedy by those who’d lived there, and those who gave their support ran right across racial lines. There was righteous anger against the complacency of those on the Council (and indeed in Government) in the face of the disaster – but there was a sense of unity, as well.

The class divisions in North Kensington still exist of course – indeed the affluence of Notting Hill has probably grown since the 1950s – whilst Ladbroke Grove remains the poorer area. Its population is most likely to suffer deprivation – and upheaval, when their homes are destroyed.

Alistair Graham

CLARION COMMENT: HOW MAY MANAGED TO LOSE HER OWN ELECTION

In Editorial on September 22, 2017 at 1:02 pm

What can we say about May’s decision to hold a snap election that went so sensationally wrong for her?  A miscalculation? An example of hubris writ large?  This and much more has already been said in the media and by commentators galore.

Let’s just say that May managed to undermine her position as PM in spectacular fashion, and turn her slender but workable majority into no majority at all. She now has to rely on the dubious support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist MPs. The DUP, for goodness sake! That really is scraping the barrel!

And it’s a bit rich when we consider the Tory attempts to smear Corbyn with allegations that he’d supported armed Irish Republicans!

corbyn_yourChoice

A PERSONAL CAMPAIGN:

May chose to personalise her electoral campaign. At the hustings her publicity promoted her as leader, with the Tory Party demoted to a strap line. For May the election was intended to reduce the number of Labour MPs elected to the point where they could no longer function as an effective opposition – whilst at the same time  boosting May’s own standing as she set about doing a demolition job on Jeremy Corbyn.

As it turned out the election results achieved just the opposite.  May has weakened her position in the Tory Party, whilst managing to boost Corbyn’s reputation as a leader who can win seats (some of which had rarely if ever been held by Labour before) and as an effective team player.

LOCAL RESULTS:

Here in the Forest of Dean, Labour’s candidate Shaun Stammers managed to increase his party’s vote from 12,000 to 18,000-plus. Readers can do their own maths!  It was quite an achievement considering that, by necessity, he’d been a last minute choice with no time to get “bedded in” to his role. A candidate could do with a year if he/she is to level the playing field, to get to know the voters, keep abreast of constituency matters in the local press and shape the debate rather than merely react to it. But he and the party locally ran a vigorous high-profile campaign that seem to have paid off.

As for Mark Harper, he nailed his colours firmly to Theresa May’s banner.  His election address declared that he was “standing with Theresa May”, and it included a personal letter from May herself.

hoof_signs_victory

Meanwhile, in the Monmouth constituency, Labour managed to increase its share of the vote, as well. Ruth Jones, for Labour polled over 18,000 votes – an increase of nearly ten per cent.

WHAT NEXT?

In the circumstances, the future for Labour (both nationally and locally) seems rosy. It has enlarged representation in the Commons – and few dissidents within the Party are likely to challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership right now. The great purge of members is now surely over, leaving only those who were expelled to lick their wounds.

Meanwhile, within the Conservative Party, the opposite is the case.  Theresa may is now a Prime Minister living on borrowed time.

But there are plenty of ifs and buts. First, the Tories are hardly likely to call another election in the near future unless circumstances force them to.  Meanwhile, if there was to be a Tory coup to replace May, we just don’t know who’d be in the running to replace her. There are those, of course, who seem happy to throw their hats into the ring (Boris Johnson and David Davies are two names that spring to mind), but who knows what future candidates may emerge from the shadows?

It was Harold Wilson who once famously declared that “a week in politics is a long time”.  As the Clarion only appears bi-monthly, many of our comments may well be overtaken by events before our next issue hits the presses.

Time, as it always does, will tell.


BREXIT?  AN EXIT IN CHAOS!

It’s difficult to envisage a situation in which so-called negotiations were carried out with so much ineptitude as those for the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Cheered on by Tory “exit” supporters, Theresa May first promised a “hard exit”. Then she followed this up with the declaration that no agreement at all with the EU would be better than a bad agreement (would it really?).  There have been quibbles over the amount of money being demanded by the EU, with some Brexit cheer-leaders such as Boris Johnson declaring that we shouldn’t be paying the EU a penny (or should that be a Euro?).

BECOMING DISPLACED PERSONS?

There have been disagreements over the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. Many live and work here, and so far it’s all been perfectly legal. Should they be allowed to stay, with second-class citizen status?  With, perhaps, the threat of possible expulsion hanging over them?  So far there’s been no clear agreement, only the declaration that we should be in charge of our own borders.

And what of those Brits living in the European Union, either working there, perhaps raising families, or just enjoying retirement in other parts of Europe of their choice?   There has been no recognition of the fact that the creation of a united Europe created significant movement in population.  People could choose to live wherever they wanted in the EU, travel for employment opportunities – or settle somewhere else in Europe simply because it suited them better.

AND WHY A “HARD BREXIT”?

And why, oh why, did our Tory Government decide that it had to be a “hard brexit”?  There were to be no ifs or buts. We’d just cut ourselves off from mainland Europe, sign our own treaties and make our own way in the world – because that was what the people of the UK wanted. Well, in fact only a little over fifty per cent voted to leave. In some parts of the country a clear majority voted to stay in the Union. In Scotland it was overwhelming.  There were to be no concessions for them.

So, if we really wanted to leave, wouldn’t it have been a better strategy to go for what might be termed a “softer” strategy?  Such as that taken by Norway, for example?  Both Norway and Iceland opted to remain within the EU’s trade agreements whilst withdrawing from the political aspects of the Union.  For many in Britain it may not be ideal, but it would ensure that the massive level of trade we do with the EU would be safeguarded.

Jeremy Corbyn has now come out with his own proposals for softening the blow of our departure from the EU.  This would considerably lengthen the amount of time that we would, in effect, remain within the remit of the EU, in order to safeguard the rights of EU citizens within the UK (as well as safeguarding those UK citizens in mainland Europe). It would also mean that our present trade agreements with the EU would remain in place.  It might be termed a much “softer” departure from Europe.

MODERN TIMES: the Dinosaur column

In Dinosaur, Uncategorized on September 22, 2017 at 12:56 pm

dinosaurPOINT TAKEN:

I’ve received a response from one of the quartet of former Labour councillors who’d chosen to resign from the party and sit on the district council as “Independent Labour”.

Bill Osborne puts a somewhat different viewpoint from what seemed to have been agreed by his colleagues.  He tells me that his resignation was in fact motivated more by his suspension from the Labour Party (at national level) which deprived him of his vote in the second leadership election  – when Jeremy Corbyn was confirmed as party leader.

Bill described this as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.  He also makes the point that the only reason that Labour’s NEC could provide for his suspension was that a comment Bill had made on social media “might have caused offence”.

Which, perhaps, casts a rather different light on Bill’s decision to leave Labour’s ranks. Personally, I take his point!

It’s an opt out:

I’ve always been a fan of the 1950s film, Passport to Pimlico, in which a plucky community in central London decides to opt out and declare itself independent – facing the full wrath of bureaucracy as a result.

It might not be on the same scale, but I was drawn to a piece in the Citizen the other week.  Dr. William Riches, from Newnham, has decided to declare his home an “independent republic”  His wife, Judith, has been declared president, and his children and grandchildren  are citizens.

When the UK finally leaves the EU anyone visiting his home by the Severn, Middlewatch, will have to make sure that they have their passports with them – plus a visa.  And Dr. Riches  and his family will then formally apply for entry to the European Union.

Dr. Riches (a retired university lecturer) is a much-travelled Europhile, and has worked in America, Canada and Northern Ireland.  He’s no “Little Englander”, and sees the world on a different scale than many of those who backed Brexit.  Good luck to him, I say.

Applying for European citizenship?

Of course there are other ways to make the point that you want to remain part of Europe. The kind of “hard Brexit” advocated by many enthusiasts, who believe that we can just go it alone, is bound to create mass upheaval. There are those Brits who’d chosen to make their homes in mainland Europe – as well as  those Europeans who’d chosen to make the UK their home.  Now all this is about to be torn apart.

But a new initiative is now being launched, to try to allow Brits to retain their European citizenship (as shown ou our current passports).  At present we all have “the right to move and reside freely within the territory of Member States under objective conditions of freedom and dignity.”

A new initiative is being launched to allow UK resident citizens to maintain these rights.  So, for more details, email info@eucitizen2017.org

Go on, give it a try!

Dinosaur

Life isn’t worth living (a review)

In C.Spiby, Reviews, Uncategorized on July 4, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Hermit_ionescoA review by C. Spiby of the novel ‘The Hermit’ by Eugene Ionesco

One of the most famous philosophical maxims is ‘The unexamined life is not worth living (1)’. Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s only novel ‘The Hermit’ (1973) (2) is the absolute embodiment of this aphorism, albeit the conclusion presented being that, actually, life isn’t worth living examined or not.

An anonymous clerk inherits a small fortune which permits him to quit his meaningless office job where he is at most distracted to derision by the romances and mini-dramas that play out before him at work. On his last day, the clerk and his colleagues retire to the local restaurant for drinks – more out of social duty than actual like of one another. And this is where Ionesco excels: a complete affinity for the everyday interactions of ordinary people, most notably their subtexts and suspicions masked by social airs and conformities. It’s what makes ‘The Hermit’ an interesting study of late 20th century man without being particularly kind about him.

And yet somehow we readers warm to the rich hermit who has now moved to the suburbs of France albeit still within reach of the all-important restaurant where he can gorge himself whilst watching the world go by; satisfy his suspicions of the people that pass in the street or spy on him behind net curtains. His outlook tempts our sympathies for the hermit to begin to wain as he descends deeper and deeper into paranoiac excursions compelled by his own loneliness. Imagine a French bourgeois Charles Bukowski where, like Buk, there’s plenty of drink and little work, but where male chauvinism is replaced with a seething disdain for fellow man writ large and even existence itself.

Temporarily distracted by a brief and dour affair with a waitress, her leaving triggers a full-on descent into darkness. His fall coincides with the onset of events which feel a bit like Paris 1968 and the social unease surrounding it. He’s immersed in a fantasy of urban revolt and revolution akin to the civil spark possible from ’68. Except soon, though, there’s blood in the streets and shootings, which reminded me more of the fall of Yugoslavia but happening just a few streets away. Rather than engage in the uprising, our protagonist for the most part sets himself as observer whilst workers drink up their wine, revolvers in their pockets and rifles at their side waiting to return to the barricades. The hermit questions the point of revolution, makes no distinction between left and right but nor can he seem to distinguish between love and hate, participation and non-participation even as violence erupts around him, on the periphery. We’re never told what’s happening and why, just like the hermit we experience the outcome, and for the first time we fully feel the way he does about life in general: as an outsider. It’s quite a feat of writing.

Later still the revolution is now just a mess of reactionary forces and even worse just factions of the same side in some areas (a nod to the example of the anarchists and communists during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps?): now though everything is questioned and assessed for its value and meaning albeit without consequence or engagement. At one point the hermit muses that he wishes he’d study philosophy more, to be able to understand the meaningless of the universe as he sees it and perhaps therefore find some kind of purpose.

Best known for his absurdist plays like ‘The Chairs’, ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Lesson’, Ionesco spent most of his life in France and help establish the theatre of the absurd in the 1950’s. And yet this novel is at its best when it observes our ordinariness, in my opinion.

Ultimately ‘The Hermit’ is a downbeat analysis of humanity not least since the absurdity of life being meaningless is, in this instance, not providing us with freedom from restrained opportunity or social structures like the church and such like as the existentialists argued. Only love hints at the possibility of meaning but the sad fact is that the hermit in question, despite all his fair riches, just isn’t very good at it.

At one point a waitress observes of him: ‘You keep to yourself too much, Monsieur.’ To which he replies – summing up the book entirely – ‘I’m surrounded by people. I’m surrounded by the crowd. By the crowd or by nothing.’

The Hermit’ is indeed a gloomy book but engaging until the end even as it becomes more and more fantastical. In that absurdity it becomes more satirical, almost a different book. And yet somehow its pace which takes you from the banal to the absurd works – it makes the essence of the absurd all the more believable.

I don’t know why Ionesco never wrote another novel, returning to plays and literary criticism. This might be a shame, as the tension of an impending insurrection is palpable in the second half and the descent into loneliness compelling in the first – and because of this the scope of this possibly allegorical sweep of humanity and the universe of emotion and reality means the work takes on a wider importance than its easy-to-read style would suggest.

It’s moments of cynical humour show Ionesco as a master of timing and it is his ability to make an unappealing protagonist a figure of our continued interest is, in my opinion, always the mark of a good writer. Worth reading. Worth living.

  1. Spoken by Socrates through Plato’s Apology
  2. I was reading the 1983 English translation published by Calder – looks like it’s currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online

ENDPIECE: Where’s the diplomacy?

In Editorial on July 4, 2017 at 12:37 pm

We think it was US President Theodore Roosevelt who coined the phrase “talk softly – but carry a big stick” as he set out to conquer various remaining Spanish colonies off the coast of America. He could be described as the founder of US imperialism.

We won’t dwell on his motives. After all, times change. But as for his famous quote, perhaps there’s something for Theresa May to think about.. She has a habit of speaking very loudly – and to all intents and purposes carries no stick at all. Perhaps she might just run to a handbag.

She has told her cheering followers that “when we say Brexit we mean Brexit!”. It’ s to be a “hard” exit from Europe. And then, with all charm she could muster she sets off to engage EU ministers in talks to try for improved trade deals with Europe. She even embarked on a disastrous election to try to bolster her slim majority in Parliament.  She mistakenly thought that it would impress EU leaders and give her more clout. And we all know what happened with that!

It’s not surprising that European leaders  haven’t been impressed. After all what could May put on the table after her own euphoric utterances to her own supporters?

She’s been told by EU leaders that she must guarantee free movement of European citizens to and from Britain, a point she may find it difficult to concede considering that (possibly) the majority of those who’ve been cheering her on voted for Brexit in order to put up the barriers against Johnny Foreigner. In their terms they might end up with a very soft Brexit indeed. Meanwhile, it’s interesting that an increasing number of UK citizens (both in Britain and in mainland Europe) have been seeking ways and means of gaining European citizenship.  Sometimes this is because they see it as being in their interest. But sometimes it’s because they identify with the soul of Europe, and don’t want to be identified with the “little Englander” mentality of many of the Brexiteers.

At the same time May and her Government have been busy trying to fix up trade deals with countries outside the EU bloc – such as China and Canada. Perhaps even a handout from Trump in the USA.  So far she’s had little luck. After all, these days what do we have to offer? Let’s face it, what industrial assets we might still have can be bought up wholesale by the Chinese etc., without bothering themselves with trade deals.

So far, all that May hasn’t tried is diplomacy. It can sometimes go a long way.

EDUCATION MATTERS: UNION MATTERS – UNIONS MERGE

In R.Richardson on July 4, 2017 at 12:35 pm

Last month it was announced that the N.U.T and the A.T.L (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) were to merge. Its new name will the N.E.U (National Education Movement) and will be officially formed in September. Until 2023 the new union will be jointly led by Mary Baisted (at present the ATL general secretary) and Kevin Courtney (NUT general secretary). “We look around the world,” said Kevin Courtney, “and see that wherever teacher unions are united they are the better for it. “

Mr Courtney went on to say, “Our next step has to be to move this burgeoning unity further.” He seemed to be hinting that a merger with the other big teachers’ union, the NAS/UWT might be on the cards.

Unsurprisingly, Theresa May’s policy of establishing new grammar schools was one of the main discussion topics at the NUT’s Annual General Conference. Already some schools are advertising that they have a “grammar school stream”. The union’s solicitor, Clive Romain, declared that schools could be acting unlawfully as they might be seen to be in breach of admission procedures. The N.U.T is threatening a High Court challenge.

FREE SCHOOLS AND ACADEMIES:

Free schools have been in the news again. It seems that some £140 million have been wasted on schools that have been forced to close, partially close or failed to open at all. Kevin Courtney declared that this was “an appalling waste of significant sums of money”, and this at a time when school budgets elsewhere are under severe pressure. A new policy has been put in place whereby the salaries of new free school heads will be paid for two terms even if the school fails to open or is deferred. This said, the Department of Education would allow such schools to secure “high quality heads.”

An academy chain has scrapped local governing bodies at all of its schools The CEO of the Aspire Academy Trust, Andrew Fielden, said “You are putting unpaid volunteers in the heart of a highly pressurised and extremely professional group of people. What the bloody hell for?” So much for parents’ representation and local accountability.

PRIVATE FINANCE INITIATIVES (PFIs):

PFI contracts were introduced by successive Conservative and “New Labour” governments, leading to schools and hospitals being built by private contractors.

Pay-back was over a 25 or 30 year period. But under the terms of the contracts, schools are often tied to particular suppliers for purchasing or replacing simple items such as blinds or taps. A school in Bristol will have to pay £8,000 for a single blind. In Malmesbury, head teacher Tim Gilson said that a bench will cost the school £6,000 over the remaining thirteen years of the PFI contract. He said “We have to pay about £40 a month for the facilities management cost (!) of that bench, on top of the cost of putting the bench in and all the materials.”

THE IMPACT OF STRESS:

Finally, the subject of stress was another hot topic at the NUT conference. In a survey of 5,000 teachers, more than 80 per cent said that their job was being negatively affected and 60 percent said that it had affected their mental health.

Teachers reported turning to medication, alcohol and caffeine to help them to cope with the job. . Some had undergone counselling. More than half said that they were often exhausted when they entered the classroom.

Delegates at the conference voted to ballot members for a national campaign of strike and non-strike action over crushing workloads, and also pay which is down twenty per cent since the Tories took power.

Compiled by RUTH RICHARDSON

CO-OPERATION! The Co-operative Party celebrates its centenary

In A.Graham on July 4, 2017 at 12:29 pm

by Alistair Graham

This year marks the centenary of the foundation of the Co-operative Party. It was born in 1917, in the uncertain years of the First World War, as the conflict was dragging towards its bloody conclusion.

But its roots were sown in earlier years, the years before war engulfed Europe. The co-operative movement was growing rapidly – but the Liberal government was hardly sympathetic to this new movement. Many co-operators believed that it needed a political voice to represent the movement – in Parliament if need be.

There were those who opposed this view, of course. Those who argued that the movement was made up of members of various political (and indeed religious) views. At an early meeting of the Co-operative Congress in 1897 a motion was passed supporting direct representation in Parliament – but such was the lack of any enthusiasm, it was reversed in 1900.

But the issue wouldn’t go away. It was probably the position of the Liberal Government that was in power during the years leading up to the First World War that was a deciding factor. The Liberals may have been the “shopkeepers’ friend” – but this new, strange concept of co-operation was a different matter altogether.

The Liberal Government was definitely hostile to the ideals of co-operation. The notion of sharing out “surplus value” amongst members and giving them a say in how the Co-op was run, was definitely an alien concept. As for the Tories – well, let’s not go down that road!

All this led to the Co-operative Congress of 1917, held in Swansea, passing a resolution that stated the Co-op Movement should have direct representation in Parliament in order to safeguard its interests. There was some opposition of course, but it was passed overwhelmingly.

Success for the new Co-operative Party was slow in coming. The first Co-op candidate to win a seat was A.E. Waterson in Kettering in 1918 – and he soon lost it again (albeit narrowly). .

In 1922, the party won four seats, including that of A.V. Alexander (who went on to become leader of the group in the Commons). Meanwhile, the strength of the Labour Party was growing, and finally the two parties reached a joint agreement.

In more recent years the Co-operative Party has continued to function as an independent body, with its own conferences and policy making bodies. But as for the candidates there has been a tendency for those who stand as “Labour Co-op” candidates to be seen as merely Labour by the electorate.

ALISTAIR GRAHAM
(Member of the Co-operative Party and the Mid-counties Co-op Society.


A.V. ALEXANDER: A co-operator in Parliament – and outside.

Albert Victor Alexander rose through the Co-operative movement to become the Co-op MP for Sheffield Hillsborough in 1922./ At the time he was one of just four Co-op MPs, but he was to hold his seat (with one short break in the’30s) until 1950.

He became leader of the Co-op parliamentary group and at one time he was a Minister in the in Labour Government of Ramsay Macdonald. But he opposed the cuts introduced in the late 1920s (particularly the cuts in unemployment benefits). He lost his seat in the 1931 election, winning it back in 1933, and resumed his position as leader of the Co-operative Parliamentary group.

In 1950 he retired from the Commons to take up his seat in the House of Lords. Here he continued to represent the cause of co-operation until his death in 1965 at the age of 79.


 

NORTHERN IRELAND AND TROUBLES: A visit to Belfast, 1991

In A.Graham on July 4, 2017 at 12:22 pm

a fire bombed pub in the city centre

by Alistair Graham

I paid a number of visits to Belfast during the 1980s into the 1990s. Despite “the Troubles” (as they were known), it was a vibrant city and I felt few qualms in walking the streets of this fractured community. After all, I had the anonymity of a stranger looking in, and thus was hardly a target for any warring faction.

“FACT FINDING”:

Probably the most fruitful visit was in April 1991, when I joined a “fact finding” group from the ILP to meet and interview groups and political parties from across the spectrum – sometimes singly and other times in groups.

We met representatives from the SDLP,  the Ulster Unionists, Democratic  Unionists, the Workers Party and Alliance..  We also met a number of campaigning groups – like the Peace  Women,  Families Against Terror and Intimidation – and Gusty Spence, former leader  of the UVF.

VIOLENCE;

At that time, of course, Martin McGuinness was still leader of the provisional IRA, before his conversion ushered in a new era of “power sharing” in Northern Ireland which officially brought “the troubles” to an end. In the spring of 1991 “the Provos” had established a bloody record of violence and destruction – including a half-hearted pogrom against members of the Workers Party (which had evolved from the former “official” Republican movement).  Several of those whom I’d come to count as friends were victims of armed attacks (though fortunately none were successful).

We also met Maurice Healey, from Newry (on the border) who had been taken by the Provisional IRA, tortured, subjected to a kangaroo court and ordered out of Northern Ireland with the warning that he would be executed if he ever returned.

He was charged with being an informant. But he had defied the order by returning to Belfast to make his case public.

DIFFERENT PATHS TO PEACE:

It became clear at least to me that despite the complexity of the conflict created by the warring factions there was a growing peace movement which was capable of contributing to any peace settlement. Politically there was the Alliance Party, the SDLP and in its own way the Workers Party. Elsewhere there were the Peace Women – and the remarkable case of Gusty Spence, a former leader of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), who’d turned his back on violence to involve himself in community politics in the Shankhill Road area of Belfast.

Few of us at the time would have believed that, after the Good Friday Agreement, it would be Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party under Ian Paisley who would emerge as leaders of the new order. “Power sharing” became the new mantra. Paisley, who had campaigned under the slogan, “No Surrender!” became Northern Ireland’s First Minister with    Martin McGuinness ensconced as his deputy.

It seemed as if the world had turned upside down. “Power” had somehow evolved to the two extremes of Irish politics, and in so doing had marginalised those forces in between that had worked so hard to create the conditions for peace during “the troubles”. It’s a funny old world.

With the death of Martin McGuinness, the status quo of power sharing hangs in the balance. What happens next in Northern Ireland I wouldn’t like to guess. But then I wouldn’t have foreseen events back in 1991 either. Now of course the UK General Election has thrown it all into limbo.