Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Still Green and Pleasant

A peace is the nature of a conquest; for then both parties nobly are subdued, and neither party loser.
William Shakespeare

CAN HISTORY BE TAUGHT, or must it be lived? I believe the first history lessons I had at school, at Warwick Academy, some years before I reached my teens, were outlined in a book describing the discovery of the Bermuda Islands in the 1500s (this was poorly documented) and the settlement of the archipelago by the English in 1609. This was something of an adventure story, it being easier to amuse schoolchildren with tales not unlike “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe” which we read in English classes. We were white children, privileged in that regard in the society of Bermuda in the 1950s. Our teachers were white and British. We did not approach the subject of slavery in the Bermudas, the story of the ancestors of the boys and girls who took the other buses, attended the other schools, sat in the other seats at church and in the cinema. The only picture of a black face I recall from a text book I studied in those days was that of “Bombo” from the Congo, in our geography lessons. If memory serves, Bombo was a pygmy and lived in a jungle with monkeys and elephants. It was a small picture and a short chapter. In 1959, the coloured people in Bermuda forced legal integration on the community with boycotts; only ten years later the first blacks came to the school I’d attended as a right. Had those books featuring Bombo from the Congo been boxed up and hidden in a basement by then?

In the Senior School we had a little world history, as far back as Ancient Greece, Alexander the Great, the Romans, and then the Europeans during the Dark and Middle Ages, but in condensed form. Our later GCE courses covered British history from the arrival of James I and the Stuarts in 1603 through the Civil War, the Restoration and the Hanoverians. Then we switched to the Americas for the War of American Independence, and, finally, back to Britain for the accession of Queen Victoria. We did not have a text book to follow during these years; our History Master, Colin Benbow, would write the day’s lesson on the blackboard (I recall he was left-handed) from his memory, and we’d copy it in our exercise books.

Colin Benbow was a favourite teacher of mine. I loved history lessons and was fairly good at remembering it all, and connecting events. Happened that my step-mother was the History Mistress at another school and I had the run of her large collection of books at home, which I read for pleasure as much as learning. She eventually joined the staff at the school I had attended.

Having English parents, and then going to the UK to complete my schooling, and having visited, in person, many of the famous places in Britain, from the henges to the Norman fortresses and Tower Green, to St Paul’s and royal palaces, and baronial homes built by industrialists, I have always felt a closeness to the history of these Isles. I have sensed, in some way, old spirits in Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. A friend once told me that he had a theory that the great cathedrals of Britain and Europe were way stations on the routes between this lifetime and the hereafter. Spirits would gather in these grand places, waiting for the transport to eternal life. As I walked on steps worn down by centuries of use where I was a mere tourist clutching some postcards and a guidebook, and I felt that I was not alone, no matter I could see no others, might I have been sharing space with our (my) ancestors?

I have voted on every occasion possible, in Bermuda for some years, now in the UK, because, it seems to me, to not take part is to not only ignore history, but to belittle the contributions of all those people - politicians and citizens - who have built Britain – a little here, a little there – into the society we have today. I have been aware that all types, all faiths and beliefs, all political doctrines, have moved us along. Perhaps I have been taught a little, but I can finally appreciate that I have lived a fair bit of history.

As a child, a very young child, I was trotted down to Front Street in Bermuda - it would have been just before Christmas 1954 - to set eyes on Prime Minister Winston Churchill. My Latin Master at Warwick Academy, Reginald Frewin, was Winston Churchill’s cousin. Not long after the great man’s death in 1965 (which I recall vividly) I visited Churchill’s home, Chartwell, in Kent with my Nan Eldridge and my mother. I have stood by the memorial to Churchill in Westminster Abbey several times, as recently as 2006. One returns to history, in my case with my heart beating a little stronger for the trip.

Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.
Mark Twain.

We have just had a General Election in Great Britain. I cannot say that I enjoyed this campaign which became more of a Presidential and American effort, with style valued over substance. I am not an American and I don’t subscribe to their kind of politicking. It seems that the British have spent over a century making political leadership possible for any man, any woman, with the desire to take part in the evolving process. We’ve had some unpleasant types in Downing Street in my parents’ lifetime. Even in my half-century-plus we’ve had gods and monsters. At times we’ve been governed by, I think, fools. However, we have had the ability to vote out those who do us harm within, at the most, five years.

I’ve been disappointed, in 2010, with the many people who have said, within earshot, that they weren’t going to bother to vote because “the politicians are all the same, nothing changes, nothing will change.” I don’t believe that. Apathy by the voter breeds apathy in Government. Passion begins with the ballot paper you mark.

So the politicians are all the same? Now we have an election result that splits the country basically three ways looking at percentages of votes cast: a little over a third is “Conservative” and a little under is “Labour” and about a quarter is “Liberal-Democrat”. I read Twitter comments. A great many seem to be from supporters of the Liberal-Democrats, a party I’m not too wild about. My maternal grandparents’ families, back in Burnley, had been staunch Liberals, supporters of H.H. Asquith. Of course, the women did not have the vote, and I don’t know if they were as enthusiastic as my male ancestors. Asquith lived long enough to witness the (apparent) relegation of the Liberal Party to a minor player in British politics. In 2010, the Liberal-Democrats are attempting to claw their way back, which will only succeed if major reforms to the voting system come about. As partners in the new Government (with the Conservatives’ David Cameron as Prime Minister) the Lib-Dems could well force changes.

The day of the absolute is over, and we’re in for the strange gods once more.
D.H. Lawrence

The British people are probably in for minority and coalition governments from now on, unless one party in itself can be so inclusive that the voters simply cannot resist giving it a clear majority. Unlikely, we are a fractured people when we are not at war with outsiders. I don’t like to see the prejudice spouted on Twitter. Dismissing over a third of the electorate as toffs, as upper-class twits, because some of the Tory leaders have had educations in schools thought to be elitist (ignoring the fact that they might have benefitted from whatever education they had and might use that to help us all) is offensive to me. I would also be most annoyed to hear the socialists amongst us put down because of their parentage or education, or because they wear flat caps and speak with an Oop North accent. I can slightly adjust a line some wit wrote and get: “There are Conservatives and Socialists in British politics, and the Socialists have made it possible for the Working Man to be corrupt as well.” That is to look down on all politicians, and there are many decent people who will stand up for us.

If we get truly-proportional representation, we may well have more of a muddle than we have right now, with UKIP and Green and BNP members taking seats in Parliament. If the BNP are denied seats because their beliefs are offensive and dangerous, then a fairly sizable section of the electorate is to be ignored. Where does one draw the line?

I like the idea of a strong coalition. Wouldn’t it have been remarkable if Conservative, Labour and Liberal-Democrat MPs in this new parliament could think for a moment and realise that a government of National Unity might be appropriate with Britain in dire straits? A government by the best of all.

What we have is a government representing about 60% of the voters that bothered to go to the polls. Because only about two-thirds of the electorate actually cast a vote, less than half of us have a connection to a voice in Westminster. This is hardly proportional representation, but if so few bother to vote, no proportional representation will be true, even if we change the way we vote.

Personally, I think it’s time to make the House of Lords an elected chamber. How much freedom the new Lords will have will be interesting. In the USA the Senate and House are always at odds, so much time is wasted, and so much legislation is watered down. I’d like to see our Upper House have limited powers, perhaps the ability to delay legislation a little, to send it back to the Commons, but not to mangle everything.

In the electoral contests for MPs in the Commons, and the Lords, I think the top two candidates after an initial poll should then have a run-off a few weeks later. I cannot say that I’m interested in very minor parties taking up space simply because they are Green or Christian or Nationalist. However, a politician from any party background, no matter how small in the big picture, who can persuade his district’s voters that he belongs in Westminster should get the chance to go there if he can win a majority for himself. Better a vivacious and desirable candidate win a seat than any old party member just because the Tories or Labour or the Lib-Dems had him stand as a matter of routine, or as a favour.

The more I see of Democracy the more I dislike it. It just brings everything down to the mere vulgar level of wages and prices, electric light and water closets, and nothing else.
D.H. Lawrence

I’m personally in favour of the sort of term limits that will clear out the old-timers. I’m not impressed that a man or woman has sat in the House for thirty years, in or out of Government, when many newcomers to the system have had to be ignored for decades. We had the expenses scandal in 2009 and this did force out a lot of (I’ll say corrupt) old fools from all of the parties. That was good.

No presidential style politics in my ideal Britain. I’d like to feel comfortable with a candidate in my district first and foremost. That is who I’d support, and hope that he or she will support the right leaders and policies in Government.

For those who didn’t bother to vote, I am disappointed. If you liked not a single one of the candidates in your district you could have spoiled your ballot, which is a vote for “none of these” which says a great deal. In America one could write in “Mickey Rat” and make an “X” by it.

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

I worry that our form of government might be a victim of history in the making, rather than a growing thing that evolves forward, carrying the best of everything we’ve created over the centuries here on this small island. Let’s keep it green and pleasant.

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