Monday, 25 March 2013

The Magdalene Laundries and Irish history

The story of the Magdalene Landries, recently the subject of an apology by the Irish Prime Minister (above), is a painful one indeed. The Laundries were basically workhouses for girls and young women of all sorts who just happened to offend the Church or the more secular authorities in Ireland between the nineteenth century and the 1990s. They left a trail of pain and humiliation behind them - hidden bruises and quiet damages that have never really been addressed properly. Until now.

What is emerging there is just one part of a much wider story. I am very, very reluctant to write this, but the Republic of Ireland is being revealed as a partially failed state. Between its creation in the 1920s and its reformation (in a burst of Euro-enthusiasm) in the 1990s, the church was far too powerful; its political culture too insular; its elites too small. Children were abused; the powerful handed out jobs as they wished; taxpayers' and shareholders' money flowed through backroom deals and stitch-ups aplenty.

Northern Ireland didn't fare much better. For many decades 'a Protestant state for a Prostestant people', gerrymandering, intimidation and nakedly sectarian discrimination flourished. The province had its own Magdalene Laundries in Belfast, and arbitrary detention and forced labour were practiced there. This is not much discussed, even today, partly because of these institutions' much smaller scale, but they were there all right. The people of Ireland, north and south, are as extraordinary as they have ever been; their landscape stunning; their achievements astounding. But here's the reality: in the twentieth century, they were as badly governed as anyone in the developed world.

I used to be sceptical about the 'revisionism' that flourished in Irish history from the 1980s onwards, particularly after the publication of Irish historian Roy Foster's magisterial Modern Ireland in 1988. There Foster dissected the myth that Irish history moved in a nationalist direction; that it was her people's manifest destiny to rid themselves of the hated Brits; that the emergence of an Irish state for the Irish people was inevitable. History, of course, is always more complicated than that: and the grotesque reality now revealed in the Irish state structure itself, in the South just as much as in the North under exclusivist Unionist rule, has called into question the whole nature and desirability of Irish independence itself.

I didn't like hearing Foster's views, because I looked at what I thought was the steady growth of Irish 'national' feeling, protest, organisation and opposition to 'foreign' domination during the nineteenth century, and I scratched my head that this be seen as going in any other direction but statehood. But now I can see the nature of that statehood, I know that he was right. For the old nationalist stories depended on a teleology from 'past' to 'future', from 'domination' to 'freedom', and from 'bad' to 'good', that can no longer be supported from the vantage point of 2012. Freedom from what? Not freedom to be badly and corruptly governed, that's for sure.

At a time when the people of Northern Ireland face renewed threats from a tiny group of refuseniks dedicated to unachievable objectives and fantastical myths, I hope that's an important insight. Sometimes historians stand back; they're cool; they're detached. Not this time. For only when we have looked Irish history full in the face, and seen its iniquities for what they are - far removed from the sectarian stories and religion-upon-religion conflicts we have often imagined - can we push forwards towards the more hopeful future that Irish men and women of all faiths and beliefs deserve.

The present writer is proud of his Irish descent and name; and of his nationalist (and Nationalist) forebears. But what these histories of corruption and abuse really evoke is this: we need an entirely new Irish history, and it won't be one painted in Green and Orange any more.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Fantasy and error in Britain's 2013 Budget

So. The Budget, then (above). Strip away the fripperies and the gimmicks, such as the one penny cut to beer duty, and you've got two stories: one doleful tale of policies gone utterly awry, and one risky error. It was always thus, to be honest - Gordon Brown was no master of the Budget box during his long tenure at No. 11 Downing Street, either - but the eye-watering pain we're going to have to live through for many years to come was never clearer.

First, the bad news. Actually, it's all bad news, but we'll start with the worst news. Remember all those targets the Government announced when the Coalition took power? Getting rid of the structural deficit by the end of the Parliament. Making sure that debt was falling as a proportion of GDP at the same time. Keeping Britain's AAA credit rating. Well, because of the lack of growth in the economy, they've all been shredded. No-one mentions these any more, and we've been told for some time that we'll be getting near balance no earlier than 2018. More like 2020, I would have thought, even on optimistic assumptions - and only with yet another slew of tax rises and cuts that will prove counter-productive in the end. The pain is only just beginning. Two and a half years in, we face at least another six years of this if we stay the course (which we won't, of course, but more of that in a moment). And for what? Hmm. To arrive in pretty much the same place we would have arrived at had we done nothing. I would slap my hand to my forehead, but I'm too busy holding my head in my hands and muttering 'no more, no more: please ask some economists what to do before you wreck anything else'.

Then the risky error. One of the Chancellor's only really significant announcements was a new guarantee of homebuyers' borrowings. Not a bad idea in itself, especially when the construction industry is flat on its back. But not a great concept when everything Mr Osborne has said since 2005 has been about 're-balancing' the economy towards manufacturing, exports and production - and away from Britons' wasteful obsession with pouring all their money into their ageing Victorian homes and hoping a credit bubble will save them from their own folly. Now he's reversing engines, and it's scarcely credible. Without expanding supply, this is just throwing some petrol on the embers of the housing market, still lively in London and parts of England's south east corner. It'll inflate prices and start us on the whole tedious roller-coaster once more. To be fair, the Government would actually love to rip up the planning laws which stop British builders actually putting up many houses, and help us break out of this cycle. But an unholy alliance of greens and 'not in my back hard' rural Conservative voters stands in their way. Still: given that progress on this front is therefore likely to be pitifully slow, dumping billions of pounds worth of state guarantees all over one single sector of the economy isn't a good idea. It may win some votes in a short-lived credit boom just before the 2015 General Election, but that's about it.

More broadly - and this was always the risk - the Chancellor has taken an axe to the credibility of British debt repayment, and indeed fiscal policy itself. Nothing he has said since taking office in May 2010 has come off or gone right. Things look much the same peering forwards as they do looking back. Does anyone really think that any government can cut police funding by up to a third between 2010 and 2018? Some local authorities' spending by up to a half? No? I don't, either. Which means that the ringfencing that's increasingly annoying Cabinet Ministers - a barrier which defends spending on schools, the NHS, defence equipment and overseas aid - will have to be lifted if we're to go on like this. That'll cause a few controversies, and then some. It'll also mean that any incoming government will, in May 2015, face three choices: massive tax hikes; more spending cuts, approaching the size of those that have proved so disastrous in the 2010-15 Parliament; or a totally new course which just blows the top off all the Chancellor's targets and massively raises the debt ceiling for three or four years.

Since none of Mr Osborne's targets turned out to mean anything anyway, maybe that'd be the best course. At least it'd be clear, up front, transparent and consistent. And likely to be deliverable.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Good luck, Francis I: you're going to need it

The election of a new Pope (above) is an occasion for hope. Humble, smiling, and above all new, Francis I can expect a bit of a honeymoon - which he's handled pretty skilfully so far.

But no-one should be in any doubt that his in-tray is tumbling over with problems that would make any national leader or CEO resign on the spot. For it becomes ever clearer that the Church is beset with deep-seated moral problems that no one man can hope to address on their own. Recurrent child abuse scandals are disgusting enough: evidence of high-level cover-ups and a continued culture of denial are even worse. States that allowed the institutional Catholic Church too much power have been conclusively shown as rotten in or near their core: take the Irish Republic's Magdalene Landries slave labour scheme, for instance, which we'll be coming to later in the week. It is little wonder that the Church is losing members, even in the new Pope's relatively loyal homeland of Argentina.

It's time to start again, really: otherwise the hypocrisy, double-dealing and mean-spiritedness of so many of the Church's leaders will sink another papacy, wearing out its leader in a manner even a formidable campaigner such as Joseph Ratzinger found impossible to cope with in the end.

He's going to need the ecumenical instincts of Pope John XXIII, the charisma and the PR skills of John Paul II, and the intellectual rigour of Benedict XVI. In short, he's going to need everything he's got - and then some.

But where to start? With the role of the laity, that loyal following of Catholic churchgoers that has been so loyal - and so neglected - for so long. For decades the priesthood made them feel guilty, ashamed, sinful in general - and then somehow complicit in the crimes that have now come to light. But as this superb column argues, the laity usually were not involved, and casting the guilt around like incense served only to distract attention from the real individual and corporate failings we now see laid bare. It is the laity that have to stand up, challenge their leaders, and demand better. Before things settle down again. Now. Today. Not tomorrow, but now.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The grey people who make it a grey world

One of the most interesting things about power is how hidden and how concentrated it is. It's a world in which very grey and very, very anonymous people make calculations with people's lives that depend on typologising and characterising them only as a series of caricatures. They can then be shoved around the chessboard of international politics at will.

Let me give you two examples of what I mean. And then some historical parallels. You wouldn't expect anything else, would you?

The first is China's failure to restrain North Korea. Nothing more crazy could be invited in a Cold War thriller. If North Korea uses the nuclear bomb on her southern neighbour (a very unlikely outcome, I'll grant you) parts of China will be irradiated. Japan and the United States may feel duty-bound to intervene in the region. China will look ridiculous, and many of her allies or potential allies will blame her for this catastrophe. But will she get her sleeves rolled up and start shouting in Pyongyang? Nope. And why? Because she sees North Korea as a counterweight to Japan and the United States. She's locked in an absurd argument over some meaningless islands with the former, and wants to start challenging the later power for maritime supremacy in the Pacific (and especially in the China Sea). So North Korea gets to do what it wants. If Seoul gets wiped off the map in the next few years, you'll know who to blame.

Then take Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrians are dead. Many more are refugees. The country's government seems to want the take the whole world down with it, rather than admitting defeat and folding its hand. The opposition is riddled with ideological divides, and not able to mount any final push to bring the disaster to an end. Why? Because the United States and Iran are using Syria as an arena for their proxy warfare and their posturing. Iran backs the regime; so the US and its allies (and the Gulf States, who think that a more congenial regime might replace Assad) back the rebels. Iran and the Russians send in helicopter gunships and 'advisers'. The West pours in money. People die. Well done, 'international community'.

You know, and I know, that I could list loads more examples of this cynical, nasty, whey-faced game-playing. It's like China and the United States getting together behind the scenes to bleed Vietnam dry after it invaded Cambodia, even though that cynical game involved backing the genocidal mass murdered Pol Pot. It's like President Nixon's opening to China (above), designed to put pressure on the Soviet Union. And it stinks.

It's a good example of what our international leaders are really like.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Dear Vince: small business creation can be chaff as well as seedcorn

The United Kingdom's economy is showing some signs of life. There's a strong set of attributes there, under the permafrost. Film, theatre, the arts, universities, aeronautics, computer games, animation, financial services - it's not a bad list of things that the British do well. 

And there are some positive indicators. Unemployment has been drifting downwards for many months. Inflation is likely to stay low, as I've explained elsewhere. Most commentators expect the UK to avoid a triple-dip recession... though I wouldn't count on that if I were you.

One number that you definitely shouldn't rely on is small business creation. The rapid rate of new business formation is often trundled out by Ministers desperately grasping for some straw in the economic wind - the Business Secretary, Vince Cable (above), did so on this week's BBC Sunday Politics.

But you know what? Any economic historian knows that this is nonsense. Throw lots of people out of work, as misguided financial and macroeconomic policies have been doing since 2007, and you'll get lots of people sitting around with lots of skills. Many of them will inevitably set up on their own, given low demand and not much call for their labour in the more traditional economy. Most of these new businesses will fail, by the way (especially in services) - something I hate to see, actually, but there it is. There's actually a very good article on this by James Foreman-Peck, an academic from Cardiff Business School, who taught me when I was a Masters student: it's called 'Seedcorn or Chaff', and it focuses on just this phenomenon during the Great Depression. Which is an inauspicious parallel, and the dynamics change all the time when you come to think about it, but there you are.

What we're seeing is the chaff cast out by the great growth-mashing machine of deflation. One that leaves people little option but to try to earn a little money in any way they can think of.

And all the while it'll be undermining the most efficient large-scale parts of the economy - preventing their reorganisation, their restructuring and their drive for better conditions among their workforces... which is not an unconnected ambition, actually, but that's a point for another day. Industries that do the real heavy lifting - like construction, which is still in real trouble, and might prevent us escaping the austerity fundamentalists' black hole for some time yet.

Small business creation may or may not be a good sign. But it isn't one of those green shoots we should be paying most attention to. Until we get properly positive growth numbers, all the man-in-a-van startups in the world will be like March snow in April. They'll melt away and leave little behind but the memories.

Monday, 4 March 2013

England's proposed History curriculum: should it really be a political football?

The controversy over Michael Gove's new History curriculum up to the end of Key Stage 3 - for children, roughly, up to the age of 14 - is generating more heat than light.

Everything my colleagues say about these proposals is true, up to a point. It's too political, and there's not enough cultural history in particular provided for. Starting at 'the beginning' of British history may be a bit rich for five- and six-year-olds, who get understandably muddled up all the time. It may seem irrelevant to lots of Britons - especially younger ones. Its implied nostalgia for Britain's 'greatness' carries the distinct whiff of decadence and decline. Its focus on politics may exclude women from the picture.

But it's important to maintain some sense of balance on this one. Everyone and their father is wading in here, including historians who really want to back Mr Gove and his intentions. It's clearly not that objectionable to want a more joined-up curriculum up to the end of KS3. It has become too episodic; it does light too much on particular incidents, periods and people. And it could do with an overhaul that joins the dots a bit more, set against the backdrop of passing time - otherwise it's not History.

And consider the text of the actual proposals (PDF - scroll down to page 165) is much less objectionable. Forgive me the massive chunk of text, but it's important to be clear that both sides of this 'debate' can take comfort from the National Curriculum proposals:-
The National Curriculum for history aims to ensure that all pupils: know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world; know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today; know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires; the achievements and follies of mankind; gain and deploy a historically grounded understanding of abstract terms such as ‘empire’, ‘civilisation’, ‘parliament’ and ‘peasantry’ understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, and use them to make connections, draw contrasts, analyse trends, frame historically valid questions and create their own structured accounts, including written narratives and analyses.
So yes, the 'island story' is there at the start, in a way I personally don't find very helpful. But the rest of the aims are not exactly excuses for manning the barricades. 'The achievements and folliles of mankind' is an absurd phrase - where exactly did they get that? From a neo-conservative journalist who used to work on The Times, perhaps? And I'd pick some other terms: 'peasantry'? 'Civilisation'? The latter's not bad - though the former's a weird non sequitur. Still. On the other hand analysis is specifically mentioned there as coming along at one and the same time as 'the facts'. It's not going to be all rote learning.

But it's still all pretty far from Mr Gove's red-rag-to-a-bull statement in the House of Commons, in which he referred to 'a clear narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past'. If that was there on its own, I'd be the first one throwing the argumentative bricks.

No. The real objections to these proposals should be filed under 'technical' - something that politically-inclined commentators, paid to be pugilistic, ignore at their peril. You know what? I've been a secondary school teacher, and I care about how these things actually work. Rather than how they work on paper. This is part of the reason for my laid-backness. In reality, teachers interpret these rules, and they're going to teach this stuff the way they want - which is to say, as usual, with humanity, saneness and sheer hard work. But they'll be incensed that the Education Secretary, of all people, has ignored the consultations he himself launched - and basically written the text himself. It's a text that expects primary schools to tackle Bible controversies and Anglo-Saxon governance, without any extra cash to re-equip the whole system. And to focus on British history to the exclusion of much of the rest of the world. Is this possible or desirable? Hmm... No.

Only one thing is sure: if all this is right, and our History curriculum really has become a political football, it's Mr Gove (above), his incendiary rhetoric - and his lack of consultation - that have made it so.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Eastleigh: what does it all mean?

So last night the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in Britain's coalition government, held on to one of their Parliamentary seats on the south coast of England. So far, so uninteresting.

Small political earthquake: no-one dead.

But there are a few details here that make it this by-election a fascinating topic of speculation. I love this stuff, I know, but bear with me for a minute.

It was a great night for the Liberal Democrats. They faced horrible headwinds going into this election - terrible headlines, across the Conservative-leaning press saying that they were a bunch of lying hucksters. The previous MP had been forced to resign after getting his wife to lie to the police over a speeding offence. The party's ex-election guru, Lord Rennard, has been accused of all sorts of unpleasant advances to the party's women candidates - allegations which he strongly denies. Left-leaning voters despise the party for propping up an administration fixated on bleak austerity for years to come. Right-wingers detest the Liberal Democrats for being soft on immigration, welfare and, well, just about everything really. So what did they do? They knuckled down. They flooded the seat with volunteers and activists. They got a decent, low-key local candidate to talk about the town's opportunities and problems. They got to work, basically, and they pulled off a remarkable win.

And it was a very, very, and - yes - very worrying night for the Conservative Party. For what they face now is what Labour had to deal with in the 1980s: a party right next to it, squabbling for 'its' voters. Now the United Kingdom Independence Party, which managed to come second in Eastleigh, takes its voters from across the ideological spectrum. Lots of people want to leave the European Union. It's a perfectly reasonable (though deeply misguided) ambition. But the party's activists, its grass-roots, and its increasinly populist tone, must threaten the Tories' ability to remain the largest party after the May 2015 election. Their hopes of an overall majority are now very close to zero; but it was up until recently likely that they would still have a plurality of seats in the House of Commons. Give UKIP five per cent of the vote in marginal seats all over England, and that hope too evaporates immediately.

So what does it all mean? Maybe nothing. By-elections are special; they are full of protest votes. The Lib Dems won't be able to flood every one of their 57 constituencies with party workers come a General Election. UKIP won't be able to create the sense of momentum that they managed in Eastleigh. Labour, who did rather poorly in the seat, will look relevant.

Ask a historian, for this has all happened before. By-elections come and by-elections go, and you can read into them what you like. The 1987-92 Parliament was splatted with Conservative losses - Vale of Glamorgan, East Staffordshire, Eastbourne, Ribble Valley - and they all went blue again at the next election. The Social Democratic Party's surge, and the brief hopes of a Liberal-SDP Alliance government in the early 1980s, were nurtured in by-election fights such as Crosby in 1981. They never 'broke through' in a general election.

But, actually, when you look at the record, by-elections do indicate some of the deeper tides in public opinion. By-elections on the Wirral, in Walsall North, Ashfield and Ilford North during the 1974-79 Parliament robbed Labour of their majority then, and signalled the detachment of certain types of working-class and professional voters from the movement that they had always identified with. The SDP-Liberal Alliance became the Liberal Democrats, and eventually they won many seats that most commentators never gave them a hope of winning. Now they sit in government. You can often tell from these bunfights just when and how the public are shifting their ideological ground. In 1992-97 Labour took a string of seats that they then went on to hold - Dudley West and South-East Staffordshire (on a vast 22 per cent swing) are two that spring to mind. In 1962 Orpington went Liberal and signalled the last days of a long Conservative hegemony.

So we can ask that question again: what does it all mean? Maybe something. The Liberal Democrats are tenacious fighters who aren't going anywhere without a nasty struggle. The Conservatives remain deeply unpopular, and in some ways their party 'brand' is irretrievably broken. UKIP pose a serious threat to their hopes of ever governing again on their own. Labour has deep, deep problems in the south of England - as this column has argued all along.

We knew most of that anyway. But Eastleigh tells us that what we thought we knew is right.