Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Dawn and Disillusion: the Bathetic Blair and Brown Era

I published this on Open Salon in the days of hope shortly after Obama’s first  presidential election victory.

blair1

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”

William Wordsworth: The Prelude. Book xi.

I remember another election victory. It was another time, another country. I remember the new hope that many of us living in the United Kingdom felt when the Labour Party won the 1997 general election and Anthony Charles Lynton Blair became prime minister.

On the BBC’s election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997.  He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions.

blair2

May 2 1997 at the Imperial War Museum

 On the bright morning of 2 May 1997, I wandered down to the Imperial War Museum. A complete stranger, a very tall man conducting a poll for MORI embraced me, shouting “Isn’t it great”. I was as enthralled as he was. This was like a new dawn after so many years of Tory rule. I only once (tactical voting) voted for any party but Labour. I have never voted for the Conservative Party. My father had been a staunch Labour supporter for the whole of his too-short life. I voted for Labour in that 1997 election and felt that I had personally achieved something. Many of us were drunk with joy.

It was sobering experience to walk around the Imperial War Museum and to see the remembrance of so many lost lives. The reconstruction of a Great War trench was particularly sobering. My grandfather had fought in that war. I wonder if  my father’s experience in the Second World had helped to truncate his life so cruelly.

Eighteen Years of Tory Misrule

 The Conservative party had been in power since 1979, first under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and then under John Major. Thatcher’s radical approach had led to the death of manufacturing industry, which in turn helped her to annihilate the unions and destroy all vestiges of working class power. The north of England became a wasteland. There were record levels of unemployment and  homelessness; there were beggars in the streets of every city and increased rates of suicide, particularly amongst young men.

Nationalised industries were dismantled and sold off at a loss with the taxpayer footing the bill. The health service, long the pride of the nation, was fragmented and subjected to mad concepts of ‘quasi markets’.

In 1981, there were riots all over the country, fuelled by racial and social discord. Later, The Poll Tax Riots were mass disturbances, arising out of opposition to the Community Charge (commonly known as the poll tax).

Whatever positive changes Thatcherism achieved, the social costs to the British population were severe. The poverty rate doubled. Britain’s childhood-poverty rate in 1997 was the highest in Europe.  Industrial production fell sharply and unemployment tripled during her premiership. When she resigned in 1990, 28% of children in Great Britain were considered to be below the poverty line, reaching a peak of 30% in 1994 during the Conservative government of John Major, who succeeded Thatcher.

The Major Years: a Nation Ill-at-Ease with Itself

Major abolished the poll tax but otherwise things got no better. Major’s slim majority proved to be unmanageable, particularly after the  UK’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on 16 September 1992, Black Wednesday, when billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was wasted in a futile attempt to prop up the currency’s value.

In its dying years, the Conservative administration lost none of its arrogance, despite its ineffectuality. John Major is often described as mild-mannered and decent, if ineffectual. Tony Banks (a politician, not the member of Genesis) was noted as an MP for his irreverent wit. He had known Major when he they were both on Lambeth Council. Banks said of Major in 1994 that “He was a fairly competent chairman of Housing. Every time he gets up now I keep thinking, ‘What on earth is Councilor Major doing?’ I can’t believe he’s here and sometimes I think he can’t either.”

Major’s greatest crime was destroying the rail network.

Destroying the integrated network and selling it off to private companies caused immense difficulties. Nobody wanted it except Tory ideologues and those who stood to make a fat profit at the taxpayers’ expense. After a series of rail disasters with many fatalities, there was a growing consensus that maintenance work was not being done properly and the complex plan to split the railways into 25 different companies was a horrendous mistake. After the Paddington rail crash, in October 1999, a Guardian/ICM poll found that 73% of all voters would support renationalizing Railtrack. The megalomania of nice, decent, grey, boring John Major was killing taxpayers who had paid out their hard-earned money to make rich people richer when he sold off the nation’s railways for the sake of profit and political dogma.

The Conservative Secretary of State for Health, Kenneth Clarke, (he later made a bid for the party leadership but was hampered by the fact that he was in Vietnam peddling cigarettes to the third world on a retainer of 100,000 GBP a year from British American Tobacco) had set about dismantling and fragmenting the National Health Service in the same way that the railways had been smashed.

How naïve could we be?!

So on that day in May many of us were overjoyed that the scoundrels were out of office and a bright, shiny, clean, new team could put things right.

blairnoelG

During the Blair years Britain was less bleak than in the days of Thatcher. There was rising individual prosperity but it was all based on bubble of credit from unsustainably high house prices.

The Blair government introduced some social policies seen by the left of the Labour Party as progressive, such as the minimum wage and measures to reduce child poverty and money has been pumped into public services. The effort has been undermined by madcap experiments in neo-liberalism which have undermined health services, education and transport by the attempt to introduce quasi-markets. Prisons have been privatized and there are record numbers of people occupying them – how else to make a profit?

New Boss- Old Boss

Soon after taking office, the new administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One of Blair’s “triumphs” had been to abolish Clause IV of the party constitution. This dealt with nationalization of the commanding peaks of the economy. By getting rid of this central pillar of Old Labour principle, the party became New Labour. On attaining power there would be no attempt to re-nationalize privatised industries, like the railways or water, even though 73% of the population wanted that. New Labour brought further privatization by stealth. Blair and his finance minister, and later successor, Gordon Brown, pursued with great zeal the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), using private capital to fund public projects.

Private Finance Initiative

In practice this is a bad deal for taxpayers and involves a hidden privatisation of public services. The UK Accounting Standards Board has called PFI an “an off-balance-sheet fiddle” because the government can move the cost of public works out of the public sector borrowing requirement. PFI can only be implemented through an anti-competitive process which inevitably leads to corruption. The big corporations wouldn’t be interested if it were otherwise. For a small investment, companies can be sure of long-term profit guaranteed by the taxpayer.

The financial pressures of PFI directly caused 93 deaths at Maidstone and Stoke Mandeville hospitals. Clostridium difficile is spread by poor hygiene – basically patients were eating traces of other patients’ faeces. The official report said both hospitals were “preoccupied with finances”, instead of being preoccupied with faeces and were seriously impeded by the PFI. Nurse numbers were slashed and patients were constantly moved around; the combination of these two factors was a foolproof way of spreading infection.

Profits (as high as 58%) for the private companies comes from the budgets of the hospitals, so less is available for direct care. Beds reduced by 30% with the first wave and budgets for clinical staff reduced by 25%. Most National Health Trusts are in serious financial difficulty and many will become insolvent.

New Labour continued and extended ‘reform’ of the health service which had been one institution that united, whatever their grumbles, the entire nation in pride. Perry Anderson once remarked: “the very term ‘reform’ now means, virtually always, the opposite of what it denoted fifty years ago; not the creation but the contraction of welfare arrangements once prized by their recipients”.

Bribery and Corruption

 Much of the reason for the voters’ distaste for the Major administration was because of what became known as the “sleaze factor”. There was what seemed like an endless succession of sex scandals. It was later revealed that boring old Major himself had had a four-year affair with health minister Edwina Currie.

New Labour had profited from all this but soon became bemired in sleaze itself. Julian Glover wrote: “If the Tories gave birth to modern sleaze, we now know that New Labour educated it into adulthood.”

There was the “cash for honors” investigation. It was alleged that Lord Levy (formerly a pop music entrepreneur) was tasked with raising funds for the party and was offering knighthoods and peerages in return. Levy became known as Lord Cashpoint.

Blair himself was interviewed by police. He and the Labour party were not exonerated from acting illegally. The decision of the Crown Prosecution Service was made solely on the basis of a lack of evidence and an assessment of the likelihood of a conviction. Some of the police officers involved in the inquiry claim there was political pressure applied to them and that some of the politicians interviewed were less than helpful.

In 1997, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone was involved in a political controversy over the Labour Party’s policy on tobacco sponsorship. Labour had pledged to ban tobacco advertising. Health minister Tessa Jowell was said to be fiercely anti-tobacco but was forced to argue the case for exempting Formula One from the tobacco advertising restrictions. Ecclestone had donated a million pounds to the Labour Party. Blair apologized and the money was returned but it was later proved that he lied about the timing of decisions in this matter. Jowell herself was forced to resign when she displayed alarming levels of ignorance about large bribes her husband had received from Silvio Berlusconi.

The government stopped an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office which seemed to be leading to prosecutions of senior executives at British Aerospace over bribes to Saudi princes in relation to arms deals.

Blair’s Philosophy

Rick Lowry described John McCain as a conviction politician without any convictions. Blair was a career politician with no trace of socialist principles or ethics who joined a socialist party as a career move. His father had been a prospective Conservative candidate and his political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.

Blair liked to portray himself as “a straight kind of guy” and was a committed Christian who eventually became a Catholic. He could have joined any political party. The historian, Tony Judt, wrote of him: “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising.” Judt also called Blair: “the garden gnome in England’s Garden of forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.”

blairnewlab

Blairism incorporated most of the political and social tenets of Thatcherism. Peter Mandelson was often thought of as New Labour’s Prince of Darkness. It was his media savvy that helped to make the party electable. He famously declared, “We are all Thatcherites now”. The curtailing and large-scale dismantling of elements of the welfare state under Thatcher largely remained under New Labour and the privatization of state-owned enterprises was not reversed by any programme of nationalization.

Iraq and Afghanistan

In December 2006, John Major led calls for an independent inquiry into Tony Blair’s decision to join the USA in the invasion of Iraq. Blair’s reputation for honesty and integrity, already damaged by allegations of excessive “spin” because of his reliance on the dark arts of Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, was dealt a severe blow.

His defenders argue that he sincerely believed before the war that the intelligence on Iraq’s alleged WMDs was accurate; that the dossiers informing his decision were not dishonest in their presentation of the intelligence evidence. Nevertheless, Blair continues to be condemned internationally as a proven liar and a war criminal.

The second Lancet study published on in October 2006 estimated 654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5% of the population, through the end of June 2006.

I could never have imagined on that day in May at the Imperial War Museum that Blair could do this.

There has been a strong feeling in the British military that they are unappreciated. There have been stories of soldiers being advised not to wear their uniforms when they have been home on leave because some have been physically attacked.

There have been many complaints about inadequate equipment and inefficiency in the Iraq and Afghan theatres. In 2006, the household cavalry in Helmand were expected to operate in Scimitar light tanks without air-conditioning. Soldiers have been killed wearing inadequate protective gear. An SAS commander in Afghanistan recently  resigned blaming a lack of adequate resources for the deaths of four service personnel, including Corporal Sarah Bryant, the first British female soldier to die in Afghanistan. They were killed on 17 June when their Snatch Land Rover struck a roadside bomb in Helmand Province earlier this year. In his resignation letter, he is understood to have accused ministers of “gross negligence” in allowing soldiers to go into battle without adequate resources.

Coroner Andrew Walker, criticizing a lack of military equipment at the inquest of Cpl Mark Wright, who died after the wrong helicopter was sent to rescue him from a minefield in Afghanistan, said, “Those responsible should hang their heads in shame”.

Many British soldiers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. An article marking the 25th anniversary of the Falklands campaign claimed that 300 veterans had since committed suicide: 50 more than died in the conflict itself. Far greater numbers can be expected as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Britain’s jails are overcrowded.  Nowhere in Western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales, where about 147 people per 100,000 are in prison. A National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) study showed that one in 11 prisoners- 8,500 people—are former members of the armed forces: double the proportion just five years ago. The vast majority are guilty of drink or drug-related offences.

A Man of Peace

That decent Christian gentleman Blair is now trying to bring peace to the Middle East after sending British troops to Iraq and Afghanistan against the wishes of most of the British people. Lord Levy, who has been described as “a leading international Zionist”, has praised Blair for his “solid and committed support of the State of Israel”. In 2004, Blair was heavily criticized by 50 former diplomats, including ambassadors to Baghdad and Tel Aviv for his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war.

Hope Springs Eternal

It is ironic that Gordon Brown was so desperate to get Blair’s job and when he did it all turned to shit in his hands. His popularity ratings plummeted to the lowest of any prime minister. He was only saved by the financial crisis. New Nobel laureate Paul Krugman praised him. His stock soared. How did he achieve this? He achieved it by abandoning the policies he had always pursued and turned to nationalization. The banks in their greed had caused the crisis. After screaming for de-regulation for so long they were now coming to the government to be bailed out. Gordon Brown in effect nationalised the British banking system – with taxpayers’ money of course.

Celebrate a new dawn but watch out. The nights draw in quickly.

Flann O’Brien and Catholicism Part 3

strabane festival

 

Here I continue dealing with the references to Catholicism in O’Brien’s work.

Slattery’s Sago Saga

 

sago

In this short novella, Crawford MacPherson has a totalitarian philanthropic mission. She has seen the ill effects of Irish emigration on the United States:

“they bred and multiplied and infested the whole continent, saturating it with crime, drunkenness, illegal corn liquor, bank robbery, murder, prostitution, syphilis, mob rule, crooked politics and Roman Catholic Popery…Adultery, salacious dancing, blackmail, drug peddling, pimping, organising brothels, consorting with niggers and getting absolution for all their crimes from Roman Catholic priests…”

Her solution is to take over all Irish agricultural land and ban potatoes. The Irish dietary need for starch will be sated by sago.

The Hard Life

“Dedicated to Graham Greene, whose own forms of gloom I admire”.

hard life

This novel is set in the Dublin of 1890. Mr Collopy has become the guardian of his nephews, Finbarr (the narrator) and Manus. The boys attend prison-like schools run by the Christian Brothers in a regime of excessive corporal punishment. The Synge Street school attended by Finbarr was O’Brien’s own school.

Mr Collopy enjoys his drinking and talking sessions with the Jesuit, Father Fahrt, but is not averse to expressing strong opinions about the failings of the Catholic Church.  “Oh the grand old Catholic church has always had great praise for sufferers… you won’t find Quakers or swaddlers coming out with any of this guff about suffering. They treat their employees right, they have proper accommodation for them, they know how to make plenty of money honestly and they are as holy – every man-jack of them – as any blooming Jesuit or the Pope of Rome himself”.

“A humble Jesuit would be like a dog without a tail or a woman without a knickers on her”. The Dominicans of the Spanish Inquisition were “blood-stained bowsies”. “The holy friars in Spain propagated the true faith by driving red hot nails into the backs of unfortunate Jewmen…Scalding their testicles with boiling water…And ramming barbed wire or something of the kind up where-you-know. And all AMDG [to the greater glory of God], to use your own motto, Father”. “If that’s the Catholic Church for you, is it any wonder there was a reformation? Three cheers for Martin Luther!”

Is Manus another version of de Selby who appears in footnotes in The Third Policeman and in person in The Dalkey Archive? He perverts science to quackery and exploits it for commercial gain.

Mr Collopy at times appears to be a proto-feminist. One of those human institutions about which to be pessimistic is the Dublin Metropolitan Corporation. Collopy is rallying the Dublin Corporation to provide public lavatories for women, and trying to persuade Father Fahrt to enlist the support of the church. They do eventually get an audience with the Pope, who becomes angry that Collopy is involving him in such a matter and in a mixture of Italian and Latin condemns him to hell.

According to Anthony Cronin, O’Brien was hopeful that the book would be banned. I have written elsewhere about how O’Brien was a post-modernist avant la lettre, even being an inspiration for the TV series Lost.  As Keith Hopper has written:  “One consequence of Irish censorship culture was that modernism almost passed Ireland by. By 1946, over 1,700 titles were proscribed on the grounds of ‘indecency’, including most of the leading international modernists. But if modernism was disallowed, postmodernism crept in through the back door, virtually unnoticed. At the start of the Second World War a trinity of Irish novels emerged which, in retrospect, mark the moment when high modernism began to drift, almost imperceptibly, into postmodernism: Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), Beckett’s Murphy (1938), and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). However, unlike Joyce or Beckett, Flann O’Brien never lived abroad. As a writer whose exile was interior, his textual strategies of silence, exile and punning are, by necessity, of a different order. In this respect, O’Brien’s particular brand of postmodernism must be read in two interrelated contexts: in an aesthetic domain (a challenge to the conceits of high modernism); and an ethical domain (a resistance to the nativist hegemony of Irish censorship culture).”

Being banned was a mark of distinction for an Irish author and O’Brien had not established himself. Often books were banned for alleged sexual obscenity (sex does not seem to have been O’Brien’s thing) but he gleefully expected that “the mere name of Father Kurt Fahrt SJ will justify the thunderclap”. He planned to challenge the ban in the high court and seek damages. He advised the publishers to make the book low-key in order to fool the “Reverend Spivs”. “Our bread and butter depends on being one jump ahead of the other crowd”.

There is an assumption in the book, says Cronin, “that the Catholic church is a very important institution, that it occupies a place of primary importance in the world, and that its existence affects life and one’s outlook on life in enormously important ways”.

The Pope’s angry reaction Mr Collopy’s campaign for a better lot for women makes the church seem, says Cronin, “ male, hierarchical and dismissive”. “A victory for Mr Collopy in the book’s terms would mean an acceptance of women as equal human beings and of their bodily needs as something of great importance. The Pope, supreme patriarch of a patriarchal world, draws back from such an acceptance. ‘Bona mulier fons gratiae’ he says. ‘Attamen ipsae in parvularum rerum suarum occupationibus verrentur. Nos de tantulis rebus consulere non decet’”. (A good woman is a fountain of grace. But it is themselves whom they should busy about their private little affairs. It is not seemly to consult us on such matters).

The Dalkey Archive

This book reworks material from the unpublished The Third Policeman and features De Selby and the constabulary’s atomic theory. The main character Mick Shaughnessy and his friend Hackett accidentally meet De Selby (philosopher, savant, mad scientist, quack?).

picador dalkey

De Selby said: “I accepted as fact the story of the awesome encounter between God and the rebel Lucifer. But I was undecided for many years as to the outcome of that encounter. I had little to corroborate the revelation that God had triumphed and banished Lucifer to hell forever. For if- I repeat if – the decision had gone the other way and God had been vanquished, who but Lucifer would be certain to put about the other and opposite story?”

De Selby arranges an encounter with St Augustine in a cave  under the sea. The Bishop of Hippo speaks with a Dublin accent and claims his father was Irish – “a proper gobshite”. He has little time for St Francis Xavier and St Ignatius Loyola. Xavier consorted with Buddhist monkeys and Loyola’s “saintliness was next to bedliness” and he led an army of “merchandisers”.

“Mick reminded himself that while he observed reasonably well the rules of the Church, he had never found himself much in rapport in the human scene with any priest. In the confessional he had often found their queries naïve , stupid, occasionally impertinent; and the feeling that they meant well and were doing their best was merely an additional exasperation. He was complete enough in himself, he thought: educated, tolerant, contemptuous of open vice or licentious language but ever careful to show charity to those who in weakness had strayed”.

When Mick meets James Joyce in Skerries, Joyce complains: “Even here, where my identity is quite unknown, I’m regarded as a humbug, a holy Mary Ann, just because I go to daily Mass. If there’s one thing scarce in Catholic Ireland, it is Christian charity”.

Mick decides he wants to give up the secular life and join the priesthood. “He said it with great sorrow, and God forgive him for saying it at all, but the great majority of Catholic curates he had met were ignorant men, possibly schooled in the mechanics of ordinary theology but quite unacquainted with the arts, not familiar with the great classical writers in Latin and Greek, immersed in a swamp of tastelessness. Still he supposed they could be discerned as the foot soldiers of the Christian army, not to be examined individually too minutely”.

Joyce himself wants to become a Jesuit: “I must be candid here, and careful. You might say that I have more than one good motive for wishing to become a Jesuit Father. I wish to reform, first the society, and then through the Society the church. Error has crept in…corrupt beliefs…certain shameless superstitions…rash presumptions which have no sanction within the word of the Scriptures…Straightforward attention to the word of God …will confound all Satanic quibble”.

Joyce dismisses the concept of the Holy Ghost and thereby the Holy Trinity: “The Holy Ghost was not officially invented until the Council of Constantinople in 381… The Father and Son were meticulously defined at the council of Nicaea, and the Holy Spirit hardly mentioned. Augustine was a severe burden on the early Church and Tertullian split it wide open. He insisted that the Holy Spirit was derived from the Father and the Son – quoque, you know. The Eastern Church would have nothing to do with such a doctrinal aberration. Schism!”

Cronin finds fault with The Dalkey Archive because the author “clearly  expected his audience to gasp with shock before becoming overwhelmed with mirth at such schoolboy jokes as the questions de Selby puts to St Augustine in the cave and the saint’s answers”. “There is a clear impression that the author was trying to have it both ways, to affirm his orthodoxy while at the same time making an uneasy suggestion that a different view of things might be nearer the truth of existence as he sees it”.

Conclusion

O’Brien’s sense of his own Catholicism is defined to an extent by his relationship with Joyce. O’Brien asserts that Joyce “palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic” with humour.

O’Brien’s contemporaries at UCD were divided between those who had a stake in an independent Ireland and those who did not. “Only the intellectuals  felt uncomfortable, for it was they who were most irked by the Catholic triumphalism, the pious philistinism, the Puritan morality and the peasant or petit bourgeois outlook of the new state. But they were in an ambiguous position, though one which had its compensations, for in the first place they were themselves inheritors of whatever privileges were going, and in the second they found it almost impossible to break with formal Catholicism, either in belief or practice.

The hold of Catholicism in Ireland in those years was partly parental. To disavow the faith, whether in public or private, was a gesture so extreme that most people who had doubts or reservations suppressed them because it would cause their parents too much suffering, might even ‘break their hearts’. True, Joyce had managed the business a quarter of a century or so before, but the extreme song and dance he had made of it showed how difficult he found it; and he had, after all, to refuse to kneel at his mother’s bedside and  to go into exile.

As Cronin puts it “self-interest, self deception, hypocrisy and fraud bulk large in all human affairs; and however much Myles na gCopaleen  might devote himself to exposing them, his basic assumption is that they will continue to do so; nor does he ever show any gleam of admiration or enthusiasm for the countervailing modes of human behaviour, be they gallant, generous, visionary or, come to that, rational”.

Claude Cockburn, in his 1973 introduction to an edition of O’Brien’s Stories and Plays, referred  to “two qualities of conditions which affect Irish writers not, by any means, exclusively, but with rare and particular intensity. Or you could call them two aspects of the same force. Fear of imminent hell or heaven, the sense of doom in the Irish Catholic heritage, can be seen as oppressive, constrictive”.

Cockburn suggests that the Catholic heritage was not necessarily restrictive for O’Brien. “Recognised and understood, the most rigid limitations can be transformed into productive conditions of achievement”. It is unfortunate that O’Brien’s achievements have been posthumous and that he did not transform these limitations into greater success or personal happiness in his lifetime. Nevertheless, O’Brien’s best writing is a cathartic expression of the fallen nature of humanity which bring pleasure for his readers.

 

 

 

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