Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005


Preaching Politics

Unlike the United States, in Britain there is little history of religion overtly entering politics. Well, at least in the era of the universal franchise and the popular vote; every year we celebrate the day when a group of Catholic conspirators, including Guido Fawkes, failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In celebration we burn his effigy on a bonfire while letting off fireworks. And then there were the burnings and the hangings of alternately Catholics and Protestants, alongside general persecution. Oh, and burning witches, and so on, and so on. But despite the bloody history of religion being inextricably tied to politics in Britain, this is all in the distant past. In the modern age of political democracy, religion has been largely absent from the scene. Well, apart from in Northern Ireland, and in the bishops of the Church of England (CoE) sitting in the House of Lords, and in the Queen being Defender of the Faith (CoE). But take it from me, religion is not a party political issue. Okay.

Until, that is, the past few weeks. Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party, was asked for his position on abortion by the magazine Cosmopolitan (not Vogue as I previously wrote). He intimated that he was uncomfortable with the idea* and that he would look into limiting the time period in which women could obtain abortions. Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy (leader of the third party, the Liberal Democrats) both gave quite slippery answers in response to the same question. This is not the entry of religion into politics. A position on the morality of abortion can be taken by people of all faiths or none – I take, as an atheist, the view (my position is much more complex than this, but for a full articulation we would need a good few thousand words and a proper period for scholarship and thought distillation) that women should retain control over their own bodies.

Religion – in the organised sense, rather than a matter for individual consciences – made the move into British politics a few days later. The most senior Catholic clergyman in the country, the Archbishop of Westminster, appeared to instruct his flock to vote for the Tories on the strength of an undetermined position on abortion. It is this entry of religion into politics that worries me; where the leader of a church, a man who speaks to his congregation on behalf of God, instructs his people to vote for one political party or another.

This is not to say that political leaders have never appealed to religious voters before, in, for example, taking negative stances on homosexuality (such as Section 28, which Michael Howard recently apologised for) or in positive attitudes towards faith schools. But this instruction to a congregation is in a completely different category.

Where politics and religion intersected in our political democracy in the past they largely did unsaid, and thus it was left to the conscience, or to the electoral strategy, of individual voters to decide which politicians and parties most closely aligned with their faith. And, indeed, this is something even us atheists face as we approach the general election, which candidates most closely fit our own ideologies and values, and which parties have the best chance of using our vote to change the political landscape in this way. But in the Archbishop of Westminster’s instruction we have faith boiled down to a single issue, and an instruction which, in the theology of the Catholic Church is coming from a representative of the representative of God on Earth, to vote for a particular political party.

What worries me more than the actual stance taken is this gross simplification of religion. The Catholic Church is not a one issue pressure group, but in presenting it as such the Archbishop is not only playing a sordid political game but is also doing his own church a disservice. How can we respect a church where the entire divinely organised hierarchy is made up of men and whose principle issue is the control of women’s bodies. The Catholic Church also has stances of poverty, war, racism and the like, but given the amount of play they give these we wouldn’t know it, and given the instruction that the clergy give their flock – for another example see the efforts made to prevent John Kerry from receiving communion for his stance on abortion – we would think that the Catholic Church existed as simply a pseudonym for the Pro-Life Alliance.

I wonder why this is. I wonder why the Church sets its priorities so, and does not instruct its flock to vote according to party policies on poverty reduction, or on racism, or on the prevention of war.

Incidentally, before this reads like another Howard-bashing column, Tony Blair is an evangelical Christian who has supported, in Parliament, the right of state schools (that have received a relatively small donation from a Christian businessman) to teach Creationism. In the past week, he has also addressed a group of Christians suggesting that faith and politics should mix more closely. I wait to see what this means. If it is simply divine cover for the enforcement of hierarchy and inequality, then I will be disappointed. If, on the other hand, it is a rebirth of a plurality of religiously-inspired political philosophies; including radical egalitarian movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers, and the pacifist Quakers, then I might tend to view this culture change more kindly. After all, I must always remember, that Tony Benn, the politician who has influenced me more than any other, is himself a committed non-conformist Christian.

*A columnist in a newspaper commented on his words, which were (and I paraphrase); “I am uncomfortable with abortion on demand”, to which she asked; “What does he want, abortion at random?”

[this post is also published at moodspins]

Sunday, March 27, 2005


The Family Kingdom

This is a column that I originally posted on the moodspins website. Why they have been so foolish as to let me have a little space, I am not sure, but my column appears there every Tuesday.

Charles Windsor and Camilla Parker-Bowles are to be married in a civil ceremony at Windsor Guildhall on the 8th April. It has been amusing to watch two factions of monarchists argue over the merits of this wedding and the constitutional implications. This basically boils down to those who see the monarchy embodied in the individuals, who support the marriage of Charles and Camilla, and those who see the monarchy as an institution, and see the marriage of two divorcees as fundamentally undermining some of the central values of this institution. But I am not here to discuss that. I am, after all, a republican – not in the George Bush sense, please, but the anti-monarchy sense – so I want to discuss two common defences of the monarchy that surface and circulate when public opinion is on the Royal Family.

The first argument levelled against the republicans is: if we got rid of the Royal Family then we would have to have a president. This claim is often made with the suggestion that an person regarded as unsavoury by the audience in question might become president (commonly, Cherie Blair), and/or comparisons are drawn with currently unpopular foreign presidents (whether George Bush or Jacque Chirac) and the cost of their upkeep (massaged to make a presidential system appear to be more expensive that the maintenance of everyone on the Civil List).

Now, dealing with the latter points first, a president, democratically elected, would surely not be an unsavoury character for a good number of the people in the electorate. If it did turn out this way then it the electoral system that needs to be addressed, not the concept of democratic election of the head of state. Furthermore, if an unsavoury character comes to the throne, we have no method of removing him from office within the confines of a monarchical system. One the other hand, a president can be required to serve a limited period in office and can be removed by election. On the question of expense, well, even if this is true, it is a contingent fact that can be controlled in the design of the office of president. There is no necessary reason why a president should cost more than the Queen and her family. But these are mere practical points. There is a larger ideological point that should chime with everyone who holds a commitment to democracy, and it is this: if the Royal Family must be replaced by a presidential office, then surely they hold a degree of power that is at odds with claims that the state is a democracy.

Of course, in response to claims that the Royal family does hold some power by virtue of their constitutional position, out of proportion with the power they would hold as private citizens, monarchists reply with this: the Royal Family has no power, and there is therefore no democratic imperative to replace them. It should be clear that this is incompatible with the ‘presidential’ defence of the Royal Family described above. This does not mean that I have not heard monarchists deploy both these claims in the same discussion. What we must say, however, is that if the Royal Family has no power, then there is no reason why we cannot remove or replace them. If the head of state need hold no power whatsoever, then I see no reason why we cannot have an entirely apolitical head of state for Britain to look up to. Of course, as no person can reasonably be described as apolitical, this ought to be a statue, preferably quite amorphous so as to not exclude anyone from its binding power.

To which a monarchist will fall back on their argument of last refuge: the Royal Family are symbols of Britain, and they draw in tourists from around the world. Well, I quite agree. The principal purpose of the Royal Family is to act as a symbol; a symbol of a society governed, even now, by class and privilege. They are the figureheads of a national character that has men, equal in all important respects but class, show deference, doff caps and know their place. As a Yorkshireman with a Yorkshireman’s accent, I can tell you that class perceptions still exist, as does preferential and privileged treatment. This is not the way that I want Britain to be, and it is not the way a democracy ought to be. We can consign the Royal Family to the history books, which necessarily means that we will not forget that they are part of the story that has brought us to where we are today.

But as for their value as a tourist attraction? Well, no doubt many people come for a peek at Buckingham Palace. But they do not see the Queen. And if we pensioned off the Queen, then these tourists could have more than a peek at Buckingham Palace. Hell, they could sleep there! And let us consider the money poured into private pockets via the Civil List. We could use that money to build innumerable tourist attractions, to boost art culture, sport, and, if all else fails at keeping tourism high, we could build a themepark celebrating a time that cannot be ‘bygone’ soon enough: The Family Kingdom.

Monday, March 21, 2005


Comic book news

Well, it is nice to put something on my blog that is not directly connected with the rightward swing in British society and an election campaign of that seems to be a game of outbidding opponents in offering ever more illiberal policies, rather than a contest of alternatives.


Here is Jorge Munoz’s sketch blog, where he’s got some lovely images that will be incorporated into our Wayland book. I get quite excited thinking about this project, but then I have seen some of the pages that are coming up, but I really ought not to show them to you as that kind of slow drip feed will spoil your appetites.

This is Dave Evans blog, where he’s got some tasty preview images for a few strips that will be available at the Bristol Comics Festival (13th-15th May). He seems to me to be the hardest working smallpress artist around, with work turning up in Solar Wind, The End is Nigh!, FutureQuake, not to mention our project, Tales of the Contrary, for which he has produced all 20 pages of strip and, so long as I don’t let him down, a handful of illustrations for a prose story. One of these strips is here, but you’ll have to wait to see the rest.

Finally, I sent Eleonora Kortsarz a couple of batches of photo references today, to suggest to her the atmosphere that I am aiming for in my alternative America. I am looking forward to seeing chapter two of Empirical Majesty – here you can read parts one and two of chapter one. I will have hard copies of this available at Bristol too.


The disingenuity of Michael Howard

This blog has spent quite some time addressing the slyly misleading arguments of Michael Howard. I have addressed his illogical views on society and crime*, his misrepresentation of the law of self-defence in Britain and his twisting of the facts of the epidemiology of TB in Britain.

Now, Michael Howard has joined The Sun and the Daily Mail in calling for a campaign against gypsies and travellers. The stance that he has taken is a tremendous example of disingenuity. First, he alleges that the Human Rights Act favours some groups over others. This is clearly not the case, but the Human Rights Act does give people a right to a home. But then, it is not the case that asylum seekers get more in benefits than ‘local’ people, but facts have never stopped propagators of vile racism telling their fictions to win support. In answer to his own misrepresentation of the Human Rights Act, Michael Howard suggests that it might have to be abolished. That this might be a vote-winner is indicative of the shameful swing to the right that we in Britain have undergone, driven by lies and twisted truths, spread by a handful of very rich men who care nothing for their audiences, except if they can keep their attention and anger focused on the most vulnerable ‘other’.

But, it is true that the right to a home does, in some cases, come into conflict with the right of a council to evict people. But in the case of gypsies and travellers, let us look to see how these rights have been placed into conflict. In 1994, the Tory government, with Michael Howard as Home Secretary, scrapped the duty of councils to provide legal sites for gypsies and travellers, and as time has passed the shortfall has grown. Necessarily, therefore, gypsies and travellers now have to stop at illegal sites. Michael Howard, of course, ignores the role he played in creating the current situation.

The Sun’s campaign to ‘stamp of the camps’ is not a campaign to put gypsy and traveller sites on any sort of legal footing, but a two-pronged assault on gypsies and travellers full stop, calling for illegal camps to be stamped on and demanding that John Prescott’s plan to reinstate the duty to provide legal sites be halted. That doesn’t stop Michael Howard wading into the debate with a contribution of profound ignorance. Of course, Michael Howard is not ignorant, but he will go to great lengths to avoid reducing the level of ignorance in the general public. No, he is not ignorant. Simply vile.

Michael Howard’s election campaign, it should be said, is being engineered by an immigrant. Lynton Crosby, the man behind John Howard’s election victory in Australia, a success built on the imprisonment of immigrants, either in the outback or on remote islands, fuelled by the deliberate misrepresentation of the humanity of desperate people. Michael Howard has seen that being a vile, misleading, disingenuous puller of racist levers and pusher of fearful, ignorant buttons is the way to win elections. I hope the people of Britain prove him wrong, but I fear they will not.

*I never did receive a reply to my letter to Michael Howard. I have received a reply to my letter to Charles Clarke, but this addressed none of the points of my letter, being little more than a restating of the Government’s position on the new anti-terror legislation.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


Regulated irony

Confederation of British Industry director general Digby Jones surprisingly celebrated the report from The Better Regulation Task Force, which, to the shock of everyone involved, proposed cutting red-tape on business*. Okay, I am being sarcastic. But I wonder if Digby Jones can spot the irony contained in his statement at the release of this report.

“Applying a ‘what gets measured, gets done’ strategy will ensure that government is held to account on the delivery of its deregulatory promises.” In other words, Digby is calling for Government to be subjected to regulation, red-tape and bureaucracy in what they claim is an attempt to improve performance? Given what we know of their stance to these kind of exercises when they are imposed upon business, is this really an attempt to undermine government?

*We will see how the right-wing press responds to the suggestions that powerful people should be less bound by law in their actions. Given they reacted to suggestions that gypsies and travellers should not have so many obstacles put in the way of their development the legal sites required for them to have a place to live, can we expect a howl of outrage when business attempts to squeeze out the law in favour of profit?

Monday, March 14, 2005


Acceptable racism

When The Sun can escape serious condemnation for its campaign against gypsies, and when Michael Howard can resurrect the old racist canard that ‘immigrant bring disease’ (which I discussed here), we seem to be entering a phase when language is being used in a dangerously incautious way, even by people who we would expect to know better, language that tags societies problems onto particular groups of people, making the people themselves the problem to be resolved.

Please contribute to the campaign to make it clear to The Sun that not all ‘the Great British Public’ is behind them on this issue, and that we are also aware of where this kind of demonisation can lead. Any kind of report, account, or history will do. Thanks to the blogs Perfect and Full Spectrum Democracy for linking to this campaign. And by the way, you don’t have to support the rest of this site and its politics to send The Sun a ‘gipsy story’, I’d rather that you sent your stories as individuals and encouraged your friends and colleagues to do the same. But please do register your abhorrence for a newspaper with the circulation and responsibility of The Sun running a campaign against a group of people using the language of ‘war’.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


A campaign

The ‘blogosphere’ (how I hate that ugly word) has built itself a reputation for being an organising locus for campaigns against stories, reporters or editorial bias in the media. Bloggers have claimed the scalps of Dan Rather and Eason Jordan (I will not link to sites such as Little Green Footballs and The Anti-Idiotarian Rotweiller, two of the most popular blogs involved. If you have a strong stomach then check out these sites out. Make sure that you read the comments boxes. I will, however, recommend the LGF quiz), and have whipped up storms over left-wing bias in the US media, forcing broadcasters into the abhorrent mould of Fox News. However, these efforts have largely been one way – an assault by the right on the perceived left. I want to recruit the power of the internet for my campaign, a response to an article published in The Sun (a stable mate of Fox News in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – I am troubled by their ownership of rugby league) today. The link is here, but The Sun archives require a subscription, so I have reproduced the article below.

Inside a paper that boasts of “Sun War on Gipsy Free-For-All” we have:

Stamp on the camps

Spreading misery ... huge camp of 1,000 Irish travellers at Crays Hill, Essex

THE Sun today launches a campaign to STOP John Prescott giving the green light to illegal gipsy camps across Britain.The Deputy Prime Minister has ordered local councils to go soft on travellers’ camps and turn a blind eye to the shocking problems they create.But The Sun, on behalf of our ten million readers, is determined to fight him all the way.

Tell us your gipsy stories

Have you had experience of gipsies or travellers being treated as if they are above the law after setting up illegal camps? Email us at the address below, or you can send us a fax.

FAX: 020 7782 4063

The Bartlett’s Bizarre Bazaar Campaign

I want everyone who reads this blog to fax The Sun their ‘gipsy story’. I want you to find a piece of testimony, or historical documentation, or a news report – whatever you can find – that will help The Sun understand how gypsies and travellers have been discriminated against and persecuted in the past. Send them everything from the horrors of the Nazi death camps to experiences of modern day Roma in Eastern Europe and travellers in Britain. When Tony Blair has so recently declared that the Holocaust started “with a brick through the window of a Jewish business, the desecration of a synagogue, the shout of racist abuse on the street”, I think we should take this seriously. Or perhaps your local bonfire will burn effigies of gypsies this year. And next year…?

Fax them, and pass the message on!


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