Thursday, June 12, 2008

Who Shall Speak For England?

(Author's note - I am not 'The Devil's Kitchen)
Those words, or something very similar, were shouted by Harold Macmillan in the House of Commons during the Narvik Debate of May 1940.
Whether they came from country house or colliery, in those darkest days parliamentarians were patriots first and creatures of party second. It is ironic that that great debate, which helped bring our nation's greatest leader to power, should have been held a lifetime ago. For two days, a nation at war was gripped by the drama of democracy, a government leaving office on account of its record at a time of dire national peril. In 1940, our body politic was still young and vital. In its prime, it could still do such things. A lifetime later, the shabby dealmongering and whipping that produced the 42 day detention vote shows that body, once so gloriously alive, to be old and diseased.
One of the principal speakers in the Narvik Debate was Leo Amery. After the war, his son John was executed for treason. It is doubly ironic that the 42 day detention vote should have taken place on the very day that the Law Commission suggested that the treason laws should be repealed. Anyone who's ever seen 'The Railway Children', or read of the childhood bullying to which Sir John Betjeman was subjected, being taunted by cries of "Betjeman's a German spy—shoot him down and let him die", will be able to grasp the severity with which the body politic once viewed the crime of treason. Within my living memory, the traitor Anthony Blunt was stripped of his knighthood faster than you can say 'Mugabe'. What name but treason can be given to the behaviour that the 42 day detention vote was designed to prevent? And yet, at a time when our nation seems to need its treason law just as much as ever, those responsible for helping shape the law would seek its abolition.
There can be only two reasons for this. The first is that the old and diseased body politic cannot summon the strength to acknowledge that those who attack it have been raised within its bosom, tapeworms who sap the strength by taking what they need for their own survival while leaving the rest of the body to suffer. The second is that a treason law, a law which makes a demand of allegiance towards a particular nation state, is incompatible with the sort of 'beefed-up' supranational institutions so dear to the hearts of Lords Ashdown and Robertson.
If the allegations against Aabid Khan which are currently being tested at Blackfriars Crown Court, that he plotted to set up an Islamic state on Scotland, are proven, it is hard to see what such a crime could be other than treason. So why does treason not appear on the indictment?
The old and diseased body politic shows its weakness in other ways. As Andrew O' Hagan has written, altruism is no longer regarded as heroic. A parliament of altruists, fired by the love of ancient liberty, would never have allowed the 42 day detention vote to pass. Those who voted in favour show themselves to be either puppets, blindly doing others' bidding; or cynics, sufferers of itchy backs waiting to be scratched and willing to scratch in their turn; or as tired old men and women who have yielded to the temptation to play it safe and merely manage the nation rather than lead it.
It is tired managerialism, a complete lack of vitality, that leads to the public suffering at the hands of incompetent and aggressive public servants. Perhaps Arnold J. Toynbee (Polly's grandpa, a relationship which proves that it is often those who shouldn't be read who are, and those who should be read who aren't) was right when he wrote of how civilisations in decline always develop a 'dominant minority' which adopts ever more authoritarian attitudes towards the 'internal proletariat', whom Toynbee defined as those who consider themselves more and more to be in a society but not of it. The 42 day detention vote, an unnecessary law which renders the whole of the people subject to penalty while aimed at the behaviour of a few people with a clearly defined ideology, is a classic example of such a dominant minority at work.
As an historian of civilisation, Toynbee also noted how falling civilisations are always prey to what he described as 'Volkerwanderung', mass population movements. The historically unprecedented levels of immigration to which we have been subjected in the last 10 years is just such a 'Volkerwanderung', and it will change our civilisation just as surely as Rome's changed it. Of course, unlike Rome's ours has come about through deliberate, wilful neglect of the national border for no reason other than 'internationalist' ideology. Reading the preface to the late Eileen Power's 'Medieval People' is quite sobering, for precisely the same excuses were wheeled out by some Romans seeking to justify the barbarian invasions as are used to justify mass immigration today. These include, 'the birthrate's too low, so we need the labour', and 'we can learn a lot from the barbarians'. Plus ca change...
Perhaps the mistake we have made has been to consider ourselves somehow above the rules of history, or beyond their reach. We're not, we never have been, and we're only now finding that out. The old and diseased body politic's dominant minority will still dominate, while the minority in which it stands will get smaller and smaller. We will still berate the Russians for daring to develop the kind of democracy that suits them, while our own democracy continues to decline. We will still engage in the kind of experiments in educational ideology that have ruined thousands of lives, while refusing to acknowledge both the importance of effort and of encouraging children to value excellence for its own sake, teaching them to be the best in their fields, in their own lives, that they can possibly be.
In a century's time, of course, none of our current problems are going to matter, and as a smart guy once said, in the long run we are all dead. It's a pity that the decline of British civilisation seems to have been so deliberately engineered - one can only wonder for what purpose. Some might call it treason.
Postscript - it seems that even as I was writing, David Davis was answering my question; and for him, three cheers. In his statement to the press, Mr. Davis described the 42 day detention vote as a 'monstrosity of a law'; damn right, more power to his elbow and may he be returned with a tripled majority. Never has a blog post dated faster - but who cares.


Chris Snowdon said...

Very well said.

Henry Crun said...

I read your piece, Martin and my heart weeps.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant piece. It is true that a vibrant altruistic parliament would not have passed this. However, a set of clear-thinking scoundrels wouldn't have passed it either, since it is clearly the 'Turkeys Vote for Christmas' act.

The BBC spoke with its usual forked tongue, but the most eloquent comment was not from the gobpieces but the cameraman who made a point of getting the Burghers of Calais in to shot, lingering over the bronze noose and bent head.

The Burghers of Calais gets deeper each time you look at it. It embodies what the politics of domination means to blood and bone at all times and in all places.

Anonymous said...

Toynbee is, to be kind, outdated and, despite his Theory of Cultural Degeneration being a headline grabber, he never really had much of a grip on scholarship.

A lot of his ideas, particularly as they relate to the fall of the Roman Empire, tend to be based on misunderstanding the evidence or on forcing an interpretation which was in line with contemporary (Marxist-inspired) thought.

Essentially, Arnold Toynbee is Edward Gibbon with a bit more attitude and a whole bunch of Marxist Theory.

It's also worth noting that, at the time of the barbarian invasions of the early fifth century were by no means unprecedented in Roman history. Particularly during the Crisis of the Third Century, barbarians (and I'm thinking particularly of the Franks) invaded the empire and set up what were more or less proto-polities.

r.totale said...

Fuck me a politician with principles. Take a bow D. Davis

Snowolf said...

I sat slack jawed whilst listening to Davis, and for the first time ever actually applauded a politician as they finished a speech.

Superb, magnificent and other superlatives, it almost restores some faith. If the Tories don't want him, can anyone else think of a party that would?

Anonymous said...

A politician with principles what's the world coming too?

Pogo said...

"Who Shall Speak For England?"

Sounds like David Davis has answered your call...

Anonymous said...

"Speak for England, Arthur" was said by Leo Amery as Arthur Greenwood stood up to respond to Chamberlain's explanation for his refusal to declare war on Germany as soon as it had invaded Poland. This was eight months before the Narvik Debate, to which Amery's contribution was his "In the name of God, go!" speech.