Ferguson got it wrong, but the buck stops with Johnson

31 Jul

“I wish I were as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything,”  Lord Melbourne once remarked.

More recently, Professor Neil Ferguson has attracted criticism for sounding unduly sure of himself. On 18th July he said it was “almost inevitable” that Covid-19 cases would soon reach 100,000 a day, instead of which the numbers began quite markedly to fall.

Nate Silver and Professor Philip Tetlock are among those who have since criticised Ferguson, not for being wrong, but for being “consistently over-confident” in his predictions.

In 2005, Ferguson predicted that “around 200 million people” would probably die of bird flu. In the event, 74 people died

We of course want to know how far the pandemic will spread, or what will happen to the economy, or which horse will win the 3.15 at Market Rasen.

But as soon as we suppose that this craving for certainty about the future can be satisfied, we deceive ourselves, and fall an easy prey to pundits pretending to impossible knowledge.

There is, one assumes, no pundit who predicted with complete success the results of the elections and referendums held in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019.

But there were certainly many pundits who forecast those results and got them wrong, often by following what other pundits and pollsters said, so a conventional wisdom developed which proved as unwarranted as some of Professor Ferguson’s assertions.

When Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, was asked on 17th May whether Covid restrictions were going to be lifted on 21st June, he rightly replied: “We can’t impose certainty in this situation.”

Many people suffer from the delusion that if only one draws up the right plan, and sticks to it through thick and thin, all will be well.

Politics becomes a question of upholding the one true ideology, and policies derived from that ideology. Morality in politics means being faithful to your ideology, in the confident belief that one day the promised land will come into view.

Your opponents are immoral, for they have no ideology, and no policies derived from that ideology. They are opportunists “who think that decency, honesty and integrity aren’t important”, as Sir Keir Starmer recently wrote in The Guardian.

Perhaps, on second thoughts, it is unfair to ascribe anything as definite as an ideology to the present-day Labour Party, but it certainly possesses, as intensely as it did under leaders as different as Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, a conviction of its moral superiority.

This self-righteousness leads it to despise rather than understand the Conservative Party, which follows the pragmatic tradition of winning and retaining power by determining more quickly and surely that its competitors what at any given moment the nation wants, and how to provide it.

The Conservatives sack any leader who has become an electoral liability, Theresa May being the most recent example, and do not allow ideological commitment to obstruct doing what in practice is required.

It would certainly be difficult to draw an account of the Government’s handling of the pandemic in terms of ideology. Vast extensions of public spending and state power were made almost overnight.

The more dangerous charges are unpreparedness and incompetence, as ministers and their advisers proceeded by trial and error to try to work out the the best way forward.

Ministers spoke of following the science, but it soon became clear that the scientists were capable of disagreeing with each other.

Leadership involved, even more than usual, the strength to put up with uncertainty, and to make decisions on the basis of inadequate information.

The buck stops with the Prime Minister, and The Times reports today that his “support has collapsed in Conservative heartlands in the southeast and east of England”.

His touch has seemed a bit less certain as he and his colleagues work out when and how to repeal the measures brought in to contain the pandemic.

The end of a campaign can be less satisfying than the beginning, when the nation came together to meet the threat.

But Conservatives will draw comfort from the thought that the Government’s performance will not be judged against some imaginary standard of perfection. It will be judged by comparison with how well people think Labour would have done.

Javid was gracious to apologise for his tweet. But backing down comes at a cost.

27 Jul

The restless urge to find something, somewhere, by which to be outraged, can without much effort be satisfied by scrolling through Twitter until one comes across a statement which might be construed as insulting.

One then hurries to denounce the author of the offending tweet for committing an unspeakable act of cruelty, which will cause unpardonable hurt to some vulnerable group of people.

Within moments, a vociferous Twitter mob appears, consisting of righteous citizens intent on driving this monster from public life, or at least forcing the depraved individual into an abject apology for having offended so grievously against every canon of public decency.

Something of the kind seems to have befallen Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, after he posted a tweet which ended with the words:

“Please, if you haven’t yet, get your jab, as we learn to live with, rather than cower from, this virus.”

The press weighed in and reported that the word “cower” had caused “deep hurt” to the bereaved by implying that their “loved ones” who died were “too cowardly to fight the virus”.

The term was also said to have insulted “all those still doing their best to protect others from the devastation this horrific virus can bring”. Here are the tweets by 17 of the most prominent people to denounce Javid.

This episode raises an awkward question. How does one represent the views of the large number of people who did not feel in the slightest bit offended by what Javid wrote?

It seems clear enough to many of us that he intended no harm. He wants people to get the jab and to find the courage to live with the virus.

He has no desire to worsen the sufferings of a single bereaved person, or to insult those labouring to protect others.

And yet we do not want to have a row about this. For once the Twitter mob have sprung into action, it is too late. They are unreceptive to any plea of “hang on a minute, I think it should be obvious to any normal person that Javid didn’t mean it that way”.

Nor do other parts of the media have any incentive to knock the story down. “Javid says something sensible” is not a story. “Javid sparks fury”  is a promising news line.

To murmur at this point “I think we should live and let live” would produce a furious retort about the 129,000 people in the UK who have died from Covid-19, along with the assertion that you murdered them.

For the Twitter mob are so intent on putting the worst possible construction on your motives, that they have placed themselves beyond the reach of any plea to reason, fairness or their better nature, and are instead competing like mad with each other to see who can sound the most outraged and the most virtuous.

Life is too short to waste one’s time on such demeaning battles. And after all, who knows, perhaps some people were genuinely hurt by the way Javid put things, and if so, one doesn’t want to make matters worse by showing a lack of sympathy.

So it makes sense to keep quiet, or in Javid’s case to apologise in a graceful manner and move on.

But keeping quiet, or backing down, comes at a cost. The Twitter mob and their allies imagine they have won a famous victory, and that they have spoken on behalf of all decent people.

Their self-righteousness waxes ever greater, and with it their hypersensitivity to any departure from the strict path of virtue.

Many institutions – universities, charities, businesses, Parliament, the civil service – have responded by developing their own hypersensitive mechanisms for avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, which may mean not using language which only last year was regarded as acceptable.

Behaviour is controlled by codes of conduct which only a prig could observe, and a single incautious word can still get you into trouble.

This yearning to render everything inoffensive has itself become offensive, for it leads to persistent self-censorship, and means that organisations waste inordinate amounts of time policing their own employees. Milksops are appointed to senior positions because they can be relied on not to say boo to a goose, which means they can’t react when an emergency occurs.

This is not freedom. But it may help to explain why so many people voted for Boris Johnson.

Johnson now has the serious task of restoring pride to the working class, failed by Labour

24 Jul

The New Snobbery: Taking on Modern Elitism and Empowering the Working Class by David Skelton

If David Skelton had delayed publication of this book by many more months, he would have had to rename it The New Orthodoxy.

For the lessons he urged in his last book, Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map, are becoming more and more widely accepted.

That book was reviewed on ConHome in October 2019, and in December of that year Boris Johnson redrew the political map by leading the Conservatives to victory in many of the forgotten towns.

Or the blue remembered towns, as one might now call them. The initiative now lies with the Conservatives.

The “new snobbery” identified by Skelton is mainly a problem for the Labour Party, which needs to regain the seats it lost in 2019, and cannot do so as long as voters in places like Hartlepool, captured by the Conservatives at a by-election held less than three months ago, feel despised by many on the Left.

That astonishing result came just in time for Skelton, who writes:

“Once the scale of the Hartlepool defeat for Labour had become clear, elements of the Left indulged in another round of electorate blaming. One claimed that the problem for the Left was that ‘a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots’ and asked, ‘How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?’ Another claimed, ‘We don’t have an opposition problem. We have an electorate problem.'”

Skelton has collected much snobbery of this kind, some of which he quotes in his piece this week for ConHome.

In his book Skelton reminds us that such sentiments are not new. Here is Engels to Marx in November 1868, as newly enfranchised working-class voters supported “reactionary” parties:

“The proletariat has discredited itself terribly.”

Nobody has put it better than Engels. The workers often refuse to behave as progressive middle-class intellectuals instruct them to behave.

Skelton writes in a rushed, clumsy and gloomy tone about the dreadful delusions of the leftie intellectuals, but surely they have more cause for despondency as they contemplate Johnson’s to them incomprehensible success.

Lunatic “woke” nostrums, and attempts by their adherents to usher in a tyranny of virtue, cry out for a new Michael Wharton who helps us laugh to scorn these impertinent attempts to purify our history, language, institutions and the rest.

Earlier this week, I met a peer who has just been on one of the courses where members of the House of Lords are taught how to behave. He took it all with the utmost docility, but at the end asked his instructor whether it was all right to be rude to an Old Etonian.

“Oh yes,” she replied without a moment’s thought.

And perhaps that is one of the things people like about Johnson. One can be as rude as one wants to him and he doesn’t seem to mind.

The Prime Minister has an old-fashioned idea of liberty, as involving a degree of tastelessness; a propensity to live and let live; and a willingness to tease the Puritans, not least by avoiding a culture war fought on their own ineffably humourless terms.

We now have Wharton, not as a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, but as Prime Minister: a man capable of seeing the absurdity of everyone, including himself.

But there is another part of Skelton’s story where gloom is understandable. The destruction of great industries, the loss of skilled trades, the humiliation of proud workers reduced to scraping a precarious existence, is the dismal post-war story in town after town.

The example closest to Skelton’s heart is the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks in his home town of Consett, a topic dealt with at greater length in his previous book.

One of the worst things about the nationalisation after the Second World War of the commanding heights of the British economy was that decisions were no longer taken locally, but in London, where it was easier to pretend that parsimonious investment, limited by Treasury rules and recurrent public spending crises, would be adequate to modernise these grand old industries.

Local pride and ownership were lost. Now everyone owned the plant, which meant nobody owned it, and its future was in the hands of distant politicians and officials who for the most part had no deep knowledge or commitment.

The nationalised industries declined into job-preservation schemes which failed even in their own terms, a series of doomed rearguard actions as the great names of British manufacturing went under.

Just as modern architecture done on the cheap in the 1950s and 1960s led increasing numbers of us to shudder at the idea of allowing anything to be built, so regional policy and industrial policy were discredited by a lengthening record of failure.

In his recent Levelling Up speech, Johnson lamented the “basic half-heartedness” of the 40 different schemes or bodies which over the last 40 years have tried to boost local or regional growth.

He admitted that “for many decades we relentlessly crushed local leadership” because “we were in the grip of a real ideological conflict in which irresponsible municipal socialist governments were bankrupting cities”.

Now, he rejoiced, “that argument is over and most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

So we are at last returning to local leadership. That at least is the idea. We can be pragmatic rather than ideological, and can bring everyone together in a particular locality in order to do what works.

Skelton agrees that we should not allow ourselves to get “stuck in the endless trenches of a culture war”.

He observes that the Labour Party “emerged from those great institutions of working-class life: the chapel and the trade union”, but that the proportion of Labour MPs who were manual workers “has fallen from almost 20 per cent in 1979 to less than three per cent today”.

The party has become obsessed by cultural issues, and has forgotten that secure, well-paid work is what matters to its former voters.

Let the Labour Party debate cultural issues to its heart’s content, while the dignity of work is championed by the Conservatives.

Skelton wants to formalise “the partnership between workers and employers” by putting workers on boards, which he thinks would “help to rein in the excesses of executive pay”, and would “increase productivity, enhance retention and promote a long-term focus”, instead of short-term expedients to increase shareholder value.

Every successful Conservative leader from Disraeli to the present day has taken seriously the requirements of the working class, and has thereby triumphed over priggish middle-class Liberals and Socialists who supposed they were the true guardians of the workers. Here is a serious task for Johnson.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: The Prisoner of Chequers sounds fine but does not look well

21 Jul

“Can you hear me, Mr Speaker?” the Prime Minister inquired after something went wrong with the transmission of his rather diffuse observations from Buckinghamshire. “Do you want me to repeat that answer again?”

“Just the end bit,” the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, replied.

That was the right direction, but seemed not to reach Boris Johnson, who was addressing a camera in Chequers, and was not always audible in the Chamber, though we could hear him well enough on television.

He did not look well. His forehead, or what we could discern of it through his dishevelled hair, looked pink with undertones of yellowish bruising.

One might have been looking at a hostage, who was putting as brave a face as he could on his predicament. Self-isolation does not suit him.

But his voice was robust enough, as he repeated pretty much the whole of his answer.

Sir Keir Starmer, present in the Commons Chamber, asked another long-winded question, dragging in various bits of embarrassing material supplied by Dominic Cummings, and by ministers who have given contradictory advice about the current rules for dealing with the pandemic.

This was over-egging it. If only Sir Keir could have prevailed on himself to offer just one piece of embarrassing evidence, the determination of the Prisoner of Chequers to evade the question would have been more obvious.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP, following Cummings, accused the PM of wanting to sacrifice the over-80s.

Johnson replied that this was a gross mischaracterisation of the exchanges which had taken place.

A succession of backbenchers asked mostly local questions, about the hospital, the pub, the school, the railway, the canal, and Johnson in benevolent monarch mode offered a judicious word of encouragement to each of them.

This session, the last before the Summer Recess, lasted 50 minutes, which was 20 minutes longer than it should have done. Sir Lindsay’s request for “shortish questions and answers” had not been met, and after he observed that this was the 60th anniversary edition of PMQs, one could only reflect that it is just now like one of those Radio Four programmes which has become a shadow of its former self.

Is racism in Britain increasing?

21 Jul

Lewis Hamilton became the target of racist abuse on social media on Sunday after winning the British Grand Prix, while a week earlier Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Sako were targetted following England’s defeat by Italy in the final of Euro 2020.

Such disgraceful incidents provoke the fear that racism is on the increase.

But it would be a great mistake to imagine that what happens in the lawless spaces of social media provides a true reflection of what is happening in wider society.

The letters column in a traditional newspaper has an editor, whose tasks include preventing that space from being infiltrated and taken over by racists, or other disgusting people, who set out to pollute debate and drive out reasonable contributors, the latter coming to feel they have better things to do than wrestle in the mud.

To work out whether racism is increasing or diminishing, it makes more sense to start with some polling carried out last summer:

“New research from Ipsos MORI shows that the British public have become avowedly more open-minded in their attitudes towards race since the mid-2000s. However, seven in ten still think there is at least a fair amount of tension in Britain between people of different races and nationalities, and there are concerns about inequalities in public services, the police and politics.

“The vast majority, 89%, claim they would be happy for their child to marry someone from another ethnic group, and 70% strongly agree. This is an improvement from January 2009, when 75% said they would be happy overall, and 41% strongly.

“Similarly, the vast majority (93%, nearly all of them strongly disagreeing at 84%) disagree with the statement that, “to be truly British you have to be White”. In October 2006, 82% disagreed,  55% strongly. The proportion who agree with the statement has fallen from 10% to 3% in the last 14 years.”

This encouraging picture was confirmed in March 2021 in the Sewell Report, issued by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which was chaired by Tony Sewell, pictured at the top of this article.

All but one of the ten members of the commission were from ethnic minority backgrounds, yet they found themselves accused of setting out “to whitewash the problems of racism in Britain”.

The row which blew up at the time of publication obscured the many astute observations in the actual report, too numerous to be summarised here, or indeed in the news coverage.

The Commission pointed to the “many instances of success among minority communities”, observed that family is often “the foundation stone” for this success, and went on to remark that family breakdown “is one of the main reasons for poor outcomes” in some communities:

“This Commission finds that the big challenge of our age is not overt racial prejudice, it is building on and advancing the progress won by the struggles of the past 50 years. This requires us to take a broader, dispassionate look at what has been holding some people back. We therefore cannot accept the accusatory tone of much of the current rhetoric on race, and the pessimism about what has been and what more can be achieved.”

As the Commission found,

“All the data tells us that the UK is far more open to minority advancement than 50 years ago. And while some doors at the top remain hard to lever open, people from some minority backgrounds are successfully taking up opportunities. In fact, as of 2019, the ethnicity pay gap – taking the median hourly earnings of all ethnic minority groups and the White group – is down to just 2.3% and the White Irish, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups are on average earning notably more than the White British average.”

But this should not be taken to mean that all is well:

“Overt and outright racism persists in the UK. Examples of it loom larger in our minds because we witness it not just as graffiti on our walls or abuse hurled across our streets, but also in the more private setting of our phones and tablets. The rise of social media platforms mean racist incidents can go viral in hours. What is too often dismissed as ‘trolling’ means many prominent ethnic minority people routinely receive racist abuse from people who cannot be traced and held to account.

“Making anonymous abuse harder online is a complex issue but should be a public policy priority. Speech resonates long after it is heard. Being made to feel that you do not belong, that no matter how patriotic, law-abiding and hard-working you are, you can be treated differently because of your skin colour, stands against everything this country holds dear. A multi-ethnic democracy like ours cannot function properly if people can denigrate their fellow citizens in such deplorable terms on the grounds of their race.”

It has become clear that social media platforms have to be held responsible for the material they publish. In the beginning, they abolished editors, which seemed like a liberation.

Editors, after all, were quite often excessively restrictive, and yielded to the temptation to spike letters which showed up the perfidy, or stupidity, or inaccuracy of whatever the newspaper had reported.

Then an aggrieved correspondent would have to try to get a hearing in some rival publication.

In those days racists could not just press a button on a keyboard and send direct to its target, under the cloak of anonymity, whatever vile abuse had just occurred to them.

The editorial function is now being rediscovered – with reluctance, for it costs money – by the providers of social media platforms.

So it seems likely that they will soon be able to prevent such easy distribution of racist slurs.

But that will not be the end of the matter. The question will remain of how far racism has been eradicated, and how far it has merely been suppressed, or driven underground.

It is possible that by purifying the internet, we shall create a perverse incentive, at least in yobbish minds which regard themselves as oppressed, and yearn to shock respectable opinion by somehow contriving to publish racist obscenities.

When I lived in Germany in the 1990s, there were a few marginalised thugs who knew the most shocking thing they could do was to declare their support for the Nazis, so duly did so.

And when I have reported on opinion in Britain’s pubs, I have sometimes found anger about unrestricted immigration, and restricted free speech, as in this piece for ConHome from 2014, attempting to account for the surge in support for UKIP.

If such concerns had been reported earlier and more prominently, it is possible that in 2004 Tony Blair would have decided not to risk allowing immediate, unrestricted immigration from newly acceded members of the European Union such Poland.

Racism should not be thought of as a problem that is worse in Britain than elsewhere. A study in 2019 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on ‘Being Black in the EU’ revealed, the Sewell Report pointed out,

“the percentage of Black respondents who experienced racial harassment in the past 5 years. The figure was 63% in Finland, 52% in Luxemburg, 51% in Ireland, 48% in both Germany and Italy, and 41% in both Sweden and Denmark. In comparison, 21% of Black British respondents reported such harassment, the second-lowest result in the countries surveyed. The UK had the lowest figure for Black respondents who experienced discrimination in job-seeking, education (either themselves or as parents), health, housing, public administration or other public or private services such as restaurants, bars or shops within the past 12 months.”

After thanking the mainly young people behind the Black Lives Matter movement for “focussing our attention once again on these issues”, the authors of the Sewell Report went on:

“But most of us come from an older generation whose views were formed by growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. And our experience has taught us that you do not pass on the baton of progress by cleaving to a fatalistic account that insists nothing has changed.”

Much has changed for the better, and sometimes the obsessive urge to define people in racial terms seems all wrong, as Matthew Parris explained in a recent piece for The Spectator:

“The dream for which my family fought in what was then Rhodesia is now not so much unfashionable as forgotten. The ‘dream’, I mean, of multiracialism; a growing irrelevance of skin colour or ethnic origins; the gradual convergence of the world’s peoples; the building on our planet of a shared culture, shared values, a shared membership of our human race; and a slow but steady dissolving of our differences.”

Most of us can at least agree that being British is a political, not a racial characteristic; as I argued in my last, unmemorably tactful attempt to tackle this subject for ConHome.

Profile: The Church of England, afflicted by a central bureaucracy which is mounting a takeover bid

15 Jul

“I am indeed in an absolute fury,” my friend, a liberal Catholic priest in the Church of England, said when I rang to ask about the latest row shaking the Church.

“It’s a coup led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s an evangelical take-over. It’s having a direct impact on clergy who are not evangelical. They are being ousted.”

“It’s Putinesque – silently under the radar they’ve been moving, and at this point it’s surfaced.”

What could have provoked such an outburst? Some words by Canon John McGinley, head of church-planting development at New Wine, who explained why the Church of England is right to have adopted the astonishing target of setting up 10,000 new, mostly lay-led churches in the next ten years, with a million new members:

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”

This suggests that parish clergy get in the way of growth, while some of the rest of us are mere “passengers”. Stipendiary priests are a “key limiting factor”, as are their education and the buildings in which they work.

Not surprisingly, many of the clergy are furious to find themselves described in this way. They have worked through the pandemic, surmounted innumerable problems to keep their churches going, ministered to any number of people in desperate need, and received little enough support from a hierarchy which during the first lockdown assented without a murmur of protest to the closure of church buildings and the exclusion of the clergy even for the streaming of services without congregations, as if that presented any risk to public health.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, led the way by celebrating Easter 2020 from his kitchen, rather than from the perfectly good chapel in Lambeth Palace.

Here was a practical demonstration of what it was like to conduct services in one’s own home, rather than from some traditional sacred building. Parish priests also had to get used to doing this, which is now officially regarded as the way ahead, the means by which the Church will grow, with meetings of the new converts held in houses rather than churches.

The financial savings from this way of doing things should be huge, there is in any case a need because of falling membership to economise, the pandemic has presented an additional pretext for sweeping change, and in dioceses such as Chelmsford, large number of clergy are already being laid off.

Funds are already being diverted to promote the founding of new House Churches, rather than maintain the parish system.

Welby has endorsed the church-planting strategy in the most emphatic terms, telling the online conference which was addressed by Canon McGinley:

“We don’t preach morality, we plant churches. We don’t preach therapeutic care, we plant churches. We
are not deists, we believe in a God who intervenes — and plants churches.” 

He himself was converted to Christianity on 12th October 1975, while praying with a fellow undergraduate, and Old Etonian, at Trinity College, Cambridge. During summer vacations they helped run the evangelical summer camps at Iwerne Minster, in Dorset, whose founder, Bash Nash, had set out to preach the gospel at the top 30 public schools in Britain, and to recruit from these an elite cadre of future Christian leaders.

While engaged in this work, Welby met John Smyth QC, a prominent evangelical who was later found to have committed atrocious acts of abuse against more than 20 boys.

As is often the case, Welby found it difficult to apologise in a credible way to the victims, while at the same time upholding the interests of the institution he now leads.

After Cambridge Welby worked in the oil industry and on returning from Paris to London, worshipped at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), a London church which from 1985-2005 underwent a celebrated revival under the leadership of Sandy Millar (Eton and Trinity), and has since been led by his successor, Nicky Gumbel (Eton and Trinity), who further developed its famous Alpha Course.

HTB became a shining example of charismatic evangelical Christianity, brilliant at converting young, friendly, sincere, well-mannered, newly arrived Londoners who were familiar with Christian observance from their private education, but had not yet undergone a conversion experience.

Here was a thriving church where it was unembarrassing, indeed the done thing, to become a committed, evangelical Christian, after which one set out to multiply the effect by making strenuous efforts to convert one’s friends. HTB was socially conservative on questions such as homosexuality, and was linked to conservative American evangelicals such as John Wimber.

From its overflowing congregation, it sent out teams under clerical leadership to rescue other London churches which had become moribund.

There was a tremendous esprit de corps in these teams, and they were successful in revitalising about seven churches. Welby, who with Millar’s help and encouragement set out on the path to ordination in 1989, had early and positive experience of church planting.

But one may note that this success was achieved by an inspiring leader, Millar, who was good at identifying and enlisting other leaders; knew how to instil confidence in them; himself preached the gospel with an engaging simplicity of manner; stayed in one place for a long time; had a similar background to the young people he was trying to reach; and while keeping the whole venture under clerical rather than lay supervision, benefited from the freedom to do things his own way.

One may wonder whether most or indeed any of those conditions will be met by the Vision and Strategy paper which was this week adopted by General Synod, to whom it was presented by Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, who said he wants to see “a Church where mixed ecology is the norm”:

“In the Church of England in the 2020s this notion of mixed ecology will be the way in which we fulfil, in our day, that historic vocation to be the church for every inch of England, and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (as well as to witness for Christ all across the Diocese in Europe as well) and every person therein. This is not a dismantling of the parish system. Neither is it a way of disregarding or devaluing ordained ministry.”

No bishop has challenged these soft and inclusive words, for the episcopacy had already been squared. But in other parts of the Church there is huge alarm.

Here is Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, questioning the assertion that 10,000 new House Churches will gain a million new adherents by 2030:

“At their last peak in the 1980s, the House Church Movement in the UK could perhaps claim a quarter of a million adherents. The number today is probably well under 10,000, with some estimates closer to 5,000. Many of those that were so popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century dissolved when the leaders died.  Or, were subject to intense question of financial and sexual probity.  Many of these House Churches would now be classed as case-studies in spiritual abuse, the misuse of power, and safeguarding nightmares…

“I also wonder if the drivers of this new initiative – a kind of ‘ecclesial final solution’ – have really done their homework on young people.  Even amongst evangelical youth, toleration or affirmation of same-sex relationships, people of other faiths and cultural diversity, suggests that the old conversionist paradigms are not engaging emerging generations of evangelicals.  Fellowship and worship may be cherished, but the teaching is received on an à-la-carte basis.,,

“Jung Chang, in her award-winning Wild Swans  – a withering critique of Mao’s China and the doomed Great Leap Forward – offers a parable that is a cautionary tale. She writes of a time when telling fantasies to oneself as well as others, and believing them, was practised to an incredible degree. Peasants moved crops from several plots of land to one plot to show Party officials that they had produced a miracle harvest. Similar ‘Potemkin fields’ were shown off to gullible – or self-blinded – agricultural scientists, reporters, visitors from other regions, and foreigners.  Although these crops generally died within a few days because of untimely transplantation and harmful density, the visitors did not know that, or did not want to know…”

Andrew Lightbown, Rector of Winslow, points out that if created (which admittedly is hard to imagine) the 10,000 House Churches would change the whole character of the Church:

“The Church of England is a church in the reformed catholic tradition.This means that we take things like orders, sacraments, and liturgy seriously. In fact these three are central to our understanding of what it means to be a church, or Christian community; reformed and catholic. We can’t get away from this, and neither should we try to do so… if approximately half of Church England Churches / Communities are under lay leadership, and as a consequence the Sacrament of Holy Communion or Eucharist isn’t a defining characteristic of congregational life, then the whole character of the Church of England, a character that is enshrined in both canon law and the liturgy, will have changed…”

Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in London, looks forward in The Spectator to “10,000 mansion churches led by the untrained super-rich”, for who but the wealthy have houses that can accommodate 30 people?

How unselfconscious these grand yet humble evangelicals are as they put forward proposals which will only work if people can be found who are at once very rich and possess large amounts of spare time, which they will devote to the foundation of House Churches, within which there will be, according to the strategy, “a doubling in the number of children and young active disciples in the Church of England by 2030”.

Giles Fraser, Priest-in-Charge at St Mary’s Newington, in the course of a tremendous philippic for Unherd, says he has never known such anger among the clergy, objects to Canon McGinley’s use of the word “passengers”, and challenges the assumption of some evangelicals that success can be measured by the number of converts:

“the Church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful. I would prefer for us to die with dignity, being faithful to our calling, rather than to turn ourselves inside out trying to be superficially attractive, thus abandoning the faith as we have understood it. Indeed, the Bible is full of stores of the faithful remnant. In Biblical theology, the remnant are those faithful people that survive some catastrophe. Today, these are the people who come to church, faithfully to say their prayers — people of devotion and not necessarily of evangelistic vim and vigour. They are the beating heart of the parish. Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie: these are my heroes. And long term, these are our most effective evangelists. I am deeply offended that they are now called passengers.”

This row has not yet made many headlines in the national press, for in a sense it has not yet happened. The explosive growth in House Churches will almost certainly not occur in the modest time set aside for it: three a day would have to be founded if the figure of 10,000 by 2030 were to be reached.

The Church of England will continue to live or die according to what happens in the parishes, and in many of these, it has become second nature to ignore anything containing the word “strategy” or “vision”, and to get on with the task in hand, which often means the laity have already shouldered a greater share of the burden.

Wonderful things, undreamt of by the central bureaucracy, continue to take place in thousands of parishes.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson will not be goaded into admitting his view of taking the knee may have changed

14 Jul

Boris Johnson was challenged by Sir Keir Starmer to explain why Priti Patel, a few Conservative MPs, and indeed his own spokesperson have all in recent weeks cast doubt on whether England football players should take the knee.

The Prime Minister had a choice. He could do the prudent thing, which was constantly to reiterate his admiration for the England football team, and his abhorrence of racism.

Or he could be madly imprudent, and admit that he and some of his colleagues might in the course of the Euros have changed their minds, abandoned their initial reservations about taking the knee and come to realise that far from indicating support for Marxism, such an act is a wholesome expression of what all decent people feel.

Johnson did the prudent thing. He admired the team and abhorred racism.

His critics accuse him of not telling the truth, but how gleefully they would have fallen on him if he had admitted that his ideas have changed, so that what he might once have regarded as acceptable he would now regard as intolerable.

Such a glimpse of the truth would have been taken by the media, including social media, as an admission of moral turpitude, and a tremendous victory for Sir Keir.

Not just this Prime Minister, but any Prime Minister, indeed any leading statesperson, is required to express conventional views, and condemned if by some accident he fails to do so.

Walter Bagehot explained, in his essay on The Character of Sir Robert Peel, how a young politician “acquires the creed of his era”:

“He assumes its belief as he assumes its costume. He imitates the respectable classes. He avoids an original opinion, like an outré coat; a new idea, like an unknown tie.”

Johnson is by temperament unrespectable, and continues to indicate his sympathy with the unrespectable classes by keeping his hair in a mess.

But that was today as far as it was safe for him to go. When he counter-attacked it was from a safely anti-racist perspective: the Home Secretary had “faced racism all her career of a kind” which Sir Keir had not experienced; the Labour Party had put out a leaflet in Batley and Spen which it was Sir Keir’s duty to disown.

Sir Keir attacked Johnson for “putting an England shirt on over a shirt and tie while not condemning those booing”.

Which was rather Bagehot’s point: Johnson tried to dress like an England fan, though being Johnson, he had the cheek to get it slightly wrong, and thereby attract more attention.

Profile: Priti Patel, who promises to stop asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats

8 Jul

On 24th July 2019 Boris Johnson appointed a woman of Indian descent, born in London to parents who had fled Uganda, to one of the great offices of state.

Two years later, Priti Patel remains Home Secretary, and has introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill, intended to deter illegal entry into the UK, the most conspicuous route being by small boat from France.

On Tuesday, Patel told readers of The Daily Mail: “This cannot go on and as Home Secretary I will not allow this to continue.”

By introducing a two-tier system, making those who arrive illegally in the UK far less eligible for asylum and far more liable to be deported, Patel promises she will break the power of the people smugglers.

Henry Hill has examined, for ConHome, how likely these plans are to succeed, but we shall not know for sure until the legislation has been passed, and operated for a reasonable period of time.

Enver Solomon, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, has suggested on this site that trying to send refugees who have arrived illegally in Britain back either to the safe countries through which they have passed, or to their countries of origin, will not work, and will merely increase the already disgraceful backlog of cases.

The Home Office’s administrative record is so poor that one cannot feel much confidence in its ability to clear the backlog. Nor is Patel’s task made easier by the leaking from time to time of implausible proposals said to be under consideration by her department – waves in the Channel, a detention centre in Rwanda or on Ascension Island.

But these obstacles in some ways make Patel’s appointment all the more comprehensible. It is harder for liberal critics to impute racism, or undue severity, to a Home Secretary who herself belongs to an ethnic minority.

And Patel is in any case capable of showing a remarkable imperviousness to argument, as when she defended the death penalty against opposition from Harriet Harman and Ian Hislop in a Question Time debate in 2011, the year after she entered the Commons.

“She’s small and a woman and an Asian – to be heard she has to be quite aggressive,” a parliamentarian who knows her well remarked, and went on:

“She is intolerant of people who disagree with her. I think she does go too far.

“People do like her straight talking. That’s part of her appeal. I’m full of admiration for her. It’s a bloody tough job. She’s still there.”

She might not be there. In February 2020 Sir Philip Rutnam, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, resigned, claimed he had been “the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign”, and accused Patel of bullying staff.

Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s Independent Advisor on Ministerial Standards, looked into these allegations, and in November 2020 concluded:

“My advice is that the Home Secretary has not consistently met the high standards
required by the Ministerial Code of treating her civil servants with consideration
and respect. Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be
described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals. To that extent her
behaviour has been in breach of the Ministerial Code, even if unintentionally.
This conclusion needs to be seen in context. There is no evidence that she was
aware of the impact of her behaviour, and no feedback was given to her at the
time. The high pressure and demands of the role, in the Home Office, coupled
with the need for more supportive leadership from top of the department has
clearly been a contributory factor. In particular, I note the finding of different and
more positive behaviour since these issues were raised with her.”

Johnson, as ultimate arbiter of the Ministerial Code, decided to stand by Patel, and Sir Alex resigned.

When Patel was interviewed by ConHome in 2015, she described how her family lost everything in Uganda, and the death of her mother’s father soon afterwards in India:

“He was a businessman. So he had tea factories, cotton plantations, coffee plantations as well. My grandfather was incredibly well known in Uganda. R.U.Patel, a very pious man, so always giving back to the community, very religious, a big Swaminar in the Hindu community.

“I think the trauma, it was just incredible for my entire family, for my Mum’s family in particular. My Dad’s family were shopkeepers as well. Everyone in that era of East African Asians was hugely displaced, hugely displaced, their rights taken away from them, and they were persecuted for what they had.”

They arrived in Britain with nothing, and set out to rebuild the family fortunes:

“And it was from a people point of view just deeply challenging. You know, hostile, immigrants coming in, really, really difficult. I was born [in 1972] in Islington, in Highbury, and my Mum and Dad rented a room off an elderly man in Finsbury Park, and that’s where we lived.

“Typically in Indian culture, if you’re the eldest you bear the burden of everything else in terms of family responsibility. So my Dad, who’s the eldest, he’s got a brother and two sisters, did the right thing, he had to think about looking after his Mum and Dad and his brother and sisters.

“So my Dad dropped out of university to just get a job, basically, to get cash wherever he could, low-skilled work, just to build up pots of money to get some security. So he then helped my grandfather, his Dad, to buy a shop in Tottenham, Number One, White Hart Lane.

“That was a newsagent. That gave my grandparents the footing to get on. My Dad became a shopkeeper as well. My parents have been self-employed like that for over 40 years. So I effectively grew up on top of a shop for most of my life. So we’ve done everything from newspapers to post offices to small supermarkets.”

Patel grew up with Thatcherite assumptions. Her father rose at four in the morning every day for 40 years and built up a chain of newsagents despite unfair competition from the established chains, who saw to it that independent competitors got the papers too late to be sure of delivering them in time for breakfast.

She went to Watford Grammar School, studied economics at Keele and politics at Essex University, became a devout Eurosceptic as well as Thatcherite, joined the Conservative Party in 1991, from 1995-97 was head of press for the Referendum Party, but rejoined the Conservatives as a press officer under William Hague, and also worked for several years in public relations.

At the 2005 general election she stood for the Conservatives in the safe Labour seat of Nottingham North. Early in David Cameron’s leadership she was placed on the A list of candidates, and in 2006 she put in for the newly created seat of Witham, in Essex.

The finalists for what was going to be a safe Conservative seat included Geoffrey Van Orden, who was already an MEP and had served as a brigadier at Nato, James Brokenshire, whose seat of Hornchurch was going to be abolished, and Patel, who looked like an outsider.

There was an open primary, and Baroness Jenkin, who was in the audience of about 200 people and in 2005 had co-founded Women2Win with Theresa May, recalls that when Patel started to speak, “It was very clear straight away that she appealed to Conservatives but also to people who weren’t Conservatives.”

Patel, who had begun to wonder whether she would be selected anywhere, was the unexpected victor, and on arriving at Westminster said in her maiden speech:

“My own deep and personal interest in what I call the economics of enterprise and small business stems from my family background…my youth was literally spent sleeping above the shop and playing directly under the till, while watching my family—thanks to the free-market policies of Margaret Thatcher—thrive and grow. Wherever my parents set up shop, they employed local people, contributed to the local community, and made a substantial contribution to the local economy.”

Along with Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, she wrote Britannia Unchained, published in 2011 and somewhat critical of the British attitude to work:

“Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

Harsh words, but four of the five authors are now in the Cabinet. Perhaps this is a more Thatcherite administration than has yet been noticed by the pundits.

Patel rose swiftly, in 2015 becoming Minister of State at the Department of Work and Pensions,  and in 2016 backing Leave in the referendum campaign and Theresa May for the leadership, who rewarded her with the post of International Development Secretary.

But Patel had already displayed a marked capacity for annoying some of those around her. Here is Sasha Swire in her diary entry for 12 November 2015:

“Modi comes to town. Priti Patel has been inserting herself into this trip at every turn. As the PM’s Indian Diaspora Champion she does have a role, but she is behaving like the Minister for India, which is actually what Hugo [Sasha’s husband] is. Sure enough, she turns up at the VIP suite to greet Modi. She has also done all the press that morning, at Craig Oliver’s insistence, and got herself invited to a small lunch with the Queen when we were told no ministers were invited. H has thrown a wobbly…”

Sir Alan Duncan is even less complimentary in his diaries, in which she is variously referred to as Priti Horrendous, Priti Outrageous, Priti Appalling, Priti Frightful and Priti Unspeakable. In his entry for 23 January 2017 we read:

“They hate Priti Patel in DfID, mainly because she seems to hate all of them.”

Patel came a cropper at DfID when it was revealed in November 2017 that she had held a series of meetings with senior Israeli figures without informing the Foreign Office, or indeed the Prime Minister. A senior Tory backbencher and former minister described this episode to ConHome as “absolutely disgraceful”, and after a much publicised flight home from Africa, some not entirely candid statements about whom she had seen in Israel, and two meetings with May, she was obliged to resign.

In July 2019, Johnson put her back in the Cabinet in the altogether more senior role of Home Secretary. Here she has developed, presumably at his behest, a more stringent immigration policy than liberal opinion would wish.

Lord Lexden, official historian of the Conservative Party, yesterday reminded ConHome that the choice between being stringent and liberal about immigration is by no means new:

“As is well known, Tory Home Secretaries have to choose between offending much of their party and alienating the complacent lefties who always seem to be in the ascendant at the Home Office.

“Perhaps no holder of the post pleased the Party more, or attracted more derision from bien pensants, than Sir William Joynson-Hicks, known as Jix, who served throughout the five years of Baldwin’s dominant second cabinet of 1924-9. He detested short sentences, and thought prisons should be the permanent homes of the irredeemably wicked.

“His proudest boast, however, was to have stemmed ‘the tide pouring in here to secure better conditions than can be obtained in their own lands’. He visited the Channel ports amid great publicity, and looked into immigration control arrangements in minute detail.

“Afterwards, he told the Commons that ‘few aliens crept through the net that stretched round the coast, and that most of those who evaded the net were subsequently discovered and deported.’ Priti Patel must take heart from Jix’s success a century ago.”

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson recalls that an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of fact

7 Jul

Perhaps Boris Johnson felt that PMQs has become barren, evasive and dull. If so, he is right.

At the end of today’s session, the furious, turbanned figure of Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi  (Lab, Slough) offered something better. He spoke with deep emotion about his grandmother, whom none of the family were able to comfort in her final hours because they obeyed the rules, while “we see sycophantic, spineless, hypocritical government ministers lining up to defend the indefensible” behaviour of the Prime Minister’s chief adviser (a reference to Dominic Cummings), so there was “one rule” for the PM “and his elite chums, and another for the rest of us plebs”.

Something in this got through to Johnson, who responded with deep emotion, said he took Dhesi’s criticisms “most sincerely”, and agreed that “nothing I can say takes back the lost lives, the lost time spent with loved ones that he describes, and I’m deeply, deeply sorry for that”.

Though not an admission of culpability, this was a recognition of shared suffering, and for a moment it cleared the air.

Sir Keir Starmer accused Johnson of letting the Delta or “Johnson variant” into the country, and now taking all protections off in one go: “That is reckless.”

Johnson attempted to turn PMQs into Questions to the Leader of the Opposition, by demanding several times to know what Labour would do.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, warned the PM that “if we want Opposition Questions we’ll have to change Standing Orders”.

The PM took no notice, continued with his blocking tactic of asking what Labour would do differently, and ended with the tiresome soundbite, “We inoculate while they’re invertebrate.”

It was hard, during these exchanges, not to allow one’s thoughts to wander, for Johnson was plainly not going to reveal any of the assumptions on which the Government’s intended relaxation of the rules will be based.

“An ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts,” Sir John Junor used to say. Perhaps Johnson realised, having offered not much more than an ounce of facts, that he could at least show himself to be, like Dhesi, a man of feeling.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Do you really care how Hancock was sacked, or has that Westminster bubble burst?

30 Jun

“Why didn’t the Prime Minister sack the former Health Secretary on Friday morning?”

Boris Johnson had no desire to recall, let alone explain, the painful events of Friday morning, when his breakfast was spoiled by the most memorable Sun front page since 1986, when that newspaper told the world “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.

So instead of answering Sir Keir Starmer’s question, the Prime Minister observed that “a new Health Secretary was in place by Saturday”, and added that while this was “fast” (some of us wondered for a moment whether he used the term to mean risqué), “it wasn’t as fast as the vaccine rollout”.

Ah yes, the vaccine rollout. Here was the happy subject to which Johnson again and again urged us to turn our thoughts.

Sir Keir was determined to make Johnson unhappy: “That was a ridiculous answer.” On Friday morning, ministers were “sent out to defend the indefensible”. Did the PM “sack the Health Secretary or at any point ask him to resign”?

Johnson mounted another, somewhat laboured diversion, about the three days Sir Keir spent “trying and failing” to sack Angela Rayner.

The Leader of the Opposition proceeded to tell the House about a young boy, Ollie Bibby, who died in hospital of leukaemia, and “begged to see his family, but following the rules, only one member of his family was allowed to see him”.

Ollie’s mother is “livid” that they had to follow the rules and Matt Hancock didn’t.

“We all share the pain of Ollie and his family,” Johnson said, and proceeded to say that instead of “focussing on stuff going on inside the Westminster bubble”, the Government is “focussing on rolling out those vaccines to make sure people like Ollie and his family don’t have to suffer in the future”.

Sir Keir waxed indignant at the PM’s use of the term “Westminster bubble”, asked him to withdraw it, and concluded, “It’s one rule for them and another rule for everyone else.”

Johnson ignored the demand to withdraw, and reiterated that there was a new Health Secretary the next day, “the whole country can see that”.

So who won this encounter? That depends more on the spectators than on the contestants.

Are you by temperament a puritan or a cavalier?

Do you favour the earnest moralist, or the optimist who tells us to look on the bright side of life?

And do you really care how Hancock was sacked, or has that Westminster bubble burst?