If there is one political history book you read this year, Dominic Sandbrook’s “Seasons in the Sun: The battle for Britain 1974-1979″ is the one. Sandbrook tells the story (from a centre-right perspective) of Britain culturally, politically and economically from Harold Wilson’s return to power in early 1974 to Mrs Thatcher’s election in 1979.
What makes the book so good are the wonderfully human nuggets that communicate the crisis facing Britain at the time. Whether it is some of Wilson’s advisors seemingly seriously considering murdering one of their number, to the exasperation of Tony Benn’s cabinet colleagues at his refusal to accept economic reality, to retired generals and media barons actively considering the military overthrow of the democratically elected government.
But what really fascinates are the facts that contradict the myths of the era, such as the reality that private school numbers actually grew under Labour’s hamfisted efforts to make education more equal.
Or that one education minister in particular closed more semi-private grammar schools than any other in history: Margaret Thatcher.
Or what about the fact that by the end, with inflation threatening to soar into the late 20s, it was the Labour government, at the behest of (amazingly) trades union leaders, which finally got a grip on public spending.
From an Irish perspective, there’s plenty here too. There’s the Ulster Worker’s Council strike, where a fascist mob basically staged a coup in Northern Ireland, but also a glimpse of what might be: In Tony Benn’s ridiculous pouring of public money into loss-making worker’s collectives making products that no one wants to buy, we see what life under Richard Boyd Barrett could be like.
I listened to it as an audiobook, which I seriously recommend as David Thorpe, the actor reading it, does a very credible impression of nearly all the key players of the time. A super, informative, entertaining book.
Watching the strong performance of UKIP in the English county council elections, I couldn’t help thinking how an English version of Fianna Fáil would do.
I suspect quite well, especially when one considers that one of the more curious aspects of modern British politics is the breakdown in traditional concepts of left and right along the political spectrum.
In particular, the assumption that left voters go to the centre before the right, or vice versa, just isn’t true. A more accurate reality is that modern British voters are prone to cherry picking from various points along the political spectrum, being left wing on health care and spending, but right wing on immigration and law and order. Tony Blair (a Fianna Failer if there ever was one) recognised this, and translated it into three successive election victories. Nigel Farage does too, judging by UKIP’s cross party appeal.
But what really would work for an English FF would be its classlessness, the fact that both entrepreneurs and social welfare recipients would feel perfectly comfortable lobbying the party, and not feel that the party owed a pre-loyalty to a different section of society. Fianna Fail’s centrist “whatever works” approach is a very attractive proposition for the modern non-tribal consumer-voter, provided it is accompanied by competence and not marred by self-obsessed corruption dressed up as party loyalty, something which Fianna Fáil suffered from in Ireland.
Perhaps Fianna Fáil should consider opening a UK franchise. After all, isn’t that effectively what it is in Ireland?
There’s a lot of talk recently in Tory backbench circles about joint Tory-UKIP candidates. If I were Nigel Farage, I’d be treading very carefully at this moment, and pondering what it is that has elevated UKIP to its current handsome showing in the polls. Looking at the polls, and where UKIP voters are coming from, there is a Tory bent, but that’s not all. There’s a reasonable suggestion that some disgruntled Old Labour voters are also coming onboard, and also that section of voters that just hate the political establishment. As both the Lib Dems in the UK and Green Party in Ireland discovered, a party can shed votes as quick as it secured them if it gets too close to one of those political establishment pillars. Be warned, Nige.
There is a sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” which could provide a wonderful metaphor for the future of Irish politics. In it, there is an astronaut in a spaceship, clean, modern, advanced, the very epitome of progress. Juxtaposed against that image is a group of prehistoric apemen, throwing shapes and grunting at each other, as they scrabble in the dirt.
A scene from a film. Or a reformed Seanad operating alongside an unreformed parish-pumping whip strait-jacketed Dail. A Seanad that looks like the modern Irish nation, with both sexes having at least 40% representation, peopled not by professional politicians but teachers, businesspeople, farmers, artists and trades unionists. A Seanad that the Irish in Sydney and Sydney Parade Avenue both vote for, approaching the nation’s business from one side as Mattie McGrath and Michael Healy Rae do their thing in the other house. If the Zappone/Quinn model is adopted, the serious discussion about the nation will happen in the Seanad. It will be where the grown ups will meet, and the Dail will suddenly find itself under scrutiny for its archaic practices and vast swathes of strutting chest-thrusting pointlessness like never before. This is all to the good.
That’s potentially what’s on offer, and it is the most exciting prospect not just in Irish politics, but as a fascinating model for other countries in a post-party political age. If we do this, other countries will point and say “we want one of those!”.
And yet… I’m a sceptic about Seanad reform. If the Zappone/Quinn model is on offer, I will vote for that. It’s advocated by many people whose judgement I trust and respect.
But the fear still remains, that reform is only being dangled now because those who have defended the status quo for so long are now staring into the abysss of abolition, begging and pleading with us for their institutional lives and offering us anything, anything to let them live.
But what if we do? What if we spare them? Will it bring the Zappone/Quinn Seanad, or instead be used as an excuse to say that the status quo has been given a democratic mandate, and radical, big reform of the Seanad vanishes back into the mists they have kept it shrouded in for so long?
I want to believe. I really do. I want to believe that the choice in September is not between retention or abolition but abolition or reform, and that a vote to retain will lead to the Zappone/Quinn bill. But I need to hear it from Enda.
Sean Fleming TD’s odd intervention on the property tax, where he either a) did not read the legislation but nevertheless managed to have a strong opinion on it, b) read it but did not understand it, or c) was being deliberately obtuse in selectively interpreting it as a political stunt.
Whatever was the reason, he made Fianna Fáil look bad. I find this particularly annoying because it is not as if this government has not lied enough about real things that it should be held to account on, as opposed to deliberately omitting facts.
Fianna Fail is actually above this sort of stuff, and it’s not often you’ll hear me say that.
As we head towards Seanad abolition (possibly 20 weeks and counting?), a number of arguments are being raised as to why THIS unreformed Seanad should be retained.
1. “Yes, the Seanad should be reformed, but let’s save it first”. This argument would be believable, save for the fact that so many people who make it have opposed reform when they had the power to do it. Some Seanad reformers are credible and sincere. Many are not.
2. “This will give the Govt too much power”. Name all the times in its 76 year history that the Seanad has forced the govt to back down. Where was the Seanad on the night of the bank guarantee?
3. “If we let the Seanad be abolished, the Irish people will not agree to a new reformed Seanad later.” So? It’s their Seanad.
4. “The Dail is not capable of holding the government to account”. Surely that’s an argument for abolishing the Dail, not keeping the Seanad?
5. “The Seanad has provided a vital platform for different voices”. So would an Irish Times column, and be cheaper too. We should keep an entire House of Parliament for six people? This term’s Taoiseach’s nominees are so noticeable because they are so rare, and normally just hacks. As they will be again if the current Seanad is retained. Vincent Browne and Fintan O’Toole aren’t senators. Neither are David Quinn or Breda O’Brien.
6. “We need more time for reform”. No we don’t. The last in-depth report on Seanad reform was in 2006, where it was then let gather dust by many of those who now claim to be passionate reformers. Why did they not push reform then? Because they don’t believe in it.
7. “This is a power grab by the government”. What power? The govvernment already have all the power, a situation Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour all seem quite happy with when in government
The fact is, most of the arguments for keeping the Seanad are theoretical, whereas the reasons for supporting abolition are based on its 76 year history.
I’d also be more convinced about Seanad reform if it were made by people who don’t have a vested interest in it. Many, like Gemma Hussey and Michael McDowell don’t, to their credit, but…
Finally, I’m all in favour of a reformed Seanad. I just don’t believe in future promises of reform from Irish politicians, who, as a general rule, have a difficulty with the truth. Of course, if they vote through reform before the referendum I’ll vote to retain. Maybe they’ll surprise us, but I doubt it.
There’s an old saying that the two most interesting things in the world are your own money, and other people’s sex lives. Irish people have an add-on to that. They are fascinated by other people’s money, and equally obsessed with keeping their own secret, so what I’m suggesting here will never fly in Ireland.
But just supposing if tomorrow the Revenue Commissioners publish a spreadsheet of everybody’s declared income and amount they actually paid in tax. What would be the outcome? Well, aside from the outrage and at least a thousand people haring it down to the High Court for an injunction, what else would happen?
For a start, we’d learn the truth about income taxes. People would see the huge amounts of actual income tax that the wealthy pay. We’d all immediately look up Michael O’Leary and Bono et al, and discover the truth. Or perhaps we’d discover that they didn’t pay that much after all, through some deft but legal accounting. But either way, we’d all know, and at least the debate would start from an honest base.
As to what would really be the result? I suspect that some very wealthy people would be revealed to be paying very large amounts in tax, and some wouldn’t. And the Revenue would immediately be on the spot to explain why, which would be a very useful exercise in itself.
But of course, it’s never going to happen, and not because of any conspiracy. If we put such a proposal to the people in a referendum, it would be overwhelming rejected, not just by the very wealthy but by farmers and publicans and middle ranking civil servants, because, as with everything in Ireland, the majority would have more to lose from change, and those who would gain probably wouldn’t vote anyway.
In late October 1979, an ambulance was called to the Kensington home of General Sir Richard Terry, then deputy Chief of Staff of the British Army. General Terry was pronounced dead on the scene from cyanide poisoning, with a short note in his own hand, which was verified by his wife, Lady Susan.
Because of his military rank, and the presence of poison, chief inspector Charles Hayes of the Metropolitan Police was assigned to the case to ensure it was “properly” (read discreetly) handled.
An inspection by Hays of General Terry’s medical history revealed that he had in fact recently been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour which was deemed inoperable, and his life expectancy was measured in a few short and painful months. Further inspection of the records by other specialists at Hays request confirmed this diagnosis.
Hays concluded that there were sufficient grounds for concluding that the general had indeed taken his own life.