Economists have always bemoaned about the lack of economic understanding demonstrated in the actions of our political leaders. However in Britain at least we have come to a unique time in our political history, a time when our leaders display an almost complete ignorance of the art of economic management.
The golden rule for the management of the economy should be don’t play fast and loose with the economy, because if you do it will come back and bite you. This our government did when the prioritised ideology and political advantage in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. They negotiated a deal that maximised the damage that would be inflicted on the British economy. The terms were so bad for the fishing industry that Scottish fisherman are registering their boats in Copenhagen as Danish, so they can sell their catch to the Europeans. The terms of the deal make it very difficult if not impossible to sell fish direct to Europe from Britain. Already with shortages in the supermarkets and a fuel crisis the government is having to backtrack on the terms of it deal, trying to minimise the negative impact of the deal. Already its going back on its hard line on European immigration in an attempt to persuade European HGV drivers to return to Britain, as a shortage of native HGV drivers mean food products are being left to rot in the fields or warehouses. Slowly step by step the government is removing the restrictions on European HGV drivers that it imposed in January.
Britain is a trading nation and whose peoples well being the well being is dependent on International trade. Only about 60% of Britains food is produced in the country the rest has to be imported. A fact understood by both the German Kaiser and Hitler in both world wars. They tried to bring Britain to its knees by stopping or limiting the import of food and essential raw materials through submarine warfare. Surprisingly the government of Boris Johnson has done something similar to what both the Kaiser and Hitler aspired. It has imposed barriers to the trade with our largest trading partner Europe. The barriers are the imposition of a complex system of controls on trade, so complex that many businesses either side of the channel have withdrawn from trading with Britain or Europe.
What passes under the political radar Westminster is businesses complaints about the large quantity of paperwork required to export to Europe, now we have left the single market. One exporter claimed that now they have to complete 28 separate forms when exporting to Europe, whereas before January that number was the imposition of new border controls trade with Germany has fallen. Imports from the UK have fallen by 56% and exports to the UK by 29%. If Germany was a small insignificant trading nation this would not matter, but Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe, its largest economy. Soon if not already the UK will cease to be one of the top ten nations with whom Germany trades. Only a politician blind to reality could show indifference to such a catastrophic decline in trade.
Already significant sectors of the economy show marked signs of economic distress. Agriculture, fishing and the food processing industries are examples of this distress. The export of British cheese to Europe has become almost impossible. This downturn in foreign trade is significant because it means there will be a downturn in the level of economic activity, most likely leading to a recession. How far the downturn will go is hard to predict, all that can be said is it’s foolish to deliberately engineer a downturn is economic activity, as any downturn can gain momentum and leading to a very nasty recession. Golden rule number 2, it is easier to start a downturn in economic activity, than to stop one, so don’t start one unless there are compelling economic reasons for doing so.
What appears an unknown to our political leaders, is something called the economies of disintegration. Through reducing production on site and outsourcing it to the cheapest suppliers in the world, the cost of manufacturing has come down rapidly. There is no longer such a thing as a British car, parts come from all over the world. Under this system a car part such as the carburettor can go back and across the English Channel eight times, before the its assembly is completed. Now the government has hit the supply chains with a wrecking ball, no longer can manufactured goods pass freely between Britain and Europe. This wrecking ball is the mountain of paper work required by the import/export authorities of each country. While it can be said that the supply chains of business are far too long and too easily disrupted, it does not make any economic sense for the government to suddenly interrupt the free flow of goods in this supply chain. This will cause shortages and disruption in the domestic industries, as they have been denied the time to adjust to the changes. I cannot predict what will happen in the long term to British manufacturing industry, but the short term effect of interrupting the supply chain will be a decline in manufacturing industry.
If Boris Johnson and his Brexiter government is correct, all previous governments that believed British prosperity depended on increasing it trade with the rest of the world were wrong. Although this government boasts of increasing trade with the rest of the world, its rhetoric gives away the reality. When the government talks of the need for the spirit of the Blitz it is telling a different story. The Blitz was a time of shortages and rationing. Already there are plenty of indicators that the British economy is heading into a dark time, when shortages of goods become common place. A cartoon in a German newspaper sums this situation. A travel agent is talking to a couple who want to travel somewhere, where they can experience the shortages and inconveniences of the former East Germany, the agent recommends a stay in Brexit Britain.
When the economist John Galbraith discussed the means by which the horrors of the Great Depression of 1929 could have been averted, he said steps should have been taken to restore business confidence. A series of meeting between the President and business leaders would have done a lot restore confidence in the business community. Knowing that the government was taking their concerns seriously and acting on them would have done wonders to restore business confidence. Confidence is necessary if businesses are to invest and that new investment would have kickstarted the economy. Of all that I have mentioned this psychological factor is the probably the most significant. A loss of business confidence can easily turn a downturn into a recession or even worse a serious depression. Again Britain is a good example of what not to do in terms of leadership. The impression it gives is that it’s not listening to business. In response to concerns about the negative impact of the rise in gas prices on the biggest users, the government has made it clear it is not willing to help, except in extremis, as business has had plenty of government money already to tide it over during the pandemic, there is no more left. If anything can be more calculated to destroy business confidence, I cannot think of it. All this is compounded by the character of the Prime Minister. He is known for his lack of interest in the detail of government, as a leader he lacks gravitas. At the last Conservative party conference he amused those in attendance with a series of jokes. Those not at the conference noted his lack of interest in the crises that were happening outside the conference hall. The government’s actions, plus the knowledge that we have a lightweight as political leader, will do little to restore business confidence. Golden rule number three, when an economic crisis threatens government should act appropriately, it must never seem indifferent to the crisis. The sterling crisis of 1976 was in worsened by the Chancellor, Jim Callaghan on being questioned at the airport on his return from an international conference about the crisis, said’ ‘what crisis” giving the impression of being somebody not in command of the facts.
In the future students of economics and business studies will be given Brexit Britain as a case study in how not to manage an economy, or to put it more brutally how to turn a formerly prosperous nation into a basket case.
Whenever I try to explain contemporary politics to myself, I look to simple analogies or metaphors. I find the metaphor of the hibernating bear most useful in this respect. The bear to survive in winter when food is short, hibernates. Waking only in spring when food supplies are plentiful again. To me this explains perfectly the behaviour of the British Labour Party.
They have been beaten in serial elections and the last in 2019 suggested that they face an existential crisis. Supposedly core voters have defected to the winning party giving them an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. Their dominance is such that they can pass legislation that disadvantages the opposition making it almost impossible for them to win the next election, without facing any real opposition in parliament. Labour as serially defeated party have opted for survival mode. Hibernating during the long winter of Conservative ascendancy and only coming out of hibernation in the political spring. The political spring is expected to occur in or about the time of the next election, when the increasing unpopularity of the government renders then vulnerable.
Political hibernation is a peculiar thing, it means keeping your heads down and doing nothing that would attract negative headlines.In practice this means doing just enough to remind people that you are still around, but nothing anything dramatic that might attract negative headlines or offer any hostages to the future. Operating in this mode the leadership will criticise the government, but not go as far as offering any policies of their own. Just this week the opposition criticised the government for funding social care through an increase in national insurance charges as it would impact negatively on the lowest paid, but avoided making comment to any alternative policy. A somnolent politics or as the opposition would describe a cautious and realistic politics. Whatever it might be it a curiously dull, stupefying type of politics.
Again referring to the hibernating bear, that bear through hibernation is husbanding their strength, waiting to use it again in spring, when food sources are abundant and its strength will be used most profitably. Similarly the opposition can and does argue that it must husband its strength, that is resources until the general election, when those resources can be used to greatest advantage. The election is the only contest that matters and as with the bear, over activity now will only exhaust its resources for little return. It might even threaten its survival.
While opting for survival over a more active politics might appear sound practice it has its disadvantages. When the bear awakens in spring it’s weak and must immediately find food if its to survive. Similarly the long period of somnolent or minimalist political politics leaves the opposition weakened. Going from a time ultra cautious practice to a period of hyperactivity is fraught with danger. If politics is not practised with vigour it can ossify. The young idealistic activists would have long left the party, putt off by its caution and switched allegiance to other radical parties that share their idealism. A problem particularly true of the Labour Party, whose young idealistic activists practise a left wing radical politics not shared by the leadership. Fearing these young pretenders to the throne will alienate the media and key swing voters, the party leadership seeks to discourage and repress them. Offering a collective sigh of relief when these disruptive activists leave the party in disgust at the leaderships passivity and conservatism. However these enthusiasts are the very people the party needs at elections. Being at a huge financial disadvantage, the Conservatives have huge financial resources compared to the Labour Party and they can massively outspend them at elections. What the Conservatives lack is a youthful enthusiastic membership that can knock on doors and campaign actively in the constituencies. An advantage that can offset the Conservatives financial muscle. I fear the Labour Party will be like the hibernating bear that has slept too long and found that all its rivals have already taken possession of the best food sources.
The hibernating bear metaphor leaves me pessimistic for the future. While the politics of hibernation may enable a political party to survive it does not turn it into a winner. Probably the best that can be hoped is that at the next election the party retains sufficient MPs be competitive at some future election. Although there is an alternative scenario, a harsh one that derives from the cruelty of nature. Old bears weaken through age may not be able to compete with younger bears for food and consequently die. Similarly there is a chance that the somnolent Labour Party will be displaced by a younger radical rival, as happened when the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party as the other majority party in the 1920s.
I write this as a disillusioned Labour supporter, trying to make sense of the nullity of the politics practised by the party of which I have been a lifelong supporter. Why a former party of radical idealism, has become an uninspiring party of caution? A political party that appears dead in the water. Also I must add that I think the survival politics as practised by the British Labour Party is not unique to the UK.
Politics in Britain appears to be a in state of stasis, nothing seems to happen. No longer is Westminster forum were the decisions crucial to our future well being are made, dullness and a ‘do nothing’ manner seem to prevail. In part this can be put down to Britain decline, both relative and real. Being now of relative global insignificance seems to have a negative impact, realising that are now figures of little significance, fearing that they can do little any import, they have lost the desire to do. However it might not he the loss of empire and the loss respect of the world’s leading statesman that account for this sense of ennui at Westminster. Economic theory offers an alternative explanation.
Parliament is dominated by two parties, although the rise of nationalist parties, in particular in Scotland pose a threat, the power duopoly of Conservative/Labour has not yet been seriously threatened. Duopoly is the extreme example of an oligopolist market and it is the theory of oligopoly that explains this political inertia or caution. Caution is the word that best describes the behaviour of oligopolists. They have reached this position of great power and don’t want to do anything that might threaten this power. What they realise is the power of their rivals is such that they have the potential to do great damage to them. Therefore they will do all in their power to avoid radical or aggressive actions that could provoke a damaging war with their powerful rivals. What they fear most is losing votes to their rival, much as the oligopolist fears losing market share to its rivals. What exist between oligopolists is an undeclared war or a truce of kinds. All fearing a damaging trade or political war that could inflict a death blow to their business or political party.
Oligopolists compete within certain parameters, fearing not to upset the apple cart. Businesses compete not with price but through advertising, marketing. Hoping at best to make modest inroads in a competitors sales. Similarly politics in Britain is another phoney war, conducted within strict parameters, parameters defined by the mainstream political culture. One of these parameters is responsible. Policies be responsible, not commit the partly to a great spending programme, because voters fear for their wallets. The political truism observed by all is increasing taxes is a vote loser, while reducing them is a vote winner. Also responsible politics doesn’t threaten powerful vest interests. The best example is the property lobby. Any policy that might threaten house prices is a ‘no-no’. This mainstream view also excludes as possible policies, those that while they may promise needed radical change, are too difficult to implement as they will upset power groups in society or voters.
In consequence politics is predominantly a war of words, each party claims that they possess that unique set of values that make them best suited to governing the country. Policy statements or policies spelt out in detail are anathema, as they can start a political bidding war in which each strives to out do the other. Potentially damaging to both parties as they have to make good on their policy promises. A leader can state that he wants every person in the country to have a job that guarantees a fair wage, an income that maximises their well being, but must never state how that would be achieved.
This can lead to the politics of dullness, with each party hoping to keep their share of the vote and remaining a major party. Hoping that this caution will be rewarded with those few extra votes that translate into a majority in parliament. The peculiarity of the British electoral system is that a marginally small but larger share of the vote can translate into a disproportionately larger number of parliamentary seats.
One other characteristic that political parties share with oligopolistic corporations, is a ruthlessness in preventing new entrants coming into the market. They are aware that their majority position in politics is always under threat, they are aware that the once in a lifetime event that changes the political landscape. A change which gives an outsider the opportunity to replace one of the two main parties, as occurred in the 1920s, when Labour replaced the Liberals as one of the two main parties.
This strategy is action is demonstrated by the risky strategy that the Conservative party adopted over Brexit. Its vote was threatened by the Brexit party, which one a majority at the last European election, through the support of disaffected Conservative voters. To crush this upstart the party adopted the Brexit party policy so depriving it of the political oxygen which it needed to thrive. This was a risky strategy as it meant their rivals the Labour Party could have opted for Remain, which would have put at risk their candidates in strongly Remain constituencies. Fortunately for them the Labour Party read the political runes and decided that majority opinion or the voters that mattered were for leaving the EU*. This about volte face by two predominantly Remainer parties, deprived the half of the nation wanting to stay in the EU unrepresented.
What can be said is that the British political system works to favour the two main parties in situ? No matter how outrageous their behaviours or betrayals, they need fear being voted out. British politics will continue in its outrageous but merry way refusing to countenance any change. Change that might threaten the power of the two dominant parties. Even when the crisis of climate change is becoming increasingly apparent neither of the two main parties will be willing to make the radical change necessary to help avert it. When the Conservative government reneged on its promise to install a national charging grid for electric cars, Labour remained silent. Fearing being accused of making irresponsible policy commitments that would threaten existing jobs in the motor trade, forcing on the country a change they may not want. Giving the leadership of Cop26 to any British politician is detrimental to the well being of the world. All that can be expected is lots of words, words used to say the right thing but devoid of meaning or commitment. Possibly this is a sign of Britain’s decline, a not willing to commit to anything that might threaten to diminish further Britain’s international power and reputation.
From the very beginning of my teaching career I felt that I was not giving my students the complete story. Then just recently my son-in-law who is a joiner taught me something about economics that I should have known. The market is but one strand of the economic complex, what I and other economists have ignored is collaborative or creative economics. An economic practice that is not based solely on price, but other values, such as trust, respect and quality of work. Self employed construction workers such as my son-in-law, may work singly or with others when the task requires it. When a task calls for collaboration, collaborates are chosen on the basis of respect, trust and work ethic. They all know the profit maximiser who will cut costs and corners so as to achieve the maximum profit. These men make poor work colleagues and are best avoided.
This does not mean that there are not a number of bad tradesmen, who will produce a poor quality product or service. Men who make a good living from their trade but who former customers are desperate to avoid using again. Our local internet network is dominated by requests for the names of tradesmen who can be trusted to deliver a good quality service. While the market economists would say that the customer looks for the tradesmen who charge the lowest price, what most people want is quality of service. If a potential customer tried to force the price down to the lowest level, my son-in-law and his colleagues would just walk away.
While in the building trade there is a rogue element of profit maximisers, who cut costs to the bone to earn maximum profit, I suspect the majority are like my son-in-law ‘profit satisfiers’. Given the ignorance of the building trade potential customers find it hard to identify these rogue traders. Rogue traders who in the present shortage of tradesman can make a good living. However that does not discredit my belief that in the building trade, quality of service is valued more than price. Obviously price matters to both the customer and tradesmen, usually what is valued is the fair price, a price for the job that satisfies both customer and tradesman. It is a deal founded on trust, a trust that can unfortunately be abused. There are the customers who are tardy payers and the rip off merchants on the traders side.
What is required to make the construction market work more effectively is more regulation, of the right kind. Electricians are compelled to take regular tests to ensure their fitness to work in electrics. Unfortunately there is no effective mechanism from preventing the bad or poor electrician working in the trade. Anybody can advertise themselves as a builder qualified in all trades. A regulated market such as that found in Germany or Switzerland would improve immensely the work undertaken in the building trade.
From my knowledge of people working in the small and medium trader market, the same standards apply there. Even businesses solely driven by profit and not quality of service, such as the banks and other financial services, the success of these profit maximisers depends on their staff adopted collaborative working practices. If staff felt they could not trust each other, the business would soon collapse. Businesses don’t thrive if their staff are constantly at each other’s throats.
In this respect the practice in call centres, where staff are constantly monitored and required to meet performance tasks have a high turnover of staff. This works when unemployment is relatively high, as unemployed young people can be quickly trained in the simple skills required. Given the high and wasteful staff turnover such call centres find that treating staff well, equals higher productivity and higher staff retention. In even this industry values other than cost minimisation are adopted, contrary to market economics.
Collaborative working of the type undertaken by my son-in-law is creative economics, he is a profit maker. Whatever he makes or does adds value to the property. This is contrary to destructive economics, whereby the trader or business literally diminishes the value of the nation’s wealth. In economist’s terms, the profit taker or in common sense parlance the robber baron. Private equity companies are one of the worst practitioners of destructive economics. They loot the company of its most profitable assets and then return the ‘efficient’ business back to the market. Adding the resale price to the profits gained by selling the companies assets. These enfeebled businesses rarely survive long once returned to public ownership.
Another term for these non creative looters, is rentier capitalists. One example of this is those business that buy the copyright of a particular musician. Then with the ownership of these rights they can charge exorbitant sums to those who make use of this artists music. They are assiduous in keeping control of the right to profit from that artist work, often resorting to court when they believe their rights have been infringed. Unfortunately a list of these corporate looters is most endless.
China had its cultural revolution in the 1960s and Britain hers in the 1980s. Although the British free market revolution did not produce the huge loss of life that China’s did, it was in some ways equally destructive. Rather than freeing Britain from the shackles of government and liberating the market for the benefit of all, it has created an unregulated market which in essence is becoming a thieves paradise. Only a return to a regulated market that prioritises the creative economy over the destructive economy, can return us to an economy that works for the benefit of all. What I treasure is the Code of Hammurabi which threatened bodily mutilation to profiteers and speculators. He as a successful ruler knew that he would only remain successful, if he reined in the excesses of the market.
When I started at university I was told by my professors to ignore the writings of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Teilhard de Chardin. The fault with these writers as that tried to impose a false narrative on history. The first two prophesied the decline of the West and in the prosperous 1960’s this seemed obviously false. The latter imposed a Catholic narrative on history. History according to my professors should be the study or recording of historical events, nothing more. Interpreting those events in order to according to some grand schema is to create an incorrect reading of the past – Brexit! (Michael Oakeshott – Experience and its Modes). Perhaps given the mess which is contemporary society, the work of these two historians is deserved of revaluation.
These two historians were not the only writers concerned for the fragility of Western civilisation. In 1920 after the conclusion of the Versailles Peace Treaty, J.M.Keynes wrote the following:
“Very few of us realise with conviction the intensely unusual, unstable, complicated, unreliable, temporary nature of the economic organisation by which Western Europe has lived for the last half century. We assume some of the most peculiar and temporary of our late advantages as natural, permanent, and to be depended on, and we lay our plans accordingly. On this sandy and false foundation we scheme for social improvement and dress our political platforms, pursue our animosities and particular ambitions, and feel ourselves with enough margin in hand to foster, not assuage, civil conflict in the European family.” John Maynard Keynes, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920,
Oswald Spengler’s schema of decline can be used to demonstrate that the U.K. is in a downward spiral of decline.
Firstly he dismisses the notion of progress, human history he believes is not one of a linear upward trend, but cyclical. In the 1960s with the rapid recovery from the war, the war of 1939-1945 could be dismissed as a blip in history of human progress. Now after the financial crisis of 2008/9 and the climate crisis, the optimism of the 1960s seems misplaced.
These quotations from the Decline of the West seem ominously prescient.
“I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout it’s whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feelings, its own death. Here indeed are colours, lights, movements, that no intellectual eye has yet discovered.
Here the Cultures, peoples, languages, truths, gods, landscapes bloom and age as the oaks and the pines, the blossoms, twigs and leaves – but there is no ageing “Mankind.” Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in the deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species of plant has its peculiar blossom or fruit, its special type of growth and decline.”
― Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West
“You are dying. I see in you all the characteristic stigma of decay. I can prove to you that your great wealth and your great poverty, your capitalism and your socialism, your wars and your revolutions, your atheism and your pessimism and your cynicism, your immorality, your broken-down marriages, your birth-control, that is bleeding you from the bottom and killing you off at the top in your brains—I can prove to you that those were characteristic marks of the dying ages of ancient States—Alexandria and Greece and neurotic Rome.” ― Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West
Oswald Spengler was criticised for stating the obvious, that at some stage all civilisations go through the cycle of rise and fall. However what he does is that he tells a story worth repeating, and that is that the complacency and optimism of our leaders is not justified. He reminds as that Western Civilisation is not uniquely privileged, it cannot avoid the fate common to all civilisations that of decline and fall. When our politicians fail to heed reality and continue to act as if the prosperity and wealth of the West is a historical given, and that the progress is inevitable they are ignoring the lessons of history. Gordon Brown’s infamous statement that we have ‘abolished boom and bust’, which was shown to be fallacious by the financial crash of 2008/9, is typical of the misplaced optimism of all political leaders. More recent are the over optimistic claims of national regeneration made by Brexit favouring politicians.
Politicians assume our industrial civilisation will go on for ever and that progress is inevitable. What Spengler reminds us is that all civilisations eventually run out of rope. They plough just one furrow, exploit one idea and just as a field that is constantly ploughed becomes exhausted, so does a civilisation. Unavoidable climate change suggests that Western industrial civilisation is reaching its end game.
Spengler was greatly influenced by Nietzsche and the concept of the will to power. For him Western Europe had lost its dynamism. The idea that drove Western civilisation forward was being lost. Benedetto Croce saw liberalism as the great idea that drove Western civilisation forward. Liberalism was the zeitgeist of Hegel’s history. Those regimes that resisted liberalism, the German Empire had fallen, swept aside by the liberal democracies. If liberalism is the great idea of Western civilisation it is certainly dying. Britain as one of the bastions of liberal democracy is failing, and falling to a would be authoritarian populist. Nothing better demonstrates the decline of the liberal idea, than the Liberal Democrat party in coalition with the Conservatives voting for the most illiberal of policy measures. The restriction or denial of justice, through changes to the legal system that either restricted or denied access to the courts for millions.
Today’s political culture has as Spengler predicted lost its dynamism, the will to power has been extinguished. Rather than face today’s harsh realities or speak of future promise, leaders of the major parties wallow in nostalgic myths. On the right they wish for a return to the days of the 1950s, a time of monochrome culture and the false certainties f that time. The left desires a return to a romanticised past, a time when they part of a movement that encompassed that sturdy band of brothers the industrial working classes.
When he declares ‘optimism is cowardice’ , he describes all to accurately the reality of today’s political progress. Politicians always prefer to put an optimistic gloss of policies, but today’s politicians not only put a gloss on there policy, but garnish it with the most outrageous lies. When deception and deceit rather than hard truths are medium of political debate, a country is heading for the precipice as failing to acknowledge unpleasant reality are incapable of taking action to avoid the most catastrophic of futures.
There is one further quote that is of relevance to the decline of the U.K.“Through money, democracy becomes its own destroyer, after money has destroyed intellect.” Everybody knows that the catastrophic crisis of 2008/9 was caused by the collapse of the financial markets in Western Europe and the USA. What few realise is that the West is threatened by a new financial crisis, one due to the over indebtedness of our business corporations.
Cost benefit analysis has replaced reasoned policy making, every policy is claimed to deliver a cash advantage. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde politicians know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
This is my selective reading of Spengler and it is open to objection. Have I cherry picked stories from the national narrative to prove my point? In my defence I would argue that the evidence of national decline is so overwhelming that it was necessary to be selective.
All my examples are British does my ethnocentric reasoning make my conclusions about Spengler invalid.
If we are in decline is it necessary such a bad thing? Vienna of 1900 was the capital of an empire in decline, yet it had a flourishing artistic culture – Mahler, Klimt.
Britain has been in relative decline since the 1850s, now there is evidence that the decline may be becoming absolute. Increasing numbers are employed in low cost, low productive industries, as the British economy is increasingly unable to provide well paid highly skilled jobs for its people. Also Britain is a trading nation whose prosperity depends on international trade, now we have a government determined for wrong headed reasons to restrict British businesses access to international markets. If decline is absolute how should we respond?
Robert Skidelsky suggested economic history provides the best guide for current economic policy making, so should politicians look to history to provide a guide to policy making. Certainly politicians and journalists seem ignorant of history as demonstrated in The Spectator article that stated that Joe Biden would be a friend to Britain became his ancestors were Irish – Irish emigrants forced to leave Ireland because of the great famine of the 1840s!
When today I read that the government is considering the purchase of an £190 million royal yacht HMY The Duke of Edinburgh, I felt that I now lived in a Ruritanian European offshore island.
There is a BBC Radio 4 broadcast on Oswald Spengler and ‘The Decline of the West’, which I can recommend.
*Timely decline- as the British people have been complicit in the nation’s decline by voting for politicians and policies that hasten that decline.
One of the occupational hazards of being a teacher is disillusionment. The disillusionment that I experienced was something dating from the last years of my teaching career, I began to question the value of what I was doing. Teaching A level sociology was increasingly about cramming as much of the course content as possible into two short years. At best I was giving them an insight into the society in which they lived, but at worst to my teaching threatened to turn into a recitation of the facts, as were required by the exam system. Neglect of the latter would have meant, I and they would be judged failures.
English education as I experienced it can be described as ‘throwing as much information as possible at the student hoping that some of it sticks’. Quantity is confused with quality. I am a committed supporter of slow education. There has to be another way of delivering education, a way of teaching that ensures the student develops an understanding of the subject. Not that this is something new and revolutionary. When I was undertaking teacher training in the early 1970’s ‘patch teaching’ of history was in vogue. Rather than a liner course that was literally a run through of world history. Focus would be instead on particular patches of history in depth. In that way they would develop an in depth understanding of the subject. Michael Gove disliked this method of teaching and returned to subject to a history of great Britons. What I am advocating is not new, this is the discovery approach to learning advocated in the Plowden Report 1967 and Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ 1763 and Plato’s ‘Meno’ 4BCE. Education that takes the child as it’s starting point, rather than the subject, as is now the favoured approach.
I can cite Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott as part of my evidence to demonstrate the superiority of slow over quick education. Education he said should be the initiation of the student into new areas of experience. What he meant was that students should be inducted into a new of thinking or understanding. He believed subjects such as history had a distinct identity or essence. Only through an i immersion into a subject area would enable the student to grasp its essence. Although he did not state it as such, he was an advocate of a liberal education. A good education would involve the student being initiated into a number of distinct but overlapping educational experiences. Quick fire education of the type so popular in England will not give students the experience of education that Michael Oakshott wanted for them.
Recent changes to the national education curriculum have put limits on what is taught or certain subjects off limits. Universities have been discouraged from offering modern languages on the dubious basis that they are not self financing. Not the approach to education envisaged by this most conservative of philosophers.
Nietzsche’s criticisms of German grammar schools in the 19th century are worth considering as they add to the understanding of what bad education might be. These schools all taught the same set of facts or understandings with which there teachers had been rehearsed in at institutes of higher learning. Nothing too challenging for the students or teachers was taught in these schools. German education was focused on teaching conformity. Round pegs for round holes, no difficult square pegs. They produced generation after generation of unthinking intellectual sheep, the untermensch.
Contemporary English education would earn Nietszche’s strictures. It is a system that seeks to discourage intellectual curiosity and the love of learning. The real villain of the piece is the English exam system. A system that values mediocrity. When doing supply teaching I taught Macbeth through the use of a comic book. Macbeth can be reduced to an exciting story, but was taught is not Shakespeare’s Macbeth. English Standard Attainment Tests required that all English students demonstrated a knowledge of Shakespeare, the greatest of all English playwrights. Given that it was a test to be undertaken by all fourteen year olds it had to be rendered in a form all could understand. The comic book had the advantage of providing students a number of simple facts that could be easily learnt and memorised for an exam in which students demonstrated there knowledge of Shakespeare. Whatever was being taught was not Shakespeare. Not only facts but the demonstration of government preferred writing formats were required to pass the SAT’s. Government diktat is stifling in students in any love they may have for this most creative of subjects. It is not surprising that having done their best to destroy a love of the English language and literature, there has been a marked fall in the number of students studying this subject at university.
The real villain of the piece is the exam system, it forces the education curriculum into a learning straight jacket. Creativity or going beyond the limits as specified by the minister earns no points from the education ministry and as it was not in their curriculum it can lead to a downgrading of a school. Too much creativity or pupil enlightenment can lead to the imposition of sanctions by the ministry.
When teaching economics in the 1970s, I used to teach my students about the command economy in the Soviet Union. It was not on the curriculum, but I then had the freedom to go off course with my teaching. The interesting thing is that then the government in Moscow tried to set the direction in which the economy moved, it did so through setting out global or quantitive targets for each sector of the economy. To ensure that central directives were met they had the KGB who would sanction those politicians managers who failed to fulfil their quotas. Sanction being a spell in a labour camp. Consequently local politicians and factory managers conspired together to give the appearance of meeting their targets. If the target for shoe production could only be met by producing left handed shoes (productivity increased if all workers made exactly the same product) that is what had to be done. All politicians up to the level of the capital city were in on the act, as failure to comply with centrally set targets meant a spell in the labour camp.
I feel the current education system in the way it is administered threatens to produce the equivalent of left handed shoes in education. Nick Gibbs the education minister insisted that a rigorous grammar component was added to primary school curriculum. He was little more qualified to write a course in grammar, that the Moscow politician was to direct the production of shoes in the distant Urals. Educationalists have accused this man of making up principles of grammar to teach students. One such make up grammar was the adverbial. A term unknown to grammar specialists at university and certainly to teachers.
Ministers of education have found setting of quantitive targets, such as demanding that a certain percentage of students to get a particular level in the SATs, is the ideal way to control the how and what of teaching in schools. From my reading of educational practice and philosophy, never did I ever come across ease of central control of schools as an objective.
The dead hand of exams is choking the life out of the education system. Politicians boast of the rigour of the English exam system. Every year steps are taken by ministers to ensure that only a small intellectual elite are awarded the best grades. A levels are the gold standard of education. What they never admit is that public exams are designed to make the majority fail. Only an A grade qualifies you for entry to the elite universities. Despite being called passes, grade B or less are in reality fail grades. I cannot see any merit in an education system that is designed to make the majority fail. This is the moral rottenness at the heart of the English educational system.
Grading students from A to E, 8 to 1 or from a First to a pass degree is not part of education. It’s a sorting system for employment or higher education. It’s main purpose is to make life easier for admissions tutors at university or employers. Unfortunately contemporary society insists on school and universities sorting students into various categories of person, so schools and universities cannot escape there sorting role. The only solution is to relegate this sorting function to a minor role in the curriculum, so ensuring that education takes the central place in the school or university curriculum.
Michael Gove dismissed the profession of economists, as one of those unnecessary groups of professionals, who stopped the common sense will of the people from prevailing. Although Michael Gove knows little of economics and the value of his statement can be questioned, he is right to suggest that something is rotten within the economics profession.
Just as Karl Popper looks back to Parmenides (early 5 BCE) as the originator of the modern scientific discourse, I believe that the same philosopher can be used to demonstrate the failings of contemporary economics. Parmenides has a vision in which the Goddess reveals to him two separate worlds that of truth which is known only to the Gods, and the world of shadows and falsehoods known to man. Man can only glimpse but shadows of truth, he can never know. Certainty is only known to the Gods. What Popper understands from this is that scientific inquiry can never know certainty, truths known today will be demonstrated as false tomorrow. Scientific truths are conjectures which should be in a form that makes capable of refutation. It is this verification process that makes possible the advance of science as new and better truths replace those of today and yesterday. However he does suggest that these founding fathers are giants on whose shoulders we stand to advance. They make the initial discoveries that make possible the advance of science. Today Newton’s cosmology and theory of gravity are regarded at best partial truths. Yet without Newton’s discoveries Einstein and the advances of modern cosmology would be impossible.
What Karl Popper believes is that there can be no certainties only probabilities. The latter being an admission that we don’t know. Contemporary economics ‘does know’ it knows certain truths about the economy. There are two fundamental truths and they are those of the market economy and modern monetary theory. These are the two foundational principles that underpin all contemporary economics..
Market theory is often referred to as Neo-liberal economics. This theory asserts that the free market is a self regulating organisation, which if subject to minimal government interference will find its own level of equilibrium. Governments that interfere and over regulate the economy risk upsetting the balance of forces in the economy, that determine the best of all possible outcomes for all. It was Alfred Marshall (1840 – 1924) who demonstrated the truths of market economics with the supply and demand theories with which all students of economics are familiar today. Familiarly known the diagrams that demonstrate the ‘Marshallian Scissors’. Nearly all economic theory is a derivation of market economics.
Perhaps the most notorious is Says’ law of incomes. This states that it is self defeating to try to maintain wage levels during a recession, as this will merely increase unemployment through making workers to expensive to pay. Far better to let wages fall to a level at which it becomes profitable for firms to employ workers. These newly employed workers will spend the wages they receive, which will increase demand and kickstart the recovery. With the economy growing wages will return to their former high levels, as newly profitable firms bid against each other through paying higher wages to attract workers from the diminishing pool of unemployed labour. No government will ever admit to following Say’s law, but it is implicit truth, as they are always concerned to avoid the situation in which high wages make workers unaffordable to employers. When Tony Blair introduced the minimum wage he took great pains to ensure that it was not set at a too high a level, as that would make labour too expensive to employ.
A common sense truth which seems obvious to all. However there is very little economic evidence to demonstrate the truth of this ‘common sense’ theory.
The other great truth of orthodox economics is modern monetary theory (now associated with Milton Friedman). This quite simply states that the level of economic activity is determined by the quantity of money in the economy. Increasing the quantity of money in the economy increases the number of purchases people make, so increasing the level of economy activity. However if the quantity of money is increased too much, there is too much money chasing too few goods and so inflation occurs. All the government needs to do to control the level of economic activity is to either change interest rates or the supply of money (so called Quantitive Easing). Although this theory is associated with Milton Friedman he was merely putting the ideas of Irving Fisher (1867-1947) into a more modern format. This school of thinking in fact has a long history, as it’s origins can be traced back to Copernicus who first gave it form 1517.*
Unfortunately modern monetary theory has one flaw, if if the government is to control the supply of money, it must know what it is controlling. Unfortunately it does not. When the Treasury introduced this policy in the 1980’s, I think they came up with seven different definitions of what constituted money. In practice they adopted one definition, M4 as the most likely one. Despite this flaw in the theory, governments have since the 1980’s all been practitioners of modern monetary policy. Never in academic circles will you hear this criticism mentioned.
J.M.Keynes and the economics named after him is regarded as an aberration and no longer regarded as one the foundational truths of economics. The British Treasury the fount of all economic truth has long since dismissed his ideas as irrelevant.
What the economists ‘who know’ have in common, is that they possess what that they believe is a bag of tricks from which the appropriate tool can be chosen to fix any crisis. At present the favoured tool is a combination of reducing interest rates and increasing the supply of money through quantitive easing.
Karl Popper influenced me in my choice of names, he does as do I, belong in the school of ‘don’t knows’ or to put it more accurately we believe our respective subjects consist of a series of probable or possible truths which for the present have great utility. As Karl Popper writes that to state that something is a probability is to admit to doubt. Probably the best known advocate of this school is J.K.Galbraith.* As he had no grand theory linked to his name and was dismissive of such theories. Academic economists tended to regard him as not one of them. He was an agricultural economist, who caught the eye of Franklin Roosevelt and who drafted him in to help manage the wartime US economy. He was one of the authors of the post war report into the effectiveness on allied bombing on Germany. They as a group were surprised to discover how little impact it had on the German economy. A fact conveniently overlooked in the Vietnam war.
What discredited him in the eyes of other economists was his prioritising the human factor over any grand theory. While Hayek claimed that the mad speculation that led to the Wall Street crash of 1929 was due to a drying up of legitimate investment opportunities, Galbraith lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of the financiers. The bosses of Goldman Sachs and the other major banks were both reckless and irresponsible. They made huge profits from the foolish and reckless investments made on the Stock Exchange and had no incentive to discourage them. This is illustrated in the example of the Florida property developer who bought swamp land claiming to to be prime real estate. The authorities on the New York Stock Exchange saw no reason to prevent the sale of stock in this fraudulent enterprise. It was just too profitable. In Galbraith’s words the great crash was 1929 was due to the activities of a group of rogue financiers.
Not surprisingly it turned out that Goldman Sachs was involved in similar activities in the events leading up to the crash of 2008. They were fined millions of dollars for selling what they knew to be worthless bonds to their clients.
When I studied economics at university, I was disappointed to discover it avoided the big questions. The issue of distribution of wealth was redefined as the optimum output curve. Any point on that curve represented the best possible distribution of resources within a given community. This as an exercise in logical thinking was impeccable, but it had no relevance to world outside the seminar room. While this ‘economic scientism’ dominates the subject of economics it remains detached from the real world. When Russians during the ‘Moscow Spring’ came to study economics or more precisely free market economics; they expressed disappointment about how little it taught them about the real economy.
After a number of years teaching economics I came to realise that the teaching of economics was about developing the ‘economic imagination’. This was not so much learning the economic theory that relates to a particular scenario, but being creative within the parameters of economic thinking. A Socratic economics in which reasoning is used to disabuse the student of the ‘truths’ of orthodox economics. The conventions of orthodox economics often stand in the way of developing a real solution to the problem. Only the most unimaginative can think that changing interest rates, increasing or reducing money supply is the answer to everything. Any study of the post war management of the economy would surprise today’s readers.Realising a shortage of houses meant that this could lead to a rapid rise in house prices and inflation in the housing market, the government took action to prevent this happening. The annual in increase in house prices was subject to a tax. This of course meant house owners had a disincentive to the over valuation of houses and house prices remained low in this period. This made the majority of houses affordable unlike today.
Again J.K. Galbraith provides an illustration of this in his work in managing the US wartime economy. One of the problems of the wartime economy is inflation. With so much of the nations output requisitioned for the war effort, a shortage of goods in some parts of the economy would lead to a rapid rise in prices and inflation. Galbraith realised that it was not necessary to introduce a national system of price controls, but instead to control prices with the cooperation of the great corporations. Since they accounted for a majority of the nations output, if they could be persuaded to keep prices down there would be no price inflation. All the other medium and small businesses would follow suit, particularly if they were suppliers to the major corporations.
Economics suffers from one problem that is unique to it. What is true yesterday may not be true today. The economy is a dynamic institution that is constantly changing. Evidence about what is happening in the economy is from yesterday. There is no evidence, apart of the most impressionist kind about today and none about tomorrow. This is why J.S.Mill said there can be no science of of economics. Given this uncertainty governments prefer to use the old tried and tested methods, fearing that any policy innovation will make things worse rather than better. This Conservative mind set explains why governments never get to grips with the problems that plague the economy.
The consequences of adopting the ‘economics of don’t know
Universities would change, economics departments would have to teach students to think creatively. Old dead economists, the founding fathers of the subject would no longer dominate the curriculum. The subject would become more open ended, there would now be no arbitrary limits to subject knowledge. All the old certainties associated with this subject would go. Current academic economists would resist any change, as the knowledge they hold so dear would no longer be valued. University departments of economics would revert back to the liberal humanism of the past.
Resistance to this change would not just come from current academics, but also government. University education is now a commodity that is bought and sold. All the current means that are used to measure a universities output would cease to work. Creative and innovative thinking does not lead itself to the current system of box ticking. Governments would lose the main means through which they control what is taught in the universities.
The two greatest employers of economics graduates the investment banks and the Treasury don’t want graduates who think. They want them versed in the ways of the old economics, together the statistical skills acquired in the study of the old economics. This is the problem already known of, when Manchester students demanded a radical change in the economics syllabus, they had to contend with the fact that they would denying themselves lucrative employment in the world of banking.
Economics can be one of those subjects has to be endured and best soon forgotten on leaving university. What I am suggesting would lead to a revolution in the teaching of economics, it would now be a subject that valued creativity, rather than conformity amongst its students. If instead of discouraging students from continuing an interest in the subject, economics would be one of those stimulating subjects whose students would now retain a life time interest. Since so many MPs have studied PPE at university, those MPs would be better informed and rather than parliament collectively demonstrating an ignorance of the subject and debates on the economy and its management would be better informed and enlightening.
Politics would have to change, Chancellors such as Rishi Sunack and the Treasury itself would have to adopt evidence based economics. Rishi Sunak could no longer quote the truths of the founding fathers as justification for his policies. In constructing economic policies real thinking would be required, as real answers to problems would be required. I look forward to the day when any politician is laughed at when they turn to the old economic pieties to justify there ill thought out policies.
* J.K.Galbraith would probably be horrified to know that I consider him the doyen of the economists who don’t know. I include him because he is one of the few economists, unlike many economists does not know the answer before he starts the investigation. He possesses no ready made answers.
Britain with its Westminster system of democracy has claimed to be the exemplar of good democratic practice. Many countries, most commonly in the former British colonies have adopted the Westminster practice of government. However classical Athens home of the first democracy provides a terrible warning of what happens when the practice of democratic politics becomes corrupted. Tragically Athens provides a template for the systematic corruption of democratic government, a model that Westminster appears to be copying.
While the primary cause for its abrupt end was a brutal foreign conquest, it was already rotting from within. It was the poor behaviour and discreditable practices of its leaders that caused it to lose popular support. According to one source, democracy was so discredited that few of the citizens could not be roused to defend it. What is true, is that after the destruction of Athens by Sulla and his Roman army, no attempt was made to restore democracy.
Given that democracy in Athens involved the demos or the all the citizens how did it become so unpopular. Leading politicians increasingly used informers to discredit their rivals. These informers were planted within the households of their rivals with the purpose of gathering information to discredit their rivals. Often these informer stories were fabrications, but so artfully put together that they put an end of their rival’s careers. Politics became the amphitheatre in which your rivals were discredited and destroyed through a process of character assassination.
In the UK the tabloid press and social media perform a similar function to the Athenian informer. The informed source always claims that there scurrilous stories are in the public interest. What they mean is that by revealing discreditable stories about politicians, they are stopping this rogue from achieving public office, where he would abuse the power of that office. Strangely it’s is only politicians of the opposing party who behave so discreditably. No doubt the same justification was claimed by the Athenian informers.
This has three unfortunate negative impacts. Citizens become disillusioned about the practice of politics. Increasingly they come to believe that all politicians are rogues. The disillusioned people withdraw their support and involvement in the democratic process, so it loses legitimacy. Only a certain type of politician can thrive in these circumstances, that is the rogue. Only the rogue is immune to stories about themselves. They care little for discreditable stories about them, stories that would destroy an honest politician. In fact they claim that the open displays of their roguery demonstrates their honesty. They unlike the other politicians are the prepared to be open about their failings. Unfortunately an people are becoming disillusioned about politics believing that all politicians are rogues a liars. Finally when the practice of politics is reduced to little more than character assassination, politicians are incapable of raising to the occasion when a crisis threatens. They simply don’t what to do.The cheats, the liars and purveyors of scurrilous story are helpless, they have nothing to offer apart from dissimulation. Government policy degenerates into a search for scapegoats on whom to deflect the blame for their failing policies.
There is another minor vice that is beginning to pervade Westminster democracy. The intra party struggle for ideological purity. A struggle in which the enemy is not the opposition party, but perceived opponents within the party. Each of the main political parties has embarked on a Soviet style purging political deviants. The consequence of which, is the unedifying spectacle of seemingly endless civil war within the party. Debates on issues of national importance become secondary to the internal party debate on matters of ideological purity.
One consequence is that if the British experienced the devastation wreaked on by foreign invasion, they would be as unwilling as the Athenians to restore their old discredited democratic system. Athenian democracy was never restored, they remained content to accept domination by a remote central government either in Rome or Constantinople, in preference to government by their own local leaders.
As an incredulous student I remember a lecture by Professor Oakshott in which he said the poor behaviour of the Athenian politicians has discredited the idea of democracy for centuries, and the rehabilitation of democracy and its procedures was but a recent historical phenomenon. I fear that the bad practice which masquerades as democratic politics in both the USA and the UK, will as did that of the Athenians, again make democracy seem the least desirable form of political governance.
A friend of mine often mocks my religious beliefs, citing Bertrand Russell. A philosopher who said he had no respect for those who claimed to worship an unknown God. People such as me believe he thought in an irrational and nonsensical set beliefs that could withstand the cold of scientific scrutiny. What I believe is that they they lack is an understanding of the magic of existence. One of the benefits of a country childhood was being gifted with an understanding of the magic of nature. Now in my seventies I can see it as a time of enchantment.
As a child of the 1940s when technological advances had left the countryside largely untouched, anything could be magical. One such occasion was my first visit to the blacksmith. His workshop was dark and gloomy, the only light coming from the forge and a soft ingrained window. Usually the lack of sunlight meant he left the door open, whatever the weather so as to get sufficient light with which to work. I witnessed this man using hammers, pincers and the forge to manufacture a horse shoe. A man so shrouded in shadow, that the only feature of his that I can recall is his bare arms. As a child of a pre-industrial age I can understand why medieval man intuited magic to the work of blacksmith. Seeing him turn a lump of shapeless metal into a horseshoe for the horse tethered outside seemed to be the practice of some spectral art. Given the powers of the swords wielded by the heroes of the medieval sagas, magic had to be part of the process of their making. Excalibur could well have been made in that age old smithy in the Gloucestershire of my childhood. It was not so far distant from the reputed land of Arthur.Technology robs today’s children of that sense of wonder. Excalibur for them could feature in a game played on their tablet, becoming a sword robbed of all its magic.
Today’s urban children are remote from the natural environment. I was not only in it, but part of it. . The natural environment was an ever changing constant in my life. Nature started at the bottom of my garden. There the hidden world of the woodland started. Even those paths through the woods that were familiar to me were constantly changing. Each day there would be something new to discover. Autumn was the time to look for toadstools, what I wanted to spot was the red Fly Agaric. A red toadstool with white spots, so loved of the illustrators of children’s books. Surprisingly they were not a common sight in the woods, instead they were full of their duller cousins. Although one duller cousin the puffball gave off delightfully clouds of black dust when kicked. Once the red Fly Agaric was finally found you knew that you were a participant in those stories about fairies that you read. Not only that there was the even more exciting time when you came across a fairy circle. These toadstools grew in a circle within which you knew the fairies danced at night. Adults then never disabused you of this belief. They also knew that nature was never a mystery can could never be fully explained. In their lifetime they had seen things that could that not be contained within rational explanation.
Naturalists claim that the rooks court is but a figment of the rural imagination. Rooks courts were those held by the colony of rooks, in which those rooks that have committed infractions of the rules of the colony were judged and punished. Yet my father one day heard a cacophony of noise from the vicinity of the rookery. There he saw a circle of rooks in centre of which were two rooks. From the tone of the rook’s cries it was obvious that were antagonistic to these two at the centre of the circle. Unfortunately these rooks became aware of my father’s presence and flew off, so he never discovered how the rookery would have dealt with these two miscreants. All countrymen could recount the similar stories, so for them nature was a mystery that could never be reduced to the explanations of science.
One of the most important events in the estate calendar was the village fete. All the villagers wanted to earn the prestigious title of best of show for their vegetables and flowers. Tricks and ploys of various forms were used some whose practice seemed to be the practice of some natural magic. Some men swore by planting their vegetables during the evening of a full moon. I cannot comment on the efficacy of this practice, although my father did try it one year, but disappointingly it produced no excessive profusion of vegetables.
None of the men of my childhood ever attended church. Church was for those of a different social class. It was for those who considered themselves superior to the workers, the rural middle class. The attitude of these people towards their supposed inferiors can be illustrated by a story. When the estate agent was checking on the work of the gamekeepers, he came in a car accompanied by his wife. She while observing the workers from the open car window, dropped a glove. She said to her husband while pointing at my father, tell that man to pick up my glove. What my father and his co-workers seemed to believe in was a religion was one that predated Christianity. An older religion that was founded on a respect for nature and its ways. They knew little of the church rituals or practices. Yet they were aware were the seasonal Christian rituals, as these rituals marked the changing of the seasons and there work practices. Then harvest festival signalled such a change. By now the crops had been harvested and the pace of work slowed. Work lost the intensity of summer. No longer would men work late at night harvesting the crop to take advantage of the favourable weather conditions.
While they never delayed the ploughing until ‘Plough Monday’ and certainly never attended a church service on that day, they knew on what day it fell. Plough Monday and other such rituals sanctified their working lives, it was more than a recognition of there value to the community. It elevated the mundane task of work into something out of the ordinary, something hallowed. For a country child Ash Wednesday was not a day of penance, it was instead the day in which we played with keys from the ash tree, trying to make them spin and fly. A shortage or lack of ash keys would have meant something was very wrong in nature. If I could go back in time and tell my father and his friends, that they practised a natural religion, they would have laughed at me. Religion was not something they talked about. Although I believe it governed there lives. Nature was a certain something, a thing to be respected not abused. They always had tales about the farmer or farm labourer who went against nature and suffered in consequence.
Although I think that my father and his workmates would have implicitly understood Democritus’s statement that every changes and nothing changes. They knew that nature was both ever changing and also a never changing something that endured from season to season and year to year.The rhythm of the seasons taught them this.
What a country childhood has given me is a sense of wonder. I can still see the enchantment within everyday things. As a child I eagerly looked for the first snow drop, as being the sign of the approach of spring. Then, if my father had come across the first snowdrop of the year, I and my sister would accompany him to that spot in which the snow drop was found, and marvel at its presence. Even now in my seventies when snowdrops are so common in urban gardens, I still look eagerly for that first snowdrop that is the first sign of the coming spring.
These old countrymen seemed to me to possess the wisdom of the ages. Not the silly version shown in Hollywood films, but a knowing grounded in reality of human existence. This gave them the strength to endure the horrors of war. In my fathers unit of thirty two that went to war, only three came back in 1945. The man who came back my mother said unrecognisable, he had become an old man. Yet he and the others endured seemed to me and his childhood friends to have come through the conflict unscathed. We longed forward to adulthood when we would possess the strength of our fathers.
Unlike my father I can give a name to my religious beliefs, I am a deist. While I respect Christianity and love the Anglican Church, I cannot call myself a Christian. What I possess is a countryman’s natural religion, a sense of awe at the wonder of existence. A religion which is not one that does not fit easily within the narrow confines of a particular doctrine. One that is without boundaries, one that flows easily from one religious discipline to another. That anonymous author who wrote ‘The Cloud of the UnKnowing’ gives the title to my religious belief. It not require a name.
Having inherited the natural religion of my fathers, unlike my friends I have great respect for the religious writers of the past. I read them wishing to give clarity to my natural religion. Medieval theologians were not as I popularly believed, obsessed with silly debates as to how many angels could dance on a pinhead. Anybody who cares to read the scholastic philosophers will discover thinkers as sophisticated in their thought as contemporary philosophers. Also as difficult to read as any modern philosopher.
John Hick with his term the ‘religious ultimate’ expresses best the belief of the those who cling to the natural religion of their fathers.