It’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird

It’s a  sin to kill a Mockingbird

This post explores my reaction to reading Go Set A Watchman – here be spoilers for Watchman and for To Kill a Mockingbird (if you can really call comments on a novel released over 50 years ago ‘spoilers’).

I recently finished reading Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. Never have I been so conflicted about a book.

Let me explain.

I have loved To Kill a Mockingbird since the first time I read it in my teens. It certainly ranks in my top five favourite books, and might just nudge it’s way to the top of the list. Mockingbird is, for me, one of the best explorations of justice and equality ever written, and I have long thought that if I can grow up to be half the man Atticus Finch is, I will be justifiably proud.

I was, therefore, apprehensive when I heard about Watchman. I was aware that it was an early exploration of the world and characters which eventually formed Mockingbird, and that its release was far from uncontroversial. I had heard, too, that Watchman presented those characters in a very different light to Mockingbird. Together, these led me to fear that reading Watchman would, to a degree, destroy the relationship I had with the Finches et al. In the end, I was so uncertain that I didn’t buy or borrow Watchman. It was not until I was given a copy at Christmas that I decided to read it.

Well, here I am, having finished Watchman, and I cannot deny that, as I expected, my relationship with the world which Harper Lee created has changed. But I remain uncertain as to whether or not this is a ‘good thing’.

Watchman is set some 15-20 years after Mockingbird. In it, Scout Finch returns to the small Town setting of Mockingbird, to find that the civil rights movement has strained previously functional relationships between black and white communities and people (one of the most painful sections of the narrative involves Scout visiting Calpurnia, who had been her housekeeper and surrogate mother, and finding a cool reception). Over the course of the novel, Scout comes to realise that the people she had held up as paragons, in particular her father Atticus, are not as perfect as they appear.

Both novels explore Scout’s relationship with Atticus extensively, and it is here that we see the greatest shift. In Mockingbird, Atticus is presented as the town’s moral compass, willing to stare down a lynch mob unarmed, to defend an innocent black man. We readers assume this is because Atticus cannot abide discrimination and injustice – a view supported by his positive attitude to Boo Radley, a young man with severe learning disabilities.

Watchman alters our perception of Atticus. Whilst I do not believe the book presents him as actually racist (as some people might argue), it does show a man with painfully distorted priorities – a man willing to tolerate racism, in order to attempt to maintain the social structures of Alabama (structures built around social discrimination and segregation), and because his preeminent concern for the law means that he cannot condone the Supreme Court’s intervention and infringement on States’ rights (through rulings such as Brown vs. Board of Education).

Scout cannot dismiss this new experience of what her father is like. I cannot dismiss Watchman as an ‘early draft’ of the novel which became Mockingbird because (except for a small number of allusions and flashbacks), it covers new territory. It has a significant new character (Hank), while two other main characters from Mockingbird (Dill and Jem) are absent. I am therefore forced to integrate the novel into my understanding of Harper Lee’s Maycombe County.

This is a painful experience for Scout, and similarly for me. We both held up Atticus as an ideal man and father. Watchman forces us both to face the reality that everyone is flawed. In some ways, this enriches the reality of the novels. They are more true in that they present a world in which there are no paragons. Scout discovers this new reality some time after the events of the novel, paralleling the experience of readers who first saw Atticus as a hero through her eyes, and are now forced to accept the imperfection of reality. This is especially interesting for people like me – people who first read Mockingbird as children or teenagers, and have grown up in between the two novels. Our experience of the world matches the unique publication order of the novels.

So, the shift is painful but true to life, (and pertinent when we consider that to this day the USA has failed to address its legacy of race division). Nonetheless, I feel I have lost something which cannot now be regained. The novel treats Scout’s experience as one in which she ceases to see Atticus as a God – a source of absolute moral authority – and sees him instead for nothing more or less than the man he is. Atticus is now forever tarnished for me, as he is for Scout. I can still praise his virtue, but it is now tinged with disappointment. I cannot help but feel it might have been better not to see that side of Harper Lee’s world. I know all our parents disappoint us sooner or later, but I wonder if, for that very reason, there is a value in having paragons?

We all need ideals to give us something to strive for. There is surely a place for fiction in providing this? Yet, I cannot now go back. And I’m honestly not sure if I would choose to do so if I could.


Election Reflections 2017-06-09

Another year, another unexpected election outcome to dissect. Here goes.

The national picture – Labour Up, Tories Down

The big story of the night is of course the decline of the Conservatives to the benefit of Labour.

I will admit from the outset I got this very wrong. I accepted the media view that a party led by Jeremy Corbyn would not be seen as plausible. This was clearly mistaken. It is evident that there *is* support for a more left-wing politics, and that Jeremy Corbyn has benefited from not being a typical career politician. He has definitely come across well throughout the campaign, and deserves credit for this. It may be that he can build a more left-wing labour party, but combine that with the professionalism of New Labour.

Having said that, I do believe that Labour benefitted hugely from a dreadful Conservative campaign. Going in to this election, the general public didn’t realise just how dreadful Mrs May is. Pre-election, there was a lot of discussion among politicos as to whether she was good or just lucky. It is clear now that pre-election she was just lucky. The Tory campaign was truly abysmal, and their policy platform was far to the right of the acceptable one-nation Conservatism of Cameron. Clearly, this position has been soundly rejected, along with their brutal Brexit.

More generally, we have seen a shift back towards a more bi-polar electoral map. The presidential feel of the campaign clearly helped Labour against the Tories, but it has also resulted in a shift back to extreme divisions between left and right, where people are more likely to vote to keep out the opposition they really dislike. Certainly Labour energised voters (it seems they even got the sought-after boost in young voters), but at least some of that vote will also have resulted from the desire to keep out the Tories, which is clearly more pronounced now that two years ago.

The Lib Dem Picture – we can build on this

As a proud Liberal Democrat, this election cycle has been one of huge personal swings, from massive optimism through to outright terror. At 8pm yesterday, I was pretty sure we would be down to about five seats and facing a Tory majority. On balance, I am not unhappy about moving from nine to twelve seats (an increase of 1/3). This is a small, but significant step to rebuilding the party. It is great to have Vince Cable and Ed Davy back in parliament, to have regained Bath and Eastbourne, to have taken Oxford West, and to have the beginnings of a restoration in Scotland.

There are, of course, great frustrations. Foremost amongst those was Fife North East (a seat once held by the late, great Sir Menzies Campbell), where just 2 votes stood between us and victory! Likewise, the loss of Richmond Park to Zac Goldsmith by 45 votes is a blow. However, small margins will, one hopes, spur the local parties to work even harder next time around – these seats are clearly winnable. Sarah Olney had been given little time to build a local presence, and of course this time round Zac Goldsmith had the full weight of the Tory party behind him (despite the party committing to Heathrow expansion in their manifesto, the policy which first led him to resign the whip).

Other seats we lost were greater blows – to have no MPs in Wales is a setback, as are the losses of Greg Mulholland and of course Nick Clegg, who, above all others, was a media-friendly face for the party (though his departure from the party’s front line may, with time, help us recover support among those who have still not forgiven us for the coalition era).

In terms of wider trends, we have suffered from the presidential, two-party style of this election, with a drop in vote share of 0.5%. The pattern of Labour up and Tories down has hit us too – our losses (with the exception of Richmond Park, and Southport, where we had lost our incumbency bonus with the retirement of John Pugh) were primarily to Labour. This trend also explains the failure of target seats such as Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes’ patch), and Cambridge (Julian Huppert), to turn orange (in the latter of those seats, I fear we are still haunted by tuition fees).

In contrast, our gains have been entirely from Tories and the SNP (who have been thoroughly bloodied). Opposition to the Tories explains successes in Bath and Oxford, in Eastbourne, Twickenham and Kingston & Surbiton. Some failed targets, such as Cheltenham, also saw positive swings to us.

So what can we learn from this. Our results prove yet again how deeply unfair our voting system is: 7.4% of the vote could, in a more representative system, give us some 48 seats (by the same token, the SNP’s 3% of the vote should have given them 19 seats, rather than 35). Sadly this is not about to change. Labour and the Tories both benefit from the status quo – this campaign proves that. With that in mind, it is a relief that our results show improved targeting. We must continue to build on this, with an ever more ruthless approach to local campaigns (as well as a realistic core vote strategy).

The results also give us a clear sense of our more obvious targets – socially liberal voters who would have considered Cameron, and Blair before him. Places like Richmond Park and Cheltenham are prime examples of where we need to look next, Bath and Oxford West of what we can achieve. These seats also, to some extent, vindicate our position on Brexit. No, we didn’t get 48% of the vote, but we did win remain voting seats from the Tories, and are seen as plausible in Scotland (which might not have been the case were we less ardently pro-remain)… It is arguable that we were seen as too much of a one issue party this time round (at a point when, as it turned out, this wasn’t the issue most on people’s minds). Nonetheless, our position on Brexit is a good indicator of our values (outward-looking, internationalist), and can, alongside policies such as 1p on income tax to fund the NHS, help highlight the distinctive voice of the Liberal Democrats in our politics,

All told, it may not be as good as we hoped, but these are results we can build on.

What now?

In the short term, we have a hung parliament. A Tory minority with support from the DUP looks like the most obvious outcome. Predictions for the date of the next election on a postcard please.

The big unknown in all this is of course Brexit. Mrs May went into this election seeking to strengthen her negotiating position – she has done exactly the opposite. If we are lucky, the EU will take pity on us, but time will tell. One thing is certain. The nation has voted for chaos.

Ohh, and UKIP need a new leader (again). Ant takers?!

Overlit by Joy

Overlit by Joy

Last weekend, once again, innocent people were killed on British soil, by people driven by an ideology built on hatred and division. Lives were ended prematurely, and others were irrevocably changed.

I have written before about how we respond to acts of terrorism, and after three attacks in three months, it feels like I can say little which has not already been captured by others. I can share stories of people helping out, of little acts of resistance, whether fleeing pint in hand, or returning to settle up the next day. I can point out that acts of terror do little to increase the risks we all face in modern life (though this is no comfort to those directly effected). And I can reaffirm the importance of standing together. Of living boldly.

But there is one thing I can say, which has not, perhaps, been said before.

You see, London Bridge is somewhere I spend a lot of time. I sing at Southwark Cathedral, so this attack felt, in some ways, far closer to me than even the Westminster attack (which led to my boss being stuck in Whitehall). Indeed, just last week I enjoyed a curry and drinks with friends in exactly that part of town.

But on Saturday night I was nowhere near London Bridge. Instead, I was in the Cumbria, at the wedding of two people I love well, Matt (who followed me as an intern at Coventry Cathedral), and Ellen (who lived with us when she came to Coventry, and who was there through some of the worst frustrations of job hunting).

Matt and Ellen are people who live out, perhaps better than any couple I know, an example of love and service. Matt devotes his time to working with Refugees and Asylum Seekers, while helping churches in Coventry improve their interfaith relations. Ellen spends her days supporting children with lives far more complex and painful than I can imagine, as a learning support mentor. They do all this, while building a life together in Coventry, a city which neither of them knew before two years ago. And yet somehow, they always have time for their friends and family.

Their wedding was, then, an occasion which spoke of love at every turn. It spoke of their love, and of God’s love for them and for the world. It is fitting that they met each other as they met God in the waters Baptism. They are from a far more evangelical tradition than me, which meant their wedding was more openly fervent than many I have seen, and everyone I met at their wedding was clearly aware of God’s love for them, and of God working through them.

Put simply, their wedding overflowed with love and light and life. I did not expect to be named as a surrogate brother, nor to feel so very welcome and comfortable, though surrounded by people I didn’t know.

It was shortly after my mum and I got back to our B and B that we heard about the attack at London Bridge. I could barely comprehend the sorrow, full as my head was with love. And that is a great blessing. If, somehow, the joy of that wedding had been pushed aside by the London Bridge attack, I would have lost something immeasurably precious.

For me, the 3rd June 2017 will always be Matt and Ellen’s wedding day. And when other people speak about the London Bridge attack, I will remember their love, and their importance to everyone who is touched by their lives. Their wedding will not be overshadowed by the deaths of innocent people at Borough Market. Rather, those deaths will be made a little less dark by the light they cast.

Because light will always outshine darkness.

Sorrow is overlit by joy.

Dementia Tax…

The 2017 Conservative manifesto includes a commitment to funding social care through individual payments, capped so that nobody is left with less than £100,000.

This policy, widely condemned as a “Dementia tax” is deeply unfair. It would in effect mean that someone with a long term illness would face a tax rate of 100% on assets (including property) over £100,000. Inheritance tax currently stands at 40% on assets above a variable threshold, between £325,000 and £850,000.

In other words, Conservative tax policy will penalise anyone with a long-term, condition.

This, of course, has sparked backlash, as well it should. It is therfore unsurprising that today saw a Conservative u-turn. Theresa May announced that alongside this level of assets below which a person will not have to pay for care, there will be an absolute cap on the contributions any person will be required to make to pay for their social care.

I’ve blogged about u-turns in the past, and continue to believe they can be a public good. I’m glad Theresa May’s Conservatives have realised that their proposals for funding social care were deeply unfair. I’m glad they have announced this policy change, capping the amount anyone will be required to pay (though they have not specified what that cap will be). Im glad they are willing to change their position when flaws are highlighted (if we are going to have another Tory government, I’d rather it were one which changes its mind when presented with new evidence),

But this policy change does not go far enough. A system which makes an individual pay for their own care, regardless of how it is capped, is inherently unfair. Rather than sharing the burden of unforseen and uncontrollable medical costs fairly across society, it penalises people for being ill. Let me repeat that. The Conservative policy forces ill people to pay for their care. This is entirely antithetical to the principles of the NHS. It is fundamentally unfair that two otherwise identical people will pay vastly different sums due to an accident of health.

A fair system would see everyone contributing to the country’s social care needs, in proportion to their ability to pay (it’s unpopular, but I increasingly see a larger role for inheritance tax in meeting care needs). This system does not do that. It makes some people pay through the nose, while others get away with paying nothing. This is not a way to build a more cohesive society. It may be that we need to use people’s housing wealth to cover care costs, but if that is the case, it should come out of everyone’s houses.

Don’t let the Conservatives fool you. They may have tweaked their policy, but in doing so they have only made it a bit less bad!

Brick By Brick

Brick By Brick

In March I joined the Liberal Democrats. I was optimistic about the path the party was taking, with increased membership, and a position on Brexit which not only set us apart from Labour and the Conservatives, but also spoke to wider liberal values. I felt that, with hard work and a good media operation we could make some real progress. We could focus on showing the country the value of truly Liberal philosophy in a changing world; a world where the biggest threats do not respect borders, where our enemies are fuelled by intolerance, where the old party allegiances are increasingly meaningless.

Then Theresa May called an election.

Initially I was optimistic. The party membership reached a historic high. I thought our message could cut through.

It is clear now, that I was wrong. We haven’t seen a poll surge, fuelled by people who hold liberal values close to their heart. The local election results were at best mediocre. The two main party leaders declined to take part in leader’s debates, meaning that our only hope would be to be the best of the ‘minor’ parties. And, because of the chocolate fireguard of an electoral system which is First Past the Post, Theresa May has been able to shape the election as a choice between herself and Jeremy Corbyn.

Increasingly, I think this election could not have come at a worse time for us. Had it followed straight on the back of the referendum, we could have made far more of opposing Brexit, which now feels, to most people, a foregone conclusion. Conversely, had the election been a few years later (following the fixed term parliament act), we would have had the benefit of a more substantial break from the coalition, which still undermines potential centre-left support, alongside evidence of just how bad Brexit will actually be.

So what now?

We plug away. We build on our increasingly professional media operation, and make the most of any airtime we can get. We throw everything at key seats, and we hope that, come June the 9th, we are not worse off. I’ll be pleased if we make it in to the 20s at this point – if we lose seats we are in real trouble. But regardless, I increasingly see this election as a battle for survival, because we simply don’t have the bandwidth to do more. We are short on time, we are squeezed out of the competition by Labour and the Tories.

Once we are through the next few weeks, the real work will begin.

For too long, our cultural discourse has been high-jacked by illiberal voices, so that we have almost lost sight of what we are missing. The Liberal Democrats must step up and show the word that we can achieve more if we value differences of experience and culture, rather than seeking to impose conformity. That we people should be supported to pursue their own vision of a good life, through excellent education, through real electoral choice, through the freedom to love without consequence. That we can still work with people of different views. That any society relies on the contributions of all its parts, and cannot afford to demonise those who are rich, poor or not from round here. That our greatest challenges do not respect national boundaries.

The world needs Liberalism. Its our job to help it realise this.

Open, Tolerant & United: Why I joined the #LibDemFightback

Open, Tolerant & United: Why I joined the #LibDemFightback

Last week, after much umm-ing and ahh-ing, I joined the Liberal Democrats. Hopefully this will explain why (and might even spur someone else to do the same).

Throughout the majority of my political life, I have held the view the we would be better served if political parties did not exist. It is too easy for voters to get entrenched in voting patterns, without actually assessing policies or candidates. If we were all swing voters, It would ensure candidates actively engaged with their communities, making politics more of a conversation.

The reality, however, is that parties are here to stay, because, consciously or not, we all put ourselves in groups – whether by philosophy, nationality, religious outlook, or some other identity.

So if you want to play an active role in shaping the future, as I do, you must start by working with people who share a given identity. I look around and I am scared for the future; I am scared by our apathetic response to war and famine, by our baseless distrust of difference, by our disregard for the needs of the most vulnerable in our society, by the reckless abandon with which we abuse our planet. These are choices – choices driven by our political discourse which I must condemn. But simply to condemn the status quo is to abdicate responsibility. To live with integrity, I must act positively. I must seize every opportunity to turn things around. That’s why I decided the time had come to join put my money where my mouth is.

But why the #LibDemFightback?

I wrote about identity earlier in this post (and in previous posts on this blog). Indeed, it’s something I care about deeply, and there are few parties with whom I identify. Our two main parties of government seem committed to re-fighting Marxist battles between the workers and owners. True, you get working class Conservative voters, perhaps drawn to the party’s strong stance on law and order, just as you get middle class Labour voters, but those two parties are fundamentally concerned with ideas of wealth and class. Its in the very name of the Labour party – the party of manual labourers.

This division makes little sense to me. I don’t identify as working class, yet neither am I part of the wealthy elite (despite having grown up in the Cotswolds). What matters to me, far less than what rates of tax the Government sets, is what they do, and why they do it. And while there are Labour policies of which I approve (and conceivably even one or two Tory policies – I won’t rule out that possibility, though it seems doubtful), I cannot share their underlying philosophies. Labour requires ‘solidarity’, thus opposing dissent and plurality, while the Conservatives are inherently opposed to change and, consequently, raising the common good.

One other party has, at times appealed to me. The trouble with the Green Party is that it emphasises ecology above all else. That means my partner would be out of a job (no testing on live, non-human subjects, even if they are nematode worms), and more generally, that they have little time for exploring more radical options like geo-engineering.

So, in some ways I am left with the Lib Dems almost by default. But my membership is a positive choice, driven by positive values. One of the more striking things about the Lib Dems is that they put values first and foremost – even in their constitution. Where the conservative party exists “to sustain and promote within the nation the objects and values of the Conservative party”, the Liberal Democrats exist:

“to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

Indeed the preamble to the Constitution goes on to further outline Liberal values, taking about a page of A4, far more than any other major party.

In other words, rather than a specific set of policies, Liberal Democrats start with a set of values are free to build policy on those values, as the needs of the moment dictate. For a policy wonk who wants to change the world, that’s quite a draw. But, when all is said and done, it was those core values which convinced me to join the Party, values nicely summed up by the party slogan. We are Open, Tolerant are United.


The Crown Estates

This is a public service announcement.

Time and again, people criticising Conservative economic policy cite a few choice examples of Government expenditure to prove that austerity is a political choice. They argue that cuts to social care, to housing, to green subsidies, to local government or to the arts (to give a few examples) are not necessary, but are ideologically driven. They point out that the Government could find the money if they wanted to, but instead choose to use simplistic economic arguments to mask the fact that their ideal is a free market economy with minimal state interference. After all, the argument runs, the state bailed out the banks, it is spending vast sums on a new generation of nuclear power stations, on high speed rail, on the Trident successor.

Such arguments are not without value. Certainly austerity is a political choice (contrast current economic policy with that pursued in the post-war period, where, despite huge debts, we built the NHS). However, all too often, these arguments are marred. Alongside Trident, the banks and HS2, the other self-evident waste of money which is routinely cited is the Monarchy. And that is a problem.

In the financial year 2015-16, the Crown received £40m of taxpayer income. in 2016-17, it will receive £42.8m. This is not small change, and could be put to better use than funding one rich family’s decadent lifestyle.

Except that isn’t true. in 2015-16, the Sovereign Grant was £40m, and that did rise to £42.8m in 2016-17, but this is not taxpayer money. It is granted from the Treasury, but funded from the income of the Crown Estates. These are lands which belong to the Crown (rather than to the monarch as an individual) – which have traditionally been used for the administration of the state. Under the current Sovereign Grant scheme, the crown receives 15% of the crown estates’ income, with the other 85% going into Treasury coffers.

This 15% grant is used to fund the royal household. Now remember, the royal household remains a branch of government. This is not (as it is often presented) money going into the Queen’s pockets. It covers staffing, property maintenance and so on. Spending 15% of income on operational costs would give any business very good profit margins. Or, to look at it another way, the crown pays tax at a rate of 85%! It is of course right that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burdens, but even the most redistributive of us would surely agree that 85% is a pretty high rate of tax.

Controversially, it has been agreed that, from 2017 to 2027, the Sovereign Grant will be increased to 25% of Crown Estates income, in order to fund repairs to Buckingham Palace and other Crown properties. In other words, the crown will only be taxed at 75%, so that it can afford to pay for repairs to its most famous properties, which have been put off due to lack of funds. These properties are used for state functions and are huge tourist attractions. Recent repairs have included replacing roofing (so that priceless historical artefacts are not damaged) and removing asbestos (because “Queen Dies of Asbestos Inhalation” is a headline nobody wants). Such repairs are not decadent, and should not be seen as controversial.

I should add that the Sovereign Grant is only one part of the royal income. Royal ceremonies and security are paid for from the public purse, separately to the Sovereign Grant. The Queens’ personal expenses, meanwhile, are funded by the Duchy of Lancaster and from her personal assets. These income streams are primarily inherited, and will be taxed as capital gains. There is an altogether separate discussion to be had about how inherited wealth and capital gains are taxed in this country, but the over-arching point is this:

The Crown voluntarily surrenders the income from the Crown Estates to the state. The state recognises that the Crown is part of it, and so returns a relatively small part of this money to the Crown. This is not unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable that the amount of money should be increased to ensure that the Estates’ property is maintained in an appropriate fashion. To cite the increased in the Sovereign Grant as an example of frivolous spending of taxpayer money is misleading, as the money came only from a single tax payer – the same tax payer who is being given some more of it back. It is disingenuous to present this money as further lining the pockets of an individual born into great wealth. It fails to recognise that the increase in the Sovereign Grant is, in effect, a long term investment in buildings of national importance. And it fails to recognise that, even after the increase, the state will still do pretty well out of the Crown.

In other words, there are far better arguments against austerity to be articulated.