[ 19:20 sunday 27 march – sandhurst, gloucestershire ]
easter day. the great pagan festival of fertility and life converted so ingeniously by the christian church into its number one celebration of agony and death. this is what you call progress. industrial society got the last laugh though, rendering down the christian festival into today’s riot of gluttony and tv specials, just as it has rendered down every other festival. the modern tagline for christmas and easter exorts us that these are times “for the family”, an implicit recognition that the remaining 364 days of the year are not for the family. the triumph of individualism seems to be the right to ignore blood relations for most of the time.
yesterday i helped dad cut down a fir tree in the garden which had been planted a few years after we moved to the house in 1987. over the years i’d seen it grow to be a substantial tree, perhaps twenty-five feet high. but its size had started to suffocate other plants in its vicinity and disturb the harmony of the garden. hence my parents decided it was time to remove it. killing a mature tree is a little tragedy but it’s what mum and dad wanted and i was glad to be useful. it made me think how long i’ve known this patch of land, how much it’s changed from the bare field of eighteen years ago, how many memories are associated with each corner and plant. it made me think about the slow cycles of life, of beginnings and ends, births and deaths.
in a similar vein, the pool family has been living opposite the house as long as we’ve been here, farming the surrounding land as their parents farmed it before them. now they’re giving up farming and moving out, having reached the conclusion that it’s no longer a viable business. they’ve already sold their livestock and yesterday people came from far and wide as their machinery was put to auction. here too there’s a sense of witnessing a point of transition in a cycle as the energy and intelligence of british rural society seeps away from agriculture after millennia during which it provided the foundation.
returning to my previous despatch on britain’s inventive new prevention of terrorism bill, the process continued well into friday evening. this is the longest period a bill has bounced around between the two houses since records began. mr blair continued to give the chamber a wide berth, preferring to make uncompromising statements to tv cameras in the opposition-free comfort of downing street. these statements were obligingly aired on all the news programmes and will thus have formed the basis of viewers’ understanding of what was going on, though they had almost no bearing on the passionate debate raging quarter of a mile away.
when the bill bounced back to the house of lords for the fifth time, with the clauses the lords had repeatedly removed re-inserted yet again by the commons, my noble friends stuck their hands in the air and gave up. within an hour the queen had signed the act and it passed into law. within three hours the home secretary had signed the first ten of the new control orders, impatient to try out the shiny new toy delivered to his hands by a parliament entirely impotent to stop or modify the legislation.
what did the parliamentary process achieve? the three primary demands raised in the commons and lords were that judges should issue the orders, not politicians, that the legislation should terminate after a period of between six and twelve months and that the standard of proof should be “balance of probability” rather than “reasonable suspicion”. not one of these amendments was secured. on the first point the government conceded that a court would have to examine orders issued by the home secretary within seven days, and if there was clear evidence that the home secretary’s reasoning was “substantially flawed” they could change the terms of the order. under all other circumstances the court is required to let the order stand. on the second point the government graciously agreed that parliament would be given the opportunity to discuss the legislation sometime next year. there is nothing in the act specifying this, it is purely an assurance from the government that it will make time and take notice of what parliament says. on the third point there was no concession at all.
in all points of substance, therefore, the government got precisely the bill it had put forward. yet anyone watching the tv news or reading the papers in the succeeding days would think something entirely different had occurred. opposition leaders proclaimed that the final bill was “almost unrecognisable” from the one originally presented, that the government had “caved in” on crucial demands and that the lords had achieved a great victory for parliamentary democracy. indeed this was the narrative that had played out in parliament, if not the substance of what took place. i surmise the government put forward the bill with several elements it fully planned to jettison in order to give an appearance of making concessions and offering opponents a way to claim victory without ever materially altering the bill. the art was to appear serious about defending clauses which were always destined to be amended, and ensure that opposition remained focused on these points. the word for this is “theatre”. a form of entertainment. a distraction from actuality.
and this, it appears, is what we have allowed our democracies to become. one day we may wish we’d paid more attention.
: c :