13 May 2010

"My true love hath my heart and I have his..."

My true-love hath my heart and I have his,
By just exchange one for the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss;
There never was a bargain better driven.
His heart in me keeps me and him in one;
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own;
I cherish his because in me it bides.
His heart his wound received from my sight;
My heart was wounded with his wounded heart;
For as from me on him his hurt did light,
So still, methought, in me his hurt did smart:
Both equal hurt, in this change sought our bliss,
My true love hath my heart and I have his.
~ Sir Philip Sidney

In my youth, one of my report cards from school advised my parents that I would flourish, if only I avoided the temptation to indulge in "vast and vague generalisation". I may still not have learned the art of close-mole precision, may still dabble in the vast and the vague at times - but I've grown fonder of snuffling about in the detail of things. Perhaps it was a side effect of my legal education. Heaven knows what I might have turned into, if I'd been given literary free reign and all the charismatic ecstasies of a postmodern, death-of-the-author existence. Vast and vague, I suppose. The virtue if not the love of attention to detail suggested itself again to me yesterday, as I first cast my eye across the published Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition deal. I was surprised by its brevity. More of an abstract for government this, than a full train of worked through reasoning, fit for peer review, final publication, major or minor revision or outright and final rejection. Any response to the document must be immediately and immensely caveated. Feeling more enthusiastic and optimistic than myself? Let me remind you of this sentence from the Conservative Manifesto...

"To protect our freedoms from state encroachment and encourage greater social responsibility, we will replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights."
The sitter in my portrait, the Jacobin French Revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre gave a speech in Paris' Jacobin club, after the chubby King Louis XVI had attempted to flee the country. It always struck me as a prescient remark, well worthy of reflecting on in our own circumstances.

"What frightens me is the very thing that seems to reassure everyone. And here I need to be listened to until the end. Once again, what frightens me is the very thing that seems to reassure everyone else: it’s that since this morning, all of our enemies speak the same language as us."

As I argued during the febrile interregnum, with the contesting accounts of legitimacy which suffused the public sphere, we always have to look behind the language, pry open the coalition lid, to see what people actually mean when they appeal to big, mutable concepts like liberty, responsibility or fairness. The words are by no means self evident and can cover a multitude of sins and virtues alike. Anyone who asks me if I believe in 'fairness' will be send away with a flea in their ear. Find me the elector who demands unfair policies, who doesn't couch their preferences with some reference to a positive demand for justice and I'll grill my trilby. On the level of detail, however, concrete policies and specific proposals, obfuscation is far more difficult. And detail is precisely what we don't have at this stage. Not that I blame them, of course.
The immediate coverage of the installation of Cameron was amusingly spiritualised. Very much an example of our  culture's capacity for secular transcendence, despite our godlessness. My favourite theme was the born to be Prime Minister angle, including thrillingly prescient tales from Cameron's school days when friends saw in him the stuff of future political greatness. Crusty old dons and schoolmasters - many of them port-addled, repressed homosexuals no doubt, in that most English of moulds - spiritualise their reflections on Tory leader's past, "Yes, I could see in him immediately something quite, quite special..."  - no doubt having sneaked a hasty shufti of his record beforehand to drag up from the fug of memory any recollection of the young fellow. What brought a smile to my otherwise melancholic expression was this. Surely every ghastly little Tory body believes and tells his fellow little Tory boys that "one day, I shall be Prime Minister!" That this particular little Tory boy actually managed it hardly makes it one of history's great foretellings. Think of all the disappointed little slitherers who said precisely the same thing, and who are still putting in for Tory constituency selections, without success. "One day", they whisper to themselves in the bitter watches of the night. But back to my main point.
What with the election, the Baalam's Ass agonies of the decision, the gush of self-importance as a new dispensation takes up its titles and toys - the detailed matters and actual decisions are yet to come for this Con-Dem coalition. Just don't lets mistake an aspiration to improve the quality of teaching or advance scholarship for anything too specific. A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill - indecisive about the name are we? - could include just about anything. Another good example. The new government proposes -

A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

Like what? An new mechanism, to be dreamed up in due course? The only thing which immediately suggests itself to me as an instrument to hamper attempts to introduce new offences is a massive codification, a Criminal Code for England and Wales, perhaps? The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency could yet go an inch, a mile or two feet back. One clear, welcome point of the document is the unconditional assertion that the Con-Dem government will oversee -

The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.

Obviously, being a miserable Scotchman, there is no parade I wouldn't enjoy raining on. I'm merely proposing a sense of watchful caution. While the sections on civil liberties seem compelling and have the potential to bring about changes I'd support - let's see. That obnoxious quote from the Tory manifesto gives me reasons not to rush to too much optimism. Just like the disingenuous claims of support for proportional representation that broke out in Labour circles, before they had driven any prospect of a progressive alliance into the sand - when "all of our enemies speak the same language as us", we should always pry beneath appearances and their fine words, and wonder what they're really up to. Moreover, we invariably read these documents from the comfortable saddle of our own hobby horses. With my legalistic hat on, I'm obviously interested in what they had to say on civil liberties. Constitutional wonkery provokes an interest in the niceties of promised political reform. Scottish nationalism inclines me to seek out the sections concerned with more powers for Holyrood. My sympathy for free education for all draws my eye to the higher education agreement. All of this is important, but without lapsing into full blown Marxian analysis, more than anything else, we must stand to sentinel attention to watch and check how this government treats the poor.

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