The magic of Shakespeare – and a voice for England

All my life as a writer I have been in awe of Shakespeare’s way with words. All human life is contained therein. His timeless messages and understanding transcends the minutely observed circumstances and daily items of his own age, as they leap out of the page.

For anyone interested in politics the perceptions of Macbeth show just how easy it is for power to corrupt. Loyalty and friendship are replaced by violence and deception in the pursuit of the crown. King Lear reminds us how close to madness court life can bring people, and how a powerful man who gives away his powers lives to regret his folly. As the Fool reminded him, it is not a good idea to get old if you do not also become wise. Hamlet captures the difficulties for a thoughtful Prince to decide what to do where some urge strong forceful revenge whilst others might favour forgiveness and acceptance of the state of the world.

Midsummer Night’s Dream is my favourite of the comedies. The beautifully crafted play within a play never ceases to amuse. The magic verse of Puck and the fairies enchants, as they play with the fickle feelings of mere mortals, getting into bizarre pickles of their own.

On today of all days we think of the histories set in war torn England before the Tudors. These great dramas capture the shifting fortunes of the rival houses of York and Lancaster. They portray perfect martial kingship in Henry V, weak vacillating kingship in Richard II, and calculating kingship in Henry IV. Their hero is England, long suffering England. We know, as Shakespeare knew, that England emerged from her long time of troubles and strife. England of 1600 had claimed many more glories than the England of the wars of the roses could even dream about.

Let us hope the same is true again today. I look forward to England casting off her current European tribulations. Her greatest days surely lie ahead, as Shakespeare knew they did when writing about the fifteenth century.

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Happy St George’s Day

John of Gaunt’s famous speech in Shakespeare’s play is one of the most famous eulogies to England. Its tearful ending refers to the damage done to England by the civil wars. Today the troubling issue is England’s relationship with the EU.

“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! “

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The CBI is unwise to meddle with the politics of identity and belonging

I welcome free speech in our democracy. I strongly disagree with the CBI’s stance on the EU, but I do not challenge their right to hold it. I would suggest thye pause and reconsider their enthusiasm for imntervening in debates about identity and belonging, as they can now appraise the results of their current camapign over Scotland’s future.

hey have adopted similar tactics in their approach to Scotland as in their stance on the EU. Their threats to Scotland about what might happen to business there if the Scots vote to leave the UK look as if they have been counterproductive. They certainly show a lack of wisdom.

Mr Cridland is a passionate advocate of the union with Scotland. There’s nothing wrong with that, and as a private individual he is welcome to speak out all he likes. As Director General of the CBI he has to consider the views and interests of his members. He claims that his members are also Unionists. Many might be, but as we have seen, the CBI is now facing the resignation of various member firms because they are either not Unionists, or think it is wrong for the CBI to take a strong political stance on such a divisive issue. It does not look good to see resignations on principle as the result of the CBI declaring a view on Scotland’s future. That cannot help the cause of Better off together. Was it wise?

The main CBI tactic in the Scottish debate has been to claim that various businesses will either leave Scotland, or would cease new investment and job creation there should Scotland leave the UK. This statement was countered by some businesses making the opposite case, saying they might find Scotland more attractive if it was independent. For example independent Scotland could set a lower aviation tax than the rest of the UK which aviaiton busiensses would find attractive. The original claim created a sense of disunity, with other voices trying to undermine its credibility. Far from helping the Better Together campaign, it looks as if the business interventions have hindered the cause they are trying to help. At best they have not been able to prevent a clear swing towards separatism in the polls.

Which brings me back to the issue of the CBI’s stance on the EU. The CBI want to negotiate a new deal with the EU, but also want to say that the UK must stay in whatever the results of the negotiation. Good business people understand that to negotiate successfully you need to be able to walk away from the negotiation if necessary. The CBI is out to hobble the UK before it begins discussing what a new relationship with the EU might look like.

Maybe I should not worry about the CBI stance, because on the EU as on Scotland the voters may not be swayed favourably by it. It would be good, however, if the EU debate were spared the misleading claims that many businesses would pack up and leave if the UK left the EU. This was after all a claim many in the business community made if we did not join the Euro. They were wrong about that.

Mr Cridland may have had good reason to think most member firms were pro the union of the UK. He should not be under any delusion about belonging to the EU on current terms. Most people are against that and do not want our negotiating power hobbled, and that must include some business leaders. What he is experiencing today with the CBI’s unfortunate incursion into the Scottish referendum would be small beer compared to the grief intervention in the EU debate might cause him. It is not wise for business organisations to interfere in matters of belonging and identity, matters more of the heart than head. Sticking to the facts is one thing. Claiming you know how businesses will react, when you were wrong last time about the Euro, is not wise.

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Is the UK a Christian country?

I am asking you, my readers, to help answer this question of our times.

I think the Prime Minister meant when he said we are a Christian country that we have a Christian past when Christianity was the religion of the many. We still have an established Christian Church in England. Our constitution includes Bishops in the Lords, the Queen as Head of the Anglican Church, Christian services to commemorate great national events and anniversaries, Christian prayers at the start of every Parliamentary day and similar Christian services punctuating the rhythms of civic life in many towns and counties. Remembrance Day, Christmas, royal births, marriages, deaths and anniversaries all include Anglican Church services in our national life. In Wokingham Church and state come together for a variety of civic functions.

The Prime Minister is well aware of the many people of other faiths in our society who enjoy the tolerance and freedom of our society to profess their beliefs and hold their own ceremonies. Other faiths are also now represented in the Lords and their Heads are invited to the large State religious services and civic occasions. He is also well aware that many people in the UK believe in no religion, and will know that practising Christians attending Church regularly are a minority.

What does all this make us? Was he wrong to call us a Christian country, given the constitutional framework? Why should anyone be offended if a political leader draws attention to our Christian past and to our current fusing of the Anglican Church with our governing establishment?

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Leading Anglicans, religion and social policy

They used to say the Anglican Church was the Conservative party at prayer.It was true that in the 1970s and 1980s a lot of Conservative members could be found at morning service on a Sunday. It was not true even then that the vicars preached on Conservative lines. Eye of the needle sermons were more popular. Those Conservatives who were in employment on decent salaries or who had saved for their retirement were made to feel uncomfortable.

Today the gap between the Church and the Conservative party is even greater than when Anglican worthies wrote in condemnation of Mrs Thatcher’s policies, and set up Faith in the cities. They were not too noisy during the Blair years about domestic matters, but today some Church leaders seem to have become the religious wing of Labour’s campaign for higher welfare payments.

They imply there is a level of welfare benefit that could be paid which would mean no-one needed emergency help any more. They look forward to the closure of all food banks because everyone always has enough money to pay the household bills. I would sign up immediately for that if there was a way of achieving it. If poverty could be abolished by a sweep of the legislative pen, elected officials would have done it years ago. If only government could magic away all life’s problems and all people’s mistakes. I seem to remember there were all too many people on drugs, without jobs, and suffering from insufficient welfare support under Labour as well. Food banks were set up under Labour for people facing a temporary crisis, though the government did not want to encourage them. The main difference between the last Labour government and the current Coalition one, is the present government welcomes the additional help food banks offer, and refers people to them, where Labour declined to do so.

Where they draw attention to individual cases where benefits have not been paid on time or harsh judgements have been made in individual cases, they will have Ministers and MPs from the governing parties on their side and seeking to help as well. Coalition MPs did not come into politics to be unfair to the disabled or unsympathetic to someone who cannot find a job.

The evolution of Anglican theology and philosophy is interesting. In the heyday of the Anglican Church when most went to a Sunday service, and when the Church was expanding its buildings and its charitable works, it preached a more balanced moral position. Protestants thought people should work hard and provide for themselves wherever possible. Some in the Church even went too far, implying the elect or God’s chosen were people who those who provided for their families and used the fruits of their success to finance the local Church and offered welfare to the poor. Certainly the rich and the moderately well off were welcomed to Church.

Today much Anglican rhetoric is a doctrine for the oppressed. The Church of course wishes to do good by offering a helping hand to the dispossessed, the disabled and the fallen.I am all for that. But in doing so it does not need to condemn or cold shoulder all those who do manage to provide for themselves and their families in true Protestant enterprising style. The art of the Church should be to draw those people in too, and to harness their talents and energies to a wider purpose.Nor should it just campaign against a government of two parties seeking to promote work as the best means to a better living standard for many, without accepting that there is good in plans to make it more worthwhile for everyone to have a job.

Instead, some vicars seem to think all welfare has to come from the government, that the only morality that matters is the morality of higher taxes, and that the better off half should be condemned or left outside the Church door as unworthy of the union of the dispossessed who will come to attain the kingdom of heaven. Such thinking is divisive and can harm the poor. I rarely hear an Anglican statement these days without a ritual denunciation of bankers, though Anglican staff salaries are partly derived on the extensive invested wealth of the Church which passes through the hands of financiers, and from the extensive tax breaks the Church enjoys on its income and wealth.

I do not want the Anglican Church to go back to supporting the establishment without sufficient thought for the poor.I do want them to have a more mature understanding of the complex causes of poverty, and of the various ways successive governments are trying to combat it. The current government has no more wish than the previous Labour administration or the Thatcher government to create more poverty or to leave poverty untreated.

The Church at its best can be a presence in our communities, itself reducing loneliness, low self esteem, poor morale and the sense of powerlessness which can grip people. Helping people with a few days of free food may be a good thing to do, and unfortunately necessary even in a welfare state spending £210 billion a year on state benefits and tax credits.Some people do face problems which render the benefit payments insufficient, and sometimes a system designed for the many can let down a few through its rules.

Even better is for the Church to work with individuals and families on how in future that family can manage better and work to help themselves, so they can face the food bill the following week with money to pay it. The Church needs to work with the grain of our welfare state, and to help improve it, understanding the drift of policy towards seeing work and self help as the best way for many to achieve a better lifestyle. As is often said, it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish to eat once in a while.

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Who speaks for England?

I recently tabled a question asking the government “Who speaks for England?” At least I thought I had. Then just as Parliament broke for the Easter recess my written question found its way back to my office. The Table Office had decided it was a question that could not be asked.

Before you all fly off the handle, there is something you should know about our democracy. A good number of potential written questions are blocked. Some are blocked for good reason. If they are about matters for which the government has no responsibility, for example, or where the government has no knowledge, there is no point in allowing them. If the same or very similar question has just been answered, then why not look up the answer instead of going through it all again.

When we had a Labour government I was regularly blocked from asking written questions on the grounds that the Table Office knew the government would not answer them. Sometimes after a long argument it was possible to put the question into a shape where it could at least be asked, though the answers were often disappointing. I daresay if I try I can find a way of changing this question to ask something related that the Table Office would regard as being in order.

Instead I think it is better to highlight this extraordinary fact that an English MP sitting for an English constituency in the UK Parliament is not allowed to pose the simple written question of the UK government, “Who in government speaks for England?” By writing about this the question may get more attention than if I had been allowed to table the original version.

Englishmen and women should be concerned at this insouciance towards our cause. Many of us think England has had a poor settlement from the UK, and a lousy one from the EU. I would expect the government to answer the Who speaks for England? question with an account of the English Cabinet Ministers who handle just English affairs – Education, Health, Local Government – and the Cabinet Ministers like the Home Secretary who do not deal with Scottish matters.

I want them to reconsider the issue of English votes for English issues in the Commons. I want them to work up an agenda of how England’s interests and views can be properly reflected by the Union government as there is no separate English Parliament to parallel the Scottish one and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies. Surely England needs to have a voice from inside the Westminster government, as it lacks one from its own separate body?

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Who am I?

The EU is helping create a crisis of identity through Europe. The Europe of nations answered the question of “Who am I?” by each person accepting they were Spanish or British or French or German, based on where they were born and where they lived. Most of us were born into the country where we made our living. We were loyal to it, and expected our country to stand by us. That was before common borders, large migrations of people, and strong regional policies throughout the EU.

It is true there were some tensions even within a Europe of nations. The Basques were not happy in Spain. Some of the Catholics were not happy in Northern Ireland, preferring the Irish Republic. Parts of countries that had been shunted around too many times as a result of wars and treaties found the issue of who they were and where they belonged more difficult than the vast majority who lived in one of the individual states of Europe with settled frontiers.

Before the UK joined the EEC and it evolved into the EU I never questioned who I was. I belonged to the UK, would answer the question as British, and believed in our independent democracy and quirky constitution. What do I say now? I am tempted now to say I am English. Who knows what country I will technically belong to if Scotland votes to leave. We do not even have a name, as you can scarcely call what remains the United Kingdom.

The EU decided to foster regional senses of identity within the major states of the EU, partly as a way of undermining their legitimacy, partly as a way of increasing its influence through direct finance and policy links to the regions. The EU encouraged different senses of identity in Scotland and Wales, treating them as regions they could do business with. They tried to drive England off the map, presumably fearing its power and capacity for independent thought. They encouraged the Catalans in Spain, the Venetians and Lombardians in Italy, the Bavarians in Germany and the Flemish in Belgium.

Once the EU had gained major power, it became less enthusiastic about splinter regions that might want to detach themselves from member states, at exactly the time when its original policy of fostering regional identities was fructifying. Today Scotland has gained the right to a vote on leaving the UK, with many Scots wanting to exercise it. The Catalans are insistent they deserve a vote, and would probably vote to leave Spain, if only the national government would allow it. In Italy the Veneto has just voted to leave Italy, but the Italian state will not recognise the referendum held nor grant a legal one. In the Ukraine the EU as an act of foreign policy is seeking to suppress all regional senses of identity, even opposing a federal devolved structure as well as setting itself against referenda for parts of the country to leave the Ukraine.

The EU was wrong to do so much to unsettle the original countries. It is even more wrong now to deny the strong emerging regional movements the right to legal and peaceful self determination. You should not hold out the hope of a new identity, only to dash it when people claim it.

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Splitting up is never easy

It is a strange feeling to see and hear people arguing about whether to split up our country or not. It is even stranger to know I do not have a vote over whether the UK survives or perishes. I am told by all the wise commentators that as an English Conservative my view is not wanted, and could make keeping the Union together more difficult if expressed.

I fear for the Union when the debate about a possible divorce is already about who has contributed most to the family silver and who pays the outstanding mortgage. If you want to keep your marriage together, the partner who earns most and pays the mortgage should not bang on about the extra contribution they are making financially to the marriage. They pay the bills to support the rest of the family out of love and as part of that feeling of togetherness. If a wife or husband persists in wanting to split it all up, both are then driven to argue over who owns and deserves which of the assets, and who is to be liable for which of the liabilities. Once you are arguing over that, often with lawyers involved, the last vestiges of love and togetherness are squeezed out by the process of seeking to end the union.

So it can be for countries. England does not normally seek to draw up a balance sheet of what it has contributed compared to what Scotland has added to the Union. England does not normally analyse the figures to see if we are paying more in than we are getting out. England even puts up with apparent injustices over tax based support for Higher Education and long term care in the interests of the union. Most of us do not see it as a trade or commerce driven relationship where you are only interested in what you draw out. I was brought up to see Edinburgh and Glasgow as much a part of my country as London, Birmingham and Manchester.

The genius of Alex Salmond is to fire up English nationalism as the adjunct to his construction of Scottish nationalism. He does want to turn it into a divorce settlement issue. Indeed, he does not even want a clean and full divorce, as his idea of independence includes keeping the Queen, the pound, the defence contracts and much else. He wants separation, and freedom to enter new relationships, whilst the old partner is still there to prop up RBS and provide a common currency.

And that is where his plan goes wrong. He has now kindled enough English nationalism for us to say we do not want an “independent” Scotland sharing our currency, making our warships or expecting us to prop up their banks. Most of us English would still rather keep our country, the UK, together. We will welcome a Scottish decision to stay with us, and seek to make another go of our union. If, however, Scotland does vote for out, they should expect a new tough England to negotiate in its own interests as any spurned partner to a marriage does.

Nor do most of us want a narrow victory for union followed by another run at splitting it all up from Mr Salmond. One vote either way is enough to settle this mighty issue. More difficult is then to get Scottish nationalists to live with the result if they lose. They will find a more independently minded England if they try any tricks. Their successful strategy at firing up wishes for English independence will make their cause more difficult if they lose, as well as creating a more determined English negotiator if they win.

Pulling a plant up by its roots to see if it is growing is never a great idea. Putting partners through a test of their loyalty to each other, and then only letting one of the partners have a say, is not a great recipe for a happy union.

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The Ukrainian government decides to parade its weakness

The fabled fight back against “terrorists” ground to a halt amidst popular peaceful protest yesterday. Armoured vehicles had to stop and some were “captured” by unarmed civilians who disagreed with the Kiev government. Flying fast military jets overhead is a not a great way to win back the trust and support of the population.

At the peace talks today the West needs to be realistic. The current Ukrainian government cannot police the whole country or command the loyalty and support of all for the present political arrangements. The Ukrainian government should not fire on its own unarmed people, and has to accept that many of those who disagree with it are peaceful protesters, and these people support the armed personnel who occupy some of the key official buildings. The country has to be won back by words and by votes, not by bullets.

The danger now is the creation of various unofficial armed militias and a further break down in law and order and central government control. If Ukraine minus the Crimea is to be saved as a state it now needs a leader who can emerge, win the election, and unite the country behind a suitable system of government. The Russians have a point when they recommend a more federal state with more rights to independent decision taking in the Russian speaking parts of the country. The current regime does not have the trust of the Russian speakers, and needs to address this issue. If they do not want a federal solution, they have to show what can work better.

The West pressed too far without the means or intent to back up the western looking regime who took over. These things are best done by democratic elected politicians leading change and understanding the different viewpoints in their own country. The Ukrainian regime is showing just how easy it is to lose unity and a feeling of belonging to a state. At the peace conference the UK should make clear it does not want the interim Ukrainian government provoking the Russian speakers and their friends in Russia more or resorting to force in a way which promotes a civil war, just as it is opposed to Russian troops intervening from across the border.

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Loads of jobs

Yesterday’s unemployment figures were great news. 1.5 million additional private sector jobs have been created since the 2010 General Election. Unemployment is now down to 6.9%. More young people and people who have been out of work for a long time have found jobs. The majority of the jobs are full time. In my constituency unemployment is now down to just 1%.

The best way out of poverty is through work. The best way to a good job is to have some sort of job and work your way up. The best way to cut the welfare bill is for many more people to rely on work income for more of their financial needs, shifting off unemployment benefits. Tough welfare reform is easier if work is available for many more people, and if work is a realistic option. Those who cannot work should of course be treated generously.

Starbucks announced it will transfer its headquarters to the UK, and will as a result pay more tax here. That could be another sign that a lower Corporation Tax rate brings more business and tax in. It was also a recognition by Starbucks that the UK is the fastest growing of the EU countries this year and could continue to do well thereafter.

Pay has also just edged ahead of price rises for the first time since Labour’s Great Recession in 2008 smashed living standards. It has taken time to turn the economy around sufficiently to reverse this process. It will take longer to get real living standards above the level of 2007 before Labour’s crash. It is strange hearing Labour continuing with its mantra about a “cost of living crisis” which they started off in such spectacular fashion with the Great Recession. Just as their mantra that the Coalition was “cutting too far and too fast” had to be dropped because it was not true and the economy anyway started to grow faster, so they will have to drop this mantra before the election or look as if they are rooted in the past and do not like improving news.

All the main political parties want more people to have jobs, and want pay to be better. Rising living standards are a common aim. The row should be about how you achieve this. It looks as if the current recovery can now start to tackle the poor performance of real wages since 2007, and can certainly continue to offer many more people the chance of a job instead of life on benefits. If at the same time the government has sufficient control of our borders, this augurs well for getting the welfare bill down for the right reason – fewer people will need welfare.

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  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood has been the Member of Parliament for Wokingham since 1987. First attending Kent College, Canterbury, he graduated from Magdalen College, and has a DPhil from All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.
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