Stephen Says...

Stephen Says...

This is my blog

sharing occasional thoughts about things that interest me

English History and Heuristic Synopsis

the spirit of englandPosted by Stephen Fri, February 13, 2015 15:08:12

“The ages made her that made us from the dust:
She is all we know and live by, and we trust
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate her foe.”

Edward Thomas (1915)

Like Edward Thomas, who was writing from the Great War battlefield, I think the history of England begins from the present. What’s needed, to give a sense of order to the present situation, is a story, in terms of past events and people, centred on England. A justification for loyalty to living here and preferring not to seek asylum overseas. An explanation of the way things seem to us now that is consistent with an imagined ‘then’ in which we were not present: a context for ourselves.

Whether an absolute History exists, one that would look the same to everybody from anybody’s vantage point, I can’t decide and rather doubt. But I’m sure that none of us can know for certain this side of the grave. Instead the best that we can do is bricolage: confect a working structure from what we have to hand. And then subject this to continuous revision by using such evidence as our experience generates.

The story is told that an admirer of Michaelangelo’s statue of David, marvelling, asked the artist “How did you manage to see this wonderful image when presented with just a block of marble?”. To which Michaelangelo replied: “I didn’t, I just kept chipping away everything that was not David”.

This is the scientific approach: evidence is used to remove errors in an existing model; a process of continuous improvement.

This is the heuristic process. In principle it doesn’t matter what story, what model, what block of marble you start with: what matters is that you keep on improving it by removing errors, eliminating faults; the result is always something better than you started with, closer to perfection even if not perfect.

Accordingly it doesn’t really matter so much what version of history you first get offered (in school, for example): what matters is the way you go about modifying it using the evidence generated in the course of your lifetime’s experience.

That being the case, there should be no harm in putting forward a synoptic history of England that emerges from personal reflections rather than from an academic compilation.

And as Edward Thomas put it: “Little I know or care if, being dull, I shall miss something that historians can rake out of the ashes... But with the best and meanest Englishmen I am one in crying, God save England...” It is the concept that matters.

Saint Cedd and the English Spirit

the spirit of englandPosted by Stephen Thu, February 05, 2015 10:27:00

Saint Cedd was an Englishman, living in the middle of the seventh century. He was the eldest of four brothers, who were sent by their family to be students at a Christian community based on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) in Northumbria.

Cedd’s family seems to have been well established: successfully rearing four sons to learning age suggests this. They came from the Anglo-Saxon tradition: Anglo-Saxon being a term generally used to encompass troupes of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and other associated continental emigrants who had come and occupied most parts of the country in the aftermath of Roman military withdrawal, from about AD 400 onwards. This invasion represented a major cultural challenge for the resident local population of Romanised Celtic Britons, and there is evidence of violent resistance as well as neighbourly tolerance.

Despite the departure of the Romans, who had officially sponsored it, Christianity began to establish itself across the country; but according to two different traditions. In southern England, based at Canterbury in Kent, was the mission led by Saint Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great from Rome at the end of the sixth century. Meanwhile Ireland and Scotland, having avoided Roman administration, had accepted Christianity without the Roman Church. This Celtic form of Christianity was the tradition practised by the community at Lindisfarne.

This community was led by Saint Aidan, who worked according to the practice of similar groups established in the predominantly Celtic areas of Britain: in places such as Iona, an island where Saint Columba was based, or on the Scottish mainland at Whithorn, led by Saint Ninian, or across Ireland (inspired by Saint Patrick) and in Wales (under Saints such as Illtud and David). In chosen localities Christian monasteries were established, from which ambassadors went out with their message, and to which local people might come for more information.

The Anglo-Saxons were un-Romanised: unconquered continental barbarians with their own religious tradition. So the decision to send children for education to a Christian monastery is highly symbolic: it signals recognition of the technological wizardry represented by reading and writing and the use of Latin. The adoption of these generic skills and their eventual application to improvement of native conceptions is the origin of the English genius: perhaps more often mocked as muddling through than celebrated as improvisation.

After qualifying as a priest, Cedd embarked on a career as a missionary. Initially posted to the midlands Kingdom of Mercia, he later worked in Essex and Yorkshire as well as London. Thus he became a very experienced operator. As such he played a crucial part in proceedings at the Synod of Whitby (AD 664).

The synod was convened to resolve difficulties caused by differences in practice that had emerged between the two Christian traditions: Roman and Celtic. For example, different ways of setting the date for Easter meant not just celebrations of the day itself being out of sync but also uncoordinated periods of abstinence associated with Lent (food, drink, sex?). These inconveniences could become especially irksome in the context of a mixed Celtic-Roman marriage where the principals might be considerable figures (such as royalty), with entourages who might end up being expected to observe both separate periods of self-denial - thus creating a powerful lobby for religious harmonisation.

The synod had plenty of potential to degenerate from a quest for unity into a power struggle. Responsibility for managing the process of negotiation devolved upon Cedd because of his ability to see both sides and because both sides could tell he was talking their language. In the final analysis the King of Northumbria, who was chairing the event, summed up in favour of harmonisation on the basis of Roman practice. This was a pragmatic decision that reduced the scope for conflict within Britain and facilitated diplomatic engagement with continental European governments. Refusenik Celtic traditionalists sought refuge in Ireland.

Despite his own education being a product of Celtic Christianity, Cedd led the promotional campaign on behalf of British religious harmonisation according to the settlement established by the Synod of Whitby. Sadly, not long afterwards, he succumbed to plague and died at Lastingham, the last of his foundations.

Capable of commitment on the basis of compromise and consensus, Saint Cedd embodies English public spirit.

The Economics Profession (sic)

the state of the countryPosted by Stephen Wed, February 04, 2015 11:38:20

Twice per year an official assessment of the country’s economic prospects is published in accordance with which government plans for spending and taxation are calibrated. One of these assessments (or forecasts) accompanies The Budget each Spring, when final decisions are announced. The other is made in the Autumn, so as to guide official thinking at HM Treasury during preparations for the next Budget.

These assessments are made by the Office for Budget Responsibility, a body intended to be independent of political control and thus untainted by considerations of administrative convenience or presentational expediency in coming to conclusions.

The idea (perhaps a good one) is that political debate and Parliamentary control should be constrained to cut the clothing of government economic policy (decisions about public expenditure patterns and taxation) according to the cloth of national economic circumstances as determined by dispassionate ex cathedra expertise. This represents a belief that the interests of the public (the population at large or the electorate) are better served when responsibility for constructing a narrative of national economic circumstances lies not with elected representatives but with independent experts or ‘technocrats’.

The process of decommissioning parliamentary involvement in the assessment of the country’s economic situation began with the Blair government’s decision to make the Bank of England independent, with power to decide an official rate of interest in relation to a particular aspect of economic circumstances (the rate of inflation). The inauguration of the OBR was at the behest of the Coalition government. In neither instance was the decision foreshadowed by an election manifesto commitment.

An unfortunate consequence of these decisions has been to absolve politicians from taking responsibility for explaining the analysis of the country’s economic situation to the population at large. This is a democratic deficit much more significant than the deficit on the budget.

When Keynes looked ahead, to what we should probably consider our present day, he expressed the hope that analysis or advice from an economist would become recognised and respected as the technical equivalent of a dentist’s work. And with the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee having been in operation for so long, and now having been joined by the Office for Budget Responsibility as an independent body, surely that day is meant to have dawned.

Dentistry is a profession. My dentist has to have a ‘licence to practice’, annually renewable only upon the basis of having devoted 50 hours to accredited continuing professional development (CPD) and being required to account for a further 50 hours of self-directed activity. Similarly, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) doesn’t just admit people to membership on the basis of an academic qualification (or equivalent in-service learning) but expects them to pass a Test of Professional Competence (a post-entry, post-experience, peer-assessment process) and commit to an annual programme of CPD to sustain membership (there are different grades of membership, my father was a Fellow). Because of this, we members of the public can have some confidence in the standards of professional practice to be expected of dentists and chartered surveyors.

Economics is not a profession. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is a professional body; by contrast, the Royal Economic Society is a traditional English subscription society, open to all who can afford its fee (I’ve been a member myself on an experimental basis). There is no Royal Institution of Chartered Economists (RIChE) assuring professional standards and providing for a Licence to Practice on the basis of annual commitment to accredited CPD. So there is no professional body to which the public can turn for assurance about standards of professional practice. And this despite members of the MPC and the OBR (for example) exercising considerable delegated authority (independence) with respect to public policy.

In their report Standards Matter (January 2013), the Committee on Standards in Public Life noted that their Nolan Principles have informed developments across a wide range of organisations and professions. And they claim that considerable progress is being made: “In professional services there have been major efforts to improve the quality of self-regulation. Examples of professional regulatory bodies established (post-Nolan) include the Bar Standards Board (2006), the Solicitors’ Regulatory Authority (2007) and the General Pharmaceutical Council (2010).”

But still no Royal Institution of Chartered Economists.

And when first I heard the Governor of the Bank of England claim (on a TV News clip, during a visit to Scotland) to represent “an impartial technocratic institution”, I thought it a bold claim. And one no less applicable to the OBR.

My (Chambers) dictionary indicates that a “technocratic institution” claims to exercise political authority on the basis of technical expertise; a “technocratic assessment” constitutes an authoritative statement not subject to public dispute (i.e. beyond political debate).

But if ‘technocratic’ indicates a claim to possess privileged insight, with no use for evidence (nor any need to answer to evidence independently presented), then technocracy is gnosticism. And the English traditionally reject gnosticism as the basis of executive authority. In fact we expect that public servants will be agnostic on our behalf and will use evidence impartially as the basis for judgement. This is embodied in the Nolan Principle of Objectivity: “using the best evidence and without bias”. When preconceptions are incompatible with available evidence we expect the preconceptions to be abandoned. To a convinced technocrat this understanding may seem unsophisticated, but as the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s Research Advisory Board points out: “Principles in the public domain should be clear, and should depart as little as possible from their ordinary meanings. Too much divergence breeds misunderstanding, and misunderstanding exacerbates mistrust.” (Mark Philp, The seven principles of public life: What they say and what they mean, report to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, 2002, revised 2012, p.10). It is necessary to be rather strict about this because: “Individually and collectively people have a great capacity to find ways of acting within the letter but not the spirit of acceptable behaviour and to rationalise their reasons for so doing” (Standards Matter, p6).

Unfortunately there is no prospect of economists establishing themselves as a profession. Thus there is no chance for the public to hold official economic thinking to account. The political parties have forsworn critical scrutiny and the public has no professional body that it can appeal to. Meanwhile the evidence that official thinking is wrong (e.g. goes officially unacknowledged and deliberately ignored.

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