Category: Politics


Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was edited after its first publication. The version below omits the clauses which were subsequently dropped. The original Latin version does not have clause numbers but have been added by the translators to aid a modern reader. This translation comes from the British Library website and was created under a Creative Commons Licence. The italicised clauses are still in force today. For the full text please go to the British Library page.

“JOHN, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his officials and loyal subjects, Greeting.

KNOW THAT BEFORE GOD, for the health of our soul and those of our ancestors and heirs, to the honour of God, the exaltation of the holy Church, and the better ordering of our kingdom, at the advice of our reverend fathers Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England, and cardinal of the holy Roman Church, Henry archbishop of Dublin, William bishop of London, Peter bishop of Winchester, Jocelin bishop of Bath and Glastonbury, Hugh bishop of Lincoln, Walter bishop of Worcester, William bishop of Coventry, Benedict bishop of Rochester, Master Pandulf subdeacon and member of the papal household, Brother Aymeric master of the knighthood of the Temple in England, William Marshal earl of Pembroke, William earl of Salisbury, William earl of Warren, William earl of Arundel, Alan of Galloway constable of Scotland, Warin fitz Gerald, Peter fitz Herbert, Hubert de Burgh seneschal of Poitou, Hugh de Neville, Matthew fitz Herbert, Thomas Basset, Alan Basset, Philip Daubeny, Robert de Roppeley, John Marshal, John fitz Hugh, and other loyal subjects:

+ (1) FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church’s elections – a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it – and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity.

TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs:

(2) If any earl, baron, or other person that holds lands directly of the Crown, for military service, shall die, and at his death his heir shall be of full age and owe a ‘relief’, the heir shall have his inheritance on payment of the ancient scale of ‘relief’. That is to say, the heir or heirs of an earl shall pay £100 for the entire earl’s barony, the heir or heirs of a knight 100s. at most for the entire knight’s ‘fee’, and any man that owes less shall pay less, in accordance with the ancient usage of ‘fees’.

(3) But if the heir of such a person is under age and a ward, when he comes of age he shall have his inheritance without ‘relief’ or fine.

(4) The guardian of the land of an heir who is under age shall take from it only reasonable revenues, customary dues, and feudal services. He shall do this without destruction or damage to men or property. If we have given the guardianship of the land to a sheriff, or to any person answerable to us for the revenues, and he commits destruction or damage, we will exact compensation from him, and the land shall be entrusted to two worthy and prudent men of the same ‘fee’, who shall be answerable to us for the revenues, or to the person to whom we have assigned them. If we have given or sold to anyone the guardianship of such land, and he causes destruction or damage, he shall lose the guardianship of it, and it shall be handed over to two worthy and prudent men of the same ‘fee’, who shall be similarly answerable to us.

(5) For so long as a guardian has guardianship of such land, he shall maintain the houses, parks, fish preserves, ponds, mills, and everything else pertaining to it, from the revenues of the land itself. When the heir comes of age, he shall restore the whole land to him, stocked with plough teams and such implements of husbandry as the season demands and the revenues from the land can reasonably bear.

(6) Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to the heir’s next-of-kin.

(7) At her husband’s death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband’s house for forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned to her.

(8) No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of.

(9) Neither we nor our officials will seize any land or rent in payment of a debt, so long as the debtor has movable goods sufficient to discharge the debt. A debtor’s sureties shall not be distrained upon so long as the debtor himself can discharge his debt. If, for lack of means, the debtor is unable to discharge his debt, his sureties shall be answerable for it. If they so desire, they may have the debtor’s lands and rents until they have received satisfaction for the debt that they paid for him, unless the debtor can show that he has settled his obligations to them.
+ (13) The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water. We also will and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall enjoy all their liberties and free customs.
(16) No man shall be forced to perform more service for a knight’s ‘fee’, or other free holding of land, than is due from it.

(17) Ordinary lawsuits shall not follow the royal court around, but shall be held in a fixed place.

(18) Inquests of novel disseisin, mort d’ancestor, and darrein presentment shall be taken only in their proper county court. We ourselves, or in our absence abroad our chief justice, will send two justices to each county four times a year, and these justices, with four knights of the county elected by the county itself, shall hold the assizes in the county court, on the day and in the place where the court meets.

(19) If any assizes cannot be taken on the day of the county court, as many knights and freeholders shall afterwards remain behind, of those who have attended the court, as will suffice for the administration of justice, having regard to the volume of business to be done.

(20) For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.

(21) Earls and barons shall be fined only by their equals, and in proportion to the gravity of their offence.

(22) A fine imposed upon the lay property of a clerk in holy orders shall be assessed upon the same principles, without reference to the value of his ecclesiastical benefice.

(23) No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.

(24) No sheriff, constable, coroners, or other royal officials are to hold lawsuits that should be held by the royal justices.

(26) If at the death of a man who holds a lay ‘fee’ of the Crown, a sheriff or royal official produces royal letters patent of summons for a debt due to the Crown, it shall be lawful for them to seize and list movable goods found in the lay ‘fee’ of the dead man to the value of the debt, as assessed by worthy men. Nothing shall be removed until the whole debt is paid, when the residue shall be given over to the executors to carry out the dead man’s will. If no debt is due to the Crown, all the movable goods shall be regarded as the property of the dead man, except the reasonable shares of his wife and children.

(28) No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this.

(29) No constable may compel a knight to pay money for castle-guard if the knight is willing to undertake the guard in person, or with reasonable excuse to supply some other fit man to do it. A knight taken or sent on military service shall be excused from castle-guard for the period of this service.

(30) No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent.

(31) Neither we nor any royal official will take wood for our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner.

(32) We will not keep the lands of people convicted of felony in our hand for longer than a year and a day, after which they shall be returned to the lords of the ‘fees’ concerned.

(33) All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.

(34) The writ called precipe shall not in future be issued to anyone in respect of any holding of land, if a free man could thereby be deprived of the right of trial in his own lord’s court.

(35) There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges. Weights are to be standardised similarly.

(36) In future nothing shall be paid or accepted for the issue of a writ of inquisition of life or limbs. It shall be given gratis, and not refused.

(37) If a man holds land of the Crown by ‘fee-farm’, ‘socage’, or ‘burgage’, and also holds land of someone else for knight’s service, we will not have guardianship of his heir, nor of the land that belongs to the other person’s ‘fee’, by virtue of the ‘fee-farm’, ‘socage’, or ‘burgage’, unless the ‘fee-farm’ owes knight’s service. We will not have the guardianship of a man’s heir, or of land that he holds of someone else, by reason of any small property that he may hold of the Crown for a service of knives, arrows, or the like.

(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.

+ (39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

+ (40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

(41) All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs. This, however, does not apply in time of war to merchants from a country that is at war with us. Any such merchants found in our country at the outbreak of war shall be detained without injury to their persons or property, until we or our chief justice have discovered how our own merchants are being treated in the country at war with us. If our own merchants are safe they shall be safe too.

(43) If a man holds lands of any ‘escheat’ such as the ‘honour’ of Wallingford, Nottingham, Boulogne, Lancaster, or of other ‘escheats’ in our hand that are baronies, at his death his heir shall give us only the ‘relief’ and service that he would have made to the baron, had the barony been in the baron’s hand. We will hold the ‘escheat’ in the same manner as the baron held it.

(44) People who live outside the forest need not in future appear before the royal justices of the forest in answer to general summonses, unless they are actually involved in proceedings or are sureties for someone who has been seized for a forest offence.

(46) All barons who have founded abbeys, and have charters of English kings or ancient tenure as evidence of this, may have guardianship of them when there is no abbot, as is their due.

(47) All forests that have been created in our reign shall at once be disafforested. River-banks that have been enclosed in our reign shall be treated similarly.

(54) No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.

(56) If we have deprived or dispossessed any Welshmen of land, liberties, or anything else in England or in Wales, without the lawful judgment of their equals, these are at once to be returned to them. A dispute on this point shall be determined in the Marches by the judgment of equals. English law shall apply to holdings of land in England, Welsh law to those in Wales, and the law of the Marches to those in the Marches. The Welsh shall treat us and ours in the same way.

(60) All these customs and liberties that we have granted shall be observed in our kingdom in so far as concerns our own relations with our subjects. Let all men of our kingdom, whether clergy or laymen, observe them similarly in their relations with their own men.

Both we and the barons have sworn that all this shall be observed in good faith and without deceit. Witness the abovementioned people and many others.

Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign” (i.e. 1215: the new regnal year began on 28 May).

There is plenty of comment and news about the UK general election on the web and other media. I don’t propose to tell you whom to vote for. There are two reasons for this. The first is that while I do have political preferences (see here for the issues I think are most important), I would rather you made up you mind based on sound principles and values rather than by being nagged by someone like me. Secondly, I do not want one political party to have power alone; I much prefer it when parties work together. Despite some obvious failings (refer here to your particular issue), I think the Coalition has worked pretty well. The government has not fallen apart, the two parties were able to work together most of the time and yet fall out with each other from time to time. If they never argued I would have been more suspicious.

Meanwhile we are told that we have a choice of only two who may become Prime Minister. While that is most likely, it is possible that another party could steal a march on the others unexpectedly. In thinking that we only have a choice of two it would easy to forget that the two (currently) largest parties are minority parties. Whichever party you vote for is a minority party.

That is something that has changed in this country during this century. It has been suggested that if the “didn’t vote” part of the electorate were a political party they would be the largest of them all. And, yes, it too would be a minority party.

So, if I were to give my fellow-citizens any advice it would be this: vote for the minority party of your choice, you do not have to choose one of the two bigger ones if you don’t want to.

We like the freedom to choose – some of us in the UK will still remember when there were only three TV channels and they did not broadcast throughout the night. These days, not only are there more channels but with things like iPlayer we can decide when to watch our favourite programmes as well. With a box of chocolates, we like to choose our favourites and opinion is divided on whether coffee- or strawberry creams are yummy additions or vile interlopers among the other nicer chocolates. For me the ultimate chocolate choice is between a smooth truffle and a soft, liquid caramel that melts in the mouth.

We also like the freedom to say what we think, to express an idea and to try to persuade others of our point of view. With a General Election coming up we will find people from various parties (and none) trying to get us to cast our vote in favour of their party and to support their ideas of what is best for the country. So arguments about broadcasting leaders’ debates are not just about the logistics involved in organising them but are also about how many differing voices and opinions get to be heard.

Recently, there has been some controversy about “freedom of expression”. Some would argue that any and every opinion should be allowed to express itself no matter how stupid or unpleasant some may be; others would say that there are limits if, for example, someone is trying to incite violence or is encouraging others to commit a crime. On some occasions it is better to keep quiet. The hard part is saying who is to decide what you can and cannot say or when you can say it. If we nominate some public authority to tell us, we stand in danger of censorship that only permits a narrow range of opinion to be expressed. The result could be that some views are suppressed and we miss out on the unusual but useful idea. If we have no limits, then we lay the ground for unnecessary offence for some and hurt for others.

Christians prize the freedom to be able to present the gospel to the world. They cherish the freedom to express an alternative life-style to the “rat race”; as well as offering alternatives to the violence we see in the world and to apparently limitless consumption. They want the opportunity to be able to point to Jesus: as our example to follow, as well as being our friend and saviour. Christians are in favour of freedom.

I would say that that freedom of expression includes the freedom to speak out and the freedom to hold one’s tongue; freedom to poke fun at the pompous, freedom to respect those with whom we disagree. You may have the right to print rubbish but you are not compelled to do so, and we do not have to read it either.

How should Christians decide what to say, print, or broadcast? I would suggest two simple principles based on these questions: is it true? That does not exclude jokes or fiction but does challenge us to be honest about our intentions. Secondly, is it in keeping with the two greatest commandments to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves? We may not get it right all the time but the freedom we are encouraged to seek is not the freedom to tell lies, it is the freedom to speak and live the truth about God.

Jesus said, “The truth shall set you free” (John chapter 8 verse 32)

… here’s my manifesto. I do not belong to any political party nor has any of the following been costed by experts or anyone else. In the unlikely event I get swept into power the chances are there will be rather more or less money than we thought so nothing is definite. Let’s just say that this is what I would aim for rather than what I might promise.

It’s not the economy, stupid!

But, oh it is, it is. I want to have more money and more stuff each year. Don’t you dare tell me that my standard of living is going down yet again. Actually, the most pressing concern is what kind of world we are leaving for the next generation. Unless we are going to organise a mass trek across the solar system and beyond, then how we use finite resources and how we deal with natural disasters is the most important thing. And that also means we need to think how we get along with other human beings across the world.

Migration

We do need to talk about what is sustainable, how many of us can our land support. To make any kind of long-term sense, “the land” has got to be the whole world, not just one nation or even one village. If there are refugees and persecuted people we should do our bit to welcome them into places which are safe, including our own back yard. Where there is pressure for migration there are better ways than fences and deportations to deal with illegal immigrants. Part of overseas aid should be about making the places that migrants want to leave more attractive to stay in. I don’t want Britain to be overcrowded but better to help our neighbour than start discriminating against those who do not look like us. A points-based immigration system sounds fair provided we don’t end up with institutionalised racism by mistake. We should also count the number of people leaving too.

Housing

Even if net immigration were zero we would still need more houses. Therefore I would allow local authorities to build modest family housing and to re-invest any revenue in them. The spare room tax should be extended to all domestic properties. It was once asked why a pensioner living next door to a family of four in the same sort of house should pay the same rates. The answer is to encourage use of any unused rooms. Perhaps the better option would be to raise a spare room levy on all properties worth more than, say, £2 million. In the meantime, more council tax bands are needed.

Resilience

This is not just about the 999 call room having a spare generator in the event of a power cut. Each year one or more communities are affected by one or other of the following flood, drought, storm, industrial accident, snow, to name but a few. I would make it a requirement that all new properties should have the means of cope with being “off-grid” for at least two weeks. Gradually, other houses would be included and the limit raised to a month. The sort of possibilities include solar energy, local hydro-electric schemes, domestic wind turbines and whatever other technology may become available. It would mean learning a habit of having tinned and dried food, bottled water etc at home to survive on for a fortnight. We will all need to learn about proper stock rotation.

Part of national resilience will be to make sure that 75% of our food comes from the UK (the exact proportion may vary but to insist on 100% would be to put all our eggs in one basket). As well as mitigating climate change, our energy use needs to be smarter and capable of working with local grids networked with a national grid. Reliance on fossil fuels is risky economically, ecologically and even militarily. Renewable and sustainable energy needs much more investment and my target would be 75% to come from renewables including hydro-electric, tidal/wave power, combined heat-electricity schemes as well as solar and wind turbines. Nuclear power generation would be part of the mix up to 25 %. Bio fuels, including wood, should be included. Alongside this we need to husband the energy that we do use. Much has already been done. For example, the lap top I am using is far more energy-efficient compared to the PC I was using ten years ago.

Sugar

Much of our food has added sugar and that is not just in desserts. I expect to find added sugar in jam but not in a shepherd’s pie. It has been said that the amount of sugar is a significant factor in the problem of obesity or just being plain overweight. We need to wean our society off so much added sugar so I welcome, for example, the move to have smaller-sized bottles of pop stocked in our supermarkets. The sugar industry need not fret about its profits. Surely all that sugar beet could go into making bio-fuels? Less sugar consumption, more bio-fuels, less dependency on fossil fuels; winners all round.

 Armed Forces

I do not think that we should be in the business of fighting war; unfortunately I do not have the courage that pacifists have. I do believe we need to be able to defend ourselves in the event that war comes to us. In addition to lethal force, we should also develop a force for disaster relief and mitigation. The “defence” budget I would not increase beyond inflation but would seek to gradually build up our relief capabilities. I believe that the armed services have the organisational skills and expertise to deliver this. Logically, the Ministry of Defence and the Overseas Development Ministry should come under the same roof. Perhaps “Ministry of Defence and Disaster Relief”. Prevention, preparation and information gathering would be part of its remit.

I commend HM government for sending troops in with medical expertise to Africa to help in the current e-bola crisis. That is exactly the sort of thing we should be doing: it helps our African family in the first place, and the rest of the world including us benefit too.

We don’t need Trident and I would have preferred something smaller and cheaper, but I’m not ready to give up nuclear weapons yet. When France gives up her nuclear weapons, then we should.

Tax and welfare

I would raise the threshold for 20% and 40% tax rates and introduce a 50% rate at a fairly high level. Bonuses count as income.

Corporation tax should be set at the same level as income tax because of the loop-hole that allows people to set themselves up as a company.

The living wage should replace the minimum wage and the lower tax threshold should be no lower than what would be earned in 50 weeks of a 40 hour week i.e. 2000xliving wage per annum. Welfare bills should decrease accordingly.

Instead of a married couples allowance, a couples allowance could be introduced in that the couple may pool their tax allowance. This is particularly useful if one is earning and the other is not. This would be fairly straight-forward to include both married couples and civil partners. Whether this could include any two individuals, I am not sure, as that would be more complicated. It could apply to two people living together in the same household for at least a year. (The practicalities may mean that after a year, of two, you could qualify for succeeding years).

Aviation fuel should be taxed at the same rate as other fuel, currently 5% VAT. This should be introduced across the EU and USA simultaneously.

In the long-term I would like to see all taxes at 10%. That includes VAT, income tax, capital gains, corporation tax, property tax etc. The benefit of this is a much simplified system and reduces tax evasion or so-called “aggressive avoidance”. This will take some time to achieve as it will require spending, as a percentage of GDP, to come down which would be neither realistic nor fair to those currently in need of welfare if it were done too quickly. First we need to balance the budget and that may take 50 years. In the meantime the guiding principles are to protect the vulnerable, to be fair and to be honest in how money is spent. That means that when money is tight, cuts in benefits to the poorest should be the least and cuts in taxes that affect the richest should be the least overall.

It would be good to set up a “sovereign wealth fund”. Its remit would be in part to make money for the government to use in addition to tax revenues. It would also be expected to invest in British businesses and in innovations. By judicious investment it can help shape the economy e.g. shares in renewable energy companies. It could be allowed to invest overseas particularly to help our migration goal to make the places more attractive to live and work in where economic migrants would otherwise come from.

Railways

As the franchises run out, bring them back into public ownership. The new rail company (s) should be independent like the BBC and required not to make a loss overall.

Constitutional reform

I would like an English parliament with the same sort of powers as the Scottish one. The English parliament will probably require about 400 MPs. They can use the House of Commons. We shall then need something for the UK as a whole. I propose using the MEP constituencies and proportional representation. That will probably require about 250 MPs. They can use the House of Lords. If the Church of England remains established in law then it seems fair that the five senior Bishops should have attendance and speaking rights in the English Parliament (after all, Canon Law has to be approved by parliament). To facilitate communication each speaker and first minister of each of the four devolved parliaments should similarly have attendance and speaking rights at the UK parliament. Hopefully this will not mean a net cost in the long run as the EP and UKP MPs will be about the total number of MPs at the moment and the House of Lords will become superfluous. There may be a case for some cross-bencher-type non-voting “Lords” having attendance and speaking rights and being able to serve on committees.

European Union

I would like a referendum on remaining in the EU. I will vote to stay in but not for “an ever closer union”. The fact of the matter is, our choice is between joining Europe or joining the USA. I would rather be British in Europe than another Costa Rica, much as I like our American cousins.

This is not the last word on any of the above issues, and there are bound to be others, but I thought I might as well get my tuppennyworth in as we seem to be in the throes of the general election campaign already.

… I am warming to the idea of a federal United Kingdom.

I am writing from an English British perspective about the debate and referendum on Scottish Independence. Like most of my fellow Englishmen and women, who have expressed an opinion, my initial reaction was something like: “You can be independent if you like – that’s up to you”. We live, after all, in a democracy and while opposing sides have said rude things to and about each other, there has been no rioting in the streets and the troops have not been sent in. All sides have declared their intention to accept the outcome of the vote (I just hope it is not too close. 51% may be a mandate but will hardly inspire confidence).

Much has been argued about the economic and social benefits of independence/staying in the UK. The fact is that after the result it will be confidence that affects business and finance. The short-term investors will likely pull their money out if there is any uncertainty, long-term investors who are wanting to see their business grow and thrive will likely stay in Scotland – regardless of the outcome. The selfish people will still be selfish, the altruistic will continue.

In the end what will  determine the outcome of the vote will not be logical argument based on facts because the facts are presented in such a way to suit one side or the other – even if all the facts could be known. The facts will depend on the outcome, not the other way round. Observing my fellow countrymen from Scotland, both known to me personally and what I have gauged from the media, their vote will depend largely on a a sense of pride: of being Scottish or being British as well. Some want independence because of their sense of national identity and the economic arguments are of secondary importance. Some have assumed that “it will never happen” and like the status quo of being both Scottish and British – they don’t want to become a “foreign country”. (I realise that that label works two ways but I’m talking about impressions here).

As for the English there are a number of reactions. “Where’s our referendum?” is one. Another is indifference on the assumption that it will make little or no difference to the rest of the UK apart from double checking our change for foreign Scottish currency (whatever that may be).

A large group, who have expressed an opinion, say something like this: “We understand why you want to (we didn’t vote Tory either) but we’d rather you stayed.” It feels like a divorce. Even “amicable” divorces hurt. We won’t admit it to you, but we’re upset that you really want to leave us. (We won’t say that we love you because that would be all soppy.)

As for a Christian perspective on this, there is nothing in the Bible to tell people which way to vote. Perhaps some qualities to have in making up your mind: wisdom, discernment, loving God wholeheartedly, loving your neighbour as yourself.

I prefer unity to division so I don’t like the idea of Scotland leaving us though I do understand that independence has its own virtues.

All I ask of my Scottish neighbours is that you bear in mind the English, Welsh and Northern Irish Peoples as well as Scotland when you cast your vote.

… an observation made by Sir Edward Grey as from his office window he watched  the lamp-lighters at work in the street below on  3rd of August 1914, the day before Britain declared war on Germany.

Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933) was the longest-serving Foreign Secretary in a British Cabinet (1905-1816).

Flanders poppy among the potatoes

Flanders poppy among the potatoes

Over the next four years there will no doubt be much said and written about World War One. Having heard third hand about how my relatives were affected and thinking about what I have learnt, I offer you my thoughts about it. Overall some 10 million people lost their lives as a result of the first war to use industrialised technology to great effect and to involve countries from every continent (with the arguable exception of Antarctica). During those years from 1914 to 1918 there was also some significant social change in Britain whose effects were felt long after the end of hostilities. Although very much only part of the whole story, I shall be writing from a British perspective and concentrating on the Western and Home Fronts about some of the causes and consequences of World War I.

How did it all begin?

You could argue that the roots of the war go back hundreds of years to Roman times. That empire stretched as far North as Britain and Gaul (France) and had the river Rhine at its North-Eastern boundary. To the East lay the lands of the Germanic tribes and the fall of the Roman empire was in part due to the invasion from there. Since then the Rhine has seen invading armies cross it at various times over the centuries. For example, Napoleon went East to try to conquer Russia (and lost) in the early 19th century and later in 1869 Paris was besieged by a German army.

A treaty of 1839 guaranteed the independence of Belgium which was regarded as a buffer state between Germany and France. Both they, together with the United Kingdom and Russia, were signatories to that treaty.

When the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, it started a train of events which led to war. At first, the event was disregarded by most of the world. However, characterised as “Regicide” (constitutionally more serious than another murder) it became the causus belli for the Austrians and Germans. It would appear that the German Kaiser wanted Austria to have a short war with its Serbian province in order to bolster its prestige and to warn off the Russian Empire whose army Germany feared. In other words, Russia was Germany’s main target, Austria its proxy and the assassination a handy excuse. During this time Germany offered a “blank cheque” committing military backing to Austria. The Austrian Emperor eventually signed off on sending an ultimatum to the Serbs – an ultimatum that was “designed to be rejected”.

During this time the German Kaiser and Russian Tsar corresponded with each other – they were cousins, after all. (Incidentally, King George V of the UK was their cousin as well). Meanwhile, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, got involved in discussions with the German, Russian and Austrian Ambassadors (who also were cousins) as well as with the French Ambassador. Britain wanted to avoid war and had hoped to stay out of the conflict. However, diplomacy got nowhere. Austria declared war on its Serbian province on 28th July. Meanwhile, the Russian army began mobilising on 29th July. Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August and demanded French neutrality. Germany attacked Luxembourg on 2nd August and declared war on France on 3rd August. On 4th August Germany declared war on Belgium. What began as a promise of support to Austria evolved into a war for Germany on two fronts.

The French Army was the largest at the time and had built a series of forts and other defences along her border with Germany. Because Belgium was neutral, there were no similar defences on the Franco-Belgian border. Thus it was logical for German forces to go through Belgium, with or without her permission. Bound by the 1839 treaty Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August.

Among the reasons for going to war were allegations of war crimes by the German army against Belgian civilians. While these we probably exaggerated in the press, there was some systematic brutality by the German forces – if not condoned by their officers, neither were they prevented.

“The only way to end a war quickly is to lose it”- George Orwell

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Brussels Autumn 2013

We had some Euros left over from our foreign holiday from a couple of years ago so I decided to use them up on a brief trip of a couple of days in Brussels capital of Belgium. I say I decided as I was the most eager from our family to make this trip. I had visited many years ago and had fond memories not least because my godmother used to live there.

So we took the Eurostar the day after the great storm put our watches forward and arrived in Brussels.

My “must see” was the Atomium which is north of the city centre quite close to the Heysel football stadium (it’s the same Metro station). Judging by the number of photos I took I think it was my favourite place – at least from the outside! I think it fair to say that the rest of the family were largely underwhelmed and I could see why. Built with optimism in the late 1950’s the exhibition space had a clunky feel to it. I found that I was more interested the structure of the building – intended to resemble 9 iron atoms in a crystal layout – with its reflections of the surroundings and of itself. The contents felt dated even though the theme was ‘innovation’.

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Nearby was “Mini Europe” which delighted the rest of the family but it just wound me up. It was a park consisting of various models of famous buildings and locations chosen to represent all the countries of the European Union. The other two delighted in the work and enjoyed finding things out about Europe. The models were as good as anywhere else and the booklet was very informative. School children could profit from spending a morning there. I took a couple of photos but the first page in the information booklet put me out of sorts. You see, it said that Brussels is the capital of Europe.

Now, I like Brussels, and Belgium generally. On a spectrum between Euro-skeptics and Euro-enthusiasts I am somewhere in the middle, perhaps more pro than anti. However, Brussels is the capital of Belgium just as London is the capital of the UK. OK so the European Parliament is in Brussels (see below) but sovereignty still resides with the constituent countries of the EU. The result was that I looked at this “fun” park through a lens of mistrust that was not entirely fair. It was noticeable that not all countries were treated equally – I half expected the original six members of the Treaty of Rome to feature prominently. Actually the larger countries with the larger populations had more space so it seemed relatively fair. I realise I was being petty and took it in my stride when I accepted that there was no intention to give a balanced view about the merits of the EU – controversies were for elsewhere. The park was about explaining and celebrating the European Union; and that it did quite well .

Naturally we visited the Grand Place and enjoyed Belgian waffles (there are two basic types), frites (the Belgians are said to have invented them, not the French) and chocolate.

Other places included the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, the Comic strip museum, the Natural History Museum (science) and a view of the European Parliament. Unfortunately our last day was spoilt because we didn’t realise that it was a National Public holiday (nor had our travel agent realised this) which meant we didn’t see the Smurfs nor did we visit the Magrite Museum.

I wouldn’t mind going again but there are other cities and countries to visit first.

We support food banks through the local church. It is noticeable how much their use has gone up even in the few months we have been supporting them. I am sharing this post because it says what others have said: food banks demonstrate a good community spirit in the face of poor government policy.

JACK MONROE

Food banks are not new, nor news. Commenters on all sides are quick to point out that they first sprang up under the last Labour government, but the need for them has increased dramatically since the introduction of the bedroom tax in April, and harsh sanctions for benefit claimants. The latest figures from the Trussell Trust show that demand for food banks is still increasing. In George Osborne’s ‘war on welfare’, the only casualties are those at the very bottom. But this is not a war. It is an assault against the unarmed, a massacre of hope and dignity.

Edwina Currie recently commented that she had “no sympathy” for food bank users, that they were just “rational” opportunists. I attempted to point out that food bank users had to be referred by a health visitor or social services or other agency for help, but she refused to hear it.

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Currie…

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