Friday, 30 December 2011

How close was Margaret Thatcher to turning Liverpool into a ghost city?

The Golden Latrine once went to Liverpool and found it a charming, cultured city, far removed from media reports painting it as a concrete hellhole full of curly-haired Scousers shouting "calm down, calm down" in comedy accents.

However, as The Guardian reported, new cabinet papers released yesterday by the National Archive show that following the Toxteth riots in 1981, a number of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet were less keen, with a number of them apparently urging a gradual evacuation of the city.

The "concentration of hopelessness" on Merseyside, and perhaps more pertinently the city's record of industrial strife, was enough for the likes of Sir Keith Joseph and then Chancellor Geoffrey Howe to ask if money spent on the city was simply money wasted. To quote Howe:

Isn't this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for 'managed decline'? This is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative, when it must imply a sustained effort to absorb Liverpool manpower elsewhere – for example in nearby towns of which some are developing quite promisingly.

Quite. After all, if the people of Liverpool don't have the decency to vote Tory, or serenely acquiesce to socially-destructive Conservative policy, why should the government do anything to actively help them?

While there's no evidence that Howe's words were ever likely to become official government policy, it still represents an alarming snapshot into the mind of Thatcher's cabinet. In the end Michael Heseltine was left to argue the case for Liverpool's regeneration - asking for £100m-a-year, he instead got pocket change, and even that came with the express proviso that there be no publicity attached. If Liverpool's plight was self-inflicted, the Tory thinking went, why should they be rewarded?

Which is probably why Tory politicians are about as popular in Liverpool as The Sun. More recently Boris Johnson was made to go and grovel after his 2004 Spectator editorial which claimed that the people of Liverpool "cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance about the rest of society".

While the mass majority of the present Coalition cabinet give the impression of only ever having seen a council estate on Shameless, the likes of Work and Pensions Secretary Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith do at least seem prepared to engage with the reality of what life is like in Britain's most impoverished areas.

I was present at a fringe event at this year's Conservative Party Conference, where Duncan Smith blamed successive governments for “ghettoising” large parts of Britain, a situation which he felt played a significant role in the 2011 riots.

Acknowledging that government policy (rather than merely the inherent fecklessness of a city's inhabitants) might have played a role is a step in the right direction. But for all Duncan Smith's good intentions, the fact is that the cuts are hitting Britain's inner cities hard. The Tories may have given up on the idea of evacuating Liverpool's inner city. Check out, for example this and this.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Does Santa care if you're a Christian? (militant atheists, take note)

The Golden Latrine spends the blustery days after Christmas Day each year weeping into the last of the cold cuts, his tears thankfully blotting out the endless re-runs.

However, there's only so many top 100 lists featuring Stuart Maconie (a man, as the great Stewart Lee pointed out, "able, if the price is right, to recall almost any aspect of the entire spread of all human existence") you can take before you begin to crave a bit of intellectual substenance, and my favourite article over Christmas was a piece by the philosopher Allan de Botton, grappling with the thorniest of Christmas issues: Should an atheist celebrate the holiday at all? [NB: If at this point you're keen to get back to gorging on Quality Street while watching Cars 2 with your aunty and your girlfriend, the short answer is yes they should. Thanks for reading.]

Despite being a non-believer, I have always been a twinkly-eyed enthusiast for Christmas. As a child I would transform our front room every year into a tinsel and decorations obstacle course. It never occurred to me that the yearly nativity play was meant to be anything other than a good yarn. It's clear then that it's quite possible to celebrate Christmas and enjoy reuniting the family and eating nice food and a glitzy tree, without the trappings of religion.

For the more militant of atheists though, the equation is simple. Christmas is a celebration of the life of Christ, a gaudy carbuncle on the underside of Christianity. If you aren't a believer, there's simply nothing for you here. Take this, as a random example:

During the so-called holiday season, [the atheist] must be able to stand aside and look at it all objectively and say, "Why, this is silliness. Gussied up though it may be in tinsel and fantasy, it's all no more than ritual kow-towing to an imaginary being in the sky. I'm a grownup now, and I no longer need to believe in Santa Claus.

The question came up for me before when a Jewish ex-girlfriend explained to me that her family wouldn't be celebrating the festival fully because they weren't Christian. To which my natural response was: well, um, neither am I.

De Botton talks about being raised as a hardline atheist (him and his sister were given presents in August to subvert the Christmas tradition), but coming to realize that Christmas (and by extension, religion) could serve a useful social purpose. As he puts it:

We invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day: the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues that impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the five loaves and two fishes.

I find that a fairly watertight argument (if any militant atheists are reading, do feel free to post and tell me why it's not). For Dawkins et al, religious belief is simply a category error, based on a misunderstanding of the scientific method. If only the religious looked at the facts, they'd have no choice but to forsake their faith and skip merrily into the sunset of scientific reason. But science only tells us how things are - it doesn't tell us how to live, or offer up any sense of community.