Passing bull 175 – Going over the top – and misusing the word ‘conservative’


One of the fads corroding our discourse is the tendency to go over the top with language.  Critics of the current proposal to see the U K out of Europe say that it would make the U K into a vassal state of Europe.  A ‘vassal’ is a term found in the feudal system that meant ‘one holding lands from a superior on conditions of homage and allegiance.’  The U K is not in that position now, and would not be under the proposal.  Still, when people flaunt the term sovereignty in this context, you must expect some loose thought and looser language.

Another example came from the suggestion that we might move our embassy in Israel.  Not surprisingly, this suggestion troubles our two biggest neighbours – whose people are of a different faith.  But we are solemnly told that we must not let them dictate to us.  That is silly.  What we are being asked to do is to take their position into account.  That is what we should have done before making this rash announcement.  My local Post Office has an answer to our unneeded predicament.  Pull the embassy out altogether – it is a waste of bloody money.

And while the PM said that his faith had nothing to do with the move, a proposition that seemed more plausible to some than others, we have not heard the same from our high-rise Treasurer who looks like he lives to be photographed by the press.

But then we are told that if the P M backtracks, he will be eviscerated by the conservatives in his own party.  This is a shocking abuse or misuse of the term ‘conservative’.  As best as I can see, the people referred to are nothing like ‘conservatives’.  They look to have the following views.

They are attracted to factions, plots, conspiracies and coups in the same way that little boys like playing with matches.  They love rubbishing the elites of the political class, even though they occupy the commanding heights of that class.  They think that patriotism is a decent and useful term.  They even have a closet hankering after Donald Trump’s Operation Faithful Patriot, because they neither like nor trust migrants, which can lead to problems in a migrant nation.  They get misty-eyed about civilisation, but then they get coy about how the epithet Western might qualify the noun.  They have never held down a real job.  They would not know what a working man looks like.  They believe that people without a tertiary degree, even those as useless as theirs, are bloody lucky to have the vote, and that if there is such a thing as a dinkum Aussie, he would be the definitive pain in the bum.  They consort with shock jocks and the Murdoch press.  If you took away their clichés and labels, they would be stark naked.  They hold that it is not right to criticise Donald Trump.  They maintain that Israel and its current PM can do no wrong.  They think that supporters of Palestinians are Green/Left dupes of the Love Media who are soft on border security and sovereignty to boot.  They practise a curious form of faith that allows them to hold that running a concentration camp for children in the Pacific conforms with the Sermon on the Mount.  They believe that most experts are frauds (unless they are involved in saving their life or liberty).  Science is bullshit and worries about the climate are alarmist (it is bad taste to mention California Burning so near the event – that’s like talking about the dead after another massacre).  Thoughts and prayers can cure most ills since by and large God is all that He is cracked up to be – even if you don’t take His word too seriously too close to home.  They have bizarre dreams about liberty or freedom that would have led to a fit of the giggles in Edmund Burke or Disraeli.  They are relieved that the gorgeously photogenic imports into the House of Windsor comfy rug will save these colonies from the delusional insecurity of Home Rule or independence.  They believe – devoutly – that cadres of the IPA are well educated and rational philosophers and economists who have election-winning ideas for the true believers.  And while it is both polite and meaningful for them to label others as progressives, it is neither polite nor meaningful for them to be labelled as regressive, reactionary or retrograde.

In short, this motley is a viscerally uncomely mix of the clown, the dunce, and the jerk.  They are a dream come true for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.  If you want an example, look out for the unsullied brashness of that boyish senator who looks like his mum dresses him and then combs his hair.  Or catch a glint of that Chesty Bond smile of Tim Wilson, M P.  And then salute the flag and hum a few bars from the Goons’ classic hit ‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas – across the Irish Sea.’  I wonder if they have their own version of a Masonic hand-shake?  And just what condition was God in when he set up this Comédie Humaine?

The saddest part about these falsely named ‘conservatives’ is that they are prone to endorse what is called populism, which is the antithesis of conservatism, and while they bemoan the death of faith in politics and liberal democracy, they are among the principal instruments of that death.

Then I read that a Conservative MP in England said that the current proposal for leaving Europe was not what people in the U K had voted for.  That raises two questions.  First, how does she know what the people voted for?  So much of what passes for debate on this issue is the assumption that the people gave a clear instruction – or worse, a clear mandate.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Secondly, if the MP is saying that the people voted for a much better deal than this – a deal that would leave them in no way worse off – then she is saying that the lies they were told were effective – scintillatingly so.

What is the upshot of this exercise in what is called democracy?  It looks to me as if there is a majority against the present proposal to leave of about two to one.  But there is a similar majority against leaving with no deal.  If therefore Europe is to be taken at its word, England looks set to get a result either way that a clear majority does not want.  How they resolve that without going back to the source – the people – for new instructions escapes me.


The climate debate has become a vehicle for the promotion of political ideology, civilizational guilt, global wealth distribution, virtue signalling and doomsaying.  Alarmism is a prime post-material preoccupation for the prosperous in Western liberal democracies.  In an age of identity politics, climate concerns are trumpeted as a demonstration of the proponent’s selflessness and sophistication while its technological edge creates hobbies for those wealthy enough to indulge in electric cars, cover their roof in solar panels or invest in taxpayer-subsidised renewable projects


More voters see themselves as swinging voters.  Yet it’s the declining Left and Right activists who dominate parties and the political message we see and hear via the media.  It distorts the discussion when the vast majority of voters see politics through an issue-by-issue prism rather than the mindless tribal banality of cheering on one side or the other.  As a result, disillusionment sets in for most of us, which soon leads to disengagement from the political process.  This exacerbates the problem because the world is run by those who ‘show up.’

The Weekend Australian, November 17-18, 2018

The ‘mindless tribal banality’ of the first citation (Chris Kenny) warrants the validity of the second (Peter Van Onselen).

A pleasant anecdote

While reading again Graham Robb’s Balzac – and it is a great read – I learned that early in his intellectual life, Balzac adopted the view of the Epicureans that the world was created while God was drunk.  I do not wish to offend my religious friends, but with the world as I have described it above – La Comédie Humaine – that view gave me a lot comfort.  Even if I was surprised to learn that God and Epicurus were on speaking terms.

Passing bull 174 –Liberals and Progressives – Labels gone berserk


In a recent piece in The New York Times, the author sought to explain the difference between ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives.’

In recent decades, the label ‘progressive’ has been resurrected to replace ‘liberal,’ a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use….

Historical progressivism is an ideology whose American avatars, like Woodrow Wilson, saw progress as the inevitable outcome of human affairs. Of course, liberals and conservatives believe that their policies will result in positive outcomes, too. But it is another thing to say, as American Progressives did, that the contemporary political task was to identify a destination, grip the wheel and depress the accelerator.

The basic premise of liberal politics, by contrast, is the capacity of government to do good, especially in ameliorating economic ills. …A liberal can believe that government can do more good or less, and one can debate how much to conserve. But progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it…..

Unlike liberalism, progressivism is intrinsically opposed to conservation. It renders adhering to tradition unreasonable rather than seeing it, as the liberal can, as a source of wisdom…..Because progress is an unadulterated good, it supersedes the rights of its opponents.

Where liberalism seeks to ameliorate economic ills, progressivism’s goal is to eradicate them…..

But neither liberalism nor conservatism opposes rationality.  Conservatism holds that accumulated tradition is a likelier source of wisdom than the cleverest individual at any one moment….. One cannot, of course, make too much of labels.….The appropriate label for those who do not believe in the ideology of progress but who do believe in government’s capacity to do good is ‘liberal.’ They would do well, politically as well as philosophically, to revive it.

It is unusual to find such vintage bullshit in such a fine newspaper that usually knows enough to leave undergraduate ideology well alone.

The author clearly sees himself as a liberal, and not a progressive, a term that he wants to malign in the same way that Republicans successfully maligned ‘liberal’.

If you ran into John and Betty in the street, and you were told that John was different to Betty – he was a liberal, but she was a progressive – you would not know what to make of it.  And you would be no better off after reading what I have set out above.

As it seems to me, there are at least two mistakes.  In spite of his caveat, the author makes ‘too much of labels’.  The assumption is that people can and should be put in boxes marked liberal or progressive.  The truth is that all of us have views that partake of the two categories mentioned plus that of conservative.  The person who is purely one and not any of the other two doesn’t exist.  We look at the policies of a party and form an assessment of its capacity to implement them.  If they get elected, we expect them to ‘identify a destination, grip the wheel and depress the accelerator.’  And we do so believing in ‘government’s capacity to do good.’  Is there another way in which we could proceed?

The second mistake comes with the criterion of distinction.  We are told that for a ‘progressive’, progress is an unmitigated or unadulterated good.  Very few sane people could believe any such thing.  The problem comes with the word ‘progress,’ which the author does not define.  Progress is the ‘action of stepping or moving forward or onward; travel, a journey, an expedition.’  If you want to go from A to B, and half way there, you start going backwards, then while you are doing that, you are not making progress.  But whether your going forward is desirable will depend on your choice of destination, and the way that you will get there.  If you want to go to Heaven, every step on the way is good; if are heading for Hell, every step on the way is bad.  Let’s say you want to go from A to B.  One way is through mountainous jungle infested with taipans; the other is longer but flat and safe.  It would be absurd to say that any movement on the first route must be good, because it involves being progressive.  It is also absurd to say that any movement that qualifies as ‘progress’ could be an unmitigated or unadulterated good.  The timber of our humanity is far too crooked for this abstract purity.  It belongs in another world.


Whatever the outcome…Mr Trump is showing himself to be a far more savvy political operator….The dispatch of what the President says could be 15,000 troops to confront the migrant caravans snaking north through Mexico may have Democrats in a state of apoplexy, especially when he warns the troops could respond with gunfire if attacked.  But the polls show that Mr Trump’s tough stance on what has become the main issue in the campaign is winning votes and the caravans of defiant would-be migrants, many organised by leftist and communist groups in Honduras, Venezuela and Cuba, are a gift for Mr Trump’s mid-term aspirations.

The Weekend Australian, November, 3-4, 2018

It could happen here.  With the same sponsor.

A pleasant anecdote

Politics in England in the 18th century turned on what they called patronage and we call corruption.  Votes had to be bought and office rewarded.  This was the fare for the thirty-two voters of Bath on St Peter’s Day, 1698:

2 venison pasties, 2 haunches boiled, 2 chines of mutton, 4 gees, 4 piggs, 12 Turkey chicken, plain chickens and rabbits sans number and abundance of claret and sherry.  [The spelling is as it was.] 

A ball followed for the ladies, and

….in the evening there were glass windows broke on purpose that the glaziers that were not worthy to eat with them might have some benefit by the matter.

Now, democracy was a long way off in the U K, and the yet to be born U S, but do you not just marvel at the way the better people looked after those ‘that were not worthy to eat with them’?  An essential part of the constitutional history of England consisted of doing through the back door what they couldn’t do through the front.  That’s why they never had a revolution as vicious as those of France or Russia or a collapse as complete as those of Germany, Italy, Spain and Greece.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Elizabeth David (2005)

Folio Society; green cloth with gilt lettering in green slipcase; decorations by John Minton; watercolours by Sophie MacCarthy; preface by Julian Barnes

For some reason, we do not often use that good and complimentary word ‘urbane’ to describe a woman.  Well, Elizabeth David was nothing if not urbane.  She came from a very wealthy and elevated family, and it showed in manner that could be woundingly waspish.  She had a flaky way about her that showed in failed romances and difficult business arrangements.  She could just be difficult.  But she changed the way that the English and others thought about food cooking and wine.  The liberation was felt as far away as Australia.

Elizabeth David lived with a French family while studying French history and literature at the Sorbonne.  Having seen out World War II in comfort and style in Egypt, she was appalled at the hardship and dourness that she found on her return to England.  She set out to master the fundamentals of cooking and to study it on site in France, Italy, and Greece, and around the Mediterranean.  She published many books and was a journalist writing on food for the best journals in England.  This book contains one of the cooking books and some extracts from her journalism published under the title An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. 

Auberon Waugh said of her ‘if I had to choose one woman this century who had brought about the greatest improvement in English life, my vote would go to Elizabeth David’.  She may or may not have been a natural cook, but she was certainly a natural writer.  Vogue, to which she contributed, said: ‘Her pieces are so entertaining, so original, often witty, critical yet lavish with their praise, that they succeed in enthusing even the most jaded palette.’  She did, in fine, make a real contribution to our civilisation.

Here she is on an Edwardian gourmet, Colonel Newnham-Davis, at the time that gave rise to great hotels – the Savoy, the Ritz, the Carlton, and Claridges.  (Do you recall the supper scene in Chariots of Fire?)

Mrs Tota and her husband George were friends from the Colonel’s Indian Army days.  George, it has to be faced, was a bore; he grunted and grumbled and refused to take his wife out to dinner on the grounds that the night air would bring on his fever.  So the Colonel gallantly invited Mrs Tota, a maddeningly vivacious young woman, to a select little dinner for two.  She was homesick for the gaieties of Simla, the dainty dinners and masked balls of that remarkable hill station.  ‘We’ll have a regular Simla evening’, declared the colonel, and for this nostalgic excursion, he chose to dine in a private room in Kettner’s, which still exists today [1952], in Romilly Street, Soho; after dinner they were to proceed to a box at the Palace Theatre, return to Kettner’s, where they arranged to leave their dominoes, and thence to a masked ball at Covent Garden.  The meal, for a change, began with caviare, continued with consommé, fillets de sole a la Joinville, langue de boeuf aux champignons with spinach and pommes Anna (how agreeable it would be to find these delicious potatoes on an English restaurant menu to-day) followed by chicken and salad, asparagus with sauce mousseline, and the inevitable ice.  They drank a bottle of champagne (15 s. seems to have been the standard charge at that period, 1 s. for liqueurs).  Mrs Tota was duly coy about the private room decorated with a gold brown and green paper, oil paintings of Italian scenery, and gilt candelabra (‘very snug’, pronounced the colonel); she enjoyed her dinner, chatted nineteen to the dozen, and decided that Room A at Kettner’s was almost as glamorous as the dear old Chalet at Simla.

Well, those times have all gone, and they will not come back.

Here is a vignette from The Spectator in 1961.

A military gentleman I know who used to run a club once told me that one of his clients was asking for the kind of dishes ‘which are practically burnt, you know.’  After some investigation, I tumbled to what was wanted and it seemed it wasn’t so much a question of the breakfast toast as of that method of cooking which is so typically French, the method whereby gelatinous food such as pigs’ trotters and breast of lamb is coated with breadcrumbs and grilled to a delicious, sizzling, crackling crispness, deep golden brown and here and there slightly blackened and scorched.  At the same time the meat itself, usually pre-cooked, remains moist and tender…..To achieve the characteristic stage of doneness in this kind of dish needs a bit of practice and a certain amount of dash.

The words ‘doneness’ and ‘dash’ are very much Elizabeth David.

Many of her recipes assume that the recipient is at home in the kitchen.  They are not for beginners, or boys.  Beginners of either sex require much more detailed and structured tuition – of the kind that Jamie Oliver gives.  If you go to some of the classics in French Provincial Cooking, the book that made Elizabeth David’s name in 1960, you will find a lot that gives you so many options to get it wrong.  If you go to her recipes for the famous cassoulet, you will find a very detailed version from the French and another shorter version, neither of which would be good for amateurs.  Neither uses duck, but the French one gives a useful tip for the water used to cook the beans the purpose of which cooking ‘is to make them more digestible and less flatulent’:

Throw away the water out of doors, not down the sink; its smell infects the kitchen for twenty-four hours.  In the Languedoc the housewives keep this liquid in well-corked bottles and use it for removing obstinate stains on white and coloured linen.

Again, those days are gone.  Here is a Swiss recipe for Tranches au fromage by Docteur Edouard de Pomiane which David says ‘is the best kind of cookery writing.’

Black bread – a huge slice weighing 5 to 7 ounces, French mustard, 8 oz. gruyere.  The slice of bread should be as big as a dessert plate and nearly I inch thick.  Spread it with a layer of French mustard and cover the whole surface of the bread with strips of cheese about ½ an inch thick.  Put the slice of bread on a fireproof dish and under the grill.  Just before it begins to run, remove the dish and carry it to the table.  Sprinkle it with salt and pepper.  Cut the slice in four and put it on to four hot plates.  Pour out the white wine and taste your cheese slice.  In the mountains this would seem delicious.  Here it is all wrong.  But you can put it right.  Over each slice, pour some melted butter.  A mountaineer from the Valais would be shocked, but my friends are enthusiastic, and that is good enough for me.

As David remarked, ‘enthusiastic beginners’ might add olives, parsley or red peppers, and the ‘school-trained professional might be tempted to super-impose cream, wine, mushrooms upon this rough and rustic dish.  That is not de Pomiane’s way.  His way is the way of the artist; of the man who could add one sure touch, one only, and thereby create an effect of the pre-ordained, the inevitable, the entirely right and proper.’  It is in truth the case of a professional having the nerve to back his own judgment – and forget about white wine in the Alps, the dish looks just right to me to have with red wine in front of a fire and the rugby on a Friday or Sunday night.

A restaurant on Mont-St- Michel was famous through all France for its single menu – an omelette, ham, fried sole, lamb cutlets, roast chicken and salad, and dessert.  The omelettes were the talk of all France.  What was the secret of the cook’s magic?  She revealed it in 1932 in a letter to La Table:

Monsieur Viel,

Here is the recipe for the omelette; I break some good eggs in a bowl, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I throw the eggs into it, and I shake it constantly.  I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you.

Annette Poulard

Let’s face it – the French have style.  But David lamented the decline in French provincial cooking in her time.  She looked back on a lunch at a pension de famille run by three ladies in the Vosges in 1968, two thin and spinsterish, the third a young and graceful niece.  First came a quiche Lorraine (which had no cheese in the filling and was baked in a tart tin).  It was served with a salad of crisp green leaves.  Then came coarse country sausage poached with vegetables.  One of the thin ladies apologised that they did not have the trout that day – so they went straight to the roast – braised pigeons with whole apples cooked in their skins which by some trick were still rosy red.  Then came the local cheese with caraway seeds.  Then came another cartwheel of pastry.

It was the normal meal expected by the factory owners when they invited guests to eat with them.  The food was good honest food, honestly cooked.  There was no pretension and not the least ostentation about it.  All the same what a misguided meal.  The quiche and the salad, both of them delicious and combining perfectly, would alone have been enough.

You can understand why some people keep this as bedside reading.  It conduces to peace and well-being.  But as someone remarked in The Guardian on the centenary of her birth:

But someone once told me Jamie Oliver had sold more copies of just one of his books than have been sold of Elizabeth’s entire oeuvre, and what can you say about that? 

Good luck to Mr Oliver – but what about civilisation as we know it?

This Folio edition does not have enough from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.  It does however display the style of the author across the Med, and it deals with meals we take for granted like souvlaki or kebabs.  Julian Barnes gives a good example of how a short and apparently simple recipe left him bamboozled.  He was better off than the guy who responded to an instruction ‘Separate the eggs’ by moving them further apart on the bench!  Barnes also tells us that when E D collected her OBE, the Queen asked her what she did.  ‘Write cookery books, Ma’am.’  The Queen replied: ‘How useful.’

Elizabeth David left her own testament to grace, style, and food.  If I were to ask God whether, say, Kant or El Greco have had more influence on me than Elizabeth David, the result might be a close run thing.  But while I do not have to do logic or like art, I do have to eat.

Here and there – Some terrorists from God: 4


[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

13  Politics or morals?

Guy Fawkes there raised the issue of motive.  These insurrectionists had a political object – regime change – but their motive was religious – the vindication of their idea or brand of religion.  Like Brutus, they wanted to think that they were pure.  They may in some part have persuaded Trevelyan.  He said this of the treasonous conspirators.

But unlike their clerical chiefs, they were pure from self-interest and love of power.  It is difficult to detect any stain upon their conduct, except the one monstrous illusion that murder is right, which put all their virtues at the devil’s service.  Courage cold as steel, self-sacrifice untainted by jealousy or ambition, readiness when all was lost to endure all, raises the Gunpowder Plot into a story of which the ungarnished facts might well be read by those of every faith, not with shame or anger, but with enlarged admiration and pity for the things which men can do.

This is very slippery ground.  On what basis would we refuse this accolade or at least epitaph to the minions of Osama bin Laden who drove their aircraft into the twin towers with courage  cold as steel?  We may be reminded of the suggestion that the invasions and wars of Napoleon were somehow less evil than those of Hitler.  If you are being bayoneted or raped, your misery will not be lessened by the answer of your assailant to the question: ‘Why are you here?’

These conspirators were bent on killing people.  That is evil.  That the conspirators purported to do so in the name of God can only make it more evil.   As can the fact that they applied all their best qualities to achieve their purpose.  As indicated above, on at least two grounds, a person killing for God is worse than one killing for lucre.  First, his zeal makes him more venomous; it gives him strength, and some colour of right.  Secondly, and putting blasphemy to one side, it is obvious that by his crime against others, he exposes other members of his faith to retribution.

Even after he had ascended the scaffold, Father Garnet said, before making his final sign of the cross in this life: ‘I beseech all men that Catholics shall not fare the worse for my sake and I exhort all Catholics to take care not to mix themselves with seditious or traitorous designs against the king.’  No, Trevelyan should have stuck with his proposition that the conspirators put all their virtues at the service of the devil.

But this issue raises the question of how we judge insurrections, whether or not we apply the label ‘terrorists’ to those leading the insurrection.  (What is the difference between George Washington & Co and the IRA, except that the first lot clearly won and the jury is still out on the second?)  The rude truth may be that we assess an insurrection in the same way that we assess a business.  It is good if it succeeds.  If not, it is bad.  This was clearly seen by one of the leaders of what Americans call the American Revolution.  When the Declaration of Independence was finally signed, Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Well, Gentlemen, we must now hang together, or we will assuredly hang separately.’  (As ever, John Adams was different: ‘Power and artillery are the most efficacious, sure and infallible conciliatory measures we can adopt.’)  If you succeed, you are a patriot, a hero and a liberator, a father of the nation.  If you fail, you get topped for treason.

As Antonia Fraser remarked in her book The Gunpowder Plot, ‘terrorism does not exist in a vacuum.’

I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage.  I did not plan it in any spirit of recklessness or because I have any love of violence.  I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people.

It was not Robert Catesby who said that, but Nelson Mandela when in the dock at the Rivoni trial in 1964.  This sometime terrorist is now widely revered as being as close to a secular saint as we can get.  Possibly our only hero who might match Mandela is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Yet, he was plainly involved in a plot to kill Hitler.  Do we see our two secular saints as terrorists?

So, as ever the kinks in our timber preclude us from formulating wide and fast maxims about any right to resort to violence.  Indeed, even the word ‘right’ is fraught there.  The brute historical fact looks to be that some forms of evil or oppression leave us no reasonable alternative but to resort to a form of action which would otherwise be plainly wrong.  But none of us wants to trust anyone else to make that decision for us.

14  Lessons?

There is one other great reminder in the story of the Gunpowder Plot (that as a kid I celebrated every 5 November with crackers and potatoes in the fire on the night that all dogs loathed – Bonfire Night.)  We say that we allow freedom of religion and that we claim to be tolerant.  Put that bluff or bluster aside.  It is obviously wrong and unfair to brand all those who profess a faith with the blame for wrongs done by fanatics who claim to be of that faith but whose actions show that they reject its teaching for their own motives.  It is like branding people because of the crimes, real or imagined, of their ancestors.  Typing people because of their faith or race is like holding them liable for the failures of others – they are two sides of our original sin.  We need to reach the insight that escaped Napoleon – you do not win people over by killing them or insulting them.  And that’s before you look at the moral question about how you should treat your neighbour.

We have a problem with religion that the ancients did not.  The religions of Greece and Rome look daffy to us.  It is hard for us to think of the Greeks or Romans taking them seriously.  But many of them did, especially if it suited them, like when the people of Athens decided that they had had enough of Socrates.  But one result of having so many all too human gods was that the people were very tolerant of other religions.  That stopped being the case with absolute religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Each of them said that there was only one God.  And it was theirs.  The problem then is one of simple arithmetic.  People are agreed that there can only be one answer.  But there are at least three different answers on offer.  The insight of Kant that I referred to was as follows.

If someone declares himself for this church [one that passes itself off as the only universal one] yet deviates from its faith in something essential (something made out to be so), especially if he propagates his errant belief, he is called a heretic and, like a rebel, is held more punishable than an external foe and is expelled from the church…..and given over to all the gods of hell. 

Kant also observed that the claim of each church to be the only universal church is ultimately ‘based on faith in a particular revelation which, since it is historical, can never be demanded of everyone.’  We might induce people to act on faith; we cannot compel them to do so.  Those remarks go to the heart of what we have been looking at.  So much of the suffering of this world has been caused by ruptures within religions that put themselves above all others.

We have been looking at manifestations of two of those ruptures.  The schism that we call the Reformation started a domino reaction that has been at least as lethal for mankind as the schism in Islam between Sunni and Shia.  As people on both sides could and did predict, the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath set back the course of religious peace in England in ways that can still be seen.  The reaction of the Protestant Crown left ample room for Catholic reaction and rejection, especially when disabilities were multiplied and decent people were asked to take responsibility for the actions of outright criminals who thought that they could fix their whole world with one big bang.  We might be reminded of the Treaty of Versailles.  The moral offence of Germany was great.  But the savagery of the reaction, as Keynes surely predicted, ensured that there would be another and worse war.

The division and hatred would be worse in Ireland.  The crimes of the English against the Irish were originally founded on a contempt for the Irish race.  A vicious sectarian shade was now added to that hostility.  At Drogheda, Cromwell, the great Puritan, engaged in what we would now call ethnic cleansing in the name of Christ.  As Christopher Hill remarked, ‘religious hostility reinforced cultural contempt.’  ‘Cultural’ there is the polite word for ‘racial.’  Professor Hill, no enemy of Cromwell, went on to compare the attitude of English people to the Irish with that of the Nazis  to the Slavs, and that of the Boers to black Africans, and said that ‘in each case the contempt rationalised a desire to exploit’.  The agony would go on for centuries.

So would blind prejudice.  In 1897, a Jesuit priest with the same name as one who fled when the Gunpowder Plot was exposed, Father John Gerard, published a book What Was Gunpowder Plot?  He said Salisbury made the whole lot up.  Off hand, it is hard to see how such a tract might achieve anything at all.

Those of us who look on glumly while mankind suffers from these two great schisms may just have to take refuge in the remark of a friend of Ben Johnson who gloried under the name of Lord Zouche:

Two religions cannot stand together.

Well, on one view, we may have been discussing four religions.

There may, then, be something to be said for teaching people about Western civilisation.  We saw that John Mortimer said that our Western civilisation is, after all, the product of a religion founded by Jesus of Nazareth.  That is, if I may say so, rather large.  Among other things, the splitting of Christianity has been about as much a blessing for us as the splitting of the atom – or the splitting of Islam.  Perhaps because I am a lawyer, I see the common law, including the rule of law, as fundamental to what I see as civilisation.  That may just be my prejudice.  The impact of religion on the common law has not been large – and part of the great teaching and legacy of the common law is that that’s the way it ought to be.  The alternative, frankly, is bloody dangerous.


[I apologise to those who like footnotes.  I don’t.  I like writing and reading and think that footnotes are bad for both.  They have clearly ruined our jurisprudence.  Any necessary references may be found below.]

Black, J B, The Reign of Elizabeth, Oxford History of England, 1959, 166-194, esp. 172

Bowen, C D, The Lion and the Throne, The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, Little Brown & Co, 1957, 252, 261, 267 and 270

Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot, Terror and Faith in 1605, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996, passim, but esp. 183, 235, 255, 258, and 295

Hill, C, God’s Englishman, Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, Folio Society, 2013, 99

Johnson, P, A History of the American People, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997, 125, 130

Kant, I, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 6:109; Religion and Rational Theology, A Wood and G Di Giovanni, C U P, 1996, 141

Lovell, J, Notable Historical Trials, Folio Society, 1999, Volume 1, 482-514, esp. 494, 505, 510

Neale, J E, Elizabeth I, Folio Society, 2005, 243

Ranke, History of England, Oxford, 1875, Volume 1, 403-417, esp. 408,411

State Trials, London, 1816 (Printed T C Hansard), Volume 2, 217-358 (trial of Garnet)

Trevelyan, G M, England Under the Stuarts, Folio Society, 1996, 80, 81, 84

Passing bull 173 – Self-interest and Rupert


Over the weekend, the Fairfax press carried a piece saying that we would just have to wait for a disaster in cricket before we got loud calls to bring back Warner & Co to save our cricket team (and those making money from televising it).  There was a disaster in our cricket yesterday.  And, Lo!, The Australian today was headed with a colourful banner:

SOS SMITH & WARNER: Perth disaster shows why we need our best batsmen back.

This exercise in Murdoch self-help could have come straight out of The Messiah.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

Perhaps those who read this newspaper should do so to the music of Handel.


Stupid, brainless and servile.  It’s how the American sisterhood describes women who vote Republican.  Ahead of the U S mid-term elections, left-wing sexism has reached fever pitch.  While claiming to support women’s right to vote, the left has subjected women who vote right to dehumanisation, public shaming and misogyny.  White women are bearing the brunt of the Left’s hate speech as desperate Democrats try to coerce conformity among female freethinkers….The PC sisterhood is raising feminist consciousness by stamping a jackboot on the face of dissent.

The Australian, 5 November, 2018.

Dear, dear, dear, dear.  Those who thought that the old Left/Right divide is now meaningless may be wrong.  People who support Donald Trump are merely ‘freethinkers’ publicly shamed by coercion and hate speech on the Left.  Well, we suspected that this kind of hysteria was not read after publication; it now looks likely that it is not read before publication either.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



William Shakespeare (1609)

The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Ed A Douglas, Martin Secker 1933; rebound in half red Morocco and cloth, with gilt label and humped spine.

Love is too young to know what conscience is;

Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love?

This volume stands on this shelf for all the work of Shakespeare, but in particular the plays.  They have had more effect on me than any other source of literature.  I have written about them separately.  This note can then be brief.

This very handsome book was presented to me by an English friend and colleague after we had finished a long hard case.  My friend has a dry sense of humour.  He was aware of my infatuation with the playwright, and he thought that this edition was just right for me.  It was compiled by Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie to Oscar Wilde.  His Lordship was moved to effect the compilation for this purpose:

The present writer, while accepting it as perfectly obvious and indisputable that the great majority of Shakespeare’s incomparable Sonnets (which comprise among them the finest poetry that has ever been written in this or any language) were written to, or about, a boy whom Shakespeare adored, utterly rejects the notion that Shakespeare was a homosexualist.

Now, some Loony Tunes think that Shakespeare was a spook, or a fairy at the bottom of the garden; here he is defended by Bosie against charges that he was queer.  I wonder whether the playwright shared these views of Bosie:

Any honest man who has been at public school or university must know perfectly well that young men and boys are liable to fall in love with other young men and boys, and they must also know equally well that some of these relationships are innocent and some are not…..If Shakespeare is to be convicted of homosexuality on the evidence of his sonnets to Mr W H, then David, the Psalmist, who is venerated by Catholics as a Saint and one of the precursors of Christ, must be equally convicted on the strength of his lament for Jonathon.  Would anyone in his senses make such a contention, unless he were an ‘eminent counsel’ speaking for his brief.

Well, whatever else it was that lured Wilde to Bosie, it was not the refinement of his intellect.

Here are some typical lines.

When to sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste:

Then can I drown an eye unus’d to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long-since cancell’d woe,

And moan the expense of many a banish’d sight.

It was the mission of this poet to put us at ease with our humanity.  There is not much else to say, except that my favourite remark about Shakespeare was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’


Here and there – Some terrorists from God: 3


[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

8 The priest and the confessions

Father Garnet was a distinguished scholar, and he comes down to us now as a decent man trapped in a vice put together by a haughty hierarchy and a rogue flock.  He showed astonishing composure and compassion during the trial  – and on the scaffold when the agents of the government were still pursuing him and trying to break him down morally before cutting him up physically.  Some would even later regard his conduct as saintly.

In the course of the trial, the leading government minister, Salisbury, had put it to the priest that he could not have absolved Catesby ‘because he professed no penitency, and therefore you could not absolve him.’  (We hear echoes of that discussion now on the issue of abuse by clerics.)  Father Garnet had maintained that he was obliged to respect the confessional and not report the confessor.

It looks likely that Father Garnet may have accepted that the law of England would go hard on him in carrying out what he saw was his duty as a priest.  When on trial for his life, Father Garnet was directly asked by Salisbury whether Catesby had told him of ‘the Powder Treason’, he calmly responded: ‘That my lord I may not answer.’  But he also said this:

But I allow that the laws made against such concealing are just and necessary, for it is not fit that the safety of the state should depend upon any man’s particular conscience.

It may be that such a concession related only to the knowledge that he had acquired outside of the confessional.  That would appear to have been the view of G M Trevelyan who said that Garnet had obtained ‘a general knowledge of Mr Catesby’s intention’ not in confession and that he saw himself as ‘highly guilty and to have offended God’ in not revealing it; Trevelyan also said that Garnet got the same knowledge from another source outside confession.

The depth of Garnet’s knowledge of the plot itself, and the source of such knowledge, are very controversial.  It is not easy to come to a conclusion even when you go back to State Trials – which is as close as we will get to a primary source.  (And the account there is as incomplete as it is evidently loaded against the accused.)

Garnet had said at first that Catesby had told him that ‘he had some great thing in hand for the good of Catholics.  I much disliked it and dissuaded him.’  On the scaffold, the Recorder challenged Garnet’s assertion that he only had general knowledge from Catesby.  He alleged that Garnet admitted getting ‘particulars of the Powder Plot’ from Tesimond at a meeting in Essex.  It was then said that Garnet acknowledged this to be true and said that ‘inasmuch as he had not declared the knowledge of the plot which had been generally imported to him, he owned himself to be justly condemned, and he asked pardon of the king.’  But Garnet had contended throughout that everything Tesimond said to him was said in confession.  That in itself was controversial – the discussion constituting the alleged confession took place in a walk in an Essex garden.

The great German historian Ranke said that Garnet had been asked to advise on a scheme to blow up parliament and the queen in the previous reign, and that he had said that such a scheme was ‘lawful’ – he cannot have been referring to the laws of England.  He said that the conspirators would have had a duty to spare as many of the ‘innocent’ as possible.  (By what criteria were the victims to be denied their ‘innocence’?)

The scheme which had been started under Elizabeth was resumed under King James, when men saw that his accession to the throne did not produce the hoped-for change.  On this occasion also scruples were felt on the ground that many a Catholic would perish at the same time.  To a question on the subject submitted to him without closer description of the case, Garnet answered in the spirit of a mufti delivering his fettah [fatwa?] that if an end were indubitably a good one, and could be accomplished in no other way, it was lawful to destroy even some of the innocent with the guilty.  Catesby had no compassion even for the innocent: he regarded the lords generally as only poltroons and atheists, whose place would be better filled by vigorous men.

If this assessment is well founded, it is frightening.  This discussion shows how alarmingly inhuman we can get if we allow religious schism to guide our moral judgment.  Here is a man of God contemplating indiscriminate slaughter on the footing that members of one sect are somehow ‘innocent’ in a way that members of another sect are not.  Kant was plainly right.  Heresy is a killer.  Offending God is far worse than offending man.  As Kant said, a heretic is like a rebel.  Heresy was religion’s version of rebellion – at least in those propagating the affront to authority.  Both involve a challenge to the existing order.

At least, as Ranke implies, this learned priest should have followed the maxim of seasoned lawyers – never give advice in the round, or on broad hypotheticals.  That way, two people can fall right off a cliff.  Father Garnet on any view was playing with fire – during his trial, it was alleged that Catesby had also sought to fish from Garnet some abstract ground of ‘lawfulness’ in respect of the deaths of innocent people.

When Father Garnet was pursued on the scaffold to confess to treason, he maintained his innocence in a manner that is for me persuasive.

I consider the late treason and conspiracy against the state to be cruel and detestable; and for my part all designs and endeavours against our king were ever disliked by me.  If this attempt had been perfected as it was designed, I think it would have been altogether damnable, and I pray for all prosperity to the king, the queen, and the royal family.

That was, after all, the teaching of his church and the inevitable consequence of the mission of its founder.  When, still on the scaffold, Father Garnet was asked if he sought pardon from the king, he responded:

I do so as far as I have sinned against him; namely, in that I did not reveal that whereof I had a general knowledge from Mr Catesby – but not otherwise.

There, then, was a decent man in dreadful plight.  The evidence is not complete, but doing the best I can, the finding of treason against Father Garnet looks to me to be about as sound as the same finding against Jesus of Nazareth nearly sixteen centuries beforehand.  Garnet would I think have been fairly convicted and executed on the misprision charge on its own, but in my view, he did not deserve the verdict or mode of death that he got.

9 Abuse of process

One source says that on the discovery of the plot, ‘the government seems to have fallen into a wild state of terror.’  That is just what the terrorists had sought, and we know what happened in the U S in 2001.  The USA Patriot Act of 2001 does not lack colour or warmth.

Possibly as a result of this ‘wild state of terror’, the trials did not reflect well on the English legal system.  Most of what Coke said or tendered in evidence would not be permitted in court today.  In his introduction to Volume I of the Folio Society Notable Historical Trials, the late John Mortimer, the creator of Rumpole, said of the conduct of Coke toward Ralegh that that was ‘the sort of cross-examination which demotes an attorney-general from an advocate to an accomplice in murder.’  Mr Mortimer concluded his Introduction:

So, reading these trials is as good a way as any of understanding history.  Sometimes the best people are in the dock, the most corrupt on the prosecutors and judges’ benches. Our Western civilisation is, after all, the product of a religion founded by someone who was tried, sentenced and executed as a criminal, in a trial of which a focus group of the citizens of Jerusalem thoroughly approved.

We can see aspects of a show trial.  For example, during the hearing, Salisbury (Cecil) had rather given the game away.

Alas, Mr Garnet.  Why should we be troubled all this day with you, were it not to make the cause appear as it deserveth?

Most lawyers know that feeling.  Sometimes when the train leaves the station, you are in no doubt about where your journey is going to end – why then are we here?

10 Punishment

Death, then, was the inevitable penalty.  The only question was how degrading and painful that death would be.  That meant that the English then were less exposed to the problems that come when you lock up religious fanatics together.  The Catholics who refused to toe the line were called recusants.  Elizabethan prisons were full of recusants.  Among other things, they could more easily attend mass in a place loaded with priests.

One of these slammers was named ‘the Clink’ – what else? – in Southwark.  It was always loaded with recusants and was seen as a ‘propaganda cell for the whole capital.’  This mirrors the experience in France and other jurisdictions where they now know that putting Muslim fanatics together unsurprisingly makes them worse.  No one appears to have the faintest idea of an answer.

11 The evil that zealots do – to priests

So, even in its hell-raising and mind-numbing scope, there was nothing new in the attack on the twin towers in 2001.  These attempts to raise hell on earth are meant to destabilise us by terrifying us.  They are especially evil when driven by what is said to be faith, because the fanaticism goes up a notch, and the stakes go up by far more than a notch – they go up to eternity.  One of the conspirators with a nice sense of understatement confessed that their object had been to ‘breed a confusion fit to beget new alterations.’

These zealots are also evil because they involve a prostitution, perversion and betrayal of the faith that they claim to represent while doing evil.  And by doing that, they are laying up trouble on earth for those that we may call the true believers.

To the extent that we disintegrate and drop our guard, we are handing the prize to the terrorists.  In my view, we do that by rashly abandoning long held rights, such as the ban on torture.  In that I think that we should follow the teaching of the military and police people who, as I understand it, follow the advice of the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor – don’t poke your enemy in the eye if he may come back and poke both of yours.

12 Protecting criminals

On the other hand, the time must be long past when adherents to one faith can allow their dogma to stand in the way of their saving the lives of others.  You may have thought that the claim of the clergy to be above the law had been put to bed more than 800 years ago after that unfortunate misunderstanding in the cathedral with Thomas Becket.  The effort to resuscitate it now shows not merely what Americans refer to as a tin ear, but a worryingly heartless preference for dogma over human life.  Whatever Father Garnet had in mind, he was plainly right when he said that ‘it is not fit that the safety of the state should depend upon any man’s particular conscience’.  It is revolting to think that the life or welfare of one man, woman or child might depend wholly on how the conscience of another man requires him to perform some part of a religious rite.

We read at times of priests claiming the protection of the seal of confession, and of some even offering to go to jail rather than adhere to the law, if law it be.  If such priests think that such a course might be a form of martyrdom, we might hope that they are deluded.  It is hard to think of anyone in our community, and certainly not anyone who has brought up children, who would accept such a view.  And before any cleric seeks to go down that path, he should carefully consider the hell that Father Garnet brought down upon himself and others.  The truest words that Father Garnet ever spoke may have been this response to Salisbury: ‘My lord, I would to God I had never known of the Powder Treason.’  Any priest who wants to allow any chance of being put in the life or death quandary of Father Garnet will look at best a brick shy of a full load.

It is sufficient here to refer to two subsidiary arguments of Coke that would have held attraction then and which could embarrass a cleric now.  Coke urged that Garnet could have revealed the identities of those who were not ‘confitents.’  His alternative submission may have had more attraction – Garnet ‘might and ought to have discovered the mischief for the preservation of the state though he had concealed the persons.’  These points are arguable but we do not provide our courts to settle disputes about religious dogma or rites.  Whose back would rise higher – that of the judge, or that of the jury?

And while we are talking about clerics giving succour to members of their flock who are contemplating doing evil to others, they may want to get some mature legal advice about the crimes of aiding and abetting.  In the humour of our time now, they need not expect warm sympathy from a jury.  And certainly any cleric offering a comforting view to a would be criminal about the ‘lawfulness’ of a proposed crime might look to receive full retribution at the hands of the law.  Preserving the peace is after all the law’s prime reason for existence.

As it happens, Guy Fawkes had correctly identified the nature and extent of the evil of the Gunpowder Plot in two answers that he gave directly to the king when he was arrested (with a watch, slow matches and touchwood on his person).

Why would you have killed me?

Because you are excommunicated by the pope.

How could you conspire against my children and so many innocent souls?

Dangerous diseases require a desperate remedy.

Passing bull 172 – Accepting responsibility


When people say that they are accepting responsibility, they are commonly either talking nonsense or just being evasive.  The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has not got there yet.  He prefers bare faced lies.  He says that he knew nothing about it.  No one believes that.  Not even the world’s greatest liar.

You often hear another weasel word – accountability.  What does being ‘responsible’ mean?  ‘Answerable, accountable (to another for something); liable to be called to account.’  Well, the trouble with that is that when you look up ‘accountable’, you get ‘responsible.’  We are going round in circles.

And too often when people say that they are accountable or responsible, they are saying that the buck stops here, or at least that the bus stops at this stop.  Et praeterea nihil.  And no more.  So, if the teacher asks who made that rude noise in class, and Little Johnnie puts his hand up, is that the end of the matter?  Of course not.  The question then is what should be done by or to Little Johnnie to protect and enforce discipline within and the standards of the school.

What is called the ball tampering scandal was a matter of national concern if not disgrace.  Something had to be done.  Three players put their hands up.  Was that enough?  Of course not.  The question then was what should be done by or to those three players to protect and enforce discipline within and standards of Australian cricket.

The Chairman of the board now says that he accepts responsibility.  He has put his hand up.  And he stays there.  Et praeterea nihil.  There is no more to be done.  The superior responds for the faults of the inferiors, but he is immune from suffering the consequences as they did.

Given the punishment of the three players, the board cannot say that they are accepting responsibility merely by saying that they do so.  The position of David Peever is morally and intellectually untenable.  It defies all sense and decency.  He cannot say that he accepts responsibility for this national scandal as chairman of the board while retaining that office.  Sometimes you see that a man is unfit for an office merely because he does not understand when he should stand down from that office.  That is the case with this man.

And that’s before you look at the disgraceful way that Peever engineered his reappointment, and the appointment of others responsible for the scandal, before releasing the report.  Peever gives every indication of not even being able to spell the word ‘fiduciary.’  He is a low flying ‘win at all costs’ mediocrity, the embodiment of our worst fears about sports administrators – the Panama hat brigade – in this duck pond.

Do you know what is the worst thing about this world after Trump?  It is the brazen way that they are insult our intelligence.  When Dylan Thomas died, his death certificate said the cause was ‘insult to the brain.’  His biographer said there was no such disease.  There is now.

Who do you think is the most brazen – the Chairman of Cricket Australia or the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia?


As the university’s management considers whether and on what terms it should enter into an agreement with the Ramsay Centre to fund the degree, a staff survey on the terms of a draft  memorandum of understanding has revealed deep divisions among the university’s academics.

But the vice-chancellor of the university, Michael Spence, has defended the proposal, saying the degree would not be undertaken on the basis of a “presumed superiority” of the west, but rather “contextualise and problematise” the subject if it goes ahead.

The Guardian, 13 October, 2018

If that is the way that any university teaches English, God save us

Here and there – Some terrorists from God: 2


[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

4  Two plots compared

The first thing to notice is that there was something like a state of war between two Christian sects in 1605.  We know that some Muslim clerics have issued fatwas, but none of those clerics had the standing or authority of a pope, and none of those fatwas was a direct attack on the sovereign government of a nation.  No fatwa that I am aware of gave spiritual licence to the murder of a head of state – on spiritual grounds.

Although the terrorists were seeking to topple a regime, their motivation was to serve their faith throughout.  From the time that the pope excommunicated and in effect deposed Queen Elizabeth, there was at least the risk that Catholics might think that any attack on the English Crown had the implicit blessing of their Church.  In the meanwhile, Spain had made war on England in the name of God.  France was harbouring the training of Jesuit opponents of the English Crown at Douai.  The Jesuits would provide what we know as the Fifth Column.

The forces behind those in the Gunpowder Plot therefore look to have been stronger and more highly backed than those in the attacks of 2001.  And their aim was correspondingly much higher.  They were after all intent on more than the death of the king.  They planned the annihilation of the entire parliament, and the top of the judiciary, and the incitement of a religious civil war that would have given new and awful meaning to Milton’s phrase ‘all hell broke loose.’

The object of the Catholic conspirators was to spread fear and alarm, and had they succeeded in at least their first objective, it is hard to imagine that fear and alarm not exceeding that which grabbed the United States after the attack on the twin towers.  The effects of the foreign wars commenced by the U S after that attack are still being felt.

5  The reaction – and torture

The attacks in the U S in 2001 led to calls for torture.  There is in my view little doubt that the U S engaged in torture, and that its allies looked the other way.  Torture was not permitted under the common law of England, but the king claimed the prerogative to use it at least in the case of Guy Fawkes.  Fawkes was the first to be taken, and his captors felt that they needed to torture him to identify the others.

It is hard to imagine a different course being taken in England in 1605.  But it is as like as not that those calling for torture in 1605 or 2001 were not recalling the role that torture played in the miscarriage of justice that led to the cruel death of the founder of their faith.  (The man called Jesus was found guilty of a religious offence (blasphemy) by the local authority and then executed by the imperial authority for an alleged breach of the secular criminal law (treason) for which there was no evidence at all.  The imperial authority committed the ultimate crime of handing the indigenous accused over to the mob.)

There was, however, other conduct in England that savours of hysteria.  Many in the parliament wanted to give the conspirators a ‘more sharp death.’  A bill was put forward in parliament for that purpose.  The bill was defeated, but as a fine American biographer of Sir Edward Coke (pronounced ‘Cook’) says:

Yet its very proposal gave indication of the ferocity with which the plotters were looked on – indication also of the time-honored propensity of legislators to proclaim their loyalty and save their skins by flaying alive the nearest vulnerable neighbour.

Yes, we do see that – and we did see some of it in the U S after 2001 – but these legislators were doubtless impressed by the fact that the conspirators had been trying to blow them to kingdom come – every last one of them.

6  The confessional

During the investigation and the trials following the Gunpowder Plot another issue arose that we now meet in a different context.  One of the conspirators, Catesby, confessed to a priest (Tesimond) during confession.  Catesby did not spell the plot out, but he made it clear that he and others would ignore the plea of the pope to leave matters to Providence.  The priest Tesimond in turn confessed this incident, again in confession, he said, to another priest, Father Henry Garnet, S J.  Both priests were horrified, but they felt precluded by the teaching of their church from notifying the government.  All they could do was to seek to prevent the crime by counselling against it.

Father Garnet was the leader of the Jesuits in England.  He was known as the English Provincial.  Putting to one side that he was said to be ‘a genial, easy-tempered man who loved his wine second only to his religion’, Garnet was always likely be a prime target of the Crown.  They were after the Jesuits as a body.

7 The trial

The prosecution was led by the Attorney General Sir Edward Coke.  He would go on to the bench and be a doughty defender of the common law, by standing right up in the face of James I for example, and he would be as a light unto the nations.  But as a prosecutor he could be like a dog with rabies.  (His conduct with Garnet was for our time appalling; with Ralegh, he was revolting.)

For Coke the phrase ‘English Catholic’ was close to being a contradiction in terms.  One of the conspirators had previously written that for Coke merely being a Catholic was sufficient to qualify a man as a traitor – a man is not English who gives his first allegiance elsewhere.  (Before you dismiss that notion as just ugly prejudice, you might recall that it would be very much that kind of that issue that led – fairly or otherwise – to the end of the Stuarts.  James II never got the point.)

Coke did not charge Garnet with not reporting evidence of treason – called then misprision of felony.  Coke charged the Jesuit with being a party to the plot – indeed, its mastermind.  And Coke performed with venom and frightful colour.  He said that the whole conspiracy had been dominated by the priests.  ‘I will name it the Jesuits’ treason, as belonging to them.’  Their doctrines of ‘King-killing’ and ‘Queen-killing’ were vital.  Garnet had had his finger in every treason since 1586.  It was the Jesuits who plotted to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.  (All the worst fears of the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor were now fulfilled.)  Coke said that this Jesuit doctor was a doctor of – ‘Dissimulation, Deposing of princes, Disposing of kingdoms, Daunting and Deterring of subjects, and Destruction.’  For good measure, the man from Cambridge added: ‘And I never knew any priest of Cambridge to be arraigned in court.’

When Coke read transcriptions of eavesdropped entrapment conversations, he adopted the practice of the time and edited out those parts that were favourable to the accused.  As G M Trevelyan coolly observed, this was ‘an age when the rules of evidence were the rules of probability interpreted by prejudice.’

Coke was not being forensic.  His denunciations were not even Protestant.  This exercise was wholly political, and the whole trial bears an unhealthy likeness to the proceedings before Senator McCarthy.  It is said that the Earl of Salisbury (formerly the all-powerful Sir Robert Cecil) later conceded that the object of Garnet’s trial had not been so much to convict the Jesuit as ‘to make a public and visible anatomy of Popish doctrine and practice.’  There is the risk of such contamination in all treason trials; it is inevitable in a show trial.  Show trials are just graphic political statements on behalf of the government.  They are propaganda.

Coke did refer the jury to canon law which he argued allowed Garnet to report on ‘a future thing to be done, not then already executed.’  He also attacked the Jesuits on their practice or technique of ‘equivocation’ in responding evasively to questions touching them in the profession of their faith.  (Shakespeare would pick up on this in Macbeth, which came out shortly after and which was heavily influenced by these events.)  Coke also alleged that at common law a person was bound to ‘discover’ (reveal) a treason against the king as soon as it came to his knowledge – even if it came to a priest during confession.  In that, Coke was on stronger ground.

The jury only took fifteen minutes.  (You might think that that was quick, but the practice in treason trials then was to do them in a day.  You may not smile if you consider the contemporary alternative.)  The sentence was the appalling one for treason, but a sympathetic crowd moved by this man’s spiritual demeanour ensured that he was as good as dead when he came off the scaffold to be disembowelled.  (Another source says that by express command of the king, Garnet remained hanging from the gallows until he was ‘quite dead.’  This would be one of the grounds of dispute later between Protestants and Catholics, some of whom believed his death was attended later by a miracle.  And the official version does smack of propaganda.)

Passing bull 171 – Bull about confessing


Not being Catholic, my understanding of the role of confession in religion is limited.  But Catholic friends whose judgment I trust tell me that in their view the debate over compulsory reporting of crimes admitted in confession is pointless.  They say that it is quite unlikely that a priest guilty of illegal sexual abuse would confess his guilt in confession.  It would be even more unlikely if he were a serial offender not offering genuine contrition and not truly committed to abstaining.  And only a mad priest would confess to a crime if he knew that the law required the person to whom he had confessed to report this confession to the police.

It is surprising then that the Catholic Church refuses to bend on this issue.  In The Australian on Saturday, a priest made the following arguments.

Without the surety of confidentiality no one would come to confession and speak about their deepest, darkest faults for fear of this being used against them by others….If those seeking confession know that anything they confess may be reported to police, why wouldn’t they go directly to police and report it themselves?

This is empiricism without the benefit of evidence.  And it sounds badly wrong.  Is it seriously suggested that members of the flock are so criminal and neurotic that they will not go to confession if they believe that the admission of a serious crime has to be reported to the police?

…in seeking to break the seal on confession, the government, by essentially making priests agents of the state, fundamentally would breach the separation of power between state and the church.

Well, I have to report to government often – for tax, licensing, or electoral purposes, for example – but it would be silly to say that I then become an agent of the state or that that silly proposition may have some forensic consequences.  If you want to frame the argument in large terms, what this church is seeking to say is that it ought to be above or outside the law, and is therefore seeking to undermine the rule of law.

In my view, therefore, those arguments go nowhere.   It is worrying that their author is an archbishop.  And anyone who thinks that this is a good time for a priest to say that he should be outside the law is crackers.


This is where climate change emerges as a classic post-material concern.  It is cost-free virtue-signalling.  The arguments are mainly emotive and any politician attempting to run against the tide by introducing facts and realism would be worried about the backlash in social and mainstream media….Apart from obvious risks in meddling with foreign policy settings for domestic political gain, the trouble with this sort of superficial campaigning is that it assumes blocks of voters can be picked off here and there with policies and giveaways, it tends to insult the intelligence of those same voters.  Rather than win votes, it may fuel disdain for the major parties and their tactics…..It is as though our political media class is focussed on the half-time entertainment….They ought to have more faith in the electorate….The enduring criticism of Labor and Liberal prime ministers across this lost decade has been too much focus on politics over policy, spin over substance or popularity over respect….Now Scott Morrison has inherited a broken Coalition, rescued from its lurch to the Left…..

The Australian, 20 October 2018

And so it goes – on and on and on.  It’s as if Mr Kenny keeps two A4 pages in a drawer and just re-orders the catch-phrases.  But it shows clearly why people in Wentworth rejected both major parties, and why every night the leaders of the ALP and the Greens go down on their knees to thank the Almighty for the blessings bestowed on them by Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, the IPA and The Australian.