Tom Crewe is right in much of what he says about the assault by successive UK governments on the role of local government but he presents an unjustifiably rosy picture of the past (LRB, 15 December 2016). The idea that there was a golden age, ushered into being by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, should be tempered by the recognition that the freedom of local councils to innovate and develop services for their communities was matched by the freedom not to do so. First, the 1835 Act was concerned with reforming local government only where there was already a municipal corporation in existence, which excluded places such as Manchester. Second, although it’s true that some local authorities in the late 19th century, ‘acting on their own initiative … cleared slums, built houses, parks, hospitals, museums and libraries, swimming pools and playing fields’, most did not, and where they did it was often as a result of prodding from Westminster. Crewe understandably cites Birmingham as the model of progressive municipal government, but many more councils were like Bristol, where the default position was to do nothing until pressure was exerted from the centre.
In Bristol the outcome of the 1835 Act was a gerrymandered council in which the richest wards returned three times as many councillors as the poorer areas. What’s more, the Tories used their dominance of the unelected aldermanic bench to ensure that they had a permanent majority in the council chamber. The scandalous conditions in cities finally prompted the government to give powers to local councils in the Public Health Act, 1848, but Bristol opted not to exercise the powers available until it was shamed into it in 1851, and even then the council held out for another 14 years against the appointment of a medical officer of health. They appointed a man whose approach perfectly reflected the stance of his employers, and over the next twenty years he resisted all demands to take action on overcrowding and unhealthy housing. He was succeeded by his son, who stuck to the same line, so that slum clearance powers remained almost entirely unused in Bristol; by 1902, precisely 66 council houses had been built there. Like most other local councils, Bristol only started to build houses on a large scale in the 1920s, and only after the introduction of government subsidies in 1919.
What we have seen in recent decades, as Crewe correctly says, is Westminster bearing down on local service provision, so it looks as if contraction is being forced on councils who, left to themselves, would continue to provide a wider range of public services. But history tells us that the story worked the other way round: it was only when the centre insisted on these services, and undertook to support them financially, that local authorities as a whole responded. If there was ever a golden age of municipal England it was when there was a balance between local freedom and responsibility, when the centre and the localities shared a commitment to the welfare state, and when the centre made sure that there was no backsliding by recalcitrant councillors.
As well as the municipal councils discussed by Tom Crewe, there are nine thousand parish and town councils in England, which serve more than 16 million people, 25 per cent of the population. Below municipal councils, these are the lowest nationwide units of local democracy. I am a member of Queen’s Park Community Council, the first and only parish council in London, serving 12,000 residents. Our immediate superiors are Westminster City Councillors. They call the shots.
The QPCC was established in June 2012. ‘For Westminster to have the first parish council in London for fifty years would be a fitting endorsement of the government’s ambitions for localism and neighbourhood engagement,’ the deputy leader of WCC, Robert Davis, said at the time. In collaboration with the property developers Wilmott Dixon, Davis promptly signed off the demolition of Queen’s Park’s only community asset, the Jubilee Sports Centre, to be replaced by seventy luxury flats at a starting price (for a one-bedroom flat) of £525,000, and 21 ‘town houses’. A 350 square-metre enclosed private garden for the new residents will replace a 50 square-metre public space used daily by local children. A mini-sports hall is tagged on. Westminster City Council was unmoved by a petition against the demolition signed by nearly half of our 12,000 residents.
Queen’s Park is a deprived area, with pockets of child poverty as bad as anywhere in the UK. There are fewer than average green spaces compared to the rest of London. In accordance with all the other anti-social municipal measures listed by Crewe, Westminster has just cut the annual grant to our one remaining youth club and youth services organisation from £100,000 to zero. A group of local residents, together with a local architect specialising in the rehabilitation of existing buildings and a sports manager of thirty years’ experience, drew up a proposal for a redesigned Community Jubilee Centre, to be cost-effective within five years. Westminster Council refused any serious consideration of the plan.
I read with great interest Bee Wilson’s piece about Herbert Asquith and Venetia Stanley (LRB, 17 November 2016). Ten years ago I wrote a book, Politics, Religion and Love, on the life of Edwin Montagu, a close political confidant of Asquith and the man whom Venetia Stanley eventually married. Wilson writes that Venetia told Violet, Asquith’s daughter, that ‘she didn’t mind converting to Judaism because she couldn’t bear to marry Edwin in a way that would separate him from his family.’ In fact Venetia married Edwin to ‘have fun’ with his money, and since his father’s will made it clear that Edwin wouldn’t be able to inherit any of the family money if he married outside the Jewish faith, she was prepared to undergo a simple conversion.
Asquith was totally demoralised when he learned of Venetia’s intention to marry Edwin in May 1915. He was being asked to form a wartime coalition at the time. Lloyd George made the case, with Arthur Balfour and George Curzon pitching in on behalf of the Conservatives. Asquith would normally have signalled his need to consult the cabinet, but he was so depressed that he agreed on the spot. Harold Baker, financial secretary to the War Office, told Asquith’s daughter-in-law, Cynthia, in confidence that ‘the poor PM is absolutely broken-hearted, that it is stymying all public troubles. Perhaps if truth were known, it is really the cause of the coalition.’
The coalition government was formed and Asquith was eventually forced to resign, splitting the Liberals in the process. The Liberal Party has never come back with any strength. It was the conclusion of my book that a love affair had changed the nature of British politics.
New York University
Bernard Becker’s piece about being arrested in Weimar for mutilating a postage stamp reminded me of the time I spent in Berlin in the 1960s (LRB, 15 December 2016). I lived in the West but most Saturdays would cross over at Checkpoint Charlie or Friedrichstrasse and spend the weekend in the GDR. I had met an East Berlin family who put me up on their sofa and in return I smuggled in Deutschmarks and other things unavailable in the East.
To get into the GDR you had to walk through a maze of barbed wire, tank traps and other obstacles, floodlights and watchtowers to a reception centre. There you were herded into a large room with aggressive guards in jackboots shouting at you. Around the walls were numbered letter boxes with a small curtained window above each one. You posted your passport in a letter box then waited in front of the window. The curtain would eventually open, you would be shouted at to look up, the curtain would close, you were marched to another slot in the wall and the passport was pushed out. Then you were made to change five Deutschmarks into five Ostmarks. A large sign greeted you: welcome to the german democratic socialist republic, a city of dusty streets where people waited at pedestrian crossings though there wasn’t a car in sight and nobody met your eye.
I once stopped at a coffee shop and sat at the counter. I waited. And waited. The person next to me was served. And another. And another. A waiter – eyes averted – walked past: ‘Can I have a coffee?’
‘The waiter serving your position is absent today.’
‘If I move to the next seat will I get a coffee?’
Given that one in 17 citizens was known to work for the Stasi, and now it seems the number was higher, it wasn’t surprising that the locals in the bar I went to on a Saturday night at first viewed me with some suspicion. But they soon came to the conclusion that even the Stasi wouldn’t go to the lengths of recruiting someone with an Irish passport to root out deviants in a dive in Prenzlauer Berg. One of the older locals once asked me to go outside with him. ‘I want to tell you a joke,’ he said.
‘This granny writes a letter to her daughter in Dresden and goes to the post office for a stamp. Gets the stamp, but it won’t stick to the letter.’ (Walter Ulbricht’s face was on all the stamps.) ‘Back she goes to the desk. “This stamp won’t stick!" she says. “Don’t be stupid of course it does," says the post office official. “You must be spitting on the wrong side."’
I wonder whether the ‘explicit instructions’ John Donne gave that Biathanatos (1608) not be published were actually in his will (Letters, 15 December 2016). If they weren’t it would probably have been lawful for his son to take into account other factors – for instance, that Donne appears to have sent ‘my book Biathanatos’ to Sir Robert Carre when he (Donne) went to Germany in 1619.
In his covering letter to Carre there is the following ambiguous phrase about the book: ‘I only forbid it the Presse, and the Fire: publish it not, but yet burn it not; and between those, do what you will with it.’ This suggests that Donne didn’t want the book widely disseminated but was not averse to confidants reading it. This probably led his son to conclude that he had a remit to publish the book after Donne’s death. Of course if the ‘explicit instructions’ not to publish were actually in Donne’s will the publication would have been unlawful.
Both Hal Foster and Philip Clark refer to John Cage’s ‘silent piece’, 4’33" (LRB, 1 December 2016, LRB, 15 December 2016). May I offer this image of an Excel worksheet?* It has a million rows, each with about 16,000 columns. The cells are filled with data and some wonderful mathematical formulae. These are hidden from view by the simple expediency of using a font colour the same as the cells’ background colour. In addition there are a number of exquisite charts but these too are hidden. The viewer should start in cell A1 and progress down the worksheet to A1048576, return to B1 and go down again, and so on until arriving at cell XFD1048576. It is estimated that this would take 100 hours and 100001 minutes (the values being in binary, of course). Following that, he or she may recalculate the worksheet by pressing F9, and then conduct a second review. In this way several days of enjoyment may be had.
* Image not included.