At the End of the Day

My unstable stable door, Robin redbreasts, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Five days ago, the new stable door at the back of my house here came away from it’s closure device in the wind…smashing against the stone wall inside, and breaking the argon-filled glass. It’s a good-looking door, but the closure mechanism has never been right; once again, local artisans are going to be called in to correct sloppy manufacture by a large multinational concern.

I spent much of today discussing with the Polish team how best to strengthen the rear wall of the old barn being converted into a proper single-storey gite/maison des amis. Because they are small-scale artisans, well-trained and concerned not to let clients down, they’ve gone the extra mile to ensure that the new dwelling will still be standing long after I’ve gone. But it struck me that, were a Big building concern to have been given this job, they would’ve cut every possible corner…..then the wall would’ve collapsed, and more work for them would’ve been created – in the certain knowledge that equally amoral lawyers and insurers would render them free from prosecution.

Let’s not forget that, during the period of the ill-fated Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to restore NHS hospital buildings, this is exactly what happened. Most of the claims remain in litigation ten years on….but the buildings are crumbling. All of which makes it easy for Jeremy Frunt-Botham and Dan Hangman to position the NHS as a horrible mess created by the public sector.

Meanwhile – back at my stable door which is not entirely stable –  there exists a notice on its bottom left pane explaining how to have the top half open and the bottom half closed. This is, after all, how stable doors are supposed to be when the weather is mild. In days of yore, this consisted of putting one sliding bolt on the bottom half, and a hook plus croquet against the wall for the top half. But in 2014, we live in the age of Complication Is Clever, and so now it’s all done by complex mechanisms.

The notice is 12cms by 25, and the instructions are in in 5pt Times New Roman. The notice fills the entirety of one of the four panes – as it happens, the one cracked by the closure mechanism being not awfully good at closing things, as such: irony, irony…any old irony.

To separate the two halves of the door, one has to turn the door handle one quarter downwards, then action the vertaille and open the bequille – but whatever you do, don’t use the guide de renvoi d’angle manually. And remember to push it towards the left when you put the two halves back together again.

What exactly is it you’re supposed to use to adjust the guide de renvoi d’angle – your nose, arse, elbow or feet?

This is so entirely and unashamedly daft, it is close to being the physical equivalent of an App. It is akin to the arrival of Estate Agents and lawyers into the process of buying and selling houses. But in an era where the Accountant is King, it is of course far better to have things made by machines….rather than by human beings who know WTF way is up.

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In concert with modern consumption mania, it being November 1st today  the robins have arrived back to help signal the fact that it is now a mere 17% of the year before Christmas arrives…and thus we must all do our bit to consume the most unutterably useless crap in order to celebrate the birth of Mammon’s greatest-ever enemy.

In those long-ago days when there was a new and glamorous Queen on the British throne, we happy little Ovaltineys in primary school fashioned Christmas cards upon which the one common factor was the robin. Little robin redbreast hopping through the snow was somehow the symbol of a gentle Christian ethic – as typified by St Christopher….whom I once played in a Christmas school tableau. The teachers gave me sandals strapped up to the knee to wear for the part, but didn’t help much when it came to getting out of costume later. Imagine having your body hair removed by the application of super-glue to Pirelli tyres, and you’re about there with the pain involved.

Your real-life robin is a bit of a Hobbesian neoliberal. They are fiercely territorial over food supply: not more than one robin will occupy a small garden, unless it is his mate. The somewhat lachrymose British affection for the robin as a chubby little friendly and sociable bird is a myth.

However – and this is their saving grace in my eyes – the robin blokes take the parenting thing very seriously indeed: once the female has laid her eggs, she stays in the nest for up to two weeks, crouching low over them, well concealed with only her brown back visible.  The male brings her food, sometimes as often as three times in an hour….and his food supply chain becomes even more frenetic once the chicks hatch out. We are talking serious bloke bringing home bacon here.

As I’ve observed over several summers in south-west France, this does not apply to the sparrow hawk. The male, as far as I can see, is generally lacking in feck. Thus Mrs sparrow hawk is forced to push him off the Telephone wire in search of rodents, while she in turn fends off Buzzards keen to take her young. Thus, within one species, we see the full spectrum of male behaviour from Andy Capp via Nick Clegg to Alan Sugar. No doubt – if avians were more ‘intelligent’ – they would try to impose universal feminist multiculturalism. But if they were super-intelligent, they might spot that rather aggressively caring dominant males were a better alternative to easy-going plonkers who’d rather switch on Sky to watch the footie.

I suspect this sub-section has alienated almost everyone. Hurrah!

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Perhaps one of the most enduring tenets of political philosophy is The Social Contract – first put forward by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1763 volume of the same name. In that tract, he asked, ‘How is a method of associating to be found which will defend and protect….using the power of all the persons – and yet the property of each member – to still enable each member of the group to obey only himself and to remain as free as before?’

This remains the single most significant observation about Man’s quandary as a social animal: the vexed question of each individual’s relationship with the State. In it’s time – spanning over 3000 years – it has produced supporters of everything from Nazi Germany to Philadelphia’s Amish community.

For myself – as a lifelong Benthamite concerned to modernise his ideas in the light of experience – I would say that J-JR’s contract should be expressed as ‘the greatest contentment of the greatest number’. But nevertheless, I do recognise that sounds fine on paper….but is difficult to realise in the context of Homo sapiens, The Human Thug.

So if I may, I would like tonight to express this in a contemporary context that is (I hope) timeless:

Whatever the circumstances, the Citizen comes first

but only

if the citizen is fully prepared to behave responsibly

It seems to me that this gives a duty to both sides: the citizen must fulfil his obligations….as must the State – which is employed by the citizen. But when the State stops representing the responsible citizen, then the most responsible action the citizen can take is to render the State impotent.

In our Western culture today, the citizen demands liberty (but what that really means is license) and the State demands infinite powers to defend itself (and what that really means is license).

Until education has repaired the individual’s desire to be omnipotently free from control, a State freed from proper examination will use the citizen’s irresponsibility as the excuse for dictatorship.

250 years after Rousseau, the Social Contract remains of the same ilk. Protecting both the legislature and the individual, there are only the Rule of Law and obedience to the Constitution.

In the United Kingdom, we have neither. This is why we must be fearlessly vigilant.

Yesterday at The Slog: Could an independent Scotland yet produce an independent UK?