Nationalism, tribalism, religion and gangs

Can you name a single conflict in the world today that wasn't caused by one of the above?

"Greed" should be added to this list since English history can only be understood as the battle for rent - landowners using us as canon fodder as they fight one another to ensure a life of work-free ease paid for by rent - from us.

Can you name a single conflict in English history that doesn't boil down to a fight over the right to extract rent?

There's a certain irony here - we are ordered to fight on behalf of the landlord and then, after fighting and winning his battles, we end up paying him rent. We must be slow learners!

We didn't do religion in my family, we were C of E.

I have a peasant background on both sides. My mother's father bought three small farms during the agricultural slump of the early 1930s and my father's father was the village blacksmith. My uncle was the village poacher - when we found him to tell him my father had died he was eating bread and cheese with a sheath knife stuck into a well scrubbed table top and a .22LR rifle, with silencer and telescopic sights, was hanging over the door - straight out of "Cider with Rosie"!

None of them attended church - that was for rites of passage: baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Peasants, landowners and the church

From The Great Theft of 1066 onward, every village had a landowner living off the labour of others through rent. The stately home, the country house, the manor house, "the big house" - all built on the sweated labour of we peasants with nothing contributed by the landowner.

When I see Chatsworth, its contents, its gardens and its estates, I see two things. I see wonderful examples of craftsmanship in the buildings, artifacts and landscaping but I also see the untold millions of labour hours of those who paid the rent and dug the coal that paid for it all. What did the Cavendishes/Devonshires do for all this? Their ancestor, Gernon de Montfichet of Montfiquet in Normandy, killed people at the Battle of Hastings during The Great Theft of 1066. Where is that wealth now? In a trust to avoid tax.

Don't get me wrong, I love Chatsworth which is, allegedly "a well run estate" that people enjoy working on - but it is still extracting rent from the labour of others. Should Peregrine Cavendish ("we don't get a lot of Peregrines down our street" as a Derby friend remarked) fancy following the precedent set by his ancestor, I am perfectly willing to fight him for it - pistols at dawn beside the River Derwent.

Cognitive dissonance is alive and well amongst the aristocracy and amongst the nouveau riche who, one way or another over the centuries, have acquired smaller rural estates. They pride themselves on being benevolent landowners with the best interests of their tenants and workers at heart and they are convinced they are loved by all willing to touch the forelock. Little do they know! If your livelihood and your tenancy depend on "them up at the big house" it isn't surprising to display one attitude in the presence of the Lord of the Manor and something totally different with people of your own class.

Every village also had a church with the Rector or Vicar being the second son of the landowner - living off the labour of others through tithes. Every cathedral and every church was built on the sweated labour of we peasants. The church had an additional benefit for the landowner - it provided a powerful tool for social control through the threat of hellfire and damnation used against anyone tempted to question the social hierarchy.

Even by the early 20th century the C of E was still singing "All things bright and beautiful" with the verse:

"Rich man in his castle,
poor man at his gate,
god made them high and lowly,
and ordered their estate."

The non-conformist movement (Methodism etc.) grew rapidly in the countryside - agricultural workers had no intention of spending their Sundays worshipping with their landlord when they spent the rest of the week labouring to pay his rents. Simmering discontent, occassionally breaking out into wholesale rebellion against landlord and church, has always been a feature of rural life in England.

On a recent trip to Wirksworth I was told the story of lead miners refusing to pay tithes - they were paying enough to the landowners and the king and didn't see why they should pay to make life comfortable for the local vicar. The story describes how the vicar's wife stood at the top of the bell pits, knife in hand, demanding the tithes before she would allow them to climb out. Chapel Street in Wirksworth contains an amazing number of non-conformist chapels - proof again that working people had had enough of the blood sucking Church of England and its close links to the land owning class.

For many the non-conformist movement was the first step towards understanding the role of religion, especially as rural workers moved into towns and became more educated, and that led to questioning the ideas behind religion and, ultimately, to the rejection of those ideas in favour of much simpler answers to "the big questions of life".

Those who have lived their whole lives in towns may be astonished to discover that, in many small English villages, particulary estate villages, the relationship between landowner, church and tenant is exactly the same as it was almost 1,000 years ago - I live in such a village.

Land Value Tax, the abolition of trusts, preventing the use of tax havens, ending non-dom status and other tax reforms will be the key to sorting this out.

Late note:

"Britain's 600 aristocratic families have doubled their wealth in the last decade and are as wealthy now as at the height of Empire".

See here for details.

I was sent to Sunday school by my parents so they could have a quiet morning to themselves.

We had an ancient illustrated Victorian family bible (full of blood and gore) - which I read by the light of a paraffin Tilly lamp in our Gloucestershire farmhouse in the days before "The Electric" reached us.

I had hymns and prayers every day of my 13 years at school along with RE once a week.

I did Church Parade during the years I was a Sea Cadet. I had earlier been thrown out of Cubs for some reason - refusal to pray may have had something to do with it.

Religion never took with me, not even a little bit, I never got the point, I lacked the gene for Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Paganism, Wicca, Shinto, Baha'i or any of the thousands of other religions, sects and cults in the world today. So many religions, so many genes - remember that next time someone tells you: "I was born a Christian/Muslim/Hindu ..."

I am defined by what I am not, not by what I am - I am a "not theist", an atheist and I don't necessarily share any beliefs whatsoever with any other atheists - that's why there is no such thing as "atheism". If you think there is, try defining it!

Actually, I'm an Evangelical Atheist and a humanist - I put people first in the one life we share together.

As an atheist and humanist I don't have to join anything, I don't have to be a member of any group, tribe or gang.

I didn't like sport at school - probably because I was no good at it (last one to get picked) and I hated the wet and mud - so I have never been a sports fan, I don't belong to the tribes that support this, that or the other football team.

I don't feel "British", whatever that means. I am English rather than Welsh, Scots or Irish, because I was born here. Actually my mum was Welsh so my ancestors were pushed further and further to the West by the invading Romans - a bit of romantic wishful thinking! Perhaps my slogan should be: "Britain for the true Brits" - sling out anyone who came over with or after the Romans - starting with Monsieur Nigel Farage, who can go back to France, and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who can go back to Turkey. Slight irony there given this.

I'm not patriotic ("Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" - Samuel Johnson) or "proud of being English" - how can you be proud of an accident of birth over which you had no control? I am certainly not proud of many of the things that have been done in the name of England over the centuries.

I'm just me

During a talk I gave to a year 6 class on Atheist Humanism a boy put up his hand and said:

"Why do I have to be an anything? Why do I need a label? I'm just me."

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings - pretty good for a 10 year old - I was impressed.

"My gang's better than your gang"

Human beings are social animals so we are all in a gang of some sort simply because we feel comfortable in a group similar to ourselves. Would I feel comfortable in the local Conservative Club? No way! Gangs share the same world view and the same rituals - chanting on the terraces, taking communion on Sundays, carrying statues of saints through the street, praying five time s a day, arguing over politics at a CLP meeting, playing in the local ukulele band, having a G&T at the 19th hole.

There are a million and one obvious or subtle ways to spot someone in the same gang - body tattoos, the clothes they wear, the way they talk or shake your hand, knowing the difference between a napkin and a serviette or putting the milk in after pouring the tea.

One thing they all share: "my gang's better than your gang", "my religion is right, yours is wrong", "we" are right, "they" are wrong - "let's make America great again".

Aristos have posh voices (honed on the touch lines of Eton and Cheltenham Ladies College), they use 100 words when 10 would do and they are effusive in their thanks for even the most trivial of things. Under that hyper-polite exterior you will often find a heart riddled with bigotry, prejudice and distaste for the lower orders coupled with a cast-iron and ruthless determination to hang on to the privileges they have gained over hundreds of years through interbreeding (to expand their estates or to keep them together) and training their young in the principle weapon of power - the law.

Anyone who thinks the battles we face have nothing to do with class is living in a fantasy world. Class conflict is at the heart of the struggle for socialism - it hasn't gone away simply because The Guardian preaches that "we are all liberal and middle class now". Please see the article on "Working class Tories" for more discussion on this.

Self-defining groups

"Self-identity" is big these days - and, in my opinion, quite right too!

I am what I define myself to be, not what you think I am. I refuse to fit into whichever stereotypical pigeon hole you want to slot me into. I'm just me.

Self-identity is fine, the problems come with self-identifying groups and the conflicts that arise between them.

Jews are a self-identifying group - membership is passed down through the female line - if your mother is a Jew, you are Jew - usually. Actually it's a little more complicated than that because there are "rules" and religion rears its head.

Many (most?) Jews are secular. Tens of thousands of Jews self-identify as atheists - some even self-identify as Christian. Judaism, the religion not the people, is not a proselytising religion but it is possible for non-Jews to become Judaists - Ivanka Trump for example.

Judaists often claim to speak on behalf of all Jews when, apart from the fact that many Jews are not religious, Judaism itself is split between multiple self-identifying sub-groups which are not exactly friendly towards one another. The term "Judaist" is not accepted by many Jews - they prefer to be called simply "Jews" or "religious Jews" - which can make things hard to follow for the outsider.

The group of people who self-identify as "Muslims" is much more straightforward, they are simply the followers of one or more of the multiple sects that make up the religion of Islam. They are not based on tribe or place, simply on religion.

The "Arab" self-identifying group is a tough one. Are they based on a region: "the Arab world" (i.e. the Middle East), are they a "people", are they a group of tribes, are they the followers of a religion? Again, not all Arabs are religious and not all religious Arabs are Muslims.

This is getting complicated. In fact our race relations legislation dodges the bullet - it fails to define clearly what is meant by "race", "people or "tribe" because, if you think about it long enough, it is impossible to define them in any meaningful or useful way. For heaven's sake, what does "Caucasian" mean - and am I one? No, I'm an off-white, male, heterosexual, atheist, republican, socialist, rural, tall, grey-haired peasant with glasses and a beard! I'm a stereotype, lots of men of my age look like me - but they don't necessarily share my beliefs so we are certainly not a self-defining group!

Not being able to define all these groups doesn't mean they aren't the major cause of conflict in the world today, be it Protestant (Unionist) v Catholic (Nationalist) in Northern Ireland or Arab (Muslims) v Jews (Judaists) in the Middle East.

Think how many problems in the world today are caused by the members of self-defining Fundamentalist and Envangelical Christian groups in the USA. Scary.


Gangs are self defining groups. They define the rules for entry, they have joining ceremonies, they have rituals, they have rules and they have sanctions against those who break the rules.

Gangs are no different from groups based on nationalism, tribalism, religion or even football.

Inter-gang warfare is no different from inter-religious warfare or inter-national warfare.

One has to ask: do the personal rewards gained by being in a group outweight the problems those groups create for the rest of us? I have my doubts.