12 September 2019

St Peter's School

12 September 2019

St Peter s Chapel 1Yesterday in Chapel I had one of those experiences you tend to remember with something of a wince. The Chaplain had introduced the second hymn and the organ struck up a tune I recognised and know very well. Knowing it so very well, I began to look for the hymn in the book with no particular urgency and, as the music reached the beginning of the first line, I confidently started to sing the opening words to that great hymn ‘Breathe on me, breath of God’. Many of you will know where there is going. Very quickly, I sensed that something wasn’t quite right and noticed the pupils around me looking in my direction. Wondering why, I finally found the hymn number only to discover that I was meant to be singing words I did not know to a tune that I did.

How very embarrassing but how very amusing and a healthy reminder of two things. First, that all of us make mistakes and look foolish from time to time and secondly that it is always wise to be certain of your ground before you open your mouth. It is this second thought that put me in mind of the craziness going on in parliament in the last few days. Over the summer, Boris Johnson said on many occasions that we are coming out of Europe on October 31 ‘no ifs, no buts’ and this was followed with the decision to prorogue or suspend parliament for several weeks as the clock strikes down to the date when it seems we would automatically leave Europe with or without a deal.

John Bercow, the Speaker, clearly had other plans and passed control of business from the Government to the House of Commons as a whole leading to a vote that looks to require the Prime Minister to request an extension to the departure date which leaves open all sorts of possibilities – an extension, an election, negotiations on a new deal, a second referendum and so on. Some say that this defies the conventions of how parliament operates, others hail Mr Bercow as a hero protecting parliament’s powers and the Speaker’s explanation for this seems to go back to a similar action he took some months ago when he said that ‘if we always follow precedent, nothing will ever change.’

Then on Sunday, I was watching the Andrew Marr show where the Chancellor, Sajid Javid was being questioned about whether the Prime Minister would defy a law passed by parliament requiring him to request an extension. On several occasions, the Chancellor repeated what seems to be a paradox. The Prime Minister would absolutely not request an extension and nor would he ignore a law passed by Parliament.

Now in referring to these matters I am not advocating any particular point of view on Brexit. That is for each of us to decide on our own. What it does make me think about is the importance of language and the meaning of the words we use. Something Lewis Carroll referred to in Alice in Wonderland:

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

In amongst all the chaos and unpredictability of the next few weeks, can I recommend that you follow the news closely. These are momentous days indeed. I asked Dr Dunn the other day if he could think of a comparable period in parliamentary history and not even he could think of anything that comes close. There is the prospect of an election before Christmas which means that those in the Upper Sixth whose birthdays fall early in the academic year will be eligible to vote. In amongst the seriousness of the weeks ahead, pay very close attention to the language and words that are used. We are in uncharted waters and it will prove interesting to see how arguments are made and how language is employed.

One of the many things you are trained in here at school in your academic subjects and other areas such as debating is constructing arguments, deploying evidence, anticipating counter-arguments, rebutting them with reasons and reaching a justified conclusion. We must hope to see the same as the debates in and out of parliament unfold. Let us at the very least hope that, unlike me in Chapel yesterday, our politicians are sure of their words before opening their mouths. Also that debate over the coming weeks does not resemble the closing lines of Matthew Arnold’s great poem, ‘Dover Beach’:

“Ah, love, let us be true to one another!

For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.”