Sunday 29 March 2020

Why is Britain still a country which needs to say a proper "Farewell" to an Indomitable old Campaigner, Churchman and Champion of the Poor and Homeless called Paul Nicolson ?

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Paul, who has died at the age of 87, was a prominent campaigner against poverty in modern Britain for many years, yet, apart from an obituary in the 'Church Times' and another in the local newspaper, 'Ham & High' and a score or so of tweets, his passing has gone unremarked in either the 'Times', 'Telegraph', 'Guardian' or 'Independent'. This is surprising, since they were not slow to report his protests and court appearances in the past.

His ideas on issue of poverty were influenced among others, by the writings of a Dutch Catholic priest, revealed when he reflected : 'I do think the statement by Henri Nouwen 'you can't love issues, but you can love people', is right. The love of people, whoever they are, reveals to us how we should deal with issues. We know that peace means the well-being of people in villages, towns, cities and nations and their organisations within them. We know that justice means fairness and the sharing of resources and work so that no one is reduced to poverty.'

He began his first public protest in 1989 by refusing to pay the new Poll Tax imposed by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government, where those who couldn't afford to pay faced imprisonment and he later recalled : "After I refused to pay it, I had a not-unexpected visit from the Bishop of Buckingham (Christopher Pepys). I told him it was a shame to be opposed by the Christian Bishop when the local Muslim Imam was supporting me. After that, it was decided the poll tax was a matter of personal conscience.” 

Paul went to court with those who couldn't pay, to work with them, to show that the magistrates could remit the debt and working with lawyers, he won case after case, but he remained disappointed that the only support for his stance on came from the Militant Tendency group within the Labour Party and said : "They were the only people, literally the only people - not the Church, not the Conservative Party, not the Labour Party."

In 1997 he made his second life-changing decision when, at the age of 65, in response to the imposition of the Poll Tax, he founded and chaired the 'Zacchaeus 2000 Trust', specifically to support debtors impoverished by the benefit system in court. He took its name from the Biblical, wealthy tax collector, Zacchaeus, who renounced his riches after meeting Christ and saying : “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He committed the Trust 'to the relief of poverty and to promoting the study of the Christian religion in the context of contemporary social, political and economic circumstances, working in cooperation with other members of the Christian Faith and people of good will of other faiths or of none.'

In this last, and most radical phase of his life in which such epithets as ‘bloody-minded’, ‘fearless’ and ‘a fighter’ were used to describe him, he said he took inspiration from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi “without believing I’m anywhere near in the same class. They showed it is possible, by refusing to obey an unjust law, to influence public opinion to make a change."

In 1999 and perhaps in the manner of Zacchaeus, he gave up his post as Group Vicar of the Hambleden Valley Group of Churches and devoted himself to the Trust : “It kind of took me over, so gave up one of the Church of England’s most idyllic postings to move to Tottenham, North London, an Arsenal fan on a mission."

The Family Budget Unit, was formed in 1987 to 'advance the education of the public in all matters relating to comparative living standards and living costs throughout the United Kingdom' and research the composition of family budgets and in 1999 Paul commissioned the 'Minimum Income Standards' research from the Unit. It's point was to establish the actual cost of 'low-cost, but adequate' standard of living and its findings were subsequently used by UNISON and 'London Citizens', of which he was a trustee, to persuade Ken Livingstone,​ as Mayor of London, to introduce the 'London Living Wage'.

In 2003 he commissioned the housing expert, Professor Peter Ambrose, to research child poverty and the resulting Report, which was presented to Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which ended with Paul's : 'Only the state has the power to curb the rampant excesses of free market capitalism that create inequalities in health and wealth.'

Paul's 2005 Memorandum to the Prime Minister on 'Unaffordable Housing' which was also based on research by Peter Ambrose was read by Tony Blair, but no action was taken. In the introduction Paul had written : 'We hold that land exists for the common good. It provides the basis needs of shelter, food and clothing of which everyone should have a just minimum share. But housing and land have become investments, for which peculators, money lenders and banks grow ever wealthier. Governments have allowed the market to exploit to exploit the shortage of land by allowing unregulated lending to lift the price of housing above the needs of the poor in the UK.'

In 2013 he organised the first '1000 Mothers March for Justice' and said he : Was inspired by many years working with families who are struggling to pay off rent and council tax arrears. We are determined to spread the truth about the gross injustice of the Coalition Government’s reforms of the benefit system. For 700,000, all their income has been stopped with a sanction by job centres under pressure from cabinet ministers.''Let them eat nothing - it's only fair on taxpayers" - says Ian Duncan Smith. Well this taxpayer disagrees with him from the bottom of my heart. It is a lie that there is no alternative to sending families to food banks from a government that is cutting taxes for millionaires this month!'

Paul said : "I think were in a kind of crazy situation. I don't understand why benefits are taxed. What are we doing giving people with one hand and making them destitute with the other ?  It's a kind of 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' and the 'Mad Hatter's Tea Party' and you remember the Mad Hatter says
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn't be, and what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?" So you've got benefits which aren't benefits, you've got benefits that are taxed. You've got benefits which are meant to keep alive, which make people destitute and homeless."

Paul joined the '1000 Mothers March for Justice' again in 2014 :

In 2013 he made his last life-changing decision when he withdrew from Zacchaeus, because he thought his activities might imperil its charitable status, to run 'Taxpayers Against Poverty', which he had founded at the age of 80, the year before and said it was to do "exactly what it says on the tin ": working with and for the poorest citizens of Britain without allegiance to a political party. He said : "I want to challenge the idea that the Government always claims they are doing what’s best for the taxpayer. I am glad my taxation is used to enable my fellow citizens, both in and out of work, to buy enough food, clothes, fuel, transport and other necessities, to pay council tax and the rent of secure homes, when they have no other means to do so. And I think there are lots of other people who think the same.”

His refusal to pay his Council Tax in 2013 gave him the publicity he wanted for his campaign against poverty and the Guardian described him as :

He said : “The faith that I have is about putting the poor first. There’s no good just saying that, you have to put it into practice. So I am refusing to pay my own Council Tax to highlight their plight. This is much, much worse than the Poll Tax. Faced with the prospect of prosecution he said : “There is no question. I will go bankrupt. You don’t undertake civil disobedience unless you are prepared to take the consequences. I shall go to prison if that’s what is wanted. I shall start paying my tax again when they stop taxing benefits."

Before his day in court Paul reiterated : “I am really not in the slightest bit afraid of prison,”and was looking forward to his appearance and his opportunity to explain why he had decided not to pay his bills. “One of the joys of refusing to pay,” he said, is that there is a “wonderful opportunity to tell the story of why the 2013 abolition of a centralised council tax benefit has had such catastrophic consequences for hundreds of thousands of people."

Paul told his Story of the Wicked Barons at a meeting of the North London People's Assembly Against Austerity in 2013 :

In 2014, in letter printed in the Guardian from' Taxpayers Against Poverty' Paul said : 'Liberation theology cannot be picked up from South America and planted in the UK. But its method of doing theology - from the perspective of the poor, studying the facts and being shocked by their circumstances- can be.' 'We desperately need bishops and archbishops who will interact with our political community in the manner of Oscar Romero. 
He famously said : "When I feed to poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, the call me a communist. When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery and from which the cry arises." Romero was assassinated on 24 March 1980, the eve of the enthronement of Robert Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury.'

Paul had his day in court in June 2016 when he appeared at Tottenham Magistrates Court in north London for his non-payment of council tax since 2013. He owed almost £3,000, but also he to decide what to do about the £47,000 in costs awarded against him. The Independent reported him as the :
Paul had taken legal action after complaining that magistrates ruling on allegations of Council Tax non-payment were failing to check the accuracy of costs bills. Paul's reaction to the ruling was to say : “I'm delighted. It's game, set and match to the poor. I'm not a socialist. I'm a Christian. All I do is state the facts on poverty.”

In 2015 he received public acclaim when received the 'Best Non Academic Award' from the Social Policy Association for dedicating 'much of his life to understanding and campaigning against the causes of poverty and to being an advocate for those in financial trouble.'

In a letter he wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May, in 2016, he asked her to commission report on cumulative impact of all benefit cuts on mental and physical health and said : 'I was born in the Courtfield ward of the London Borough of  Kensington and Chelsea in 1932, where life expectancy is 91 years. I retired to Tottenham in 1999 to continue my work with vulnerable debtors. I now live between two wards where the life expectancy is 71 years old. I am embarrassed by the fact that neighbours born in the same year as myself died 13 years ago.'

In 2017 he staged a small 'Taxpayer' demonstration with followers in Parliament Square to implore its 18,600 facebook followers "To call on their Members of Parliament. To call on their surgeries and ring the Emergency Bell. So Members of Parliament, if you hear a bell ringing, it's and Emergency Bell ringing. It's an Emergency Housing Crisis and you do something about it."

He made the newspapers for the last time in February when the 'Mirror' ran :

Last month Paul said : "I was begging on the doorstep of Church House, Westminster in the role of a homeless person for five hours from 9am to 2pm.You are not taught to do that at college when preparing for ordination 50 years ago. Nor is it something I was expecting to do at the age of 87. But something has to be done."  With his cardboard sign which read : 'With & for Street and Family Homeless', his aim was to support from the street the General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England in 'the two excellent motions to be voted on that day. One was promoting a better friendship between Church members and impoverished people in line with the priority given to it by Jesus. The other was opposing the shredding of legal aid which is blocking access to justice for many. Both motions were passed unanimously.'

'Both Z2K and TAP are committed to working  with and for the poorest UK citizens without allegiance to any political party. I have worked with and for low income families and individuals for 40 years. Debt, hunger and homelessness are now very bad and getting worse.'

He continued : 'While several people entering or leaving Church House stopped for a chat, most walked by as if I was not there. That invisibility while lying on the pavement must be very depressing for long term street homeless people. £14.38 was put into my mug which I gave to one of the three street homeless people begging outside Tottenham who I pass on my journey home. I am planning another session in the role of beggar opposite Downing Street.'

Sadly, Paul died before he carried out his protest in Downing Street and before he saw the completion of the 'Elimination of Homelessness Bill', which is designed to compel councils to count the homeless in their area and and make an inventory of unused property and land.

Paul said :

“Civil disobedience is morally defensible when the laws being highlighted are morally indefensible.”

“At the heart of the teachings of every faith is Love Your Neighbour as Yourself. I’d like to see that idea back at the heart of politics."

* * * * * * * * 
Paul was born in the affluent Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in the West End of London in the Spring of 1932, the son and only child of Kathleen and Roderick, who worked in the family business in the wine trade and was later described by Paul's son Rod as 'charismatic vintner from Scotland.' His maternal grandfather, and possible formative influence on his life when he was young and up to the age of 24, when his Grandfather died, was Major Guy Kindersley, who, before Paul was born, had served as Conservative MP for Hitchin and, in addition, was Chairman of brewery companies and the publisher, Spottiswood. He also published a number of poems based on his War experience and influenced by his sense of social justice and religious faith which are interesting, in view of the direction Paul took in his own professional and public life.

'You have talked of the Rights of Nations,
while you worshipped the rights of self.
Your lands are dunged with our life blood
Your houses are built with our bones;
Your temples and would you could hear
them are filled with our children’s moans.'

Paul's early life, with its emphasis on deference and convention gave no indication of the radical path was follow in the Church of England :

He was brought up in Kimpton, a village in Hertfordshire, but during the Second World War, in 1943 when he was 11, he was packed off as a boarder at Uppingham School, a public school for boys in the small market town of Uppingham in Rutland in the East Midlands. Apart for endowing Paul with his life-long public school accent, it also schooled him in the art of public speaking and in his later Church career he was described as a 'charismatic diocesion debator'. 

Uppingham was a school where, as a pupil, his trouser pockets were sewn up because he wasn't allowed to have his hands in them and one where the masters wore gowns and mortarboards and hoods in chapel. If the memories of other Uppingham pupils in these years are anything to go by, Paul himself doubtless remembered that : as a junior he had to serve as a 'fag', doing dirty jobs and running errands for one of the senior boys, a 'pollie' or 'praeposter' and with another fag clean his study and beat the dust out of his study carpet and be beaten on his buttocks by the pollie if anything wasn't up to scratch. He'd had to pass the 'Fags' Exam' two weeks after arrival, which involved knowing the history of the School, his house, the names of former housemasters, the nicknames of current masters, the rules of the School and who was entitled to what privileges.

He had no contact with boys, let alone girls, from the other schools in the town and would have visited Hawthorn's book-shop and Boots, but other shops were 'out of bounds', usually, because the shopkeepers preferred not to deal with the school. 
When in town, he wore black and white speckled straw boater or 'basher' and if he passed a member of staff on his right, went through a ritual of deference whereby he had to raise his hand to his forehead and touch his forehead in the middle with his right hand and if the member of staff was on his left, he lifted his left hand up, if he didn't have his hat on.

Having completed school, at the age of 18 in 1950, he didn't attend university, having gained a scholarship from the English Speaking Union and a place at the Gunnery School in Connecticut in the USA, which had been founded as a residential school for boys by Frederick William Gunn and his wife Abigail in 1850. It offered 'a classical education in the Anglican Tradition', but also emphasized athletic opportunities, environmental awareness and moral values with its motto 'Vir Bonus Semper Discipulus Est', 'A good person is always a student.'

Back in Britain in 1951, at the age of 19, he began his two years National Service in the Army, serving in the Green Jackets, a regiment with the motto, 'Celer et Audax', 'Swift and Bold' as, in conflict, he would have been used as marksman and part of a shock troop which had to get to the front line of battle as fast as was possible. As a result, he marched at 140 paces per minute, whereas other regiments marched at just 120. Paul received a commission and he later commented : "We thought we were much posher than any other regiments and we looked down on the Guards."
Once National Service was completed, he took his first, and expected step in life, when he entered the family drinks business, H Parrott & Co. and would have been 'au fey' with its history and the fact that Grandfather Nicolson had helped resurrect Longmorn Glenlivet Whisky in 1908 and had been had been the first agent in Scotland for the Reims-based champagne house, Veuve Clicquot, with the company advertising that it was 'Veuve's exclusive wine distributor for the markets of Great Britain and the Dominions.'

As a member of the 'The Bow Group', founded in 1951 as an independent think tank promoting conservative opinion, he co-authored, with Thomas Whipman, a memorandum to the Home Secretary, Rab Butler 'On the Reform of the Licencing Laws in England and Wales', which argued, amongst other things, for the  relaxation of the law when drinking with a meal. In the event, Butler's 1961 'Licencing Law' took on board one of Paul's recommendations in the shape of a new drinks licence for restaurants.

In the same year, at the age of 29, he recalled a two week trip to Paris to learn how to sell champagne to night clubs : "I went to one club where there was a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on each table before you sat down. Mistinguett, the Folies Berger star, was sitting at a table. Her legs had been insured for a million pounds because they were so beautiful. By then she was 86. A female impersonator did his impression of her while she sat holding hands with a dwarf, then Jacques Tati walked in and sat at the bar. It was pure Toulouse Lautrec."

He was still living in his childhood village of Kimpton and many years later reflected on what may well have been his first campaign : '57 years ago I was a Church Warden and Chairman of Stewardship in the Parish of St Peter and St Paul Kimpton in the Diocese of St Albans. We had a very successful Stewardship Campaign both in terms calling on people to give of their time, talents and money to the church. Our income increased and lapsed villagers re-joined to take up some work for the Church.'

In 1965, at the age of 33 and after working for 12 years as a champagne merchant, he made his first life-changing decision when he abandoned his career in business and decided to train to become a minister of the Church of England and later said, while laughing, that he did it because of concerns about the future of his liver.

He began his religious studies as a mature student, at the age of 33, by which time he had married and had a family to support and later recalled : "After reading about the French worker-priest movement at Cuddesdon Theological College, I went to see Robert Runcie, then the Principal and said : "What shall I do ?" He said : "Let's explore the unknown, Paul." And I have been exploring the unknown ever since".

Paul's adoption if the role of worker-priest caused difficulties and, after two bishops refused to ordain him, Robert approached the Bishop of Oxford, Harry Carpenter and said : "I told Harry that Paul is scarred with episcopal incomprehension." As a result, in 1968, Paul's ordination as a deacon in the Church of England, by Harry and Robert went ahead, without ceremony, in Robert's study at St Albans, where he was now Bishop. Paul was now a 'Minister in Secular Employment' or MSE, earning his pay from his employment as a personnel officer in, what was then, ICI headquarters in Millbank, a position he maintained until ICI made him redundant in 1972.

He then switched jobs and between 1973-78, was the first General Secretary of the 'Confederation Employee Organisations', which he helped to found as a 'politically independent federation of unions, staff and professional organisations' and by 1978, saw it represent nearly fifty organisations, mostly in insurance, comprising over seventy thousand members. While working there, in 1975, he used Harold Wilson's and Labour Government's newly created 'Employment Appeal Tribunal' to present one of the first cases to be heard and one which he lost, in which he challenged ICI's redundancy procedures and is filed in the National Archives at Kew as 'Complaints by Mr. Paul Nicolson and Dr. D. Elwell.'

In 1976 he supported the 'Ferrybridge Six', who were electricians who worked at the State-owned Ferrybridge Power Station in Yorkshire where, the management refused to recognise their trade union and upheld the practice of the 'closed shop' where they only dealt with one union. The men were sacked and their unemployment benefit axed and taking up their case, Paul found himself at odds with the then Secretary of State for Employment, Michael Foot, who said that : "A person who declines to fall in with new conditions of employment which result from a collective agreement may well be considered to have brought about his own dismissal".

Between 1979 and 1982 he made his first foray into politics when he was elected as an Independent District Councillor for the Kimpton Ward in the North Herts District Council with 54% and  672 votes, beating both Conservative and Labour candidates. Then in 1982, at the age of 50, he left the world of industrial tribunals and took up the post of 'Group Vicar of the Hambleden Valley Group of Churches' in Buckinghamshire.

He later recalled : 'Before I came to Hambleden Valley, I had been floundering about. Trying to think of a theological framework for the trade union negotiations of the closed shop and the dismissal provisions of the 1971 Act. In fact I really got very muddled. Then someone lent me a little cottage in the Dordogne.'

In the cottage he said : 'I just picked up every book on theology I could lay hands on and just read and read and suddenly discovered liberation theology.' The ideas of the religious movement arising in late 1960s Roman Catholicism and centred in Latin America which sought to apply religious faith by aiding the poor and oppressed through involvement in political and civic affairs had a profound effect on him. It stressed both heightened awareness of the 'sinful' socioeconomic structures that caused social inequities and active participation in changing those structures. Paul himself said : "Christianity is an affair of the heart. That is where you start. For my mind there is a very big connection between contemplative prayer and social action."

Paul recalled :  'In October 1986 Pope John Paul II invited the leaders of all faiths to pray for peace in Assisi, Italy. I was Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Turville then. I obtained and used on the same day, with a meeting of several faiths, a copy of the order of service used in Assisi, from which this prayer for peace and justice is taken. It is as relevant today for people of all faiths and also, perhaps, a wish list for people of goodwill of no faith. Later, I and the Parochial Church Council, gave permission for the filming of the Vicar of Dibley in our Parish Church. She had a thing or two to say about peace and justice.'

It was in 1994 that he saw St Mary the Virgin in Turville become one of the most famous parish churches in the country, when film director, Richard Curtis, started to use it as the fictional St Barnabas in the fictional Oxfordshire village of Dibley in his TV comedy series 'The Vicar of Dibley'It was used for location filming over the 4 years of the highly popular series, which starred Dawn French as the female vicar  assigned to the parish, reflecting the 1992 changes in the Church of England which permitted the ordination of women.

During his 17 years tenure at Hambleden form 1982-1999, Paul had become increasing absorbed by the issue of poverty in the first instance among his parishioners, but at some point, delving into the history of land ownership in England he concluded : 'The rich and powerful began their land grabbing after the Magna Carta. The land which once belonged to the King was common land on which the people of Britain survived. The enclosures by the barons took that land from them. The Church and State were not slow to catch on, as I discovered when I served as Parish Priest in the Hambleden Valley Group of Churches in the beautiful Chiltern Hills.'

He found that with the enclosure of  '300 acres of common land on which 60 families depended for survival; it is recorded that they starved. Then in the 1980s the sale of council houses in the Chiltern villages to the tenants for £25,000 led to them being sold into the market for £250,000; now they sell on for £600,000 plus. The poorest tenants are being priced out of the Chiltern Hills.'

Paul's move to Tottenham in 1999 gave him his first real taste of urban poverty and homelessness.

"The present Government is stripping that principle out of British law and replacing it with the winner take all ideas of the free market. Today we say "No" to that. 1000 times "No". Loving your neighbour is the civilised way. We will have no more of your destruction of the welfare system, your insulting attacks on welfare claimants or your penal evictions from our homes."

Monday 23 March 2020

Britain, besieged by coronavirus, is a country and no country for old men in gloomy isolation at home, while the young stroll blithely in the sun

Last Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that old men and women in Britain age over 70 must self-isolate at home from the weekend onwards for up to four months to stop them getting the coronavirus. He said : "This avoiding all social contact is especially important for the over 70, pregnant women and those with health conditions. It is now clear that the peak of the epidemic is coming faster in some parts of the country than others. People over 70 might feel there is something excessive about these measures. I believe they are overwhelmingly worth it to slow the spread of the disease reduce the peak save life minimise suffering and give our NHS the chance to cope."

Sunday 23rd March : 

Victoria Park and Columbia Market in London and Whitby in Yorkshire.

Dovestone Reservoir in Manchester and Skegness in Lincolnshire.

Total number of cases and death toll in Italy today. Britain estimated to be 2 weeks behind