Roots in the estuary

President George W Bush, that original Essex man.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics
  • George Bush, original Essex man

What with George W Bush in Ulster at the moment, I am surprised that the US president hasn’t been making a loud commotion about his Irish ancestry. This is, after all, de rigueur for US presidents, who don’t want to miss a chance to prove what emotional and fun-loving people they are, and how their forefathers used to live in a mud-hut with only berries to eat and sadistic priests for company.

On a more pragmatic basis, boasting about your Irish roots is necessary in order to suck up to the Irish lobby in America. The fact that the vast majority of presidents, including Bill Clinton, descend from Ulster Protestants (not what you’d call friends of Noraid), and that only two – JFK and Ronald Reagan – came from a southern Catholic background, is always lost on people.

Some have been more lucky than others. In August 1998 the would-be presidential candidate Newt Gingrich paid a visit to the Emerald Isle to demonstrate how he too had bacon and cabbage in his blood. He went to Inch Island to be presented with a rug bearing the crest of the O’Doherty clan, of which he was allegedly a descendant. Yet, after an exhaustive search through their database listing the two million O’Dohertys throughout the world, no proof could be found that Newt was one himself. In fact, it seemed he wasn’t Irish at all.

Dubya may appear to have things a little easier. One of his ancestors, William Holliday, was born in Co Down in 1755. Another, William Shannon, was born somewhere in Co Cork about 1730. But what of the immigrants who first brought the Bush name to the USA? George W’s direct paternal ancestors actually came from Essex. The Bushes were puritan yeoman who left for the colonies some time in the seventeenth century. Yet when Hugh Peskitt of Debrett’s People of Today revealed as much in December 2000, he got the brush-off from the modern-day Bushes. ‘The family didn’t like my research as it made them look aristocratic’, he said.

It is strange that while one US politician without Irish roots pretends he has, another with English ancestry pretends he hasn’t. That the Bushes regard Essex men as ‘aristocratic’ only proves that they are not a very bright clan.

What with our current US/UK coalition against ‘terror’, and the Irish sulking in silent neutrality yet again, maybe things will change. Presidents will surely start boasting that they too were from Dagenham or Wolverhampton – guzzling lager and chips during New York’s St George’s Day procession, singing ‘In-ger-land, In-ger-land, In-ger-land’. As we speak, Bush is probably starting to ‘feel more English every day’.

  • Saints preserve us

Later this month, Englanders will be celebrating St George’s Day. Whether we have the composure or good nature to rival the Irish on such an occasion remains to be seen. As twee and saccharine as St Patrick’s Day celebrations are prone to be, they are at least menace-free and the fighting all good-natured. Anyone who has been to Trafalgar Square following an England football victory will know that what begins as drunken frolics by over-excited folk waving St George flags invariably turns to bad-temperedness and then sheer nastiness. The English simply aren’t very good at partying en masse.

St George’s Day used to be noted by the Church, far-right nutters and real-ale drinkers. Increasingly, it is being transformed into ‘an event’ that we are encouraged to go out for and celebrate for the day. Yet so many other occasions have been broadened out to become national festivals. Australia Day and St Patrick’s Day used to be solely for ex-pats and ex-Pats, but now we all partake in the festivities. The Grand National and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race have also become modern-day public holidays. The likes of the forthcoming Henley Regatta, the Notting Hill Carnival, and not to mention May Day Riots, promise much of the same.

It has been argued that since the mid-1990s England has become more Catholic and Mediterranean in nature. We are much more given to displays of public emotion. We are more outspoken and feminine. We are much more tolerant of beggars (or mendicants, as they used to be called). And now, we seem to have our secular saints’ days to celebrate. The saint in each case, admittedly, being Dionysus.

  • Big Daddy

When is the government going to realise that the state makes for a lousy parent? Yesterday saw both the release of the new government magazine Dad, telling men how to be good fathers, and the announcement by UK Chancellor Gordon Brown that he will give at least £250 and up to £500 for each newborn child, to be held in a savings fund until they reach 18.

The irony is that much irresponsible parenting is the result of state nannying in the first place. When the government in the postwar era decided that it was its responsibility to help with the financial upbringing of children, it crowded fathers out. With the state as the provider, their role was made redundant. So they went absent.

I’m neither a particular apologist for the state of marriage, nor a demoniser of single mothers – if people raise children on their own, it’s their business and nobody else’s – but the fact remains that children brought up in a working-class background without the presence of their father are much more likely to end with poorer qualifications, lower-income jobs, or in jail.

Why should we trust an institution that helped to cause a problem with the responsibility of amending it? The state makes for the worst kind of parental figure, the one who indulges his children financially but not a whit emotionally. The result is an unhappy, uncontrollable and attention-seeking infant. The result is only that sad, silly lament: ‘Where did it all go wrong? But we gave him everything.’

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics

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