When running a campaign such as the miners’ present one, the only thing that really matters is whether you win or not.

The thought was brought home to me recently when reading historian Eamon Duffy’s new book, Fires of Faith, about Mary Tudor’s reign. Duffy has been pursuing a revisionist program for some years, pointing out that the old religion was much more persistent in England, despite the early English reformation, than is generally recognised.

Mary Tudor’s reign is nowadays — thanks to some brilliant Protestant propaganda — seen as a brutal and failed attempt to return to a medieval Catholicism. Even many Counter-Reformation Catholics — partly due to the propaganda from the Jesuits Cardinal Pole kept away from the Tudor program — saw the reign as a failure.

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But without the benefit of hindsight, Mary Tudor and Cardinal Pole did rather well. While there were more Protestant publications circulated (based on some surviving publications research) during the reign than Catholic ones, the Catholic ones had bigger print runs and focused more ruthlessly on some key messages and were generally more didactic. Sermons were preached at the auto-de-fes; there was a systematic program of preaching throughout the country; universities were purged; censorship was tightened; and Protestant printers driven overseas.

There were some PR disasters — as tends to happen when you burn 274 people for heresy — in particular with Archbishops Ridley and Cranmer. But whatever we think about that horrific policy, it wasn’t unusual for the day and in Elizabeth’s reign some 200 odd Catholics were executed, if by torture and disembowelling, rather than fire.

Duffy thinks that by the time Mary and Pole died, within a week of each other, they may well have been winning. But within another generation, and in the centuries after in Britain, they were seen as brutal failures.

The miners’ campaign is very good, but they still risk suffering the same fate as Mary. If Labor wins, the tax goes through. And even if they don’t, resource rent taxes are now on the agenda around the world and will, just like consumption taxes, inevitably re-appear in the future.

On the other hand, the Rudd campaign is very bad. Chatting on Bush Telegraph last week with Michael Cathcart, he mentioned that it was ironic that so many of the left were arguing that Rudd needed more spin and a better campaign to get the tax through. But we agreed that it was not about more spin but more about a strong, coherent narrative. Postmodernism might be good for academic discourse, but old-fashioned stories that grip and engage are much more powerful.

And that’s exactly what the most successful Protestant propagandist, John Foxe, understood; why his book, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, was so successful; and why it did such a good job of eclipsing Mary’s and Pole’s wins. Indeed, while Rudd is at church on Sunday — the successor of the one Mary failed to destroy — he may even get some value from borrowing some ideas from Foxe.

Incidentally, if the ALP would like to open a second front on taxes on rents, it may want to read the Buttonwood column in The Economist (5/6/10). The author, I think still the wonderful Phillip Coggan, cites some Bank of England research that suggests that “the effective annual subsidy for the five biggest British banks during the credit crunch was … roughly equal to the whole industry’s annual profit in the years before the crisis”.

Buttonwood points out that UK bank returns on equity were about 7% between 1921 and 1971 but escalated to 20% after that. He says: “Such a sustained rise suggests that the finance sector has been able to extract ‘rents’, a term economists use to explain excess profits.” Buttonwood discusses why this excess rent has not been competed away and concludes that “whatever the reason, the effect is that the returns that millions of savers hope to earn end up being paid to the finance sector as rents”.

Ritual declaration of interest: the author has had mining company and banking industry clients.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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