Distraction

Partygate got full coverage in the Swedish media again today, with scenes in the Commons shown on SVT delighting those here who always suspected that Monty Python was fact. In tomorrow’s Dagens Nyheter Katrine Marçal, the paper’s excellent London correspondent, bemoans the fact that it all seemed to be about Johnson, and none of it about politics, which is what the Swedish parliament usually concerns itself with. She also thinks it won’t matter much to Johnson, because it plays to people’s fond perceptions of him in any case. He relishes the role of ‘distraction’.

Which made me wonder whether in fact he might be the latest and most cunning of  Lynton Crosby’s ‘dead cats’, thrown on to the table deliberately (see https://bernardjporter.com/2022/01/14/a-line-of-dead-cats/), in order to take our attention away from the direr things going on underneath it: especially Priti Patel’s dismantling of our liberties, and Nadine Dorris’s threats to the BBC. Now that would be clever. Is Boris aware?

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Save Big Dog

Is it true? It’s widely reported that there’s a plot afoot to rescue Boris from the mess he’s got himself  into, and to save his premiership from what threatens to be its rapid, ignominious and well-deserved end, to which the code-name ‘Operation Save Big Dog’ has been given: the title suggested, apparently, by Boris himself. From what can be gathered the plot consists of waiting for it all to ‘blow over’; putting all the blame on his underlings, and sacking some of them; polishing up and presenting what can be seen as some of his recent achievements (‘getting’ Brexit and the vaccine roll-out ‘done’); and putting forward some new ‘populist’ measures – cutting lockdown so that people can party, stationing troops on the south coast to deter immigrants, perhaps a bit of money for covid-sufferers, and some juicy ‘culture’ bones for his extreme right-wingers – to lure the ‘red wall’ back into the Big Dog’s embrace. If these don’t work, then of course there’s the ‘dead cat’ strategy (see last post). Or does he have something else up his sleeve?

Of course the most likely thing to ‘Save Big Dog’, at least in the short-medium term, is the fact that he has no obvious successor in the government – or even in his party – who has any ability or dignitas at all. Truss? Gove? Sunak (perhaps)? He sacked all the most experienced and competent of them before the last election, in order to over-promote the callow young (or youngish) Brexiters whose loyalty he thought he could rely on to see him through. Most of the most able Tory MPs were pro-Europeans. That leaves no-one for the Party to turn to, to do a good job of leadership, while at the same time keeping the Brexit flag flying still.

Well, we’ll see. In the meantime, I’m left wondering who really thought up that ‘Save Big Dog’ slogan. It seems awfully arrogant for the man himself. It sounds like something Carrie calls him in bed. ‘Come and snuggle up, you lovely big dog, you!’ Maybe, to win the voters back for hubby, she’s got another baby up her sleeve. (Or somewhere.) No, that wouldn’t do it.

Labour must be secretly hoping that he does survive. Just at present he’s an electoral liability for the Tories, who are ten points in the rear. And the next scheduled election isn’t for two years.

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A Line of Dead Cats

First there was Brexit. That didn’t go very well, did it? But then along came Covid 19, to take our attention away from all that. The Government handled that badly too: incompetently and corruptly; so we needed a distraction from that. That’s when brave Prince Andrew stepped in, to hog the front pages with his (alleged) misdemeanors, and then his (un-) dressing down: his ‘HRH’ and ill-gotten medals falling off him like autumn leaves. This is the story currently. But people will soon get bored of that too; and so we have today’s new scandal: a Chinese spy, for pity’s sake. Spies always steal headlines, although this one doesn’t seem terribly significant, except to the Right-wing tabloids, because of her alleged – but in fact risible – relations with the Labour Party.

So, we have a sequence of supposed scandals, each one distracting popular attention from the one before. And in fact Brexit itself could be regarded as a distraction from the much more serious scandal that preceded and should overshadow all of them: our political leaders’ failure to respond adequately to climate change.

You’ll remember the Australian propagandist and amoralist Lynton Crosby’s ‘dead cat’ political strategy? If there’s a problem, throw a dead cat on to the table in order to get everyone talking about that instead. I’m not claiming that Covid was a deliberate distraction; but this has been its effect. And the other ones could have been deliberate: except that Johnson doesn’t seem clever enough to think of them.

Perhaps the arch-amoralist Dominic Cummings had a part in them? Not in order to protect Brexit, necessarily, and certainly not Boris; but to divert attention from the other key development in British politics today: which is the trend – scarcely noticed beneath all these distractions – towards a form of authoritarianism. Which seems to be his baby.

PS. By the way, Bojo and Partygate got the full treatment on Swedish TV News this evening. I felt quite proud.

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Bye-Bye Bo-Jo?

One would imagine that Boris will need to go very soon.  It must be remembered that many of his backbenchers have distrusted him for years: ‘Boris will always let you down’, as a retiring Tory MP told me was the almost universal feeling among his colleagues before the last General Election. (I may have quoted this before.)

We’ve all known about his enormous failings of character and of personal morality, which indeed were noticed when he was a boy, and reported to his parents by one of his masters at Eton (I’ve quoted that, too). There are at least half-a-dozen books about his flaws, especially his penchant for lying. There’s no excuse for the cognoscenti (who include Conservative politicians) not being aware of all this. ‘The people’ may have remained ignorant, and seduced by what many have described as his ‘PG Wodehouse’ characteristics. It was this supposed appeal to the populace that persuaded the Tory Party to select him as their leader and prime ministerial candidate in 2019, in the belief – quite justified, as it turned out – that an older and fatter Bertie Wooster might appeal – more than the slimmer and deadly serious Corbyn – to the politically unlettered and to the aficionados of TV comedy programmes.

Having won the election for them, but with his obvious stupidity, superficiality, lack of judgment and gross immorality only now clearly affecting both his appeal to the people (‘one law for them…’) and his direction of the country, many Tories know that it’s time for him to go; having done his job for his party in 2019. Of course he has weathered personal crises like this before, generally by ladling on the ‘charm’. But can that take him any further in 2022?

I’ve written before about Johnson’s personal flaws, especially the lies. Then I wondered whether personal immorality, generally speaking, could really be a determining factor when it comes to national politics. Soon we may know.

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Colonialism: What If?

Colonialism and imperialism at the present time are usually discussed in very simplistic moral terms. Are you – and the books written about them – ‘for’ or ‘against’? The fall-back position for most commentators is that imperialism was an unrelieved evil, responsible for many if not all of today's problems in places like Africa. Hence my interest, as an imperial historian, in this contribution to a blogsite I subscribe to (USA Africa Dialogue), by an African scholar, Oluwatoyin Adepoju, dealing with some of the questions about colonialism that ought to be asked.

If Africans were not colonised, what would have been the implications for scribal literacy, which was low on the continent?

If Africans were not colonised, what would have been the implications for the unquestioned dominance of classical African religions, as opposed to the greater pluralism, the range of choices, opened  up by the current co-existence of these religions and  Christianity?

Without passing through the colonial experience, would we be using an international language, English and chatting on the Internet?

All contemporary Africans are shaped by colonialism, particularly poignantly so those deeply invested in the globally dominant educational system, which has its origins in Europe and has little input in its methods  and understanding of reality from learning systems from other cultures. 

Would any such person prefer a classical African education to the Western one? Under what circumstances, outside the forceful coercion of colonialism,  would an informed choice between them or to integrate them have been possible?

Colonisation birthed the Universities of Ibadan and Makere, for example, pioneers in post-classical African scholarship, more critically oriented, more international in range of reference and communicative scope, than the earlier classical African systems of Ifa, among others. 

Is the current challenge not  one of synergy between these systems?

The creative possibilities represented by these  developments are  possible without colonisation but colonisation is the historical trajectory through which they emerged.

Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels visualise encounters between a space faring Terran civilisation and non-technological cultures, in which the Terrans are scrupulous about not interfering in the local culture on the planets they find themselves.

Its also true, I think, that Africans were visiting Europe before colonisation.

How best could we have benefited from what Europe had to offer, without having to pass through the still reverberating agonies of colonisation?

Perhaps I need to understand the colonial experience better. While not justifying the self serving so called civilising  missions of the colonisers, I think colonialism in Africa and perhaps Asia needs to be appreciated in more complex terms than that of binary good and evil.

A painful journey but one whose every segment is vital, in my view.

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History and Patriotism

(I've finished the copy-editing phase of 'the book'. But yesterday, just an hour or two later, being asked by a Swedish friend of Kajsa's what the book was about, I couldn't for the life of me remember. Dementia? Or simply a reaction to the months of work that went into it? - Now I need to write a press article to accompany the book's publication in the early summer. This is my first sketch.)

Why a ‘patriot’ would need to feel any kind of ‘pride’ in the history of his or her country is a mystery to me. In most cases – unless the aforesaid patriots are comparatively old, and played a significant part in the events and achievements they so admire – none of that history can be credited to them. Very few of them have had any choice over where they live and were brought up, even, unless they are expatriots or immigrants, in which case they might justifiably take some pride in where they have chosen to live; so long, that is, as it’s because of those nations’ virtues, and not simply because they were the only countries they were allowed in to, or to exploit. (The more ‘racist’ kind of ‘native’ patriot might baulk at that.)

As well as this, countries change, and people’s views of their virtues, too; so that – for example – pride in conquering other countries in the past – Rome, and of course the British Empire – might seem less of a virtue in less imperialistic times. If I could ever allow myself to take on this kind of historical ‘pride’, in my case it would more likely attach itself to Britain’s anti-imperialist traditions than to her acquisition of colonies all over the world. But I’d rather not take any credit for that, either; except for the part I played in my early life protesting against South African apartheid, the Kenyan ‘emergency’, and the like. And that didn’t amount to much. (Mainly marching and shouting.) So, pride in – and even, conversely,  shame towards – one’s national history is simply nonsensical. ‘It wasn’t me, guv. I wasn’t there at the time.’

In any case, your nation shouldn’t need to have had a ‘virtuous’ history for you to feel patriotic towards it. Some years ago when I was teaching at an American university (Rochester, NY), a student told me of a Republican neighbour of his who had asked him why he was studying British history. ‘America’, he went on, ‘has the best history in the world!’ Most of us would probably dispute that: either its placing of the US at the top of the moral (or whatever) hierarchy of nations; or its implied view that only the ‘best’ nations need to be studied by historians; or its assumption that America has a ‘history’ that is immutable; or of course on all these grounds. Most countries’ histories are ‘mixed’, changeable, and controversial. That’s what makes studying them so challenging, so enlightening and therefore useful, and also – for us scholars – such fun. 

Nor, surely, is a pride in your country’s past a necessary desideratum for ‘patriotism’. Swedish school students are taught to admire their country for its aspirations, not its history: which was, it has to be said, somewhat chequered before the Social Democrats got in. Britain is entirely different, on the political Right at least, in seeking to base its people’s patriotism on its past. That’s why earlier ‘heroes’ so often come up in ‘patriotic’ accounts of Britain: King Alfred, Drake, Churchill, Gladstone, Emily Pankhurst (at a pinch); and great victories – the Armada, World War I, World War II, the 1966 World Cup; as well as heroic failures (which we may be rather better at), like the Charge of the Light Brigade, Scott at the South Pole, and Dunkirk. Not all these heroes and their deeds have survived the critical attentions of later historians unscathed (viz. Churchill); but the fact that Brits need to have a past to be ‘proud’ of is the most telling thing.

Of course the impression we’re given in Britain of ‘unchanging’ traditions must be one of the reasons for the appeal of the ‘past’ as a focus of patriotism; dressed up as it is in the clothes of the past – literally in the cases of lords, judges and Eton schoolboys, including the top-hatted Jacob Rees-Mogg – in order to give an impression of immutability. Of course this is highly misleading. Clothes don’t ‘maketh the man’, or the woman; as neither do names and titles. The ‘Conservative Party’ for example hasn’t wanted to ‘conserve’ anything (except its members’ privileges) since Thatcher’s time; the Labour Party no longer represents horny-handed labour; ‘Public’ schools are no longer either public or the repository of the good old ‘noblesse oblige’ values that preceded capitalism, and might be said to justify them; football is no longer the ‘people’s game’ – and so on. But they give the impression of having endured for aeons, and to be worthy of ‘patriotic’ respect for that reason. 

But surely a genuine patriot would want to make his country better; into a ‘New Jerusalem’, rather than insisting on our allegiance to an old – and highly misleading – one: ‘our island story’, or ‘flag and queen’, as a newly-elected Conservative MP (Lia Nici) put it recently. She thought that anyone who wasn’t ‘proud’ of these two symbols ‘should move to another country they prefer’. Well, I’ve done that, albeit for other reasons too; and without my abandoning what I still regard as my fond and even patriotic feelings towards many aspects of my country of birth. (Shakespeare and cricket are the two things that still bind me to the place. Other patriots will choose other foci. But not, please, ‘Flag and Queen’.)

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Book Cover

What do you think? Bloomsbury obviously didn’t take to my recommendation of Boris in a hard hat and holding Union Jacks suspended helplessly over the Olympic stadium (you must have seen it); and have have come out with these suggestions.

I don’t like the teapots at all. The Bloomsbury people prefer no. 2 – the torn flag.  I’d prefer no. 3 – the Palace of Westminster under a glowering sky; but with the sky looking a bit more glowering, and perhaps the torn flag superimposed over the left of the image.  Any opinions?

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Identity

Tomorrow I have to get my Identitetskort renewed at the Central Police Station in Stockholm. You need an Identity card, and a ‘Personnummer’, to do almost anything in Sweden. Years ago I used to object strongly to the very idea of people being obliged by governments to carry these, when they were mooted in Britain by – usually – the political Right. I associated them with Orwellian regimes (and Apartheid-era ‘passbooks’ in particular), and feared the use that authoritarian governments could make of them. I felt uneasy about public surveillance for the same reasons – security cameras, hacking, and the like.

All this stemmed, I suppose, from my immersion in the typically ‘freeborn English’ values of my youth: devotion to privacy, especially, and resistance to the authorities’ knowing more about us than we want to tell them. I always thought that the occupation of ‘espionage’ was a rather dirty one, against whomever and for whatever reason; and that was despite my having written books about the history of it, which – I have to say – did little to dispel my mistrust. I like openness and honesty; which is why I also greatly disapprove of ‘bloggers’ who post pseudonymously, unless they have really good reasons for it. I regard anonymous blog-posts rather like unsigned poison-pen letters: cowardly, basically, if someone won’t put a name to his or her hostile Amazon review of one of my books. I hope that none of my readers indulges in that.

Twenty-six years in Orwellian Sweden, however, has cured me of that. It may be because I trust Swedish governments not to abuse their control over me as much as I fear British governments might. This may be naïve of me; but there it is. It also has something to do with the fact that we can’t escape from surveillance and control any more, almost anywhere. Even in Britain you have to have a National Insurance Number, and a driving licence (which looks awfully like an Identitetskort), and a passport to travel abroad; and can’t order anything on line without your personal details and tastes immediately being spread far and wide – by Amazon, for example. So we freeborn Englishmen might as well throw in the towel. And the little bit of plastic I’ll get from the Polis tomorrow will come in terribly useful, after all.

So the only thing I’ll be worried about tomorrow is whether the photo on the card is not too unflattering. I can’t put my thumb over it every time I use it.

In the meantime I have no identitet. I am nothing.

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Music’s Lament

Last night on SVT there was a fantastic performance, from a restored 18th-century theatre near Stockholm, of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas. ‘Dido’s Lament’ has always been one of the pieces of music that has moved me the most. I got it up afterwards on Youtube, thinking that the singer here was Anne-Sophie von Otter (she looks a bit like her), only to find it isn’t, but is – Kajsa tells me – the mother of Greta Thunberg.

We always mourn the fact that Mozart died so young. But Purcell died younger. What a loss to music his death represented. And also the prodigy Thomas Lindley’s, who was drowned in a freak boating accident in Lincolnshire at the age of 22. Together, if they’d lived, they might have repaired England’s reputation as ‘Das Land ohne Musik’ over the next couple of centuries.

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Books For the Taking

(Personal)

2022 will probably be the year when I change my domestic arrangements, selling my house in Hull, moving into a small flat there, and living most of the time in Sweden, away from what England has become. That is, as soon as Kajsa has fixed up a ‘Room of My Own’ in her house, as a study for me to work in and keep some of my books. Not all, because I have far too many of them, which I’m unlikely to need again, and which I’d therefore like to find a good home for.

Any ideas? A bulk exodus would be best. I’ll give my children and local friends first option. After that I’ll try Hull University Library, if they still have books as well as computer terminals. Otherwise it will be charity shops. The problem with them, however, is that mine are mostly History books, which aren’t usually the charity shops’ kinds of thing. And I can’t be bothered with E-bay, if it would require me to itemise the books.

I also have hundreds (literally) of CDs to get rid of; mostly classical, but also some jazz, plus Brenda Lee. And novels, poetry, some lovely art books, archaeology…

And tons of working notes from my old researches. I had hoped to go back to these, looking for loose ends – of which there are plenty – to turn into articles; but I feel I’ve run out of time and also enthusiasm for that now. Kajsa suggests establishing a ‘Porter Archive’ somewhere; but I can’t imagine anyone wanting that. In which case it will be an awful lot of hard work and brilliant ideas wasted; but – hey – I have got a dozen books out of it all. Those are what I’ll show to Peter at the Pearly Gates, to persuade him to let me through. (Not that I’m anticipating a visit soon.)

Any other ideas? Second-hand bookshops that collect books in bulk and then find good homes for them? I shan’t want any money for them, only for the recipient to take them away, and put them to good use. That’s after I’ve sorted out the few that I’ll want to keep. I’ll probably be back in Hull – putting the house on the market – in the spring. Visits to look through the books then will be welcome. (Obviously from UK-based people.)

There must be many other academic oldies in this situation. What are they doing?

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