President Boris

Boris Johnson, as I understand it, was born in New York, which gave him automatic US citizenship. I think I read that he had abandoned that since. If not, however, and even if so, would his American birth entitle him – now he’s about to become jobless in Britain – to offer himself for election as US President; as a further giant step towards his well-known childhood ambition of becoming ‘world king’? Apparently the Americans find the British upper classes quite lovable. Johnson might be a more acceptable idiot there than Trump. And it would mean that we Brits would be properly rid of him. Just a thought.

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The Madness of Brexit

From an American sympathiser:

https://eand.co/britain-is-self-destructing-and-the-world-should-learn-from-its-lethal-mistakes-63d499c6973c.

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Rishi and Gradgrind

Rishi Sunak’s expressed intention to cut down on university courses that don’t lead to profitable employment (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/aug/07/rishi-sunak-vows-to-end-low-earning-degrees-in-post-16-education-shake-up) should be a wake-up call to anyone who values the arts, and anything that can’t be measured in terms of financial gain.

For of course universities are not just utilitarian institutions, but educational ones too; there to broaden minds, stimulate thoughts, encourage criticism (in the positive sense), and – hopefully – to give students an idea of what is really valuable in life. Sunak obviously sees training students in mediaeval history, for example, as a waste of money: both the State’s and – ever since student fees came in – the students’ own. (Thatcher I remember thought the same.) How much a course earns for the people taking it in their post-university careers is all that matters. Put in the investment, and see how it multiplies.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this. Rishi before he turned to politics was a banker – a very rich one; and this is very much a banker’s view: ultra-materialistic and sterile. It also of course fits in with Oscar Wilde’s famous definition of a cynic: someone who ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Which could be seen as an apt motto for the now dominant wing of the Conservative Party, the ‘dry’ one, as opposed to Thatcher’s despised ‘wets’. Lastly, and writing as a historian, I see it as continuing a particularly English (perhaps Scottish too) tradition of philistinism, exemplified by the character of the school superintendent Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times (1854): dedicated to ‘facts’ and profit alone, and denigrating ‘fancy’. 

Of course, even in terms of his own priorities Sunak can’t be sure that ‘fanciful’ courses in universities won’t turn out ‘useful’ and even wealthy people in the end. The spark of originality that education, as opposed to training, encourages in people even without directly enriching them, can have unpredictably valuable material effects later on. If Sunak had studied some History at university, even Mediaeval History (he read PPE at Oxford and Business Studies at Stanford), it might have broadened his own mind to look more critically on the conventional capitalist economics he clearly imbibed at his universities, and which seems to be entrapping him now. I’m not sure that Truss would be much of an improvement. She read PPE too.

Is this – to hark back to my last post – to be the pattern our particular British form of ‘fascism’ might take in the future? Conventional capitalism, or what is misleadingly called the ‘free economy’, will be at the heart of it, protected by agencies of oppression; what Anthony Gamble characterised years ago – describing Thatcherism – as ‘the free economy in a strong state’. Limiting university syllabuses to ‘useful’ and earnful subjects, together with all the other tools of incipient authoritarianism – effective censorship, limiting public protest, privatisation of ‘free’ broadcast channels, oppressing immigrants, criminalising anti-Britishness, disregarding inconvenient kinds of expertise, propaganda, distorting history, manipulating voting (Cambridge Analytica), help from Russia, and of course the Daily Mail – could well give the clue to the sort of quasi-fascist society that Britain is about to become.

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‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’

I realise it reads like scaremongering; but I really do believe that Britain is in danger of falling into the hands of fascists – or neo-fascists, or quasi-fascists if you like, or at the very least proto-fascists – soon. Cassandra, remember, was right.

Of course it won’t be much like the fascist regimes we’ve seen in the past: Nazi Germany especially, which most people seem to take as their paradigm of fascism, despite its gross peculiarities which make it an extreme case. No, there’s little chance that a British dictator will impose a Holocaust on Jews or any other racial or political minority. Even deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda doesn’t quite measure up (or down) to that. ‘We’ – the British – ‘just don’t do that sort of thing’, as one of my readers commented on my blog a few days ago. That may be fair comment in the case of a ‘Holocaust’ – although there are episodes in British colonial and Irish history that must throw some slight doubt on it. But it’s a very unreliable and perhaps even dangerous assumption, if we come to depend on it as our bulwark against any kind of fascism in the future.

In the first place, the fact that something hasn’t occurred in the past doesn’t mean that it can’t occur in the future. Nazism was as unprecedented in Germany in the 1930s as fascism is in Britain today. That is, not entirely unprecedented. Both countries had proto-fascist tendencies earlier, as do most present-day countries; even America. (Especially America, perhaps?) In Britain, some imperialist ideologies came pretty close to it. In any case, the whole ‘we don’t do that’ approach relies on a very static view of history. In reality, countries change. Britain has done, quite a lot, over the past fifty years. (See my new book.) So ‘we don’t do that’ is a very unreliable defence, in any circumstances.

Secondly, there are undoubtedly tendencies now in British politics and society which look likely to augur a kind of fascism. Priti Patel’s monstrous refugee policy is one. Her proposed restrictions on the right of public protest are another. Rishi Sunak’s intention to categorise ‘hatred of Britain’ – present-day Britain, one presumes – as an ‘extreme’ view, to be placed on the same level as ‘terrorism’, is a third. Censorship of critical comedy programmes on TV (‘Mock the Week’) can be added to this list. As can right-wing over-reaction to ‘wokeism’; and Michael Gove’s anti-expertise. All of them betoken a certain degree of authoritarianism, at the very least. As of course does the take-over of the Conservative party by UKIP and the ERG. Most popular (or ‘populist’) newspapers’ descent into sheer right-wing propaganda sheets, abandoning all pretence of objectivity – especially of course the Daily Mail, with its history of openly supporting the original Nazism behind it, and its various hatreds and lies – fuels these Fascist tendencies in British society; to an extent that they could be regarded – as I’ve suggested before – as the epicentre of proto-fascism in Britain, taking on the role that the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei did in pre-war Germany. Who needs a Fascist party when you’ve got the Daily Mail?

Working on an electorate that has been impoverished by government policies over the past 11 years, deceived by neo-liberal propaganda to think that ‘austerity’ will bring it all right again, disappointed by an admittedly grossly slandered (the Daily Mail again) Opposition Labour Party, and unable to express its real democratic preferences by a skewed electoral system: with all this a small minority of right-wing ideologues, a few crazies and more sheer amoralists, armed with millions of money, some of it from Russia, and with some clever new propagandistic tools (‘Cambridge Analytica’), and of course with the billionaire-owned press on their side – have succeeded in subverting what used to be a more (if not perfectly) democratic country to their ends; which – in my view – are the ends demanded by a society in which the inevitable internal contradictions of late capitalism are working themselves out.

Whether these ends are identical with or even closely similar to the ones we have seen in previous manifestations of ‘fascism’ we can’t presently tell. They’re unlikely to produce massacres of whole peoples, or slave labour, or new Oswald Mosleys strutting up and down in imitation of Mussolini or Adolf Hitler – those, I agree, we probably don’t do. But ‘fascism’ can take various forms. One seems to be taking place in Putin’s Russia just now. Eastern European states could go the same way. In Britain it looked to be taking a more ‘cuddly’ form while Boris was still de facto PM. Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak might introduce us to different varieties: less sexist in the former’s case, less racist in the latter’s, and much less reliant on the ‘Führerprincip’, perhaps, in either case. But look at the policies, and some of the rhetoric, and you might get a sniff of what we used to call ‘fascism’ in the past. We’ve been warned against it: by Hilary Clinton, for example, and by hundreds more in the USA. They and I can’t all be scaremongers. I’m on Cassandra’s side, here.

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Patriotism and Protest

If Rishi Sunak wins the Tory leadership election next month, he has resolved to categorise as ‘extremists’ people who ‘vilify Britain’, and hence render them subject (one presumes) to existing counter-terrorist laws and procedures. (See https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/britain-extremists-prevent-radicalisation-rishi-sunak-tory-leadership-conservative-b1016364.html.) ‘Putin: hang on, we’re catching up’.

But might this not be a little tricky? For a start it would depend on how low the bar of ‘vilification’ is set. Another Tory, Lia Rici, MP for Grimsby, suggests that ‘pride’ in the Flag and the Queen should be the determining factors. If people don’t share these, she writes, they should ‘move to a country they prefer’. (See  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/robert-jenrick-union-flag-lia-nici-tweet-b1819586.html.)

Well, that could cover me, living as I do in a country I currently prefer. I feel no particular ‘pride’ either in Her Maj (though I quite like her), or in the somewhat garish ‘Union Flag’. I also pretty much hate the present British government, and the condition to which it has brought my country of birth, leading me to ‘vilify’ it frequently – in this blog, for example. Does that count? Am I under surveillance by MI5 and GCHQ already? (It would be almost flattering to think so.)

All this so-called ‘patriotism’ is of course directed to the old Tory soaks who comprise the majority of the constituency that both the contenders in this extraordinary election are having to appeal to; as are their summoning up of the ghost of the sainted Margaret, and of the not-yet buried corpse of Boris, who remains their darling despite his cruel betrayal a month ago. It’s all of a part too with the highly illiberal policies of Priti Patel at the Home Office, bent on abolishing the European Human Rights Convention as it presently applies to Britain, especially with regard to refugees seeking asylum in Britain (the Rwanda wheeze), and the right of effective popular protest against governments. That may seem ironic, in view of what many – especially historians – would see as the centrality of human rights, and indeed of protest, in most Britons’ view of themselves and of their national identity (at least at home) in the quite recent past; which makes Patel, Sunak and Rici less essentially ‘patriotic’ than they may think, and the ‘vilifiers’ more so.

For it is arguable that the true ‘patriot’ is the person who wants to make his country better, rather than to glorify it as it is or as it has been in the past. This is one of the themes of my new book, Britain’s Contested History: Lessons for Patriots, which seems to have got under the skin of the Spectator’s reviewer in its current issue. (See https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/these-polemics-against-brexit-both-fall-into-the-same-trap.) I wouldn’t mind; but he entirely misunderstands its central thesis; which is not that Britons generally are more obsessed with history than other peoples, but that those few who are – usually on the Brexit side – should have a more sophisticated understanding of their history than they appear to do presently.

OK, so this may seem to be purely ‘academic’. But it could have serious practical repercussions in the not-very-distant future, when inflation, energy prices, food shortages, and the true effects of Brexit lead to a degree of civil unrest that Britain hasn’t seen since the final days of Margaret Thatcher, the security services are given the green light to come down hard on protesters and ‘vilifiers’, and those of us who live abroad will find Priti, Rishi and Lia lying in wait for us if we ever dare to return.

(Let’s not make too much of the fact that those three – and Farage, remember –  all have foreign names. It’s unlikely to be for that reason that they don’t really understand the more liberal forms of ‘Britishness’. ‘Identity’ is not something in the blood. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, sounding foreign, and therefore anathema to Tory racists, they feel they need to express these more extreme forms of ‘patriotism’, in order to win over the old soaks.)

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Not with a Bang but a Whimper

The British Empire had no obvious beginning, and – up to now – no clear-cut end. In my books on the subject I’ve suggested a few possible dates for the effective end of the enterprise – moments when it became clear that it could not carry on as it was. They included 1947 (Indian independence), 1956 (Suez), 1967 (withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’), 1973 (accession to the European Common Market); plus several earlier ones, like 1857 (the Indian Mutiny), 1902 (the Boer War), and 1918 (the end of WW1, its effect on the Empire disguised by her new ‘mandates’ and her main rivals’ retreat into isolation). I’ve also considered the idea that the Empire has not, even now, really come to an ‘end’ at all, in view of the traces it has left behind it: the Commonwealth, language, cricket, Jacob Rees-Mogg. To a tidy-minded historian, wanting to wrap his subject up finally, this must seem a little unsatisfactory. But then the same could be said of its predecessor, the great Roman Empire; which similarly simply faded out to almost nothing, even after Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’.

There’s a reason for this; which is that the British Empire was never the conscious ‘enterprise’ or ‘project’ it is often painted as, but on the contrary was the product of a loose combination of extraneous factors – primarily burgeoning capitalism, but with religion, proto-fascism, science, liberalism, the public schools and many others added to the mix – creating a number of political, social and economic phenomena that were easier to grasp and interpret as a single big one, with a big name – the ‘e’ or ‘i’-words – than to try to untangle and explain in their true complexity. Hence my failure in my books – including the latest one, Britain’s Contested History: Lessons for Patriots – to give straightforward answers to straightforward questions – chiefly ‘was the Empire a good or a bad thing? but also ‘when did it end? – and instead to take refuge in what appears as obfuscation.

The Lion’s Share: a History of British Imperialism went into its sixth edition last year. That didn’t reach any conclusion about when the ‘end’ of the Empire was, either. The last couple of years of politics in Britain, however, have made me wonder whether we haven’t reached that end right now. For the British Empire consisted not only of the large swathe of territories Britain owned or ruled (supposedly) overseas, but of a complex of values and ideals– not always mutually consistent – that were felt to define it. Brexit, although it was supposed to return the country to its ‘global’ (i.e. ‘imperial’) days, together with the economic collapse and incipient authoritarianism that are coming in its wake, seem to me to be doing far more harm to those values and ideas than simply getting out of India and Africa did. And the manner in which they are being implemented – ‘farcical’ may be the best word to describe them: Johnson, Farage, Rees-Mogg, Truss, Conservative party members – gives a very special flavour to this particular ‘decline and fall’; and will make a fitting ending to any seventh edition of The Lion’s Share, if I’m ever asked – and survive – to produce it.

(The heading, of course, is TS Eliot: ‘This is the way the world ends…’)

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Politics as Theatre

Of course it was shocking that Nadine Dorries should choose, in support of Liz Truss in the current Tory leadership contest, to re-tweet a photo-shopped picture showing a betoga’d Boris (Caesar) being stabbed in the back by a similarly betoga’d Rishi Sunak (Brutus) –  https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/nadine-dorries-shares-image-rishi-27621179; in the light of the only too real knife-murders of prominent politicians that have been perpetrated in Britain over the past few years. At the very least it was in very poor taste, and might even have been provocative.

But it also reveals certain other things about the constituency that Nadine (and Liz) are appealing to; which is entirely made up, remember, of Tory party members, who represent only 0.3% (yes, 0 point three) of the general population, most of them – as one authoritative recent survey confirms  (https://www.ft.com/content/1454fe21-5b2e-459c-966c-65fd48d52f8f) – elderly, well-off, and living in the south of England. (What a way to choose a prime minister! But that’s Britain’s governmental system for you.)

In the first place it shows how much support and affection the corrupt, unreliable and thoroughly disgraced Boris Johnson still has in his party, for those party members to regard his removal from office as a betrayal, Sunak’s part in which may well be the factor that weighs most heavily against him. (He abandoned Boris just before his fall. Truss never did.) That speaks volumes for their judgment; possibly for their admiration for public school-educated ‘toffs’ (although Johnson isn’t a genuine toff. His family isn’t aristocratic. Yet; we still have his resignation honours list to come); and for their real political savvy.

Beyond that, however, it also says something about how politics is widely regarded on the Right – and probably more broadly – today. Nadine’s Julius Caesar image clearly refers less to ancient Roman history than to Shakespeare’s version of it – ‘et tu Brute?’ – which most educated Britons are more familiar with. Shakespeare’s ‘Histories’, of course (the English ones), are not really that, but are dramas – usually tragic – seen in terms of personalities, set very loosely against ‘historical’ backgrounds. They may have been influential in leading readers and play-goers to assume that this is how genuine politics works: as dramas involving characters, to be manipulated by them. Social, economic and other factors, and even ideologies and principles, are irrelevant except as tools. Which they may be, to an extent. But not wholly. If so I’ve been wasting my whole career, as a historian endeavouring to reveal the broader, deeper and more impersonal currents of history.

Apparently Boris’s current writing project – interrupted by his prime ministerial furlough – is a biography of the Bard. That should make interesting reading. Whom will he identify with? Not John or the Richards, we assume. Or Lear. One of the Henrys, perhaps? Or Falstaff, even….

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Rishi, Liz and Woke

In an attempt to regain the initiative in the Tory leadership contest from the ridiculous and devious Liz Truss, clever Rishi Sunak has apparently decided to play the ‘culture wars’ card, against Leftist ‘wokeness’. Or should that be ‘wokery’? In any case it’s an imprecise term (Google it), which is mainly used by the Right to stigmatise fashionably ‘progressive’ views like de-gendering public toilets, removing politically offensive statues, and generally undermining ‘patriotism’. (See https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/jul/29/rishi-sunak-liz-truss-culture-war-woke-nonsense.) This is meant to stir the prejudices of the tiny number of Conservative party members who at present, and quite ludicrously, hold the fate of the government – and hence of the country – in their arthritic and octogenarian hands. (I feel I can say this, being arthritic and octogenarian myself.)

I don’t have any particular view on toilets; but patriotism is ‘my thing’, especially when it’s founded on views of British history; and so I feel I have a contribution to make here. That contribution is spelled out in my Britain’s Contested History: Lessons for Patriots (published last week), which is a rather more nuanced account of the last two hundred years of British history than those favoured by either self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ or by those who want to ‘do Britain down’; and is also (I hope) an intelligent analysis of what ‘patriotism’ – anyone’s patriotism – should consist of. Both Truss and Sunak ought to read it. Of course they won’t.

I’ve characterised Truss as ‘devious’ because of the totally false picture she’s been painting of her deprived upbringing in Leeds; in what in fact was a leafy and ultra-posh suburb, at an excellent Comprehensive school, with a father who was a Professor of Mathematics, and a mother who was a nurse and a teacher. Leeds people are furious. Several commentators have drawn parallels with the famous ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ Monty Python sketch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ue7wM0QC5LE). She’s aiming at ‘Red Wall’ voters, of course. But isn’t it worrying that downright lying has suddenly become more acceptable in politics? Another of Boris’s legacies, perhaps.

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Heja Sverige!

It’s great being back in Sweden, in the middle of a glorious summer (better than Britain’s – not quite so hot), and in Darlana, where we’ve been holidaying, and which is standing in now for my vision of Heaven, if I’m allowed to choose my own. (Previously it was Scarborough cricket ground, watching Essex beat Yorkshire.)

Sweden also seems safe, sane and normal, apart from some drug-based gang warfare in the south – largely immigrants, I’m afraid; and to my mind appears roughly as Britain might have become if she had stuck with social democracy in the 1980s, instead of being led astray by that monster (you’ll know whom I mean) and the powers behind her, along the path to the hell that I see being described in the news I get from the old country just now.

This is what I hear. The NHS collapsing, with a critical shortage of doctors and nurses: one of the results of Brexit, surely – we used to depend on foreign medics; six-hour queues in blistering heat to get on to channel ferries (serve them right if they voted for Brexit and ‘an end to free movement’, but not all will have done); an extreme right-wing government about to become even righter-wing, if the two Tory leadership candidates’ promises to their elderly and quasi-fascist constituency are to be believed (viz their recent pronouncements on Rwanda, and on Channel 4); this of course reflecting the quite ludicrous system Britain has in play for choosing prime ministers, and a failed electoral system overall; a shockingly propagandist popular press (38th in a world index of press freedom); soaring prices of just about everything; poverty rising, with even food banks running out of stock; people distracted by irrelevant ‘culture wars’; Russia threatening mightily, especially as it happens just over the Östersjön from us on the Swedish coast; the rich profiting from all this, as they invariably do; the country almost universally despised abroad – that’s largely Boris’s doing; economic crisis looming; and climate change threatening to bring an end to the whole planet quite soon (don’t read this if you’re of a nervous disposition – oh go on, do: https://eand.co/the-door-to-climate-hell-is-opening-6724be0f4427); but with our British political leaders scarcely mentioning it in their play for votes.

So Britain – or should I say England? – appears to be a thoroughly unpleasant country just now; my version of ‘Hell’, if I’m not allowed into my heavenly Darlarna. I’m glad I’m not there currently. And as an immigrant here I know which side I’ll be rooting for when England meets Sweden in the women’s European football semi-final tomorrow night. Norman Tebbit would doubtless approve. (Google ‘Tebbit Test’.)

Is it really so bad over there?

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Boris’s Legacy (and the Morning Star)

Now that Boris has given up playing at being PM, one wonders whether he’ll drop out of the political scene entirely. He was never really a serious politician, of course, although his non-seriousness has done us (the Brits) a lot of harm. He’s a showman, a journalist, and an Old Etonian: the qualities that propelled him to the top three years ago, and gave him his unique attraction to an electorate that had been taught – by its media – to despise ‘politicians’ tout court, and had required simply to be entertained. And – one mustn’t forget – to ‘get Brexit done’. Which he hasn’t succeeded in (the Northern Ireland protocol); just as he hasn’t succeeded in any of his other endeavours, despite his boasting of them at his final PMQs yesterday – ‘mission (almost) accomplished’; to enthusiastic applause from his minions in the Commons.

Nonetheless, the end of Johnson as PM won’t necessarily mean the end of his baleful influence on British politics. Those minions won’t forget him in a hurry, and what he represented to them in terms of anti-‘wokery’, especially. He has already corrupted many of the (supposed) conventions of British politics, by his contempt for its safeguards, and his devil-may-care bluster and lying, which showed what could be done (temporarily) if you were bold enough to ignore Westminster’s boring restraints. He has also, remember, cleansed his party of the wisest of them – the ‘Remainers’; all except Truss, who swapped sides over Brexit in order to stay ‘in’ with him, and doesn’t appear to be particularly wise in any case. That will have encouraged both the ‘populists’, and the malign forces behind them; who incidentally will remain in real power after the ignominious fall of the puppet they chose to lead them three years ago, but acting now through either Sunak or Truss: whichever apparently more respectable candidate the 160,000 geriatric ex-Thatcherites who make up the Tory party in the country choose to succeed Johnson next month. At least, that is, until the next General Election, when I can’t see either of them – especially Truss – winning against Starmer. Especially, perhaps, now that the latter has promised to ‘keep Brexit done’.

There’s an obvious comparison to be made here between Johnson and Trump: mavericks both, appealing to the less educated sectors of their respective societies, and cruelly stabbed in their backs by unfair means: in Trump’s case electoral skulduggery, in Johnson’s the instinct of ‘the herd’. Trump still has significant support in America, and Johnson may well have in Britain, among at  least those of his party members who put him there in the first place, and ‘red wall’ voters who like his style, and are grateful for his having liberated Britain from the clutches of Brussels. Trump is apparently contemplating a new stab at the Presidency in 2024. I very much doubt whether Boris harbours a similar ambition: he’s never been that dedicated to the game, after all, and must have learned over the last three years – the lazy sod – the work that is involved in order to make a proper go of it. But he leaves behind him a fractured Conservative party, a deeply distrustful electorate, and a ‘United Kingdom’ straining at its seams; which is quite a remarkable – if disreputable – legacy for a man like him, and one which his successors may be happy to build on.

*

Yesterday I was sent a review of my latest book in the Morning Star, one sentence from which – ‘Porter canters through the last 200 years of British history generally with a pleasant lightness of touch’ – my publisher thought might be used in the publicity, but which I thought would be misleading, in view of the fact that ‘lightness’ might be taken to imply superficiality. My apparently ‘easy’ – although in fact hard-wrought – writing style has often been held against me, as if deep thoughts always have to be expressed incomprehensibly. A second objection was that the full review is mainly critical of the fact that I’m not Marxist enough, and don’t give sufficient weight to the solid working-class revolutionary feeling that powered the ‘Brexit’ vote. So the chosen quote would be misleading. (I don’t approve of cherry-picking.) More Marxism, the reviewer concluded, would have simplified what he thought was my over-complex account of the Brexit dēbacle. (Was the CPGB – or whichever socialist splinter-organisation is behind the Morning Star – on the side of Farage and his merry men in 2016? It would make some sense from an anti-capitalist point of view.) In fact I thought I was being rather too ‘Marxist’ in the book; but his and my respective Marxisms clearly differ, and it might help my credibility with non-Marxists to be criticised from that dogmatic quarter. And I stand by my conviction that history is more complicated than dogmatists like to think.

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