Back to My Teens

Man (in the non-gendered sense) cannot live by politics alone; and to relieve the unmitigated horror that is the present Brexit situation, I’ve been digging back into my adolescent interests and enthusiasms for comfort and escape. A search in my attic today revealed a whole portfolio of paintings I made in my teens, some of which I now think are quite promising (I may post a few images here later), making me wonder why I abandoned the artistic career which everyone at the time thought I was marked out for, and became a dull academic historian instead. The history, of course, brought the politics along with it.

I also discovered some large bound and illustrated books I made about local East Anglian churches, which were one of my other deep interests, and still give me great pleasure. There’s nothing religious about this. As an agnostic I regard these beautiful buildings mainly as symbols of human endeavour, community and aspiration, rather than of any particular religion.

Here is the title page of one of them. The lettering, too, is mine; we didn’t have word processors to do this sort of thing for us sixty-odd years ago.

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The Russia File

As Hilary Clinton says, it’s disgraceful that No.10 refuses to release the findings of its enquiry into Russian meddling in British politics until after the election. Putin’s motive, of course, is to destroy the EU; as is his ally Trump’s. I blogged about this last year: see https://bernardjporter.com/2018/12/24/those-cunning-russkies/; and note the link there to my great novel, albeit a bit silly and ultimately aborted, featuring another Russian plot; this time involving the ‘Iron Lady’ herself.

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Dirty Tricks

The Conservative Party’s most recent fabrication was revealed almost as soon as it was published: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/11/keir-starmer-looks-stumped-tory-video-original-clip-very-different. (It was a doctored video to suggest that Kier Starmer was stumped by a question on Brexit, when in fact he had given a long and detailed response.) Much the same applies to Boris Johnson’s serial lying, for which he is notorious, even among his supporters. That’s why it is particularly worrying: with many voters obviously not at all put off by these underhand methods, if they help to ‘keep Corbyn out’. At least Boris is their liar.

Another bigger problem with these revelations is that the mud doesn’t stick only to the targets it’s meant for, but to all politicians. A common popular response to them is that ‘they’re all the same’, which serves to undermine politics more generally. That’s not true, I think; look at the relatively high-principled Corbyn. But it plays well to two sections of the political Right: neoliberals who don’t hold with any sort of ‘politics’ interfering with the free market; and populists who persist in portraying democracy not as expressing their will, as it is designed to do, but as empowering an ‘elite’ against that will. Hence Johnson’s current – and highly dangerous – ‘people versus Parliament’ election theme. This is what we older-fashioned liberals and socialists will be faced with on December 12.

That’s together with all those other forces arraigned against us: the press barons, Trump and the Israeli and Russian governments almost certainly; and possibly our own Secret Services as well. Knowing as I do something about the latters’ (or some of their agents’) machinations against the Wilson Governments in the 1960s and ’70s, I wonder what they are making of the possibility of an ex-Radical of the kind they used to spy on in his earlier years now entering No. 10? Theoretically, as Prime Minister he should have the power of gaining access to all their dirty little secrets from the time when he was being spied upon. Ireland? Kenya? Thatcher’s ‘Enemy Within’?

Of course they’ll keep all that from him. They’re cleverer liars than Boris, after all. And their official loyalty is to ‘the Crown’, which is supposed to trump governments and prime ministers. Still, the prospect must make them uncomfortable. I wouldn’t be surprised if another Zinoviev letter didn’t turn up before December 12.

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A Khaki Election

The nearest historical precedent I can think of for our upcoming election on 12 November is the ‘Khaki’ election of 1900. That was fought between a worn-out but jingoistic Conservative party and a divided Liberal party, with the burning domestic issues of the day being overshadowed by the ongoing Boer War, which was starting to go badly then, and was provoking extreme language and violence in the streets comparable to what we’re seeing today. The Tories thought they could win with the ‘patriotic’ vote, and did win overall, but not as decisively as they had hoped, and with their chickens coming home to roost in the following election, which gave the Liberals a landslide victory, and the infant Labour Party its first substantial bunch of MPs. By this comparison ‘Brexit’, of course, is our ‘Boer War’. I’m not suggesting we draw any lessons from this.

It might go OK for the Left if Labour offers a new Brexit referendum in its manifesto, after negotiating a new ‘deal’ – which should be easier than most people seem to assume, if it lifts Theresa May’s and the ERG’s ‘reddest line’ against staying in the single market: Corbyn knows he can do that; and  if people can see through (a) Boris’s baseless bluster and (b) the smears of the Daily Mail. I’m not sure that any other Labour Leader wouldn’t also be subjected to that. Look at poor Ed Miliband.

Yes, I’d feel more confident with a more ‘charismatic’ Labour leader. But charisma has its dangers – viz. Boris. Corbyn is – and has always been – right on most things. He’s been far more consistent on Brexit than we’re generally told. (Not coming down on one side or the other  – ‘in’ or ‘out’ – isn’t a mark of irresolution, but of good judgment.) His polite, honest and empathetic style of politics is what we could do with more generally just now. And – I must admit – as someone with absolutely no charisma myself, I rather identify with him.

‘The meek shall inherit the earth’, says the good book. Wouldn’t that be great?!

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Another Cunning Plan

Don’t listen to them. It’s all going swimmingly for Boris. Remember that his ultimate object – whatever he may say – is a Rightist, neo-liberal revolution in Britain, with minimal state interference and protections, which is why he wants to escape from European ‘red tape’; harking back to the country’s heroic nineteenth century; and with some of that century’s romantic glow – buccaneering merchants, derring-do, patriotism, Churchill, even the old British Empire (though he can’t say that explicitly) – adding a patina of glory to it, and taking the material sting of it out for us poor deluded proles. Read his literary output, his journalism and his books (as I’ve tried to do: the sacrifices one makes!), and that becomes blindingly clear.

The only question must be: does he really think that deeply? The conventional view is that he’s superficial, a bit of a joke, solely concerned for his own career, tacking to every breeze. But that could be part of the clever plan. If not, then it merely leaves him open to manipulation by more committed ideologues; such as Dominic (or ‘Demonic’) Cummings: the reputed Machiavel who was the eminence grise behind the Brexit campaign, and is now Boris’s chief advisor. (Picture below.)

Johnson’s latest ‘deal’ with the EU is an obvious means to this neo-liberal end; with – for example – workers’ rights and environmental protections not guaranteed in it, but merely dependent on our ‘trust’ in Boris’s word (and trust in Boris is at a pretty low ebb just now), and plenty of holes in it to drive a ‘no deal’ through. This is obvious, that is, when one reads the small print, which the government’s effort last night to rush the whole thing through Parliament with virtually no time for discussion or even for MPs to read  it, was clearly meant to prevent. Boris lost that one.

But there’s another side to this, which works in his favour. It’s the second layer of the ‘cunning plan’. He can now go to the country, as currently seems likely, on his favoured issue all along, the seeds of which were sown by Theresa May and of course our tabloid press: which is the proto-fascist slogan of ‘the People versus Parliament’; pandering to voters’ frustration and sheer boredom at the Government’s not having ‘got Brexit done’. Not getting it done wasn’t his fault, or the Tory ultras’, or even due to the intrinsically complicated difficulties of prising Britain out of the EU. (Actually, as someone said yesterday – it may have been Tony Blair – ‘it is  rocket science’.) According to this analysis it can all be blamed on the ‘Establishment’ – MPs, judges, intellectuals and the like – conspiring to thwart ‘the people’s will’.

I really don’t know how a general election fought on these lines would turn out. (Perhaps the Tories should be warned by Ted Heath’s disastrous ‘Who rules Britain’ election in the ’70s; or May’s ‘strong and stable’ one in 2017.) But I fear the effect that a heightened present-day populism might have on it, resulting in a Right-wing (Tories plus the Brexit Party) victory; followed by not only a ‘hard Brexit’, but also a turn to the far Right in domestic and social policy.

Dominic Cummings has the reputation of being a political ‘genius’, albeit a dark and Satanic one. If even I can see through this ‘cunning plan’ of his, however, he can’t be all that bright. Unless of course my prediction turns out to be wrong. Or the plot has a third  layer, invisible to me. Or someone even cleverer than him manages to checkmate him. Let’s hope so.

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A Letter to my MP

(Sent off just now.)

Dear Diana,

As a multi-racial Commonwealth man at the time – a British imperial historian, indeed – I believe I may have voted against Common Market membership in 1975. But circumstances are very different today, both global, and in my case personal, so I have become a passionate ‘Remainer’ over the years, while acknowledging the many flaws in the present-day EU; even to the extent of acquiring (dual) Swedish citizenship earlier this year. (I think you met my partner Kajsa a couple of years ago. You won’t remember.) The main object of that was to enable me to retain my European  identity, which Brexit will take away from us.

So I voted ‘Remain’ in 2016, and was – like very many others – shocked by the result of that referendum. I was also aware of the Machiavellian trickery and deceit which secured it, and which in other circumstances would have justified nullifying it. I never believed that the majority of the ‘Leave’ side was really voting on the issue of Europe at all, which opinion polls show was of very little concern to them before 2016; but voted mainly in order to express their discontent with successive governments, going back to Thatcher but particularly under the impact of ‘austerity’, which they believed had neglected them socially and economically, especially in the north of England. This was compounded by their frustration at the fact that our electoral system did not seem to reflect these feelings in Parliament.

But ‘the people spoke’ in 2016 in favour of Brexit, especially in Hull; and – more to the point, I believe – appear to be still in favour of pushing it through, backed up by threats of violence and even civil war. I’m sure it’s only a minority who would go this far, but it’s scary nonetheless. It’s for that reason – to ‘appease’ them, if you like – that I’m now reluctantly in favour of a compromise Brexit (or ‘Brino’), along the lines advocated from the very beginning, I believe, by Jeremy Corbyn: that is, political disentanglement from the EU but remaining in the common trading area and the Customs Union, with all that implies for ‘free movement’ and the like. It’s not my ideal solution, but it would surely satisfy most of the 52% who voted for Brexit, while easing the situation for Remainers; and, most importantly, helping to defuse the toxic and even dangerous situation we’re witnessing in British politics just now.

It wouldn’t of course reconcile the leaders of the Brexit movement – Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Farage, Gove and the rest: rich public school ‘elitists’ all, by the way – whose underlying but scarcely hidden agenda is to ‘complete the Thatcher revolution’, as one of them has put it, by destroying the employment rights and environmental standards which at present are guaranteed by the EU, and so reduce Britain (or perhaps just England, if Scotland and NI leave) to the position of a neo-liberal dystopia dependent  – ‘informal-colonially’, as we imperial historians would put it – on a neo-liberal America for its trade.

That will almost certainly be the ultimate outcome if Boris Johnson’s ‘deal’ is allowed to pass in the House of Commons without amendment. It’s not only our relations with the European continent that are threatened, but the social-democratic domestic settlement that has kept us largely immune from serious civil disruption and even proto-fascism since 1945.

It must be difficult for a Remainer MP representing a ‘Leave’ constituency. But you will not, I believe, be betraying your constituents (of whom I’m one) if you help obstruct the current ‘deal’ by voting for it to be amended in the Commons this week.

I’ll be backing you, by the way, at the constituency re-selection meeting on Friday. I guess I’m more ‘Corbynist’ than you; but I greatly admire you as a constituency MP and for the causes you champion in the House. I also feel that the Labour party should be (to coin a cliché) a ‘broad church’; and that local selection contests at this crucial point in its history are needlessly divisive.

Bernard Porter.

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‘Get Brexit Done’

Was this the plan all along? To bore people – most of whom knew little and cared even less about the EU – into backing Boris’s ‘deal’, simply so as not to have to hear about it any more?  I guess that’s what will happen now. What I wonder is whether this was always part of a deliberate strategy on the part of arch-conspirator Dominic Cummings, and his rich clients. Wear the people down…

I remember my divorce proceedings going much the same way. In the end I gave up on everything just to get the thing done.

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Stupid

We’re not allowed to say ‘stupid’ any more, of course, because it’s ‘élitist’. But isn’t that what most of the arguments for Brexit are? And shouldn’t we be allowed to call them out as that, rather than hiding behind other, more weasily words for fear of seeming arrogant?

‘Stupid’ doesn’t necessarily mean that people who say stupid things are dumb. Intelligent people can have stupid beliefs as well: usually because they’re not able to get at the facts, or are deliberately manipulated by the media, or haven’t been taught to think things through. (The idea that a trade deal with the USA will make us free-er than our present arrangements with the EU is an example. Read up on ‘informal imperialism’.) And often the people peddling ‘stupid’ ideas know perfectly well what they are, but are nonetheless using them to exploit this state of ignorance for their own purposes. (E.g., I presume, the allegedly clever Boris Johnson.) Lastly, you can have intelligent – if sometimes complicated – reasons for believing in things that only seem stupid on the surface. It was deep thought, for example, that revealed to us that the earth isn’t flat. Much of the case for Brexit, however, and most of the arguments against a second referendum based on present knowledge, are  objectively stupid. And so, I’m beginning to suspect, are the great majority of people’s views about almost anything. Which poses the question: wtf  can we élitists do about it?

My own doubts about the fundamental rationality of the human species were first sown after hearing an interview on American all-night radio in the year 2000, which I retailed a few years ago on this blog: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/22/btl/. What mainly struck and shocked me was this final protest of the interviewee, after the obvious error of his argument had been pointed out to him: ‘I’m a free American and can believe whatever I like’. To me that was a new and startling understanding of ‘democracy’, and now of course in retrospect sheds considerable light on Trump and his admirers. Since 2000 these doubts about human rationality have been augmented by much of the stuff I read on the internet – Facebook, tweets, BTL comments and so on: nearly always semi-literate – which seem demonstrably and self-evidently ‘stupid’; at least to an ‘élitist’ like me. They’re also far more common than I would at one time have guessed. How representative are they of ‘ordinary people’ – and voters? Reading them can lead one to lose what little faith one ever had in democracy. I’m going that way.

Up until now I’ve always felt the answer lay in better education: especially political education. Another solution might be to require a certain level of measurable ‘intelligence’ in people before they’re allowed to vote: except that I don’t believe that intelligence really is ‘measurable’. If it could  be measured early on – in vitro, for example – we could perhaps deny the dumbest children any  education, so that they couldn’t read or write their tweets and BTL comments. No, of course not; I’ve been watching too many TV programmes about ‘eugenics’ recently. Which means that we have to come back to childhood and early adult education: in Politics, obviously; but also – and perhaps most essentially – in Logic.

Of course the present-day ‘populist’ reaction against educated people – the ‘Establishment’, ‘experts’, High Court judges and the like – is a barrier to that; as are the use of the word ‘élite’ to dismiss all of them as a self-serving incubus on society, and the inability  – exploited by the likes of Trump – to differentiate between ‘fake’ and (mostly) true news. This wave of ‘know-nothingness’ seems overwhelming just now. Whatever the solution to it may be, I’m beginning to doubt whether pandering to ‘anti-élitism’ is really going to help. Some élites should be respected – academics (in general), I would say; but then I would, wouldn’t I? And, secondly: perhaps stupidity should be named for what it is. Even at the risk of giving offence.

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History of Our Times

Constantly infuriated, as any professional historian must be, by the distortions of history uttered by the Brexiteers, I’ve been thinking that I as a serious historian ought to write something that will put the record straight – or straighter, at least. I just haven’t got round to it.  Now however that the excellent Cambridge historian David Reynolds has come out with his Island Stories. Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit (William Collins, 2019, £16.99), I no longer feel this burden on me.

Reynolds has done what I ought to have done, but better. I’ve just completed my review of his book for the Literary Review’s Christmas number. It’s really good, as you’ll gather eventually from my piece. (I can’t preview it here; journals don’t like your publishing ‘spoilers’ before their versions are out.) It’s just what we need, in order to counter the nonsense contained in, for example, Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor. How One Man Made History (2014); and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians. Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain (2019): the latter book described as ‘clichéd’, ‘lazy’ and ‘mind-bogglingly banal’ in recent reviews. Most reviewers of Boris’s book thought it was really about himself.

Reynolds sets about destroying these men’s romantic and patriotic – Etonian? – versions of British history with gusto; and in particular their common assumption – expressed in the subtitles of both of them – that history is ‘made’ by ‘great men’; leaving the door open to Boris, as prime minister, to ‘make Britain great again’ just on his own. He also lays into Theresa May with a will. And into Corbyn, very unfairly – a bit Cambridge High Table – in my view. But Corbyn isn’t ‘history’ just yet.

So, apart from that, I was delighted to read this ‘real’ historian’s corrective to all the crap right-wing history that is circulating just now. Until, that is, I realised (a) that the general reading public doesn’t read ‘expert’ or ‘elitist’ history, preferring to swallow the myths peddled by ‘characters’ like Rees-Mogg and Johnson; and (b) that, with Reynolds’s publication date being October 31st, the very day on which the Brexit die is due to be cast, his book has come too late.

That of course is an advantage that rubbish historians have over serious ones. The former can just write down what comes into their heads. Academic historians have to read, research and think first. And that takes time.

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A Historical Parallel

Musing on possible historical precedents for our present political situation (in Britain)  – as any historian must, even those of us who don’t give much credence to ‘historical parallels’: we are what we are, after all, not what we were – it seems to me that the crisis over ‘imperialism’ at the turn of the twentieth century might be worth considering for comparison. Then too we had a great split in the ranks of the more ‘progressive’ party of the time – the Liberals – between Liberal Imperialists (Blairites) and ‘Pro-Boers’ (Corbynites); which also affected, though to a lesser extent, the infant Labour Party; with the governing Conservatives also losing a few members to the anti- or less-imperialist Radicals; and, of course, Ireland playing a big role. The debate then too could be quite vicious, with taunts of ‘treason’ being flung across the Commons at the government’s critics; savage popular demonstrations – called ‘Mafeking’ – in favour of imperialism; a vicious ‘yellow’ press (mainly the new-born Daily Mail) stoking the hatred for all it was worth; and ‘Little Englanders’ (like Corbyn?) portrayed in the most demeaning ways. (I’ve used this contemporary cartoon before; but here goes.)

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One could go further. ‘Brexitism’ shares a few other common characteristics with turn-of-the-century imperialism. By their opponents, each was widely seen as being favoured or even pushed by capitalists. ‘Remainers’, like the anti-imperialists of that earlier time, have tended to be more Europeanist, internationalist, and critical of finance capitalism. And both came at times of (relative) economic depression.

But it’s not a comfortable fit – I can’t, for example, think of a close equivalent of Boris or Nigel in the 1900s (plenty for Cameron, perhaps; for Rees-Mogg one would have to go back further) – and so should not be used to teach any historical ‘lessons’. For those who are tempted to do so, it may be worth pointing out that the Conservatives’ imperialism did them no good in the  medium term, losing as they did the election of 1906, and probably helping to boost the Labour vote both then and in 1910.

Just before then, however, one of the effects of this great turn-of-the-century row was to put a temporary stop to any ‘progressive’ domestic legislation, which had to wait until the furore was over to get back on to the Parliamentary rails again. That’s another parallel. In fact this has been a result of most great ‘foreign policy’ issues in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and looks likely to have the same effect today. Both the imperialists in the early 1900s, and Boris today, tried to link their  causes to that of domestic progress; but it didn’t work in the Radical-Imperialist Joseph Chamberlain’s case, and might not in ‘One Nation’ Boris’s. On most occasions the rise of foreign policy issues to the surface of politics has harmed Labour grievously. In the 1900s this was supposed to be due to working-class ‘jingoism’; and working-class anti-Europeanism is alleged to be doing the same today, thus provoking the suspicion that this may be the deep-laid motive and cause behind it. Brexit was simply a financiers’ ‘plot’ to enable the final triumph of ‘Thatcherism’. Look at the ‘coincidence’ of its coming up on the very eve of a new EU law to block ‘tax havens’. That’s what some are saying. Say it too loud, however, and you can be accused of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’, or even an anti-semite.

So there are tenuous precedents in Britain’s political past. For what it’s worth, however, I still think the more pertinent parallel to be drawn is with the rise of nationalism and Fascism in 1930s Europe. But that bears comparison with the rise of ultra-imperialism around 1900, too. There may be a historical pattern here.

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