Terrorism or Crime?

Excellent piece by Simon Jenkins in today’s Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/18/mi5-lost-plot-britain-safer-than-ever-andrew-parker-terror.

It really is important to distinguish between politically-motivated crimes that ‘only’ hurt people, and politically-motivated crimes that genuinely threaten the state – or democracy, or the British way of life, or whatever. Terrorists want to have their actions put in the latter category. That’s their whole purpose – to bring about political or religious change, through ‘terrorising’ the general population. Parker’s scaremongering must be music to their ears.

They understood the difference in the late nineteenth century. See my The Origins of the Vigilant State (1987).

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Decline, Fall and Brexit

It’s becoming more apparent by the week – almost by the hour – that Brexit is a disaster, led by idiots, clowns and vagabonds, voted for by a misled population (misled, not stupid), enabled by a deeply flawed political system, stirring up the worst passions of our people, and being implemented now – on our side – by incompetents.

Looking at it as a historian – one historian: others will disagree – it seems to me to mark an extraordinary stage, possibly the ultimate one, in the story of Britain’s decline from a position of perceived ‘greatness’, which in my view was never based on either ‘splendid isolation’ or ‘imperialism’, which is what the Brexiteers appear to be harking back to; but always on high ideals (not always lived up to), generosity (ditto), pragmatism, adaptability to a changing world, and good relations with our immediate neighbours. The end result will almost certainly impoverish us as a nation: materially of course – that’s becoming obvious; but also in terms of reputation, and, for those of us whose patriotism, such as it is, is not founded on illusions of past power and domination – national pride.

I’ve been energised by this to return to an old abandoned project of mine: a collection of essays analysing Britain’s ‘identity’ as a nation, and her historical relations with the rest of Europe: see https://bernardjporter.com/2017/10/10/cosmopolitan-britain/. (I know, I keep announcing new projects. It’s the conception that excites me. Let’s hope this one isn’t aborted, like ‘Essex’ and the rest.)

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MI5 and Paranoia

Stella Rimington used to be head of MI5. I once participated in a TV documentary with her, and was unimpressed: narrow-minded, right-wing and paranoid, like most of the rest of her generation of spooks. Later I reviewed her Memoirs for the LRB : https://www.lrb.co.uk/v23/n20/bernard-porter/more-interesting-than-learning-how-to-make-brandy-snaps. Now here she pops up again, warning us against the dangerous Lefties surrounding Jeremy Corbyn. Paul Mason’s account in the Guardian today is very much to the point: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/16/stella-rimington-should-stop-fuelling-paranoid-fantasies-about-jeremy-corbyn. We’ve seen this before: the Secret Services covertly working to subvert democratically-elected Labour governments, and possibly even succeeding. (See Robin Ramsay and Stephen Dorril’s Smear, 1992; and Chris Mullin’s fictional A Very British Coup.)

Could it happen again? I’d rather hoped that MI5 had been swept clean of all those right-wing fuddy-duddies since her time. But Mullin is not quite so sure: see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/10/y-fictional-prime-minister-harry-perkins-jeremy-corbyn-a-very-british-coup. There are a lot of vested interests in Britain who might be sufficiently concerned and unprincipled to smear Corbyn as they smeared MacDonald and Wilson. Indeed, we can already see this almost every day in papers like the Daily Mail (one of the villains in those earlier plots). I imagine that Corbyn’s lieutenants are working to counter this, as they did quite effectively during the last general election. If Rimington’s (and the Mail’s) prejudices are still widespread in MI5, they’ll have their work cut out. Cunning fellas, these spooks. And with lots of hidden weapons. At the very least we should be aware.

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Politicians are All the Same

‘Don’t trust politicians. Liars and charlatans. All in it for themselves.’ Well, I know that’s not true, of some at least of the handful of politicians I’ve met personally – mostly Labour. Conservatives, of course are less ideologically averse to being ‘in it for themselves’. That’s why more of them (I think) were involved in the great ‘expenses scandal’ of eight years ago. It was that event that did more than anything else to tarnish the reputation of the House of Commons in modern times. Together, of course, with the press magnates, who would rather politics (a.k.a. ‘democracy’) got out of their way so that the ‘market’ could determine everything; and a natural popular prejudice against the ‘ruling classes’ going back to Greek and Roman times. All politicians suffer from this, probably unfairly; but it’s partly their own fault.

I wonder if this didn’t help to scupper the ‘Remain’ side in last year’s European referendum? The main spokespeople of that campaign were David Cameron and George Osborne; both Tories, and ultra-‘Establishment’, which meant that they were hardly trusted at all. They also argued in a way that appeared to be too apocalyptic: ‘outside Europe we’re doomed! Doomed!’; but is seeming to be less so now. Corbyn at that time was also campaigning to remain, and in a far more cool and rational way, but his speeches got very little publicity: see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/02/corbyns-fault/. Corbyn also wasn’t widely seen then, especially in the popular press, as the ‘unusually’ honest – if nothing else – politician he has been recognised as since.

On the other side stood a trio of mavericks who, although still politicians, were seen as apart from the ‘Establishment’; which may (just may) be one of the reasons why they triumphed. Boris’s and Nigel’s lies were quickly revealed as such; but then ‘all politicians lie, don’t they?’ Asked to choose between two sets of liars and dissemblers, the electorate preferred those whose eccentricities suggested they might nonetheless be on the same anti-Establishment side as them. They had a choice between, on the one side, two public-school smoothies, with conventional names; and on the other, two more public-school eccentrics with silly names and very un-smooth looks – a frog and a hedgehog. (With Gove swimming along behind looking like a goldfish.) If they were unconventional enough to look and sound silly, might they not be independent enough to tell the truth? Perhaps if Osborne hadn’t changed his name from ‘Gideon’ to ‘George’ early on, and had developed some character, his side might have stood more of a chance.

No, not a serious explanation for the Brexit disaster. But there could be something in it.

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Does ‘the people’ include corpses?

Just back from a wonderful birthday party near Copenhagen. Our friend Eleanor, the birthday girl, is a true International. She has lived and worked in Sweden, France and Denmark, and speaks all those languages, plus perfect English. Hence the guests came from all over: I and a couple of others from Britain, but living abroad; others from Sweden, France, Russia, and of course Denmark. All (even the Russians) were puzzled and deeply saddened over Brexit. I felt I have far more in common with them, than I do with the 52% of Little England Brexiters.

Or is it fewer than 52% now? An article I read in the train back over the Øresund Bridge suggests that, even if none of the original voters has changed his or her mind since the Referendum, natural wastage – deaths – could have shifted the balance; with the elderly having been predominantly pro-Brexit, and the young the Remainers. A 1-2% death rate among the oldies would apparently do the trick. Brexiters argue that we can’t go against ‘the people’s’ choice, as measured that one day in June last year. Does that include the dead?

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Cosmopolitan Britain

As well as my published output, I’ve over the years drafted, started and even half-written a number of books and articles I never got round to completing. This is the draft Introduction to one of them; a book to be called ‘Cosmopolis’, which was actually accepted for publication, before I gave up on it five or six years ago. I’m not sure why; it may just have been life-time exhaustion, or incipient CFS. I find I have a couple of further chapters of it on my new computer, mercifully saved on iCloud, after my original laptop was stolen. I very much doubt whether I’ll go back to the project now (I still have my Essex one); but I thought this was worth posting, for a more limited readership, here.

Maybe if I’d persisted with it at the time it could have taken a few votes away from Brexit.

Britain is both less and more than a nation. Of course, one can probably say this of most countries; but in Britain’s case it is a particularly important aspect of her people’s ‘identity’. That identity is far less ‘national’ than in other cases. This is why modern politicians and commentators find it so difficult to define a form of ‘British national identity’ that everyone can subscribe to, now, when one is suddenly felt to be needed. There isn’t one. This is because Britain has always been, in modern times, far more divided than united, socially, culturally and in every other way; and far more connected with other parts of the world than self-contained. This is what I mean by ‘cosmopolitan’. It is Britain’s main national characteristic – if the weakness of a sense of nationality can be properly called that.

This goes against some conventional wisdoms. There will be many Britons who think they know what ‘Britishness’ consists of; unfortunately, if they look around them, they will find that there are also others who have a completely different idea of it. This came out once when Prime Minister John Major characterised ‘typical Englishness’ (something different, of course) in terms of village greens, cricket, warm beer and district nurses riding bicycles; only to be met with a torrent of very different clusters of images from other English people: featuring northern industrial cities, for example, soccer, fish and chips, and trade union banners. Chalk and cheese: but both equally ‘English’. (Widen it to ‘British’, and the task becomes even more difficult.) Some foreigners may also be surprised by this view of a more complex and porous Britain than they are familiar with. In particular, they will probably be sceptical of the idea, to be developed in this book, that Britain has been significantly less nationalistic than other countries. This however is because of the way Britain has presented herself – or been presented – to them. Foreign views of countries always differ from domestic ones. Anyone who knows the present United States well must be aware of how very differently its people regard themselves, and really are (thank God), from the way they are perceived abroad. Countries come packaged, usually quite simply, for foreign consumption. ‘Nationality’ is part of that.

Look inside the package – better still, live there – and the complexities will become clear.
One of Britain’s particular problems is that she comes packaged as an island – or, more strictly, a group of islands: one-and-a-bit major, and a lot of little ones. Islands are supposed to be insular. Surrounded by sea, Britons were bound to be inward-looking. This was one of the reasons why they managed to fix their external boundaries (with one exception) earlier than most other states. This will have coalesced them as a nation. But did it? There are two reasons for doubting this. One is that the seas that surrounded Britain were arguably more significant as highways than as frontiers. They were one of the factors that enabled her to connect with other peoples. (‘No man is an island’, wrote John Donne famously. No island is an island either, in this sense.) The second reason is that her insular situation may have made her achievement of national unity – those boundaries – too easy. Clearly enclosed by her cliffs and beaches, there was no pressing need for her to define her nationality in any other, deeper, way. Britain’s literal insularity, therefore, neither cut her off from other countries – just the opposite; nor helped significantly to unite her. It merely gave the impression that she was cut off and united; no more.

Obviously I am not the first to notice either of these two things – Britain’s internal divisions, or her outward-lookingness. No present-day historian of Britain, for example, can be unaware of the fact that Britain is made up of at least four literal ‘nations’: the English, Scots, Welsh and (Northern) Irish – though this was a charge often levelled against arrogant English historians in former times. (For them, the other three nations were just addenda.) Nor have they any excuse for not knowing about the divisive influence of class in Britain, though this has become a somewhat unfashionable idea recently. Anyone reading EP Thompson’s classic study of the English working classes at the time of the industrial revolution, for example, must be aware that they constituted a whole different nation (metaphorically speaking) from the middle and upper classes of that time. Nor – turning to the other side of the equation – have Britain’s relations with the rest of the world lain unstudied: her foreign policy, wars and trade probably never; her imperialism since the end of the 19th century; her emigrant and immigrant history from a little later; and her more informal connexions with other peoples – travel, intellectual contacts, cultural influences and so on, all in both directions – more recently. This has all been written about. What is not generally credited is how important these two circumstances were to the historical identity of Britain. They were not just marginal. They were crucial aspects of her development; far more so, I would say, than any other, more coherent, set of national peculiarities. That is what I shall be arguing in this book.

This of course is not the only way of regarding the sweep of British history over the past two centuries (the period covered here), but I hope it will prove to be an interesting and enlightening one. It will certainly make several quite familiar aspects of British history appear differently. Immigration will be central, and not just since the 1950s. So will emigration, and to countries other than the United States and the British Colonies. ‘Imperialism’ will take on a new complexity, as a two-way process, not just ‘Britons’ exploiting ‘native races’. Key developments in Britain’s domestic history that are usually explained in mainly indigenous terms – Parliamentary and social reforms, for example, and ‘Thatcherism’ – will be placed in an international context that may make more – or a different kind of – sense of them. Britons will find themselves sharing many characteristics and qualities that they thought were peculiar to them with other peoples. That may be because Britain was influenced by developments abroad more than she realised; or vice-versa (Britain affecting other countries); or because all these countries were subject to the same underlying and global trends. At the same time, Britain’s really distinctive characteristics – the ‘public’ schools, perhaps, suet puddings, and philistinism: these are just tentative suggestions at this stage – will stand out more. As well, of course, as her cosmopolitanism; which is not found in any other modern nation to the extent and in the ways it was in 19th- and 20th-century Britain.

Is this a good or a bad thing? Personally I should say at the outset that I’m rather attracted by it: by the multifariousness of British society, even if that means frictions and conflicts; and the reaching out to the world, so long as that is not done arrogantly. An inward-looking and homogenous country would bore me. I hope that does not lead me to exaggerate or idealise these factors in this book. They do have their disadvantages. A multifarious society is more difficult to govern, of course, than a united, consensual one. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you stand for as a nation, it is also difficult to decide what you should require of immigrants, or indeed any of your citizens, in terms of ‘loyalty’. Loyalty to what? It was much simpler before Britons became ‘citizens’ (in 1983), and were simply ‘subjects’, so the only thing you had to agree to was to be loyal to the Queen (or King), which meant nothing – and most of us weren’t even asked to promise this. Foreign influences always give rise to resentment and resistance. Foreign influence in the form of substantial immigration – especially when the immigrants come with powerful belief systems of their own – is always difficult for a people to handle.

Hence recent British governments’ desperate attempts to construct a sense of ‘national identity’, to unite us all, native-born and recent arrivals; right against – I would say – the whole trend of British history over the past 200 years. Other countries have common cultures to fall back on, or a set of founding ideals (the USA), or ‘race’ (if they are falling back very low). Britain has none of these things. That leaves her vulnerable in many respects. On the other hand her cosmopolitanism has contributed to her national life in many positive ways, some of which will be detailed in the following pages. And it is certainly appreciated by others; including for example the International Olympic Committee, which awarded the 2012 Olympic Games to London for apparently just this reason – the city’s vibrant ‘multiculturalism’. For those who may be looking forward to that event, that must be a plus for cosmopolitanism. For the rest of us, it is unlikely to put us off.

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Ageing

We ought to be allowed to grow old without being made to feel guilty about it. I’m afflicted with several infirmities just now, in joints, eyes, ears, teeth, memory, and whatever is supposed to control my sleeping. My doctor tells me these are ‘just signs of old age’. ‘But my partner is about the same age’, I protest, ‘and has none of these afflictions’. ‘That’s because she’s a woman,’ he replies; ‘and women age more slowly than men. It also means you’ll die before her.’ I feel my doctor lacks something in the bedside manner department; but in fact I appreciate his directness and honesty. (He’s a great diagnostician.) And ‘just old age’ makes me feel better about my aches and pains. They’re not my responsibility. I can live (and die) with that.

For others who are closer to me, however, my minor infirmities are all my fault. They’re because I eat badly, am lazy, and take too little exercise. So I need to embark on a programme of eating nothing but greens and really hard jogging. I doubt it. (Jogging isn’t going to be very good for my arthritis.) But really, the ‘programme’ is a way of shifting the burden of suffering on to my own shoulders. I prefer my doctor’s diagnosis. Ageing is ‘natural’.

But then along comes the Government, blaming the current problems of the NHS on ‘people living longer’: in other words, on the likes of me. Because we’re older, we need more care. We’re blocking the hospitals, impoverishing them with our demand for new hips and incontinence pants, and – of course – not paying for it any more through our taxes. We’re just burdens. Conscious of this, I’m loathe to visit my doctor any more. I feel I’m taking up time and expertise that would far better be used on younger, still productive members of society.

I’m also afraid that my fears of an ache or a pain being symptomatic of something really bad – cancer, say, or heart problems – will be dismissed as ‘hypochondria’. In other words, I have an irrational fear that I’m hypochondriacal about being a hypochondriac. (Is there a special word for that?) So I just soldier on; suffering quite happily – I don’t complain, and it gets me out of doing certain things; and reconciling myself to my ultimate fate. Later this week I’m part of a test at the famed Karolinska Hospital covering all 75-76-year olds in the Stockholm region to discover early and hidden symptoms of incipient heart failure. I’m quite looking forward to that. It should reassure me, without my having to ask for the test, which might have made me appear hypochondriacal.

But my general point is this. What has the NHS come to, that it deters its most vulnerable patients from seeking the advice they are entitled to, in case they – and they in particular – are overloading it? As an oldie, I don’t feel safe in Britain any more.

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Back to Sweden (and Sanity)

On my way back to sane, sensible, quasi-socialist and genuinely ‘strong and stable’ Sweden. It will be interesting to see how my Swedish friends are reacting to our current British nonsense, which I imagine will have had been fully covered in Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, and on SvT. (They all have excellent London correspondents.) I’ve given up trying to defend us. Perhaps if I pretend I’m Irish – I can do the dialect – just as US citizens pretend they’re Canadians nowadays, I may be able to avoid the inevitable derision, or – worse – the pity. Whatever else they may achieve in the time they have left to them, the Tories have already made us laughing stocks abroad.

Then down to Denmark briefly, for some hygge and racism.

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Edward Heath

The 1960s, ’70s and ’80s may have been a particularly corrupt period in British politics and high society. There were Right-wing and secret service plots against the governments of Harold Wilson; shocking examples of subversion in Northern Ireland; the Hillsborough scandal; anti-union machinations; a number of sexual shenanigans (‘affairs’); much financial corruption (which in my view is more serious); regular police wrongdoing, ‘fitting’ suspects ‘up’, secretly infiltrating protest groups, and the like; a number of proven instances of paedophilia among establishment figures, one of which I was personally close to and have blogged about (https://bernardjporter.com/2016/03/17/cambridge-and-homosexual-harassment/); and much more – a significant amount of which the ‘Establishment’ of the time was able to cover up, because it had the power to. Much of it has only been unearthed recently.

At one time I thought of writing a ‘secret history’ of these years woven around this theme, but never got round to it. Someone ought to do it, in order to try to measure it: was it really unique to this period? probably not; and to tease out the reasons for it: right-wing fears of socialism, the Cold War, the decline of conventional morality, the public schools, the Empire, British traditions of secrecy (just suggestions), and so on. It would provide an interesting counterpoint and corrective to conventional histories of our ‘democracy’.

Even before that book has been written, however, these revelations have stained the reputation of the past. This explains why it is possible for us to credit the charges of paedophilia against Edward Heath that are the subject of today’s (inconclusive) report by the Wiltshire police. After all, if that fat Liberal MP from Lancashire was a child abuser, why not him? And that’s so whether the charges against Heath are true, or not. Which is unfortunate for his memory if he was innocent. And we know enough about false evidence from pretended victims to know that this could be so.

Even when he was alive Heath was always suspected of being a homosexual, in an age when a prominent male figure couldn’t ‘come out’ as gay without sacrificing his career and – early on – even his liberty. It was also an age when men and women were supposed to be married. If you weren’t, it automatically opened you up to doubt. Every bachelor was suspected of being ‘queer’, and if you were queer it followed that you were attracted to boys.

Of course it didn’t necessarily follow. Some men – and I always thought Heath might be one of these – are simply asexual. It’s odd how ‘asexuality’ isn’t generally included when we’re dividing people up into sexual categories, along with heteros, homos, trans, bi’s and all the rest. It must be quite a pleasant condition. Restful.

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Progress

Being old-fashioned doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong. Of course it does with our Old Etonian fop Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP, the surprising new darling of the Conservative faithful; but then pushing ‘old-fashioned’ back 200 years is a bit of a stretch. Since then things have got better. For a start we (the British) now have democracy, of a sort; have stopped trying to rule the world; and have advanced tremendously in how we look after our people – a.k.a. ‘social reform’. That took a long, heroic struggle during those 200 years, mainly by ‘ordinary’ folk and their enlightened leaders, against the forces of ‘reaction’. It was called ‘progress’. We all agreed on this. While it was going on, the old ways were, quite reasonably, dismissed as ‘backward’.

But then a curious change took place. History – not only in Britain, but in America too – itself took a backward step. It was done quite deliberately, as witnessed by Margaret Thatcher’s explicit call for a return to what she called (misleadingly, I believe) ‘Victorian values’. But they were no longer called ‘backward’. Instead, free marketism was viewed as the new ‘progressive’ way, and yesterday’s ‘progressives’ cast as the villains who had turned our history ‘back’. Unrestricted capitalism was the new expression of ‘modernity’. (Marx, incidentally, would have agreed. Did Thatcher realise what a Marxist she essentially was?) It was the welfare state, the mixed economy and trade unions – those engines of progressiveness up until then – that were old-fashioned. Thatcher, Major, Blair and Cameron all danced to this tune, as they sought to free up and so ‘modernise’ the British economy. People came to accept this new definition of ‘progress’. All you had to do in order to dismiss anyone with vaguely ‘socialist’ ideas, for example, was to present them as a throwback to the 1970s. That was enough, supposedly, to make Jeremy Corbyn unelectable. Never mind the virtues of his policies, such as they may have been. There was no need to debate them on their merits. Their ‘backwardness’ was enough, on its own, to damn them. We’d been there before. (And what had it brought? Endless strikes, apparently; unburied corpses; and swivel-eyed Bennery.) We had to ‘move on’: for the sheer sake, it seemed, of moving on.

Thus does ‘progress’ become defined: relatively to the politics and mythology of the day. One period’s reaction becomes the next’s progress, and vice-versa. (I give another example of this in https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/08/07/bernard-porter/whos-a-dinosaur-now/.) But this can change too. Many on the Left today – though they don’t like to say so – are literal reactionaries, because they want to go back to (some aspects of) the 1970s too. They (we) see that decade as the one where their (our) sort of ‘progress’ faltered, to be replaced by one which seemed at the time to be more up-to date, but in fact was ideologically far more regressive. In any case, whichever it was, it shouldn’t have been distinguished by the name of ‘progress’, which simply deterred people from looking at its true merits and demerits. And as the demerits of Thatcherite capitalism become clearer and clearer today, there’s just the chance that socialism might take up the banner of ‘progress’ again. Which could give it a fillip among those who only follow ideas – like wearing clothes – that are fashionable. (I’ve always stuck to my 1970s gear, by the way.)

I was hoping that Theresa May’s disastrous speech at today’s Conservative party conference might help in this, and exemplify the shift in the political ‘centre ground’ – and consequently the perceived direction of ‘progress’ – that I wrote about earlier (https://bernardjporter.com/2017/09/28/centre-ground/). It was widely anticipated that she was about to give a huge boost to council (aka ‘social’) housing, and reintroduce private rent controls; which would have reversed one of Thatcher’s flagship policies of thirty years ago, and really returned us to before her time. I’ve just watched her speech, however, and if it was there – between her coughs and splutters (poor woman; I know what it’s like, it’s happened to me) – it was in a very watered-down, or perhaps heavily-disguised, form.

The most memorable ‘return to the past’ at the conference was Boris Johnson’s rampant, sub-Churchillian jingoism yesterday; which clearly got the old delegates’ vaginal and – what’s the male equivalent? – juices flowing again, but wasn’t the kind of old-fashionedness I had been hoping for. As with Rees-Mogg, that was a reaction too far. Do they teach this sort of stuff at Eton? Still?

And ‘progress’, remember, is just a word.

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