Decline, Fall and Women

Britain’s relative decline, diplomatically and economically, began as long ago as the third quarter of the nineteenth century; when she embarked on her policy of ‘imperialism’ in a desperate effort to reverse it. I realise this isn’t a conventional way of looking at it, certainly not Boris Johnson’s, for example; but I realise now that it’s been a theme running through all the books I’ve published on British imperial history, from 1968 to the present day.

The final stage of this decline – our ‘fall’, if you like – began with Margaret Thatcher, and is being presided over now by Theresa May; which must be a disappointment to those who felt that a female hand on the political tiller would undo all the harm that male leaders had done hitherto. Of course they’ll deny it in the case of Thatcher, whose whole purpose in life was to seek to arrest Britain’s decline by reasserting what she claimed were ‘Victorian values’, but in a way that in reality made her country the plaything of outside forces (in shorthand: ‘global capitalism’) which its governments could no longer control.

It’s a great shame, especially for the feminists among us, that these two women should have been so prominent in engineering Britain’s decline. Of course it wasn’t their fault really, but of the forces that were manipulating them, and the prime ministers that came between them; and was unlikely to have been due to their gender, which in both cases was hardly conventionally ‘feminine’ in any case. I still regret, hugely, that our first female prime minister couldn’t have been Labour’s Barbara Castle: a real female force for good (hopefully), in the mould of Boudicca. But we were landed with Maggie and T’resa; leaving it for another woman in the future to show what a girl can really do. Can anyone see her looming on the horizon? Emily? Andrea? Even the much abused Diane?….

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Brexit Shenanigans

I feel I should comment on the last few days’ major political events (in Britain), but really I have nothing new to add to the torrent of opinion and speculation that is engulfing us now. It was all so predictable – at least, after May’s attempt to prevent any debate on the terms of her ‘deal’ was stymied by the courts last year. The only thing that many of us couldn’t foresee is the extent of her dumb obstinacy; still insisting that her plan is basically the right one, after having been rejected in the Commons by 230 votes, and could get through with a few tweaks. She talks about consulting other parties in order to arrive at a ‘consensus’, but has made it clear – so far – that she won’t give an inch on any of her own ‘red lines’, including ruling out a ‘no deal’, which are there, of course, to appease the mad and (largely) Old Etonian Eurosceptics in her own party: who don’t want a deal at all, but for Britain to sail away into the glorious 19thcentury on its own. That’s where a historian should come in – and many have already come in – to prick the illusion.

At one, very general, level, the problem is simple. Large swathes of Britain have been laid waste by successive governments’ austerity policies, without – their people feel – any recognition or sympathy by Tory or Tory-lite Labour governments, and no means of effectively conveying their discontent and desperation. That’s partly due to our electoral system. They never used to bother much about Europe, until the popular tabloid press, owned by billionaire tax exiles, persuaded them, for (usually nefarious) reasons of their own, that the EU – ‘Johnny Foreigner’ – was to blame for all their woes; which of course it wasn’t, but nonetheless made a convincing scapegoat. That’s what the Brexit vote was all about. It was the first great public issue on which people were asked their opinions directly, and so could channel this feeling powerfully. (It could have been almost any other issue. It was the timing that was crucial.) But neither Brexit itself, nor any ‘tweaking’ of it, will even touch the root causes of the people’s discontent, let alone the appalling manifestations of that discontent – abuse, thuggery, racism, even a murder – which the Brexit vote either gave rise to, or brought to the surface of Britain’s political discourse.

The rational solution, of course, would be for Britain to return to the European Union and use its considerable influence there, in alliance with other Leftish protesting groups,  to reform its admitted deficiencies. Most of us on the ‘Remain’ side would just love that. But that would only exacerbate people’s resentment of the ‘political establishment’, as we can see from the language employed by the tabloid press – ‘treachery’, ‘appeasement’, ‘enemies of the people’ and so on – which is almost bound to make any reasonable course of action, even short of ‘Remain’, and however rationally argued, out of the question. Which is why we’re in the dreadful position we’re in now. Jeremy Corbyn’s line, in fact, despite the current press monstering of him, to force an election so that a ‘softer’ Brexit, or even none at all, could be pursued in combination with radical social and economic policies directed at the underlying causes of the sense of abandon and neglect which fired the Brexit vote, is undoubtedly the best one. But can anyone imagine the Press lords, the Establishment, the secret State and Cambridge Analytica (or its like) ever permitting that? At the very least it’s going to be a long and bitter fight.

In the meantime I’m in a Swedish hospital; not on my own account, but accompanying Kajsa who is presently under the knife to repair a broken wrist. She slipped on the ice: or rather, ice covered with snow, slush and rain. It really is very treacherous out. I’ll be glad to get back to sunny England on Monday. That is, if they let me in after all the British political shenanigans of the last days, weeks, and indeed 2.5 years.

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The F*cking Public Schools

The ‘public’ schools really are a menace to modern British society, as this Guardian article, announcing a new book on the subject (yet another!), argues in some detail: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jan/13/public-schools-david-kynaston-francis-green-engines-of-privilege. There’s nothing here – there may be in the book – about the kind of education offered in them, whose dangers the recent political prominence of two Old Etonians – Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg – must illustrate clearly; both of them being heavily involved in the Brexit movement, of course, as well as many more of its leaders, from the more ‘minor’ public schools. I’ve given talks at a number of them, coming away from which I always used to despair of their pupils’ narrow and privileged world views.

Here I must declare an interest, although it’s one that at least gives me some personal knowledge to base my views on. I went to one of those ‘minor’ schools, albeit as a day-boy, and on a scholarship from my local Education Committee. When that system – the ‘direct grant’ – ceased, Brentwood went full-private. It wasn’t a genuine Public school, though it claimed a 400-year history; for which reason, I imagine, it tried to ape Eton and the rest in many ways: ‘houses’, a school CCF, ‘praeposters’ (who were give the power to beat younger boys), a school song (very dreary), an emphasis on the (ancient) Classics, a ‘Prep’ school feeding into it, vast playing fields, retired sportsmen as games masters, school uniform, including ‘boaters’ in summer (we used to grow mustard and cress on the tops of them: there was no school rule against that, and rules ruled in that society), plenty of buggery (apparently: that was among the boarders), and clever skills in preparing its boys for the ‘great’ universities. That was how I got to Cambridge. My college was, I should say, 95% public school boys.

When I arrived in Cambridge, and realised how privileged I had been, and then later when I became a Fellow of my college, and was introduced to the mysteries of its admissions system, I tried to get that changed, and to persuade the admissions tutor to look for candidates in the State sector; only to be told, distastefully, that ‘we don’t want boys at Corpus from schools like that.’ One of the Senior Tutors of the time, Michael McCrum, went on to become Head Master (or is it ‘High’ Master?) of Eton. He was typical.

I don’t want to speak too badly either of my school, which had a couple of inspirational teachers (for me), or of my public school colleagues at Corpus, with whom I got on very well. They were a bit patronising, but I could take that. One of them – an Old Etonian, son and heir to a great brewing company – on learning that I was a Labour Party member (the only one in the college, I think), said to me: ‘I didn’t know you were Labour, Bernard. I think if I were in your shoes I’d be a socialist too.’ Bless his little silken socks.

So you may be able to understand my animus against the Public schools. But the main reason is the stupidity and arrogance of Boris and Jacob. Only a school like Eton could have produced clowns like these; and only a nation like Britain could have elevated them into positions where they could bring the whole nation down. As they look like doing this coming week. (But hopefully not.)

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Svenska språket

In principle I entirely agree that anyone seeking citizenship in a country, or even permanent residence, ought to learn that country’s language. I used to have my hair cut in Branford, Connecticut, by a man who had lived there for forty years and still only spoke Italian. He seemed to get along OK – there was a pizzeria along the road where he could socialize – but I wouldn’t recommend it. Bangladeshis in Bradford – even their wives – should speak English; Syrians in Syracuse should learn Italian; Glaswegians coming over the border to England should learn to talk so that we can understand them. (And vice-versa? I’m not sure.) You need to know the language in order to understand the culture you’re moving into: to become properly acclimatised, that is. Naturalisation rules to this effect, as I understand are applied in most countries of the world, are perfectly reasonable.

Which is what worries me about a proposal by the recently-negotiated Swedish government coalition to make competence in the Swedish language a requirement for Swedish citizenship. I’ve applied for that, yet my Swedish language skills have barely got beyond ‘var är systembolaget?’ (‘Where is the State Liquor Store?) The language wasn’t a requirement when I sent my application in – only that I had lived here for more than five years, could support myself, had a Swedish sambo, and didn’t have a criminal record. I should have passed on all those criteria. I’m hoping that my lack of the language – which I admitted to on the form – isn’t nonetheless going to hold my application back. (It’s been two and a half years now since I applied – just after the Brexit vote.) So what are my excuses?

I have several, though none of them can alleviate the sense of guilt I still feel when talking in English to Swedes. (I think that should go in my favour.) I’ve always been bad at foreign languages, though I was taught three at school. Latin is still my best; then German, then French. But I only just scraped by in ‘O’-level in all of them. I took an interest in the structures of languages – it’s why I liked Latin best – but could never memorise the words. I wonder if that’s a common mental condition, with a Latin or Greek name? Whenever anyone speaks to me in French, German or Swedish, I immediately panic, even though on reflexion I realise I know the words. I attribute that to an occasion as an adolescent boy in a Paris shop when I asked for something in what I thought was perfect French from this gorgeously beautiful assistant, only for her to pretend she didn’t understand me. I blushed deeper than I ever have since. The memory of my embarrassment then comes back to me whenever I’m addressed by a foreigner, gorgeously beautiful or not.

So far as Swedish is concerned, I did try to learn it twenty years ago, at the government-run ‘SFI’ – svenska för invandrare – attending every weekday morning for two or three months, and enjoying it greatly; I even found I could joke in Swedish – ‘ah, Engelsk humor’, giggled the teacher – but then returning home at lunch to resume my writing of a book in English, which always threw me off. That’s one of my problems: I’ve never had to work in Swedish, which would have forced me to remember what I learned at SFI. My sambo Kajsa’s English is excellent; we’ve tried only talking Swedish at breakfast, for example, but it never seems to work. There’s only a few conversational places that ‘pass the butter’ (‘passera smöret’) will get you to – and I’ve just had to look that up on Google Translate.* Swedes generally, it seems to me, don’t like struggling with ‘Swenglish’, and are only too keen to show off their perfect English, so that’s where conversations that start off in Swedish – ‘var är systembolaget?’ – usually end. (‘Just up the road, where the green sign is. But it’s closed today.’) That’s enough on its own to deepen your sense of linguistic inferiority.

Quite apart from all that, I’m elderly (‘gammal’) , rather deaf (döv), and losing my memory – of English words as well as foreign ones. Sometimes I find the latter replacing the former in my memory cells, so that I can rarely remember what ‘vitlök’ is in English, for example (it’s ’garlic’), which is OK in a Swedish ICA-Konsum but not in Tescos back in the UK. Everyone who has experienced deafness knows that it mainly affects one’s hearing of vowels, which one’s brain then attaches the right consonants to; which is doubly difficult with unfamiliar foreign vowels. (Some Swedish ones are impossible for us Brits. I was told that the Swedes can use them only because they have a hole drilled in their top palates when they are new-born. New citizens are entitled to the same operation performed under anaesthetic.)

Is all this enough to excuse me? I love the sound of Swedish, and the way Swedes speak it – clearly, in the fronts of their mouths. I get pleasure from Swedish films even without subtitles, picking up a certain amount and letting the rest flow pleasurably over me. I can often get by with Swedish newspapers, but would love to be able read Strindberg in the original. (Then I might even get to like him.) I hate the fact that Kajsa can never talk entirely naturally with me. I hope I can become a bit Swedish without the språk. But that, ultimately, will rest with Migrationsverket.

*I’ve just learned it’s wrong. So much for Google Translate.

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Nerdish Persuaders

To add to my instant review of the Channel 4 ‘Brexit’ drama below: of course its main point has to do with the way democracy can be subverted by these clever modern and technical extensions of the old ‘Hidden Persuaders’ techniques, which is why the nerd Dominic Cummings (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is its main character; and why so much else is omitted or downplayed, like the part played by the right-wing press. It’s also why characters like Boris, Michael Gove and even Farage appear as scarcely more than comic walk-on parts, like Hamlet’s grave-diggers (an apt simile, I feel), which won’t exactly boost their egos. Cameron is treated even worse: he’s played by his own shallow self (with TV news footage). The point being made here is that power in our modern so-called democracy has now passed out of the hands of politicians, into those of billionaires and the amoral technocrats they can afford to hire to effect their will; not only in Britain, but also in the USA, as is pointed out at the end of the film. This also affects the political discourse of the day, in which expertise and ‘truth’ itself are being widely mistrusted and devalued – simply there to be manipulated for other and usually nefarious ends.

But the film was also as good as I think could be expected in a 90-minute format, on the motives and feelings of Brexit-voters in June 2016; illustrated here by means of an acted-out ‘focus group’ which managed to convey the frustrations of ‘ordinary people’ – both with their material conditions and with the political elite – very feelingly. This section backed up to the hilt my own analysis of the reasons for the vote, which had little essentially to do with ‘Europe’. Surely everyone but the most extreme (and usually public school-educated) ideological Europhobes can see that now.

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An Uncivil War

Last night we managed to catch the Channel 4 drama-documentary Brexit: an Uncivil War, which we missed when it was originally broadcast, through a link Kajsa found. There’s a good review of it in today’s Dagens Nyheter (by a friend of ours). Much against the Guardian’s very different opinion, I found it compelling on this aspect of the Brexit referendum. It also bore out, dramatically, my analysis from the very start – vide infra, around June 2017 – of the reasons why people voted as they did. And at the end I thought that the Dominic Cummings character’s appeal for a new, imaginative kind of politics to replace the old conventional one, so that the damage done by his ‘algorithms’ might be avoided in the future, could be a direct call to Jeremy Corbyn.

Having watched A Very English Scandal, about the Jeremy Thorpe affair, on Swedish TV just a few days earlier, Kajsa reckons she’s now up to speed on two of the different kinds of corruption that beset British politics: the ‘old school tie’ one (Eton of course) in the second case, and this new ‘scientific’ sort in the first.

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The Future

Historians don’t usually like to guess the future. They know how unreliable that sort of thing has been in the past. Where’s the ‘thousand-year Reich’ today? Or, come to that, the thousand-year British Empire? (Yes, in the early 1900s some imperialists even predicted that.) Or Richard Cobden’s peaceful free-trade heaven? Or Francis Fukujama’s ‘end of history’? Or Marx’s socialist utopia? Or any of the dystopias that have been floated now and then? All have come to nothing. (So far!) Shorter-term predictions are equally foolish. At the end of 2016 I made a prediction of this kind on this blog: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/12/31/2017-prediction/; I don’t know why I’m drawing attention to it now – it only shows me up. And that was on the basis of all my knowledge of the past.

That can provide little guidance. As a historian I can’t even predict what’s going to happen next week in Parliament, when the great ‘Brexit’ vote takes place. A ‘hard’ Brexit, a ‘soft’ one, May’s plan, May’s plan defeated, Brexit postponed, Brexit itself defeated, May ousted, a new prime minister, a new government, political parties torn apart and regrouping, yellow-vest riots outside Parliament…. who knows? I made a guess a couple of weeks ago (https://bernardjporter.com/2018/12/30/corbyns-way/, towards the end); but that was more in hope than in expectation. The present crisis must be the least predictable one in British history. Anyone who thinks they can foresee even a few days ahead is either psychic or a fool.

As to the effects of Brexit itself – if it ever takes place – we’re almost as much in the dark. Surely it’s not going to produce a magnificent renaissance of British power and prosperity in the world, let alone the kind of ‘empire’ the Old Etonians obviously hanker after. For a start, Britain’s former supremacy was not all that supreme: see my British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t. Secondly, such as it was, it was established in entirely different conditions from today’s. Nor is Brexit likely to make Britain any more ‘independent’, essentially, than she is today: ‘dependence’ not requiring to be ‘formal’ in order to be just as chafing as it is supposed to be under Brussels, and with American ‘informal imperialism’ – a term coined by us imperial historians – making us even less independent than we are now. So I think I can predict that the most outrageously positive modern predictions for a Brexit Britain won’t come to pass. Instead, it will all probably turn out badly, with Britain becoming poorer, isolated, and for almost the first time disrespected in the wider world, with so many of the national qualities for which we used to be admired, or thought we were – tolerance and the rest – having in very recent years been thrown overboard to appease the quasi- and proto-fascists in our midst. In that case the present period of our national history is likely to be regarded by future historians as a foolish and embarrassing one; to be analysed in much the same way as previous disasters have been. Boris Johnson almost certainly won’t come out of it as the Churchill figure he aspires to be. Of course I could be wrong.

When our present-day crisis is examined by future historians, and also the crises going on in parallel in much of the rest of the Western world, they may be seen to fit into the broader trend that I see as furnishing a genuine clue to all our futures: which is the general long-term crisis of uncontrolled capitalism, which affects us all in different ways. But that’s the Marxist in me.

And even with this insight – if it is such – I can’t predict what will happen eventually. Will it be controlled and limited, perhaps by new forms of social democracy? Or provoke revolutions, of one kind or another – socialist, or neo-fascist, or religious, or something else? Or will the ‘natural’ and unstoppable development of the capitalist system result in the destruction of all of us, though wars, famines or – most likely – global warming through over-exploitation of resources? As a historian, and based on past trends, I think I can see the general direction in which things are moving; but not their end.

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Calling the Hounds Off

The distinguished economist Simon Wren-Lewis asks why the 2016 referendum result is regarded so highly now, in view of the obvious deficiencies and deceptions which have come to light in the 30 months since: https://mainlymacro.blogspot.com/2019/01/the-2016-referendum-was-badly-designed.html.

The answer, of course, is that the upper-class public school-educated leaders of the Brexit movement, aided by the majority ‘popular’ press – in reality a right-wing propaganda machine – have elevated an ‘advisory’ vote into a binding  one, smeared any dissidents as anti-democratic and unpatriotic traitors, no less, and encouraged ‘the mob’ (as it used to be called) to directly intimidate anyone, but especially MPs, who dares to go against what they (the Brexiters) read as the ‘will of the people’ on that distant, June 2016 day. With people so dissatisfied with so many things in Britain today, untrusting of politicians and of ‘experts’, unable to analyse their situations rationally (not their fault: the press again), and ready to seize on any convenient scapegoat to vent their anger against, it will take more than the revelation of Boris’s lies and the machinations of Cambridge Analytica to distract them from the prey that they now have their teeth into. Indeed, there’s a strong feeling that if they are persuaded to turn away from the European fox, it will only be to sink their claws into the liberal protesters who have been trying to protect him (to stretch the metaphor somewhat), leading to open violence, such as has  killed one Labour MP to date, and even serious civil unrest. Theresa May has already put the Army on standby. She may need it.

It’s this very real fear that is deterring some otherwise principled ‘Remainers’ to soften their approach, and to go for something less  than Remain – like the Norway option – that wouldn’t be perfect for them, but which they might be able to present as conforming to the ‘will of the people’ enough  to keep the hounds off them. Of course the extreme ‘stab in the back’ Brexiteers (the reference of course is to German malcontents after WorldWar I) would remain, but hopefully would be marginalised – as they should be, socially: what do the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg know of ‘ordinary people’? – while the real  problems facing those ordinary people could be addressed. That would be the task of an incoming Labour government, which is why Corbyn is so right to insist on an election instead of, or at least prior to, a second referendum. Released from austerity, gross inequality and all the rest, people could take their eyes off Europe; and we might even creep back into the EU again. Brexitism will have lost its sting. Any settlement that keeps the Tories in power couldn’t do that.

If that happens, it might cheer me up.

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Depression

Why do people insist on classifying depression as an illness? That’s better, of course, than treating it as a personal weakness – ‘pull yourself together!’ – but it implies that something is wrong with your body or mind.

Is this so? Looking around me at the state of the world today, and the human condition generally, it seems perfectly normal: to despair, deeply, of everything and of ourselves. Only callow and stupid folk can be cheerful inwardly. From which it follows that most deep and intelligent people are simply putting on a brave face. Depression is normal, the only rational way of looking at things, certainly at this period in world history. It’s happiness that is the disease.

I hope that doesn’t make any of my readers depressed. If it does, join the club.

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Icy Patches

Sorry to be so silent, but my blogging time has been taken up with a long and (mainly) instructive conversation on the LRB Blog: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2018/12/31/bernard-porter/what-is-corbyn-thinking/.

I had been hoping to get back to the UK in time to see Channel 4’s Brexit drama on Monday, but the Swedish weather – in the form of an icy patch in the road which caused Kajsa to fall and break her wrist – intervened. So I’m having to stay behind to help. But I picked up some useful information on the way about Sweden’s healthcare system. It’s generally superb, as one would expect: Kajsa had four doctors and two nurses assessing her at one moment; but I was quite surprised to see scores of very sick-looking patients lying on trolleys in corridors, which was something I had previously associated with our underfunded NHS. No complaints, and the dreadful weather was probably partly to blame. But it was, in a curious way, nationally reassuring.

And apparently the TV programme wasn’t that good, according to the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/jan/07/brexit-the-uncivil-war-review-superficial-irresponsible-tv-cumberbatch. I’d still like to see it though.

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