History Lessons

‘History’ – the subject, that is, not the events themselves – has a lot to answer for. (Well, the events themselves too, obviously; but that’s another matter.) I don’t know how important it is in helping to explain our present fraught situation (in Britain): my own view is that the reasons for that are more immediate and more material; but History is certainly being made use of a lot, chiefly by the ‘Brexit’ side.

‘Taking back  control’ obviously rests on a view of recent history, when we presumably had  control; just as does ‘Make America Great Again’. Beyond that, references to the Second World War, which it is claimed ‘we’ won; to Winston Churchill, whom Johnson appears to want to emulate, in his rhetoric at least; and then to the Empire, which is supposed to have given Britain control of ‘half the world’ in days gone by, pepper the discourses of the Right. There are others. Appeals to our ‘unique’ history as a freedom-loving island, and to our ‘splendid isolation’ in Palmerston’s day, are often brought up as justifications for our separation from the European Union at the present time. Again, I don’t know whether these are genuine motives: whether Empire-nostalgia, for example, really does run this deep in people; or if they’re just smudges of historical relish at the side of the plate – a bit like illustrations in a serious book – to make the dish seem more palatable. In either case, historical ‘precedents’ are nearly always misleading, for two main reasons.

The first is that they are usually wrong, even historically. Britain didn’t win the Second World War: the USSR and USA did; which is not to belittle Britain’s ‘pluck’ in holding out against the Nazis before those two powers came in. Churchill was a pretty second-rate war leader, except  in his resolution and his rhetoric, which really did inspire people; and only came out on the winning side because Hitler made even more mistakes. The British Empire was never quite the dominating entity it’s generally taken to have been, but only ever survived on sufferance, and was at least as much a source of weakness to Britain as of strength. (I can’t go into this now, but it’s a main theme of my ‘imperial’ history books.) ‘Half the world’ is obviously an exaggeration; and even the more usual claims of ‘a quarter’ or ‘a fifth’ are questionable. ‘Splendid isolation’ is a myth, except as a Palmerstonian boast, with Britain never having been as cut off from other powers as she threatens to become now. ‘Uniquely freedom-loving’ depends, of course, on one’s definition of ‘freedom’: her industrial proletariat might not agree; as neither would her Irish subjects, living on her other ‘island’; those, that is, who had not been forced out by famine. All together these aspects of Britain’s ‘history’ can hardly be used to support the case for ‘Brexit’ today; or, indeed, for any other broad national policy, including, of course, a pro-EU one.

The other reason why we should beware of ‘historical precedents’ is that they are  only ‘historical’, forged in different circumstances, and so unlikely to fit the circumstances of today. Insofar as Britain was either ‘imperial’ or ‘splendidly isolated’ in the nineteenth century, it was because of her massive lead over the rest of the world in manufacture and later in overseas investment, which of course is entirely absent – the first of these, at any rate – today. To stand on its head a much-used Victorian formulation, touted by imperialists to justify themselves: British trade didn’t ‘follow the flag’ then, but the very opposite. Britain’s influence and power in the world, such as they were, grew out of her domination of its markets by her manufactured goods – things to sell and materials to buy to make them from. The other basis for Britain’s ‘global’ success was the absence of significant foreign competition in these markets, until an industrialised Germany and then America came along. A few contemporaries saw the writing on the wall even as early as this: before, that is, Britain’s empires – both ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ – had begun their long ‘decline and fall’. Obviously there’s no way of our returning to those conditions. Unless, that is, Boris knows some way of triggering a second (or is it third?) ‘Industrial Revolution’ in Britain, which he hasn’t vouchsafed to us yet. Or will the neo-liberalism which our leading Brexiters all seem to yearn after – it’s one of their reasons for wanting to escape the EU’s regulations, especially over tax havens – do the job?

Today’s world is so different from Palmerston’s and Disraeli’s and even Churchill’s (in his imperial dreams) that it seems not merely misleading but downright dangerous to hark back to their times for guidance. To take one example, a word emphasised by Brexiters to express what they believe disengagement from the EU will give them. ‘Sovereignty’ has never been an absolute reality for any nation which wishes to engage in any way with other countries, and especially for medium-sized countries without the sort of material base that Britain’s first Industrial Revolution gave to her. The Brexiteers’ great delusion is to see sovereignty only in terms of independence from formal alliances, confederations or empires; whereas ‘history teaches us’ (I hate that phrase, but it may be justified in this context) that informal bonds can be at least as restrictive, or more so. The major example today is the commercial treaty Britain may  need to make with the USA, in order to compensate for the loss of her free European trade, which could leave her with less choice – ‘sovereignty’, in other words – than she would have otherwise. Several economists and political scientists have warned of a post-Brexit Britain’s becoming, in effect, an ‘informal colony’ of the USA; just as so many of the countries of Latin America, for example, became informal colonies of Victorian Britain in her prime. The easiest way to avoid this would be to unite with other countries – in this case the obvious one would be the remaining EU – in order to acquire negotiating muscle, as well as for its alternative and more acceptable markets. In truth, ‘sovereignty’ follows not from isolationism – ‘take back control’ – but from co-operation with others; and is what the EU gave Britain before she shrugged off its help.

History can be useful, but not if it is misused in this way. We’ve seen it before: the ‘Hitler’ analogy being employed to unseat other dictators whose circumstances were entirely different – Nasser by Eden, for example; the liberation of Baghdad assumed to be as welcomed by its people as the liberation of Paris in 1944; and in the present case the EU’s being painted – by some extreme Brexiteers – as a continuation of the Nazi Reich. Then of course there’s Margaret Thatcher’s idea of ‘Victorian values’, employed in order to give historical validity to her free-marketist policies in the 1980s. What the people who indulge in this kind of thing forget, or more likely never knew, is that all historical events need to be viewed in their contexts; which is how professional historians study them all the time. Just as contexts can rarely be transplanted from one period to another, let alone one place or another, so nor can the events and actors they surround. Whatever Churchill’s views were on a United Europe – this is disputed, but was also complicated by the existence of the British Empire then – they can’t be taken out of their  context to shed light on the situation today; any more than can the Empire or ‘splendid isolation’ or nineteenth-century ideas of ‘freedom’. If these ‘historical’ memories and myths really do lie behind some of the policies of today, then they can be downright dangerous. 

But that’s not our fault. Serious historians can rarely get a word in when it comes to the use that is made of their discipline. Self-serving myth is always more attractive than either reality, or constructive doubt. My next book, Britain Before Brexit (Bloomsbury, May 20), tries to put people right on this, but of course it won’t be noticed where it matters. Politicians, in particular – even those who dabble in the subject on the side, like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (and I’ve read both of them) – aren’t exposed to serious History. So I don’t hold out much hope.

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Back in Blighty…

I had thought that seeking refuge in Sweden would release me, blessedly, from the political worry, pain, frustration and rage that I was experiencing almost every minute of my life in the new, post-Brexit UK.  Far away from the sound of the guns, in a relatively sane national environment, and a loving domestic one, I could relax and contemplate the other things that used to be important to me: nature, music, painting, literature, architecture, cricket, families (I have two), friends, the mysteries of the universe, and my work.  But no chance. The anxiety and anger are still with me, eating away at my peace of mind, disrupting my sleep, and even taking away my appetite for my favourite Janssons frestelse. The internet is much to blame for this, of course, bringing us news of the inanities going on in Britain instantaneously. Boris, Jacob, Nigel, Rupert, Govey, Matt, Priti and the rest of that gang of villains loom as large in my nightmares as I imagine they do in many home-based Britons’. And we no longer have the competing spectre of the Donald to push them aside. All the attention now is on our clever fools.

Do other political refugees, from eviler regimes, and much worse forms of persecution, carry this unhappiness for their home countries with them too? And how long does it last for them? I’d like to know how soon I can expect to shake mine off. I imagine this will depend on when I can become ‘Swedified’ enough to lose my former identity, and its memories. At my advanced age, however, with family back in England and the Empire (Australia), and my passion for cricket, which the Swedes refuse to take seriously, that may take a while.

For me the situation in Britain appears even sadder viewed from Svartsö (our island refuge). Distance is meant to add enchantment, but in my case it has done the opposite. When in England I could understand, to an extent, what was going on, although without of course approving of it; I was living in the same social and political environment, and so was affected by the same context that had made so many of my compatriots mad. That was a comfort, in a way. I also had a community of like-minded Britons around me – in my middle-class, professional suburb – with whom I could huddle together for warmth. Here in Sweden I have plenty of like-minded friends and family, but all of them from this very different culture, so that their sympathy appears patronising, even if they don’t mean it to be. It’s not based on shared experiences, any more than are my sympathies for the oppression of other races or women or gays, however genuine and heartfelt they may be. 

This makes a difference, I find. Being away from the source of the problem also distances me from the defences that are encircling it. And from the ability to do anything, even in a small way, about it. Apart, that is, from publishing this very insignificant blog.

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The Good Old Days

It always seemed somehow wrong when the more Right-wing of the two main parties in Britain continued to call itself ‘Conservative’, even after every trace of its wanting to ‘conserve’ anything disappeared under Thatcher. Thatcher was in fact the most radical Conservative leader since Robert Peel, in the (literal) sense of wanting to uproot everything and replace it with something quite different. When she came in, the political and economic status quo consisted of a mixed economy and a welfare state, broadly accepted by both Labour and Tories as the basis of any future development, albeit with slightly different emphases and to different degrees. Thatcher – or the tide she was riding – destroyed all that, or as much of it as she could lay her hands on; and by that means – as she herself boasted in her self-promoting autobiography – ‘turned Britain around’. 

Whether that was a good or a bad thing – we can differ on this – it hardly qualified as ‘conservatism’, taking that word literally. On the contrary, it was revolutionary. (Or counter-revolutionary, by another way of looking at it. It comes to much the same thing.) True ‘conservatism’ would have involved proceeding consensually along the same social-democratic lines Britain had been pursuing – albeit with some mishaps along the way – through the days of Attlee, Churchill, Macmillan and Wilson, and up to Thatcher’s arrival on the scene. Nowadays she and her followers in the ‘Conservative’ Party, especially the ‘hard Brexiters’, are often described as the ‘Radicals’ in the party; a name that used to attach to Left-wingers, but which now does seem more apt when applied to the Right. Really the Conservatives ought to re-brand themselves, if not as ‘Radicals’, which they might not  like in view of the word’s past associations, then perhaps as ‘Liberals’, as the equivalent parties are called in many other countries; and might indeed have done so if Britain’s ‘Liberal-Democrats’ had not already – long ago, when the word had meant something subtly different – bought up the copyright to that name. 

In fact, the true ‘conservatives’ in modern-day British politics could be seen as the democratic socialists who were represented in the last election by Jeremy Corbyn, wanting to take us back to the 1960s and ’70s. Corbyn is stigmatized as ‘far Left’ today, but would have been regarded as middle-of-the-road in 1970. In that sense, he was the ‘conservative’. Except  that socialists can no longer see themselves as conservatives, in the light of what has become of the country since the seventies. ‘Conserving’, literally, would now mean shoring up the present neoliberal regime, with its attendant inequalities – much more extreme than they were in the sixties – and consequent tensions. So strictly speaking the Corbynites are the reactionaries of our time. (Although not so reactionary, of course, as Jacob Rees-Mogg. He’s another thing entirely.) 

Social-democrats would like us to return to the optimism, at least, of the 1950s and ’60s; not to that period as it has been presented in contemporary and subsequent right-wing propaganda – Union militancy, strikes, unburied bodies, drugs and free love; or as it really was  for many people who lived though that time: women, homosexuals, blacks. The sixties were all those things; but were also a time of conscious progress, and so – even for those disadvantaged sectors of society – of hope. Women, gays and blacks were about to be liberated. The future beckoned. We still, as a country, made things. And the music was great.

I published a piece in the Times Literary Supplement a couple of years ago about the Fifties, elaborating on this point: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/swinging-fifties/. (Most of it is behind a paywall, but if you’re patient you can read it in my new collection of essays, out in May.) I realise that my nostalgia for that period may be related to my personal circumstances then, chiefly my youth; but there is, surely, a case to be made that the path we were travelling along then – mixed economy, welfare state, decolonisation and the rest – was a more promising one than the one we’re stuck on now. Does anyone today have that sort of ‘hope’? If thinking this way makes me a ‘reactionary’, then so be it. 

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Late Recognition

I thought my book about Victorian architecture had bombed. I found no reviews of it at the time, apart from a rather sniffy one by an ‘architectural historian’. (He didn’t like my pictures.) Then today I suddenly found a small raft of them quoted by the publishers who eventually took over the book – the original publisher was dreadful – in their catalogue. Not good enough to make it anyone’s ‘Book of the Year’ (2011), but not at all bad.


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Free Speech

Here’s our Education Minister’s recent proposal to police free speech in universities: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-proposals-to-strengthen-free-speech-at-universities. Its target, of course, is the ‘no-platforming’ of certain invited speakers, usually those identified as right-wing, homophobic, sexist or racist, by the intolerant Left.

I’m not entirely against this, as a liberal in this area too (unless ‘incitement’ is involved: that would catch out Trump); and I might be more sympathetic to the idea, if it weren’t for two things. The first is that the extent of the ‘no-platforming’ evil has been greatly exaggerated, and so hardly requires the heavy hand – or secret police – of the Education Department to put it down. It’s also usually counter-productive, with the targeted speakers and arguments getting more publicity than otherwise from the controversy that any no-platform attempt always arouses. Such incidents are food and drink for the Daily Mail

The second reason for my reluctance to take this policy seriously is our Conservative government’s own efforts to ban free speech at the other end of the political spectrum. Apparently schools and colleges are now to be prevented from using or recommending books that advocate the abolition of capitalism:  https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/sep/27/uk-schools-told-not-to-use-anti-capitalist-material-in-teaching. Anti-capitalism is to be regarded as an ‘extreme’ doctrine, on the same level as anti-semitism. 

If I were still teaching modern British or European history, that would make things very difficult for me. Out would go William Morris, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist, Karl Marx (of course), histories of the Co-operative movement and trade unionism, and large chunks of Labour Party history (as it used to be). My students would get a grossly distorted and one-sided view of their country’s (and the world’s) history, which would hardly be worth the breath I would have expended to deliver it. 

If that isn’t an infringement of ‘free speech’, I don’t know what is. It’s clearly a first step – one of a  number that we’re seeing today – towards what is being characterised as a new ‘Fascism’ in British policy. That the same government that proposes this is also claiming to defend ‘free speech’ with its more recent ‘landmark proposals’ almost beggars belief. George Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Lastly: is modern ‘late-stage’ capitalism really so vulnerable as to require this kind of protection? – Perhaps one can only hope so.

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This resonated with me.


I went to Cambridge, not Oxford, and was not from so ‘lowly’ a background as this former student. But Cambridge gave me my first experience of the Public school ‘types’ described here, both the Cameron and the Johnson versions, which I’ve had no reason to modify since. I too came from an ordinary ‘Grammar’ school, though one which had ‘higher’ pretensions (it has since gone ‘private’); I also had what is now described as an ‘Estuary’ accent; and a bad stammer. I was occasionally mocked on all these counts, but managed to get through – and even to make friends – by a strategy of exaggerating my plebness, and avoiding the most ghastly – Johnsonian – of my undergraduate colleagues. This, I found, made me pretty well accepted by the less obnoxious Public school products, who seemed to take to me; proudly, even, as their ‘token pleb’, evidencing how tolerant they were. In other words, I was patronised rather than persecuted. An example of this – which I may have recounted before – was when I invited an old Etonian friend, an ‘Hon’, no less, back to my room for coffee. He noticed a University ‘Labour Club’ card on my mantelpiece. ‘I didn’t know you were Labour, Bernard’, he said. ‘I think if I were in your shoes I’d be a socialist too.’ At the time I took that kindly. It was clearly how it was meant. Thinking about it afterwards, however, I wasn’t so sure.

We had the obnoxious Boris-types in my college too; but they usually kept to their own, usually in the ‘Pitt Club’, which was probably the equivalent of the Oxford Bullingdon Club. (I never went inside. I believe it’s a pizza restaurant now. Good.) Their ‘humour’ was generally sneering, very class-orientated, sexist, full of Public school slang (designed to exclude the non-cognoscenti), and terribly childish and superficial, I thought. But they obviously regarded themselves as the bees’ knees, and – of course – born to rule the rest of us. Very PG Wodehouse, and quite loveable – at a distance, and for short while. But then one tired of them – if you weren’t one of them yourself.

Some of them will have grown out of this – most of us do mature from our school days – and so still be recyclable into valuable members of society; even perhaps politicians. From what I’ve read of and by Boris, however – journalism, a couple of ‘serious’ books, a novel – it’s quite clear that he hasn’t. He’s still nothing but a stunted-development, privileged, unprincipled, clever-but-stupid Public schoolboy. In sum: he’s the very last sort of person to be Prime Minister. Unless, of course, you just want a personable puppet to seduce the country into your late-stage capitalist wet-dream.

God help us! – Unless He’s a late-stage capitalist too.

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The Empire Strikes Back

There’s an anti-imperial aspect to British imperialism which is not often taken into account. It should be remembered that most Britons and Irish who emigrated to ‘settlement’ colonies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and before that to the thirteen eastern states of the USA, did so not in order to extend the British Empire, but to escape from it. They were motivated by poverty and oppression, and wanted to get away from the ‘Empire’ as it impacted on them at home. Once there, thousands of miles away from their oppressors, they built more ‘democratic’ lives for themselves; which is why the true ‘imperialists’ in Britain – keen on ruling other peoples – were never as enthusiastic about this kind of colonist – dangerous working-class radicals and Irish secessionists – as they were about the pith-helmeted proconsuls who were ruling their genuine ‘imperium’. (The indigènes of all these settler colonies muddy the picture; but they never provided the motive for those who colonised them from Britain.)

New Zealand, of course, was one of the ‘radical settler’ sort. This may help explain its present-day progressivism, culminating in a woman prime minister – NZ was ahead of the UK in giving votes to women, too – whose response to the covid-19 pandemic has elicited admiration world-wide. 

Which makes it ironic – is that the right word? – that New Zealand is currently the latest country to be struck by the ‘UK variant’ of the disease. (See https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/new-zealand-covid-auckland-ardern-b1802259.html.) Lesson: you can never get away from the British Empire, however anti-imperial you may think you are.

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‘We’ll Be Back’

The vote in the US Senate yesterday – failing to convict Trump on the impeachment charge – wasn’t, of course, unexpected. We know the reasons for it. It wasn’t because the Republicans necessarily believed he was innocent – we have the weaselly Mitch McConnell’s post-vote words for that (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/feb/13/mitch-mcconnell-trump-republicans); but because (a) there is a case for saying that it was ‘unconstitutional’ to convict him after he’s left office: the main purpose of the impeachment process, after all, is to remove an official from  office; and (b) that Republicans are scared of losing their Trumpian electoral base. That this was a reasonable fear, if not a particularly moral or honourable one, is attested by the machinations that are already going on behind the scenes in their local constituency parties (is that what they’re called in America?) to deselect, or even much worse, those seven brave Republicans who did vote to convict him (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/feb/14/republican-rebels-trump-impeachment-trial).

So Trump is exonerated, by his way of looking at it; and – of more practical import – is free to contest the Presidency again in four years’ time. He’s clearly intending something along those lines: https://www.bostonherald.com/2021/02/13/full-text-of-trumps-statement-on-impeachment-acquittal/. And then of course there were those chilling SF monster-movie words he spoke as he got into his helicopter on his way back home after the election: ‘We’ll be back. In one form or another’ (or something along those lines). So we’ve been warned. We – or rather, my American friends – haven’t killed the vampire yet.

The best hopes of doing so would appear to be the slew of criminal cases – mostly relating to his financial affairs – that are waiting to be brought against him in State courts now that he’s an ‘ordinary citizen’ again; and, secondly, the effect of the mountain of evidence against him presented in the impeachment trial, and broadcast to the four corners of the republic by at least three TV channels, quite irrespective of the ultimate verdict. In normal circumstances all this would be enough to sink him, either as a Republican candidate in 2004 (or 2002, if he tries for the Senate), or as the leader of a new populist party – ‘in one form or another‘. (‘Shape-shifting’ is another SF trope.) 

But of course these aren’t ‘normal’ circumstances, even for America; or for the world at large. Proto- or Neo-fascism – or whatever you like to call it – is a global phenomenon, just as it was in the 1930s. We Europeans must learn lessons from the US’s flirtation with the creature over the last four years; and begin to erect better barriers against it. In my view that would involve taming late-stage capitalism, which Trump personified to a T, and underlies all this mess. But that might just be my theoretical Marxism peeping out.

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For an American history and politics wonk like me, and in addition a sucker for American courtroom dramas, the current impeachment trial of Donald J Trump is the gift that goes on giving. Today’s spat between the two leading counsels over whether witnesses should be called was the icing on the cake. I’m still watching on my computer (the PBS channel) and enjoying it greatly; more so, probably, than my American friends, who will be taking it more seriously. We still don’t know whether the trial will be wrapped up today, or be extended into the following days or weeks while witnesses are cross-examined. I’ll be happy to hang on.

Incidentally, doesn’t the interior décor of the Senate chamber look rather Napoleonic? Revolutionary associations, I presume. Plus, its British architect was of French origin.

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OK, it’s only a trivial complaint, and not my main one against Brexit; but I still haven’t received several orders and even Christmas presents from the UK, apart from one where I was made to pay more in import duty than the thing had cost. I’m not alone in this; the various ‘Brits in Sweden’ Facebook sites are full of similar stories. The other thing we have in common is that none of us is entirely sure who or what is responsible for this. We’d like to blame Brexit, of course; but – as several have pointed out – Postnord, the local official postal company, is notoriously inefficient; and there is a pandemic raging, which is affecting flights, etc. from abroad. 

Regarding Postnord: I can’t quite work out whether it’s a state or a private enterprise. It operates in Denmark and Germany as well as in Sweden, with the Swedish and Danish governments both holding stakes in it. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PostNord.) Does that count as ‘nationalised’?

Anyhow, my experience of our post over the last two months, including Christmas and New Year (and my birthday!), has determined me never to order anything from UK outlets again. Luckily I can get most British books from local shops here in Sweden, or even from a friend’s bookshop in Germany (and if I’m desperate an amazon.se has just started up); and the ‘Little Britain Shop’ in Gamla Stan sells English essentials like Marmite and Bovril. The latter are terribly pricey compared to in Britain; but I imagine that Little Britain has to pay hefty import taxes too.

I doubt that the loss of my – and my fellow exiles’ – British trade will make a great dent in the British economy. And I don’t expect any sympathy from stay-at-home Brexiters: ‘You lost, get over it’. (And ‘why do you want to live abroad in any case?’) On the other hand, the same problem may exist for the stay-at-homers, albeit in reverse, with shortages and hefty price-rises on their Bries and  Ardennes Patés. What is your ordinary working-class British Brexiter going to say to that? (Irony.)

PS. (Later the same day). Good explanation here from Garry Jones, editor (is that the word?) of one of my ‘Brits in Sweden’ sites: https://lifeinsverige.se/postbrexit/?fbclid=IwAR3e98ECoXtKQJSznVrv9DMA_TVRUUxBZc_y6AOGPJmaRvyN4oskQ4ImnmU.

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