Enlightenment Then and Now

By the Swedish satirical artist and writer Max Gustafson. (My thanks to Kajsa, who found it!)

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The Empire Strikes Back

Why is it that so many of the leading and most right-wing members of our present British government are former subjects, or the children of subjects, of the old British Empire? Not a majority of them, of course. And not all ex-colonial subjects are right-wing Conservatives – there are probably more of them sitting on the Labour benches; plus of course the current mayor of London. But it is surprising to find so many of them on the Tory side – prime minister Sunak (India), Patel (India, Uganda), Braverman (India, Kenya, Mauritius), Kwarteng (Ghana), Cleverly (mother from Sierra Leone), to name only the most prominent of them – if we bear in mind their family origins in what are conventionally supposed to have been countries oppressed and exploited by the British in the past, and especially by the forebears of the reactionaries they’re now siding with. One would have thought that Amritsar, or the Kenyan death camps, or – failing these – the reputation of most British colonial rulers as arrogant racists, would have put them off. But no.

Does this make them traitors to their kinds, or to their ‘races’, or ethnic groups; or make them into – as it used to be called – ‘Uncle Toms’? Surely this does them a disservice. Ideally one’s views and allegiances should not depend at all on one’s background, and certainly not on one’s ethnic, national or even class ‘origins’. My own grandparents, as it happens, were exploited and oppressed factory and domestic workers – two ‘races’ usually forgotten in the current concern for the colonial victims of capitalism – but I wouldn’t let that stop me from supporting their oppressors’ Tory or Liberal successors today; especially if I were convinced of the latters’ change of mind since. Among today’s Tories there are several who clearly hanker for the old imperial days, and a few who have floated ideas of reviving them in a more ‘internationalist’ guise – ‘global Britain’, as Boris Johnson would have it; but none – so far as I know – who have wanted to run formal colonies again: ‘heaven forfend’. (That’s Johnson once more.) They’ve got beyond this, perforce. So there’s nothing wrong, and indeed rather the reverse, about supporting causes and political parties solely with reference to the issues of the day, and without this kind of personal-historical baggage poisoning or in other ways affecting your views. Sunak and the rest are to be complimented on taking this road.

This doesn’t however mean that they are necessarily free from other influences in their backgrounds. Very few people are. The most obvious one is their riches, which are vast in several of their cases, especially Rishi Sunak’s if you lump his wife’s inherited millions in with his. That puts them in a category which far outranks in importance their ethnic or national origins; and gives them a tribal allegiance or ‘identity’ which sets them apart from others at least as much as their brown skins do. I’m not sure that the genuine and literal ‘racists’ in our present society think this way – what do they make of Sunak? – but most present-day Tories seem to. For them money (as I’ve said before) trumps everything. – A second ‘identifying’ factor for most of them (not all) is their Public School education, which seems intentionally designed to mould them into a separate and superior ‘caste’ from the rest of us. Now that our ex-colonial Tories have fully integrated into this section of British society – a tribute, perhaps, to British racial tolerance, although it’s not often credited – they can choose, or assume, their identities from among the indigenous ones. It may be worth noting in this connexion that all of them are second-generation immigrants from the old empire, not first. That eases the process of integration, and the shedding of their original skins. So we shouldn’t make too much of their brownness.

Otherwise, what relevance might these people’s remarkable rise to the top of the Conservative Party have for the historian (me) of the institution – the tail-end of the British Empire – they have risen from? One effect the Empire might have contributed in this regard was to protect or inoculate their parents, and consequently them, from the liberal and democratic traditions that infused British society – or much of it – in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but were scarcely allowed to touch the colonies until the era of formal decolonisation, by which time it was too late. This might have surprised many contemporary Brits, who were brought up regarding their empire – if they regarded it at all; see my The Absent-minded Imperialists – as an essentially liberal enterprise (don’t laugh), devoted to spreading British liberal values among the benighted ‘natives’, who would eventually be grateful to the Brits for bequeathing those values to them. It was called ‘liberal imperialism’, and it – the myth, or deception, if you like, although much of it was genuine – was a major reason why so many liberal-minded Britons went along with the Empire; that, rather than because of the ‘power’ it represented.

But it rarely reached down to Britain’s imperial subjects themselves. They after all had to be ruled, before being let free to exercise their new liberal ideals and skills; and being ruled doesn’t give one much insight into those ideals. (An exception was probably economic liberalism, which they all seem well-schooled in, and which the British Empire allowed.) That was probably the political environment in which Rishi Sunak’s parents and the rest were brought up, before colonial peoples discovered ‘freedom’ for themselves. And Rishi’s and Kwasi’s peculiar English schooling (Winchester, Eton), will not of course have helped. Public schools are hardly liberal or democratic institutions, either.

This might explain the authoritarian tendencies we can see very clearly in the policies of Britain’s two recent ex-colonial Home Secretaries, which seem far distant from dominant British liberal traditions, but much closer to the Empire’s divergent ways (including British Ireland’s) in its final days. Could this be one of the major ‘legacies’ of empire, currently?

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привіт

Villagers near where I live in the UK are objecting to asylum seekers being accommodated in a local hotel. They even took it to the High Court in order to get it stopped, but lost. ‘If you’re so keen on foreign refugees, why don’t you put them up yourselves?’ as I heard one shouting.

Well, I’m doing just that. I applied a few months ago, and my chosen Ukrainians – four of them: father, mother and two teenaged daughters – now tell me that they’ve been given permission to live in the UK for three years. The house is ready for them, and Kajsa and I have both been through the police checks to make sure we’re not murderers, white slave traders or child rapists. (We passed them all.) Exactly when our new guests are coming we’re not sure yet, but we’ll be back in Hull to meet them and sort things out for them. I’ve already learned the Ukrainian for ‘Hello’ (привіт).

I’m surprised to find out how very many Brits are doing what we’re doing, and the range of both official and voluntary services there are, even in Hull, to help the Ukrainians, and also us, their ‘hosts’. Is it just because they’re victims of the hated Putin (as the ‘boat people’ generally aren’t)? Even so, it exemplifies a level of generosity towards persecuted foreigners that might surprise those North Ferriby protestors.

And it relates back to an old ‘patriotic’ tradition in Britain, about which I wrote in my The Refugee Question in Mid-Victorian Politics (1979-ish). Providing a safe haven for foreign refugees was one of Britain’s proudest traditions in the nineteenth century; cherished at least as much as her empire was. ‘Every civilized people on the face of the earth,’ thundered The Times in 1853, ‘must be fully aware that this country is the asylum of nations, and that it will defend that asylum to the last source of its treasure, and the last drop of its blood. There is no point whatever on which we are prouder and more resolute’. Of course things were different then…

Anyway, I’m looking forward to welcoming ‘my’ Ukrainians, and introducing them to fish patties and Rugby League.

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Looking Back

At the age of 81 (82 if you count it from conception) I realise that I have very little time left to me for writing. Which may be just as well, in view of the abject failure of my latest book, Britain’s Contested History, to be even noticed by reviewers; partly because its argument has been superseded by events, but also – no doubt – because it isn’t very good. My powers are failing, together with my memory and my arthritic joints. So I shall have to rely on my past efforts to sustain any academic reputation I may carry with me from the grave. How do those efforts measure up? (I’m thinking here only in terms of my publications; I’m not well placed to assess my record as a teacher, father and all the rest, and far too nervous to attempt it.)

My major textbook, The Lion’s Share, the first objective and balanced history, I think, of British imperialism, is still doing extraordinarily well, going through six editions from 1975 to 2021. Better still, I was told it was banned by one American State school system for appearing to suggest that Christianity was a ‘superstition’. I regard that as an accolade. But a number of my subsequent books have failed just as abjectly as Contested History. The two major flops were Britain, Europe and the World: Delusions of Grandeur (1983), and Britannia’s Burden (1994), both ‘general’ interpretive histories. I still think they were good – I don’t write rubbish deliberately – but they obviously didn’t suit the market, which is overstocked in this area anyway. My books about nineteenth-century refugees and secret political policing fulfilled their purpose as scholarly works, adding to our knowledge. My little diversion into Victorian architecture, The Battle of the Styles (2011), was pretty well ignored, except by an architectural historian who objected to the fact that I didn’t keep to the accepted architectural history conventions, but instead sought to set the subject in a broader historical context; which was in fact the whole purpose of the book, and the way I think most art history ought to be written. My more recent works on the British empire – one of them, Empire and Superempire (2006), comparing it to the American – seem to have been pretty well noticed over there. I’ve no idea how well my recent collections of essays – mainly reprinted from the London Review of Books, which has now given up on me – have done. Or my more occasional pieces on Europhobia, national identity, Norway and Sweden, Elgar, and Brexit.

Clearly I’ve published too much. But what impact has it all had on readers’ thinking about – in particular – the British Empire? One of The Lion’s Share’s overarching themes was that the Empire was not the great powerful entity it was supposed to be at the time, and indeed could be seen as a product of national weakness in a number of ways, rather than of strength. I’m not sure that this has significantly infiltrated into present-day popular ideas about the old Empire, either on the neo-imperial Right, which wants something to celebrate, or among the anti-imperialist Left, which needs a powerful bogey to combat; but there it is. My two most obviously influential works were Critics of Empire (1968, new edition 2011), establishing that anti-imperialism was as important a tradition in British national life as were any of the pro-imperial ideologies that were around in the high imperial age; and indeed that anti-imperialism could be said to have been invented in Britain, which imperialism of course was not; and secondly The Absent-Minded Imperialists (2004), using new methodology to undermine – as I reckoned – the idea that the Empire and imperialism dominated British culture and society to the extent claimed by one influential school of history, and assumed by many others. That latter theme is still hotly debated today, which would indicate that the book had some impact.

It’s not however the impact I would have ideally liked; and I hope it’s not the only one. Throughout my writing career I’ve wanted to convey the complexity of history, and in particular of historical causation; with – in effect  – motives, and therefore individual people, not necessarily playing as large a part in the way things worked out as did ‘broad impersonal currents’, and a myriad of other factors, including even ‘accident’. With regard to ‘imperialism’ this is particularly important, with the word itself covering and muddling very different phenomena, which if they are not disaggregated can confuse and distort the picture. The old adage – define your terms – is an essential part of this.

I once suggested at a conference that we imperial historians place a moratorium on the very use of the ‘I’-word for – say – five years, in order to force us to find other terms to describe the particular phenomena we were alluding to; in the interests of clarity, and even – if this is ever a realisable objective – of truth. No-one seems to have taken me up on it. ‘Imperialism’ is still bandied about indiscriminately. So that lesson hasn’t struck home. And at 81 (or 82) it’s too late now for me to do anything about it.

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Whitehall Farce

Back now in sensible Sweden; whose newspapers report British politics pretty accurately – Dagens Nyheter’s UK correspondent lives in London and is married to, or partnered by, an Engelsman – but hardly flatteringly. From over here the goings-on in my country of birth appear almost unbelievable, and inconceivable to the ever-rational Swedes; although with politics pretty fluid here currently, and crazy Trumpian opinions just beginning to emerge, that may not last.

Of course the Swedes are right as regards Britain: ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us!’ (Burns, of course. Trust the Scots.) British government is indeed descending into what seems to be very much like farce just now; not merely error and stupidity (Brexit), but something far crazier. Boris started it, and was admired by those who appreciated the fun he injected into politics. Then we had, briefly, the inordinately stupid Liz Truss, who in just a few weeks brought the British economy to its knees. Now we’ve got the already disgraced Matt Hancock MP, putting the ‘fun’ before everything, including proper politics and his own constituents, by appearing in a popular TV ‘reality’ programme, I’m a Celebrity: Get me out of here; where he has to sleep rough in an Australian jungle and endure crawling among rats and poisonous spiders in the dark, and with shit poured on him, before eating ostrich anuses (ani?) and raw kangaroo penises (penes?), in full camera view. (That’s as reported. I’ve not watched it myself.) Hancock claims he’s doing this in order to bring politics to the people; but it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that his £400,000 fee didn’t have something to do with it. And then there’s Gavin Williamson (with his bullying and his pet tarantula), Nadine Dorries (another anus-eating I’m a Celebrity contestant); and always, of course, those two pre-eminent clowns Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg, to keep the farcical side of this whole theatrical event, a.k.a. a ‘Tory Government’, in full public view. Would Sweden, or any other country on earth, tolerate this kind of thing? Although they might recognise it in Britain’s case from Monty Python – ever popular in Sweden – and, if they go back that far, the Goon Show. But those weren’t meant to be real. They are now.

Programmes like this however may have been partly responsible for diluting the seriousness of British politics. That’s what many of the political clowns I’ve just referenced seem to lack any appreciation of. Many people – Tories especially – seem to go into politics not in order to further great causes (or even minor ones), but simply as a career opportunity, and as a kind of game, there for the ‘winning’, by fair means or foul. Other TV programmes, not intended to be comedic, contribute to this. House of Cards, West Wing, The Thick of It, and even the excellent Danish Borgen, concentrated almost exclusively on individual character, machinations, plots and personalities, to the detriment of what Tony Benn used to call ‘the ishoos’; as they are probably bound to, as dramas involving actors, and so requiring their audiences to empathise – or otherwise – with them as people. This of course goes back a long way. Shakespeare’s political plays – Julius Caesar, King Lear, the English ‘Histories’, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra – oh, most of them – are exactly the same. That’s how (educated) Britons learn their politics. (And it’s probably how Boris Johnson will frame his study of Shakespeare – if he ever gets back to writing it, in between his luxurious holidays in Mustique.) Most people only appreciate politics as personal drama. Look at all the coverage of it in the tabloid press today.

Has it ever been better? I remember its being at least a little less trivial from the 1950s through to the 1970s – maybe a little longer – before the popular press became quite as ‘down’ on politics and politicians as it is today. But the press is just another branch of ‘entertainment’, after all. And for many of its readers farce is the most appealing genre of entertainment; including the Whitehall sort.

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Gloom and Despondency

I’m so depressed these days that I find it hard to understand how everybody else in Britain isn’t depressed too. Apart of course for those who are selfishly profiting from the present situation; and I should have thought that even some of them might feel a few shivers of apprehension about whither this may be leading us all.

Personally, I have no substantial reason to be depressed, apart from the usual old-age infirmities, and the fact that my latest book seems to have been superseded by events and sunk like a lead balloon. (I pleaded with the publishers to bring it out earlier, but publishing has a dynamic of its own.) Both of those setbacks I’m pretty well reconciled to. I’m not yet seriously affected by rising prices or the demolition of the welfare state, apart from not being able to see a doctor any more (vide supra). I long ago lost my libido, which was a tremendous relief. (No more lusting after women. I could appreciate them for who they were.) I have the love of a good woman, of a dog (it loves everyone), and of my children (I like to think). I have a bolt-hole to escape to, in the much more politically congenial environment of Sweden, although from what Kajsa tells me that congeniality may be under threat from the Swedish Right soon. (They’re aping Priti and Suella over the immigration of refugees, of which I consider myself to be one – a refugee from Brexit. If I hadn’t got my Swedish citizenship three years ago, I might not be granted it now.) I can always move there for good, and leave the toxic UK behind. So, there’s very little to depress me in my personal life. I’m one of a uniquely fortunate generation, country and class, with just enough money to get by on, and no wars that I’ve needed to get involved in: except to protest against. That’s half the trouble: I feel guilty for feeling like this when I have nothing to feel like this about. And that makes me even more depressed.

Concerned friends ply me with cures for my depression: medicines (currently I’m on Fluoxetine – it doesn’t seem to be helping), or healthier food, or more exercise, and in one case ‘magic mushrooms’. (I gave that a miss.) I’ve even tried psycho-analysis – for about a week. No relief.

But I’m beginning to feel anyway that this is entirely the wrong approach. It’s predicated on the assumption that depression is an illness, a malfunction, something that has gone wrong in my body or my psyche; whereas I think it may be normal. It’s the happy and untroubled people who are ill. I get irritated by pictures of people looking cheerful, and by anyone joking merrily on TV. The fools! Don’t they know?

We currently have a crazy, malevolent and incompetent government. The popular Press are lying to us. The Russians are coming. Capitalism is about to implode. Britain is in danger of going full-on Fascist, before the earth roasts to a frazzle, and (eventually) plunges into the sun. The Left is powerless, in the face of vested interests, rich capitalist propagandists, and public ignorance. And all folk can do is obsess about royalty (who don’t really matter), football, soap opera stars, and ‘reality’ TV. Or about gender, racism and ‘wokeness’ generally, for the rather more serious.  – But just look around you. We’re doomed!!  Isn’t that enough to make depression the normal and only rational way of reacting to our situation? From which it follows that cheerfulness and apathy are the real ‘illnesses’ of society.

Or is this just for now, when the American mid-terms look ominous, Cop-27 seems bound to fail, the British government is packed with proto-fascists, even Sweden is sliding into reaction, the weather (in Hull) is cold and damp; and I’ve simply got out of bed the wrong side?

As an oldie, I look back fondly nowadays to the 1950s and ’60s, when – whatever our privations, and the threat of ‘The Bomb’ – we at least had hope. (I wrote a piece on this for the Times Literary Supplement, 23 December 2016; republished in my Britain Before Brexit, 2021, chapter 11.) That was under the Labour governments of Attlee and Wilson, and the only slightly less progressive Tory government of Macmillan. Capitalism was tamed. Colonies were winning their freedom. We were about to enter a partnership with our new European friends. Gays were about to be liberated. Things were getting better, for everyone: even workers and women. A sunny future for all beckoned, under social democracy.

It’s this – the loss of hope – that I think is getting me down these days. There seems to be no cure for that. Hence the Black Dog. I hope this post doesn’t spread it to others. That would make me even more depressed.

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Tories, Gender and Race

So, the old idea that women becoming leaders would make politics kinder and more charitable has turned out to be as mistaken – and basically as sexist – as the notion that they couldn’t play rugby (because of their softer upper chests), or fly passenger aircraft safely (what if a menopause suddenly came on?). Of course, with regard to politics you might argue that women could only succeed insofar as they emulated the worst aspects of masculinity – Thatcher, Patel, Braverman – and had the patriarchy behind them. But it knocks on the head the simplistic notion that men are at the root of all our ills, and only need to be replaced by the ‘gentler’ sex for peace and happiness to prevail.

In a similar way we’ve recently been disabused of the idea (in Britain) that a cabinet of second-generation immigrants would be more charitably disposed towards present-day asylum-seekers. In Patel’s and Braverman’s cases the opposite seems to be true. Which reminds me, historically, of those 19th-century British Jews who vociferously opposed new Jewish immigration around 1900 on the grounds that it would provoke nativist anti-semitism, which would then rebound against them. It’s called ‘pulling the ladder up behind you’.

So we can’t depend on gender or ethnicity to modify attitudes which generally speaking are formed by other factors, arising from the communities in which one is living presently, affecting both genders and all ethnicities; and in which locality, class, schooling, levels of income, the propaganda you are subjected to, and maybe your personal psychology, will be paramount. Our new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s political attitudes are far more likely to be affected by his (and his wife’s) fabulous personal riches, and his education at the most venerable ‘Public’ school in England (to which he has just gifted more than £100,000, as if Winchester needed it), than by his much lauded ‘British-Asian’ heritage. (The same applied to his distinguished ‘British-Jewish’ predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli.) Don’t be too influenced by the fact that all these influential politicians are either non-white, or women, or both. The Tory party, despite its misogynist and racist reputation, never has been. Class and ideology trump ‘race’ and gender every time.

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Post-Covid

I see I’ve been silent, blog-wise, for three weeks now. That’s easily explained. Covid-19 eventually caught up with me, followed by ‘long Covid’ – worse if anything, although not so chesty – and a week struggling to write a review of a huge book – over 800 closely-printed pages – which I’m not sure I did justice to in the circumstances. Then just exhaustion, and the old familiar ‘black dog’. About which I may blog later on; depression in general, that is, not just mine. Taster: I think depressed is the only healthy way to be, these days.

Off back to Sweden on Friday. Where I shall be able to see a doctor, at long last.

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Überising the NHS

I never wanted this blog to be a personal diary, and don’t want it to become one now. My experiences are unimportant. After all, I’m not the first person to catch Covid 19, or even the billionth. Nor am I alone in Britain in being unable to consult a doctor about my illness, in any form: in person, or via Zoom or the phone. I used to think that my problems in this regard – retailed here: https://bernardjporter.com/2022/10/07/come-back-nanny/ – might be peculiar to the grossly underprivileged part of England I live in; but today’s news reveals that it’s a far more general problem, and consequently worth mentioning in a political blog: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/oct/20/ministers-accused-of-ignoringscale-of-problems-facing-gps-in-england. There today’s depersonalisation of GP provision is called ‘überisation’, which sounds about right. Überising – on top of privatisation – represents another stab in the heart of the old NHS we used to know and love. Which is why I’m looking forward to returning to my personal doctor in Sweden, who knows my history (and is very good). That’s after I’ve recovered enough from my current bout of untreated Covid to travel.

Here’s a little video of my doctor’s surgery in Stockholm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F47RujibBzE. – OK, maybe they shouldn’t be fooling around like this; but it’s good to know that they have the time to. They wouldn’t in Hull.

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Natural Growth

British politics has been moving further and further to the Right over the past ten years or so – forty years, if we date it from the advent of Thatcher – and at a crazily accelerating speed over the last few months. Brexit was a part of that. Now with the Truss-Kwarteng project (‘growth, growth, growth’, reward the rich, low taxes, ‘trickle-down’…..) we might have reached the final stage in that process, the free marketeers’ goal all along: if the train had not suddenly smashed into the buffers last week.

This was obviously a bit of a shock for the most dogmatic neoliberals themselves, who must have assumed that the ‘markets’ were on their side – which was why they didn’t bother to consult the OBR – and who may have shared that old capitalist idea, going back to Adam Smith, and even embraced by Marx, that the ‘free market’ was a force of nature, no less, like all those other forces of nature that were being discovered by scientists at the time, and so not to be denied. The idea of capitalism as ‘natural’ has been a compelling and comforting argument for neo-liberals for two centuries now, on a number of levels, both intellectually, and on the level of simple slogans: ‘people are naturally selfish’, ‘you can’t go against human nature’, ‘there is no alternative’, and so on. Unfortunately for them, another ‘natural’ feature of just about anything from plants and animals to the planet itself, is the phenomenon of decline. Nothing ever ‘grows’ for ever. Most things contain within them the seeds of their own destruction. Marx saw that.

Are the extraordinary events of the last few days (in Britain) a sign of this natural process of final decline (and fall)? For the moment (Sunday evening), the train crash seems to have been averted temporarily. The ‘market’, plus Truss’s stupidity and Kwarteng’s arrogance, saw to that. Maybe a more grown-up government – Jeremy Hunt, or Labour – can still save the day, for now. For there are ways of taming the beast: Keynesianism, welfareism, more traditional Conservatism, social democracy – call it what you will. Otherwise, Collapse, or Revolution, here we come. In the meantime, I’m quite enjoying the ride.

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