Brexit Spelling

Why is it that so many Brexiters can’t spell? Here’s an example (on Facebook): “…all the fault of remainers who wouldn’t get behind the boarder and put their showlda to the weel and make Brexit work.” You’d have thought that as British patriots they’d have had more respect for their national tongue. There is of course an obvious answer; but we’re not allowed to say it for fear of being labelled ‘elitist’.

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Brexit. The Upside

I’m trying to think of a positive side to Brexit, to put against all the negatives that are continuously bugging me, and even keeping me awake at night. It doesn’t help when I read – though I know I shouldn’t – all that anger gushing from Leavers on the internet: simple insults, no facts, and usually ungrammatical. ‘The people have spoken.’ ‘You lost – get over it!’ ‘A second referendum would be flouting the people’s will.’ (Eh?) ‘What do you not understand about democracy?’ ‘If Brexit is reversed there’ll be violence in the streets, and I’m willing to join in.’ ‘Traitors.’ ‘F*cking elitists.’ (These all from recent posts, but with the spellings corrected.) I don’t think I ever remember Britain – or is it only her internet trolls? – being so savagely divided. Whatever the outcome of this Brexit farce, I can’t see us recovering from this. Farage, Johnson and Co. have split the country wide open; maybe even destroyed it. And if they win, Britain will probably decline economically, or else become part of a much less benevolent US economic empire (American product standards, and all that); and will certainly never recover any of the (modest) political and moral respect she used to have in the world.

On the positive side, there is still a possibility that the original decision could be reversed, though not without leaving deep wounds in the body politic. There will be a pro-EU demonstration in London this Saturday, which could attract thousands. (Let’s see. I can’t be there.) If there were a second referendum, and re-joining the EU were one of the options, simple demographic trends should ensure a pro-Remain vote this time, with many elderly voters (my generation) dying, and younger pro-Europeans reaching voting age. They must resent their whole futures being put in jeopardy by people who have almost no future at all. The latest polling figures give Remainers a narrow majority already, with the only problem being the number of people who are heartily fed up with the whole thing, and simply want shot of it. Together with the right-wing tabloids screaming against the very idea of a re-run on pseudo-democratic grounds, that might undermine such a vote. Supposing even fewer than the original 72% voted? Wouldn’t that open up the question again? I imagine that’s why Labour are prevaricating on the issue.

If the Brexiteers do eventually win through, there won’t be much for us Leftish Remainers to salvage from the wreck. It has been an educational experience, with people getting to know far more about the European Union than they did when they voted to leave. (I include myself in this.) Two of the constituent kingdoms of the UK voted to Remain; Brexit might energise them to seek their own independence, or union with the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland’s case. That would be a shame for their English and Welsh friends, but might be a boon for Scotland, whose political instincts have always been leftwards of ours. I suppose it’s possible that an isolated Britain or England, cast-off into the raging Atlantic, might come to its senses and adopt a kind of ‘socialism in one country’ agenda that some Labour Brexiteers believed the EU had precluded before. But that, of course, would go right against the wishes – and persuasive power – of the capitalists who see the new off-shore Britain mainly as a low-tax haven for themselves. I can’t think of much else on the plus side. Investment will dry up; much-needed immigrant workers too; English Tories will capitalise on the new  situation; the rest of us will become poorer; xenophobia and racism will increase – it will still be ‘Europe’s fault’; those of us who are comfortable with multiple national identities – the people Theresa May scorned as ‘citizens of nowhere’ – will have no natural home; and, writing personally, I’ll find my domestic life – with a Swedish sambo – rather more difficult than now.

Perhaps this is what is needed, however, in order to get the British thinking seriously about who they really are. Since the fall of the Empire, they’ve never been quite sure about this. Boris Johnson’s blatant desire to revive the Empire – or at least the Commonwealth – in some form or another is clearly illusory. When that project crashes in flames we’ll need to re-consider our position in the world more realistically; hopefully – speaking for myself – not as the outpost of the American empire that many early British imperialists envisaged. All this is up for grabs.

Which is exciting, and may well be painful; but will have the advantage, for me, of giving me, at last, a date for the end of the British Empire, and hence a definite conclusion to the sixth edition of my The Lion’s Share, A History of British Imperialism; which is presently in the hands of a young, talented American scholar to revise and complete. I must send him some hints.

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Remembrance Day is looming, and it’s maybe worth reminding ourselves of what it should signify. Some people seem to think it’s a patriotic celebration of military victory. Of course it isn’t. The poppies we wear are supposed to remind us of the flowers that sprang out of ‘Flanders Field’ after the massacre of the First World War was ended, which in turn symbolised the blood of the slain who were still buried there. (Fifty years ago some pacifists recommended replacing them with white poppies. That missed the whole point.) Marches and church services held in commemoration of the War are usually doleful, soulful affairs, with the poppies woven into wreaths and lain on war memorials or graves. If a military band is involved, it is usually funereally, and the event ends with a solitary bugler playing ‘The Last Post’. (I used to be involved, in my school CCF.) Almost no-one regards it as a triumphalist affair, just as no-one sees the First World War itself as anything we should take retrospective pride in. It was a horrible tragedy, born of stupid nationalisms, which it was hoped at the time would never have to be repeated. The overwhelmingly dominant image of the war today is that conveyed by the last episode of the fourth Blackadder series: Only hidebound old reactionaries saw it as anything else.

Michael Gove, as Tory Education Minister, was one of the latter. In discussing how British schools should celebrate the centenary of the outbreak of the War in 2014, he specifically advised them – sneeringly – to avoid the ‘Blackadder version’, in favour of something Brits could take pride in. He was met by a torrent of objections, not least by historians, which in the end put paid to his jingoistic dreams. All the centennial markings of the various stages of the War, from August 2014 onwards, have had an overwhelmingly sad and regretful quality to them. It’s the same in France, incidentally, where I was – visiting the war graves near Amiens – a couple of months ago. I expect the one on 11 November this year, the centenary of the final battle and of the Armistice, will be the same.

Again, I imagine that stupid old militarists will try to make something else of it: as one minister did a few years ago when China, I think it was, objected to English footballers wearing poppies. (Of course poppies symbolise something entirely different to the victims of our ‘Opium Wars’.) I wrote a letter to the Guardian about that:

‘”Wearing a poppy,” writes our sports minister to Fifa, “is a display of national pride, like wearing your country’s football shirt” (Report, Sport, 9 November). I have worn a poppy at this time of year for as long as I can remember. For me it has always been in sad remembrance of the slain of two world wars, with no shred of nationalism attaching to it. Talk of “national pride” and “football shirts” cheapens the gesture. If this is what it really signifies, I shall not wear one again.’

Almost everyone, I think, would go along with that. The result is that I still wear my poppy – not with pride, but ‘lest we forget’. The reactionaries shouldn’t be allowed to confuse the picture, and take from us this way of memorialising the cruelties and sufferings that humanity inflicted on itself a hundred years ago, and – of course – almost every day since. This year a special effort is being made to remember, too, the contribution and sacrifices made by non-European combatants in both World Wars. That must be humbling.

For a typical British response to WWI, can I recommend the third movement of Elgar’s Spirit of England, written (I think) to mark the unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and entirely – despite the title of the piece, and Elgar’s whole reputation – free from ‘jingoism’ of any kind. It’s his most heartfelt work. (See

Celebrating war? ‘Weaponising’ the suffering (as one of my Facebook Friends put it to me)? I’m sorry; I can’t see it.

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Immigration covers a plethora of types, motives and processes. They’re often confused. The two main kinds, so far as present-day Britain is concerned, are economic immigrants and political refugees. Economic migrants come to Britain for better jobs, a better lifestyle, and better material prospects all round. Refugees come because they are seriously and usually physically endangered in their previous countries, through war, religious persecution or whatever. In order to qualify as ‘immigrants’ all must intend to settle in their new lands, at least until the danger is over for them. (Some refugees don’t.) Otherwise they’re classified as merely visitors.

The distinction between these two main categories is not hard and fast. An economic immigrant, to give an extreme example, might claim that he was being politically persecuted by being heavily taxed or regulated in his native country. I sometimes claim that I should be granted ‘refugee’ status in Sweden because I’m fleeing from Brexit: but that’s just as absurd. Then there are other minority groups of immigrants: people who want to join their families, for example, or to retire in the sun. (Not in Sweden!) But in general terms the distinction between economic migrants and refugees is a pretty good one, and maybe ought to inform the debates on immigration, in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, more than it currently does.

For a start: the moral arguments for both are radically different. The case for ‘free movement’ rests on a liberal world-view that holds that an essential part of ‘freedom’ consists in being able to live wherever you like. There’s also a liberal economic argument for this: free movement enables labour to gravitate to where it’s most needed, and consequently allows employers to hire at the cheapest rate, so maximising the efficiency of the capitalist machine. That’s why politically it fits far more snugly with free market or liberal ideas, than with – for example – socialist ones. So it may seem odd that today immigration restriction is usually associated with right-wing – that is, pro-capitalist – parties; but if you look carefully you will probably find that underneath their populist clamour they really don’t want to lose their Polish plumbers, Spanish nurses and Romanian strawberry-pickers. It may have other appeals too; but ‘free immigration’ is essentially a Neo-Liberal principal.

Refugees are different. The case for admitting them rests on ethical grounds: basically, on our humanitarian (or Christian, or whatever) duty to relieve suffering, of whatever kind and in whatever part of the world it is found. Of course you could try to do that by intervening in the most persecuted parts of the world; but then one has to be careful not to be ‘imperialistic’, which is how most such interventions turn out. (I’m wearing my other, imperial, hat here.) Short of that, the least that we in the more fortunate countries of the world can do is to give ‘asylum’ to those fleeing from persecution.

Of course asylum has to be properly managed, and, if possible, shared out between the fortunate countries so as not to cause problems in the one or two more generous ones. I used to hope that the European Union would attend to that; but of course it can’t with all this primitive and racist nationalism around. (I’m thinking here of Hungary.) In the long run, such refugees are more likely than not to contribute positively to the economy and culture of the receiving countries – I could give you scores of examples in Britain’s case – but that benefit might take a generation or two to show up, and in any case it shouldn’t be the main argument for admitting them. Asylum is a moral issue, not an economic one.

So far as economic migrants are concerned, the moral case is less convincing. There is no ethical argument for admitting anyone to live in your country, any more than into your home. There is certainly no socialist argument, for Socialists should have no ideological objection to controlling the movement of labour, so as to benefit their own people (in Britain’s case, Britons) and protect them from unfair competition, undercutting of wages and the other downsides of ‘globalisation’: the phenomena which are probably, deep down, powering Trumpism and Ukippery today. There are better ways of doing this than by limiting immigration: giving trade unions more powers over minimum wage levels, for example, in order to discourage employers from recruiting labour from abroad simply because it’s cheap. That might dampen down the xenophobia which is the most serious by-effect of recent immigration into Britain. But still, as a general principle, countries should be able to control their borders. Socialists should not fall into the liberal trap here. Even Socialist ‘internationalism’, though it should look out for refugees, doesn’t require us to take in everyone who asks. And I’m writing as one who is applying to be taken in by Sweden.

Afterword. Immigration has happened before. The USA is, of course, a nation of immigrants. So is Britain, if we go back to the dark ages and before. I once published a book about Britain’s reception of Continental political refugees in the nineteenth century. (That’s my other historical hat.) That was a time when freedom of movement was a basic principle of British life, with the result that foreigners weren’t even required to have passports in order to disembark in Dover or wherever. Very few people, apart from so-called ‘British Brothers’ in London’s East End objecting to an influx of east European Jews there around 1900, felt it was a problem. I’m not saying that any modern lessons can be drawn from this – conditions were very different – apart from the obvious fact that it does depend on conditions. Societies like ours are not naturally anti-immigrant.

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Satire and Respect

One reason for the abject decline of British politics – and maybe American; I’m less qualified to say – is the poor impression that is given in today’s media of politicians. Yes, I’m aware that politicians have always been denigrated, probably from the ancient Greeks onwards, and in Britain at least since those scabrous cartoons by Rowlandson and Gillray in the public prints of the eighteenth century. But not, I think, so universally. That began so far as Britain is concerned with the ‘satire boom’ of the 1960s, which amused us all so much: That Was the Week That Was, Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye and Spitting Image; which – or so the more serious-minded of the satirists may have hoped – would keep our public servants up to the mark.

Except that it seems not to have done. If present-day satirists and popular newspapers are anything to go by, things have remained the same, or even got worse. Politicians (we’re told) are all out for themselves, on the make, corrupt, greedy, over-ambitious, habitual liars, hypocritical, sexual predators, ignorant, out of touch, possible paedophiles… all the worst you could say of anyone. Politics, whichever party is involved – there’s little discrimination exercised here – must be the least respected profession there is in Britain today; lower even than Estate Agents. Which may explain – with dreadful irony – why better men and women no longer enter it. Why should they put up with the abuse? Which in turn, of course, makes the politicians we get even less worthy of our respect.

The ‘satire’ movement was one of the fruits of the reaction against dumb over-respect towards our ‘betters’ that came after the last War, and which (the reaction, that is) also brought in socialism and the welfare state. But there’s little connexion between them. Socialists had no respect for Tory ‘vermin’ (Aneurin Bevan’s term for them), but retained some for their own MPs. The reason for this may be that the latter were their own sort: workers – i.e. people who had had a job. That’s no longer true in this age of ‘professional’ politicians, whose only ‘jobs’ have been as student union leaders or Central Office researchers, or in political journalism – which can’t really be counted as a ‘job’. (This may explain why Dennis Skinner retains the affection of voters on all sides: he used to be a miner.) In this sense they’re not really representative. (The original name of the party, remember, was the ‘Labour Representation Committee’. It’s not that any more.) Conservative politicians are generally hardly any better connected with the people they represent, apart from those in finance, law, or through highly paid Daily Telegraph op eds. As for the Lords: as it happens more of them may have been genuine toilers in their former lives; but their new titles, of course, cut them off.

This, and the scandalous conduct of some MPs – the expenses scandal, non-attendance, suspicions of a Westminster paedophile ring in the 1970s, clashes of interests, dodgy dossiers, other lies – are meat and drink to those satirists and newspaper owners who want to undermine our respect (that word, again) for the political class. So far as the satirists are concerned this is probably only for fun. For the financially-expatriate billionaire newspaper owners, however, there may be a hidden additional motive behind it. It’s interesting that, although they were associated with popular protest in the 1960s and ’70s, most of the political satirists of that time were not socialists, or even Labour, but Right-leaning anarchists; and not solid or serious, but merely cynical. Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop, both of Private Eye, are two examples. They lampooned everyone and everything. Hislop’s Have I Got News for You has been running for twenty-eight years. Though it may have lost its edge recently it is still followed by several millions, who are likely to have their tired old prejudices against politicians generally – not just those they don’t agree with – repeatedly confirmed. And tabloid newspaper owners and editors, whose personal and ideological interests are only furthered by the growth of a cynical view of all politics – politics after all provides the only solution, short of rebellion, to most of the ills that their class has inflicted upon us – encourage this hugely. It’s an excellent way of keeping the proles confused, apathetic and plaguing both houses. I’m sure this had much to do with the Brexit vote. You can see something similar in Trump’s America: in the mistrust of politicians he creates with his accusations against the Mainstream Media of ‘fake news’, so that no-one knows whom to trust; and the assumption hidden behind it all that there is no objective truth, or even close-to-truth, so that you have to make your political decisions on the basis of what source of information best feeds your prejudices.

It’s almost as though there’s a great conspiracy behind this, concocted by Western democracy’s enemies to post-modernise and undermine the political process itself. Perhaps Putin is behind it. It fits in with his other highly suspected ‘interventions’, in the US Presidential and Brexit votes. Put people against their politicians, of whatever colour. Then, in one way or another, Russia – without any serious democratic restraints – can step  in and win the Cold War that Reagan thought he had won, but without reckoning on the superior strategy of a chess-loving nation.

Solutions? Democratise the press. Enact a law that says that politicians must have had proper jobs before becoming MPs. Encourage (non-partisan) political education in the schools. Talk with some decent politicians – I’ve met a good many. And have a chat with the satirists. (Well, that would be a start.)

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Skills and Slag Heaps

I really think this (British) government must be losing its marbles. A stricter immigration regime is supposed to be one of the ‘benefits’ of Brexit. Many people have pointed out that this threatens, for example, our hospitals, which presently depend on foreign labour to keep them going. So Teresa May proposes to restrict immigration to skilled and ‘useful’ workers, by demanding that they earn salaries of at least £35,000 (some reports put it at £50,000) a year. But how many nurses are likely to earn that? Or academics, for that matter? She and her rich husband obviously have no idea of what even skilled people earn in today’s Britain; as well as making the ludicrous assumption – it must be a function of the capitalist way of thinking – that ‘skills’ can be measured in monetary terms. (If anything, the reverse may be true.)

Then, to cap a week of Tories-putting-their-feet-in-it, we have the ridiculous Michael Gove proposing that poor people improve their lifestyles by scavenging for ‘perfectly serviceable items’ in council rubbish tips: To give Gove the benefit of the doubt, it appears to have been meant as an environmental suggestion – using down-and-outs in the recycling process. But he must have realised how it would be taken: back to the 1930s, with starving miners scrambling over slag heaps to retrieve burnable bits of coal.

Are they real, these people?

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Biggar and Biggar

At the beginning of this year I wrote about an Oxford controversy over ‘imperialism’, focussing on the stick that Professor Nigel Biggar was getting over his proposal to institute a university post-graduate seminar on ‘The Ethics of Empire’, which appeared to open an opportunity to those who wanted to argue that British imperialism was not unethical per se. Here it is. At the same time I corresponded with Biggar conveying my support, not for the British Empire (heaven forbid), but for his view that it should be discussed as the complex and morally ambivalent phenomenon it was.

Today I learn that the controversy has re-emerged. A friend (RR) has sent me this link:  It’s also covered in The Times:

I don’t like to hitch up with (I imagine) hidebound old reactionaries; but anti-imperialists do themselves no favours by abandoning rational, scholarly argument in favour of cheap rhetoric and insults. Especially at a prestigious university, whose whole raison d’etre  is – or should be – to rise above such things.

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We may not like to admit it, but in one way the British imperialists of a hundred years ago were right on the ball. This was in their predictions, of how the world would turn out if Britain lost her empire, and sank – as one imperialist put it – to the ‘petty status of a Belgium’. (Welcome to the twenty-first century!)

First, America would take her place. That was obvious to almost everyone, and indeed many imperialists even welcomed the idea – if America could perhaps be persuaded to re-join her old oppressors to form an Anglo-American Empire, centred now on Washington, but including the British Commonwealth. Cecil Rhodes was quite keen on this; hence the number of ‘Rhodes Scholarships’ (to Oxford University) he meted out to Americans; and the ‘secret society’ he formed to achieve this. (Some conspiracy theorists think it may have worked: Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar.) Others too envisaged the Commonwealth somehow surviving as a real power in the world, albeit with its capital re-located elsewhere: to New Delhi, perhaps; or even – this is George Bernard Shaw – to Baghdad. – The ‘American Superempire’ bit of this, with or without secret British connivance, was pretty spot on. (See my Empire and Superempire.) But it didn’t take any magical gift of prophesy to foresee it.

What may be thought to be a little more prescient are the other predictions of global empires floating around in imperialist circles at the time, if the Anglo-American one failed. A German Empire was of course one, for a short time. Then there was the rise of Russia, always a fear for the British, later in the form of the Soviet Union. A third possibility – and this is where the predictions become more perceptive – was a new Islamic empire, based in the Middle East and spreading out from there: as indeed one had done more than a thousand years before. That too was feared as a possibility in the West. Then  – and these were generally seen in this precise sequence – would come the rise of China  to take over, based on its huge potential in terms of size, population and ingenuity.

Today we can see the credibility, at least, of all these predictions. What interests me as a historian, however, is that a hundred-odd years ago it was mainly the imperialists who made them. That might have been because they were more focussed than were Liberals on Grosspolitik. Liberals were right – in the main – about British imperialism, which they helped to bring an end to. But they didn’t see or even speculate much further than that.

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Trump and Male Victimhood

I don’t often re-post videos, but this is terrific. It put my own fears – of being falsely accused – into perspective. Thanks for the link, Frederik and Kajsa.

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Back to the Dark Ages

Many years ago a friend of mine, a distinguished medieval historian who has lived and taught in the USA, described that country to me as ‘a mediaeval state with 20th-century technology’. Never has that description seemed more fitting than today.

I know that, as a sign of our superior enlightenment, we’re supposed to tolerate alien cultures for their distinctive virtues, rather than measure them always against our own – the arrogant, xenophobic way that is supposed to have been typical of European imperialists in Africa and Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But, really! there is such a thing as ‘progress’, in moral affairs as well as material, which doesn’t just consist in ‘toleration’ of the ‘unprogressive’. Present-day America clearly falls behind in this regard. Its constitution, even with Amendments, is over 200 years old: which is why America still has a King – though he’s called a President. Neither our (British) Queen nor our Prime Minister has half the residual powers he has. Nor are any of our founding constitutional ‘documents’ expected to bear the literal and enduring interpretation that the American Constitution is supposed to; especially by reactionary judges such as the one who has just been appointed to the Supreme Court in order to secure its conservative bias. British judges are typically reactionary too; but they, and our whole legislative structure, are able to move with the times. We don’t have a written Constitution; and if we did – as perhaps we ought to – I imagine it wouldn’t be treated as Holy Writ.

Nor is the genuine Holy Writ treated as Holy Writ in more progressive countries, as much as it is in America. Americans, by all accounts, are astonishingly religious: at least, as measured by church attendance, and by the powers of the Christian – and now in particular the Judeo-Christian – lobbies. This may not mean much. People can find scriptural sanction for almost any prejudice, and in particular, as I see it, if they skip over the really Christian parts of the New Testament (the four Gospels). Religions are taken as rigid templates rather than for thoughtful guidance – by Moslems and by ‘God’s Chosen People’ as well. Donald Trump transgresses nearly all the moral teachings of Jesus, yet is supported by supposedly devout Republicans in their millions. Some even regard him as ‘sent by God’. (See This mirrors the mediaeval mindset quite closely. I’m exaggerating, of course, with regard to both mediaeval Catholics and modern Americans; but this uncritical kind of religious belief is something one might have expected to have been eliminated at this stage, by the advance of what I still regard as ‘rational’ progress.

The conduct of American politics too, appears mediaeval. Plots, counter-plots, corruption, lies, pride, greed, wars, deception, gross immorality, robber barons, cruelty… all were recognised by William Shakespeare, just out of the Middle Ages, as defining characteristics of his line of dramatized mediaeval kings. None of the ‘Henry’ plays would have worked without them. I wonder whether this is what attracted Boris Johnson to write his projected Life of Shakespeare – a task, incidentally, for which he would seem to be remarkably ill-fitted otherwise. Indeed, our whole present Anglo-American panoply of political leaders would go well in a Shakespeare-like Tragedy-History. You can imagine them strutting, larger than life, and full of malevolence, at the Globe or the Swan, delighting the groundlings. Or, in modern-day parlance, the Trumpists and Brexiters.

Of course this isn’t the only period in history which has sidelined any thought of rational ‘progress’, in exchange for something more visceral. I’ve mentioned 1930s Germany before; and there are others. ‘Progress’ is never steady. Nor is it incapable of being abused: by the idealists who ruined Russia, for example, or the scientists who turned to eugenics in order to purify the German race. You can find ‘rational’ reasons for subjugating women. The reactionism of our time, however, is different. It rests on no particular philosophy, because philosophy itself – joined-up thought – is rejected as ‘elitist’. Even Shakespeare might have had difficulty with that.

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