Essex Book Intro


I’m an Essex boy through and through. But I’ve always been mildly embarrassed by that. Essex has never been a highly-regarded or ‘proud’ county, even before the emergence of ‘Essex Man’ (vulgar) and ‘Essex Girl’ (promiscuous) to sully its reputation in the 1980s. It was a non-county, with no special identity or pride compared with others like (especially) Yorkshire, where I live now. I realised this when I went up to university, meeting and envying people from much more attractive counties or cities than Essex; and particularly than London-suburban Essex, which Hornchurch was then. (It’s now part of Greater London.) This hybrid identity posed problems. Asked where I came from, I was in two minds whether to reply ‘Essex’, which sounded dull, or ‘East London’, which was more interesting, and which I would have preferred, as a bit of an inverted snob, but which implied eel pies and whelks, which wasn’t Hornchurch at all. (Simple ‘Hornchurch’ would have drawn a blank.) Besides, I knew the ‘proper’ or rural Essex far better, spending most of my summer holidays as a boy cycling over it, photographing and sketching churches and other historic buildings, following Essex County Cricket Club around, and visiting my father’s family in Chelmsford.

One of Essex’s problems is its place on the map. It’s quite a large county, as it happens – tenth out of 39 of the ‘historic’ counties; but lying under the great East Anglian bulge which is Norfolk and Suffolk, stretching down to the mudflats of the Thames river and estuary, and broken up more and more as you go south by further muddy estuaries and seeming nothingness. It sort of peters out to the east, boringly if you don’t like sea birds, sky-scapes or sailing, with no firm defining boundary around it. On the map of England it looks a bit like an armpit. To the south-west, of course, it has been extensively encroached upon by the ‘Great Wen’ of London, which has significantly changed the county’s character today; and all over by the ‘stockbroker belt’, on the lines to Liverpool Street (convenient for ‘The City’), taking over and converting many of the picturesque older houses, which has made it virtually unaffordable to live in for locals. You won’t find many Essex accents in the county today; only London (‘cockney’), ‘Estuary English’, and tight-arsed upper-class. For the sort of ‘Essex’ my father and grandparents used to speak – warm, rural, richly musical – you now have to venture into Suffolk or Cambridgeshire. Of course that’s a source of regret for nostalgic oldies like me.

But that’s ‘progress’, as they say. Nostalgia has its tearful pleasures, especially later in life, remembering (in my case) the bike rides, the leafy lanes, the quiet towns, the lovely little churches, the solitude, sitting in cornfields sketching and painting, resisting the advances of the cycling paedophiles (oh yes, we had them then), and those fun nights at the Youth Hostels (no cars allowed), crippled with cramp after a hundred miles a day of peddling. I’ve always resisted nostalgia; but I guess that, at my advanced age, it can’t do me much harm now. And I can put it in its place. Of course things have to change. And in the case of Essex, the changes of the past seventy-odd years have – in my view – added to the richness and certainly the fascination of the county; even the much-derided arrival, from the slums of East London, of Essex Man and Essex Girl.

Imagine what it would be like now without them. Actually I don’t need to imagine, living as I do presently in the East Riding of Yorkshire – or North Humberside, if you want to be up-to-date – which is similar to Essex in many ways, especially its landscape and wonderful old churches, but without Hull, on its southern border, being able to infuse it with the new blood and liveliness that the East End of London imparts to Barking, Brentwood, Billericay and all places north-east. The East Riding really is dull – and comfortable. (I love living here.) OK, it doesn’t have the clogged-up roads and railways, the (very) nouveaux riches in their pretentious ‘stockbroker Tudor’ homes, the concentration of ugly petrol stations, McDonald’s eateries, and snobby golf courses that blight the ‘home’ counties, all of which is to the good; and it is undoubtedly just as pretty as Essex. (Ask David Hockney.) But where are the life and vitality that you find in Essex, only partially compromised by their less salubrious sides: the Jamie Olivers, Bobby Moores, Graham Gooches, Russell Brands, Maggie Smiths, Grayson Perrys, Sandie Shaws, and (I’m afraid), David Irvings: to name but a few, most of them from the London side of the county. And where in the East Riding is the political radicalism that has been a great feature of Essex historically, deriving to a great extent from its proximity to the filthy metropolis next door? Or the New Town architecture – those great experiments in social living? And what can compare with the peculiarly attractive, semi-rural quality of Essex cricket?

What I hope to do in this book is to make out a case for Essex’s being at least interesting. I’m aware that I don’t have all the proper credentials for this task, not being what is called a ‘local’ historian; though I did write a book about Essex, illustrated, at the age of about fourteen, now lost (my mother kept none of my juvenilia), but, as I remember, mainly plagiarised from other books, which is how I thought history was written at that age. (Some of the students I later taught at university seemed not to have moved on from there.) My professional expertise is in more nation- and indeed world-wide history, plus a little foray into the history of architectural theory; but as I’ve found in my own writing in the past, an outsider’s perspective can often inform the most specialist of disciplines, so long as one is prepared to learn, respectfully, from the specialists’ work, and retains one’s own scholarly – that is, sceptical – discipline. Besides, I may be better placed than more parochial historians to properly appreciate and describe the place that my county and its inhabitants have played in Britain’s broader national history. As a non-specialist I feel fortunate that Essex, despite its low esteem, offers a plentiful specialist literature for me to plunder: stretching from the huge multi-volume Victoria County History of Essex, edited for a time by WR Powell, whom it so happens I knew as a boy when he attended the same Methodist church that my father and I did in Harold Wood; through to gazetteers, guide-books, archaeological reports, popular publications of the Essex Record Office, an early ‘Pevsner’, romantic travel-books, and even a novel or two. These, and my memories, especially as a boy brought up at the very meeting point between the two cultures whose intermingling has contributed so much to present-day Essex, are my sources. On top of that will be spread a layer of I hope intelligent speculation, which should be easily distinguishable from the ‘facts’, and so easy to discount, if it’s considered untrustworthy.

This book will not be the first to try to rescue Essex’s reputation. Many authors have written in ‘praise’ of Essex, albeit struggling against what they represent as almost impossible odds. If Essex hasn’t got a unique reputation for awfulness, it is certainly thought to have one by those several writers who have sought to defend it. ‘It’s arguably the most-maligned 1,300 square miles in the UK’, claimed a BBC documentary in 2010, before going on to give its own contrary view. ‘Yes, everyone knows about Essex’s reputation,’ writes another. ‘People from Essex in particular are well aware of that reputation, thanks to the knowing looks and smirks we frequently get when we confess our roots. In order to avoid this, less hardy locals will respond to the innocent enquiry with ambiguous statements like “near London” or “in the South East.”’ That’s my experience precisely. Its reputation as ‘flat and uninteresting’ goes back at least a couple of hundred years. No wonder then that, as the very first issue of the Essex Review put it as long ago as 1892, ‘it has often been said that there is less county pride in Essex than probably any other British county’. More recently – and partly because of the influence of ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Essex Girl’ – it has been described as ‘the dustbin of London’, ‘the golden turd of England’ (!), and plenty more in the same style. That’s what its defenders claim; which makes their task of rehabilitating the wretched place, of course, all the more heroic. I salute them.

The present book, however, won’t exactly fit into that pattern. I don’t see it as an ‘in praise of’ kind of book. It certainly isn’t intended to engender pride in Essexites’ Essexness – ‘Essexite’, incidentally, is a neologism, there being no other collective noun to describe the county’s inhabitants – as I don’t believe in the logic of any people’s feeling ‘pride’ in the mere accident of their birth. Besides, Yorkshire folk have enough of that for all of us. (They can keep it.) It won’t, I promise you, be too nostalgic, starry-eyed or honeysuckle-scented – though the smell of honeysuckle on balmy summer days is, as it happens, one of the things I recall most fondly about my cycle rides in the Essex countryside. Needless to say, the book won’t pretend to be comprehensive, or a ‘last word’. It will have worked, if it stimulates some interest in, and maybe a little affection for, an unjustly neglected corner of England.

It will begin with some very early prehistory, before cantering through the recorded history of the county, at quite a lick. The subsequent chapters will explore various ‘themes’ arising from all this, and some theories. You’ll see.

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The recent hiatus in posting has been due to the fact that I was burgled a week ago, and my laptop stolen. I thought my house was pretty secure, but they threw a brick through a window-pane, stuck an arm in, and snatched it away. This at 5 a.m: my neighbour heard the breaking glass but I – at the front of the house – didn’t. The police think they know the perpetrator, just out of gaol. Whether I get my laptop back I don’t know, but with the advice of the police I’ve ‘immobilised’ it, whatever that means. My insurance company (Lloyds Bank) turned up trumps and delivered a new computer five days later. I’m now trying to get into ‘iCloud’ (is that right?) to see if my ‘stuff’ is there. It’s mainly the work I did in Sweden, which wasn’t very much. I was just about to back it up on my desktop, with everything else. Hey-ho. I’m beginning to reconsider my opposition to capital punishment, when the victim is an academic.

In the meantime I’m starting on another book, encouraged by some of the feedback on recent posts. (They’ll be acknowledged.) It will be on ‘Essex.’ I may post drafts here, for comment; starting soon, with my draft Preface. Please remember, if you do read them, that my first drafts are usually unrecognisable from the final versions. And that I may not persist in this anyway.

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It was wonderful to see Essex winning the County Cricket Championship today, and not only for partisan and nostalgic reasons (see Essex CCC are different from most other county teams, and from all leading soccer teams, in being home-grown; recruiting nearly all its players locally, apart from its foreign captain, Ryan ten Doeschate, a Dutchman (but born in South Africa), who has nonetheless declared himself to be ‘Essex through and through’; which is what we want, isn’t it, for an immigrant to be fully accepted. It’s the team’s deep attachment to my own beloved county of origin that makes them worthier of my loyalty, I think, than a mere batch of highly-paid soccer mercenaries like West Ham. (See

Anyway, Essex deserves it. For years the county has been traduced. At the start it was for being ‘flat and uninteresting’. Latterly it has been because of the rise of ‘Essex Girl’ and ‘Essex Man’: the former characterised as ‘thick, promiscuous and lacking in class’; the latter defined by Simon Heffer as ‘young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren;… typically self-made and [who] had benefitted from the policies of Margaret Thatcher’. (See Of course – as we genuine Essexites repeatedly protested – these were not really characteristic of the county of Essex, but were mainly polished-up East Enders pushed out of London during the war and made to settle in its dull suburbs. (I explained in an earlier blog how my father was brought in to teach them: They’ve also produced some sterling people (I listed a few in that article). But the ‘Essex Man and Girl’ stereotype has now sullied all of us, and blinded non-Essexites (that’s not a common term, by the way; I’ve made it up) to the delights and riches of the county.

To mention a few – I got to know the county intimately as a youngster, cycling around making sketches of scenes and churches, so I could be very expansive and boring if I wanted – there are the hills of the north-west; the ‘Constable Country’ along the Stour valley; impressive castles (Colchester, Hedingham…); beautiful churches (Thaxted, Saffron Walden, Greenstead: its nave made of oak logs and pre-Conquest; Little Maplestead; the Willingales – two churches of adjacent parishes sharing a churchyard; Waltham Abbey… and so many more); fine mansions, almost palaces (Audley End); delightful villages (Finchingfield, Newport); and then, out to the south and east, the fascinating marshlands, with one of the oldest English churches (7th century) at Bradwell-super-Mare; the site of Earl Byrhtnoth’s heroic battle with the Vikings, celebrated in the contemporary old-English poetic fragment ‘The Battle of Maldon’ (; and of course fine popular watering places like Clacton and Southend… But I won’t go on. I have a library of books celebrating the Essex countryside, mostly written before the last war, when Essex was still delightfully rural – and radical. (The Peasant’s Revolt started there. William Morris was born there, or nearabouts, in Walthamstow. Thaxted had a communist vicar for many years.) It was full of leafy lanes, half-timbered and thatched houses, and people speaking Essex (like Suffolk). But no longer, of course. Well, that’s only to be expected.

The beginning of the end came, I think, when the rich – not the East Enders – moved out of London to villages from which they could easily commute, first class, to their posh jobs in their banks and the like; or developed a taste for country cottages dressed up as ‘holiday homes’, which pushed the house prices up far beyond what the yokels could afford. The same thing happened in all the ‘home counties’. And, of course, it was when ‘modernisation’ in a broader sense took hold.

So I’m unlikely to go back now. But it’s good to see a team of local lads winning the County Cricket Championship again, after 20-odd years; and – moreover – with a new young fast bowling discovery leading the charge, with a typically Essex name. It’s Porter. (We Porters were common around Colchester.) He even shares my granddad’s initials – JA. It was my granddad, in fact, who took me to my very first Essex games in the 1950s, at the Chelmsford ‘Rec’. Bonds like that are not easily undone.

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(Republished. A version of this appeared on the LRB Blog, 14 September.)

The Commons vote last night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including the Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional, in spirit at least. Remember, Britain is a Parliamentary democracy, not a plebiscitary one. Parliamentary democracy is no less ‘democratic’, essentially, than more ‘direct’ kinds. What it does is to express and put into practice the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time.

The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs right against this; especially in view of the existential importance of the decision taken on that day, and the unreliable nature (to say the least) of the debate leading up to it. The British constitution deliberately sets up a process to avoid that, and to produce more considered – but equally ‘democratic’ – verdicts. That’s important. But it’s exactly what the tabloid press, together with the Daily Telegraph, are objecting to, in this and in other cases surrounding Brexit. They were surprised by the Brexit vote, as was virtually everyone, including the Brexiteers themselves, which suggests that they were aware of the fragility of it; and were consequently nervous that it might be countermanded after fuller and more mature popular consideration, on the basis of the solider knowledge that the last few months of ‘negotiation’ (so-called) have revealed to all of us – knocking some wind out of the more optimistic Brexiteers’ sails. Put bluntly, they’d prefer a knee-jerk reaction to be implemented, rather than a calmer one.

Those who insist on Parliament’s even discussing these matters, and insist on a vote at the end of the process, when we’ll know what we’re voting for, are traduced as trying to undermine democracy, and even as ‘enemies of the people’ (the Daily Mail). The Daily Telegraph over the last week has been dismissing the debates about Parliamentary accountability as being abstruse, technical, a waste of time, intended simply to delay, and ‘merely about process’. But that’s the thing.  Process is vital to all constitutional democracies. (It’s what ‘constitutional’ means.) Theresa May’s gerrymandering of the Commons Committee system, and her invoking of ‘Henry VIII’ rules (allowing the executive to pass laws without legislative agreement), will gravely hinder our (British) process, and hence damage our kind of democracy.

Brexiteers claimed they wanted to repatriate British laws. This shows how much they understand them. And confirms May’s authoritarian tendencies; which were there for all to see during her stint as Home Secretary. (See Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Not a nice woman, our Theresa.

Even if there were a second referendum, after a vote in Parliament on the Brexit terms, I fully accept that it might well go the same way as the first. But at least in that case our exit from the EU would have been effected constitutionally. Which hopefully would be accepted by the Remainers with a better grace than we are bound to accept the result of the verdict of 23 June last year with, based as it was on the blatant and deliberate lies of Farage, Boris and Gove, and robbing so many of us of one of our prized identities. (I’m still waiting for my Swedish – and hence EU – passport.) Otherwise the political and social wounds of this divisive and ill-tempered contest will fester for decades to come.

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Power Grabs and Process

(Temporarily withdrawn, while the LRB Blog takes it up. Back again shortly.)

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‘Last Night in Sweden’

Apparently a copy of this book, published a few days ago, has been sent to the White House. Its aim is to counter the ‘fake news’ that Trump and others on the American Right are currently peddling about Sweden, in order – basically – to boost their view that social democracy and internationalism don’t work – simply because neo-liberal ideology teaches they can’t. See a number of my earlier posts on this: search ‘Sweden’ and ‘Trump’.

I can’t imagine Trump actually reading it. Apparently he never reads books. But it does have some nice pics in it, apparently. Maybe it will include some of the curvacious blondes he obviously goes for. I’m looking forward to receiving my copy tomorrow (but not for that reason), from Amazon Prime (I’m afraid).

Sweden really is important; virtually the only remaining concrete proof in the world that there is an alternative, and a better one, to unrestrained capitalism.

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Postmodernism and Fake News

For the situation I described in yesterday’s post – the widespread denial of obvious truths, and dismissal of ‘expertise’ – I blame four factors in particular. The first is the general rise and popular fascination of ‘conspiracy theories’, from the grassy mound (Kennedy) to David Icke’s shape-shifting royal reptiles. The second is the actual conspiracies that have been revealed over the last few years  – I’d include the ‘Wilson plot’ as one of these, albeit in a watered-down form, and all the recently confirmed revelations of institutional paedophilia – which give some credence to all the rest. The third is, of course, the internet, spreading ‘fake news’, unmoderated, at a rate unimaginable before. I imagine much of this as being the preserve of pimply adolescents tapping away in their bedrooms when their mothers think they’re asleep; but I may be wrong. (And in any case it’s a slur on pimply adolescents, the poor dears.)

My fourth factor is the least likely one, because it would only apply to educated people, which these adolescents generally aren’t. That’s ‘post-modernism’, in its extreme, relativistic form. (There is no objective truth.) I’d like to be able to place some of the blame on them, because – in the form of ‘post-colonial theorists’ – they’ve been the bane of my recent professional life. But as members of the hated intellectual ‘elite’ they’re unlikely to have had much influence on the poor suckers who swallowed Boris Johnson’s ‘£350 million a month’ – or was it a week? –  for the NHS’ lie. I didn’t find many of them citing Foucault and Deleuze.

One solution might be to teach – by some means or other – simple ‘logic’ in schools. I’ve suggested this before: In other words, critical thought. Mathematics obviously does this. History can, if taught well. Literature very rarely does . Conservative educationalists have generally shied away from that, in case it encourages the young to be critical of the status quo. But at least it might give them the tools to be rationally and constructively critical; not simply against the status quo, and ‘elites’, and ‘experts’, because that’s what or who they are. I wouldn’t even mind if they were taught postmodernism. But critically.

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The American Right still seems to be convinced that Sweden is in, or very close to, a state of ‘civil war’ through its generous asylum policy, and its admission of hundreds of thousands of inassimilable Muslims hell-bent on Islamicising the country through terrorism. I’ve commented on this before, after a false claim made about Sweden by Donald Trump in the last American presidential election: The latest version is this very recent article in Frontpage Mag, edited by David Horowitz, a well-known Right-winger:; which cites the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby as evidence of this kind of thing. I’ve been to Rinkeby; it was a fairly fleeting visit, which I described in another post:; but I was there long enough to allow me to positively contradict a number of assertions made in the Frontpage article – such as that there are ‘grocery stores that have signs only in Arabic’. Other more shocking ones, such as that there are ‘no-go’ areas there, or that women are stoned or ‘set afire’ for wearing the wrong clothes, I can’t disprove absolutely – I might have missed them – but my general impression of the area, and what I’ve read in the Swedish press, which doesn’t usually block such news, made me highly dubious about them. As I was, incidentally, of the signs that were pictured on Right-wing blogsites purporting to demarcate ‘sharia-only’ areas there – not in Arabic or Swedish, but in English! But we all know about this kind of ‘fake news’, don’t we?

Ah, ‘fake news’. We see plenty of it on Right-wing blogsites. But it’s mainly a charge made by them the other way. Only the other day the Right-wing ‘shock jock’ Rush Limbaugh claimed Hurricane Irma was fake news, put out by Democrats in pursuit of their climate change agenda; only to be forced to flee from his Florida home – not, he insisted, by the hurricane itself, but by the panic the reports of it was stirring up. (See I imagined that would discredit him for ever thereafter; but possibly not. I’ve seen dozens of ‘ordinary Americans’ interviewed in the streets on TV expressing ridiculous beliefs in the face of all the objective evidence, and excusing themselves on the grounds that their status as ‘free Americans’ allowed them to think whatever they wanted. (For an example, see, first para.)

‘Freedom’ – of thought – is undoubtedly an important motive. More important, however, will be the mistrust of authority that, in many situations, this gives rise to. ‘Mistrust’ is, of course, healthy. I wouldn’t have become as averagely-good a historian as I like to think I am without a good measure of it. It involves scepticism, checking back, requiring evidence, asking questions, and being open to persuasion at every stage. (In other words, ‘scientific method.’) But it has to be subjected to the same processes itself. The American Right doesn’t just mistrust authority; it automatically discredits it. This is no better than automatically trusting governments, politicians, the mainstream media (MSM) or whatever. It’s just as lazy; a way of avoiding thinking and discriminating: which is, to be fair, hard work. But it’s certainly a process behind much Trumpian (and also Farageist) ‘thinking’ these days. If an ‘authority’ tells you something, it must be fake. This applies not only to political authorities, but intellectual ones too. ‘We’ve had enough of experts’, as our own Michael Gove once notoriously said.

That kind of argument does something else: it hitches these Rightist arguments to an anti-elitist popular culture. For the ‘elite’ is made up not only of the social elite of the country – the sense in which it used to be understood – but also of experts, intellectuals, the educated, people who know things. Read that Frontpage piece, and the BTL comments appended to it, and you will find this is a thread running all the way through. The Swedes who rejected this Norwegian minister’s criticism of their asylum policy were simply an ‘elite’. It was the little boy and the Emperor’s clothes once again. Elites and experts have their own agendas, which only ‘ordinary folk’ can see through. And these agendas cover everything. Which is why you can’t even trust them on something as obviously verifiable as a hurricane. So dismiss them out of hand; especially if so doing confirms your own prejudices, and saves you from the mental labour of thinking.

None of this is new. Richard Hostadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963, suggested it was an enduring tradition in free-thinking American history.  But it seems to have got more assertive in modern times, emerging no doubt out of the very real deceptions by governments, parties, corporations and others that have been revealed since then, which have slowly chipped away at the confidence in these agencies’ integrity which is essential to trust, and hence to real democracy. On the extreme Right, and also in some quarters of the extreme Left, this has left people with no solid evidential footholds for their opinions, and the idea therefore that what one believes is simply a matter of subjective choice. Fox, Breitbart, the Daily Mail and the rest of the proto-Fascist (yes) media then exploit this to pursue their own agendas. – Sometimes. Not always; or we’ll be falling into their trap, but in reverse: of simply and automatically believing the opposite of what they say.

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Immigration and Socialism

It must be emphasised, in the context of the present ‘Brexit’ discussions, that the ‘free movement of people’ is not a point of socialist principle. There have been times in British history when unrestricted immigration was allowed, but they have either been because there were no practical ways of limiting it; or, as in nineteenth century Britain, out of liberal principle. I’ve written before – in books and I think blogs – about the extraordinary lack of any practical ‘alien’ laws, as they were called, for most of the Victorian period; an absence which enabled anyone to enter Britain, for any reason, and made it virtually impossible to expel even the worst behaved of them, including terrorists. Passports weren’t required, and incomers were never stopped at Britain’s borders. (That’s not to say that they weren’t sometimes watched.) Not many people, especially present day Conservatives, know this; but it was so. It’s the reason why so many refugees, Jews fleeing from Russian pogroms, and economic migrants came to Britain between around 1830 and 1906, despite the fact that they were not particularly welcomed there. Indeed, it was a distinct matter of pride for most Britons that they could tolerate people they didn’t like and might even be virulently prejudiced against. There’s no particular virtue in befriending friends.

This was of course all part of the nineteenth century’s almost mystical belief in the ‘free market’, which included free movement of labour as well as of everything else. It allowed resources of all kinds, material and human, to be distributed to where they were most needed – and so could be exploited most profitably – quite ‘naturally’. (Free market capitalism was regarded as a ‘law of nature’ then.) According to this philosophy, there was little essential difference between ‘goods’ and ‘people’. In Thatcher’s time this came to be reflected in the renaming of people travelling by train as ‘customers’, rather than ‘passengers’, so highlighting their place in the commercial process; and, in my own professional field, turning ‘Personnel’ into ‘Human Resources’ departments in universities. In the same way, immigrants are now ‘human resources’ – or not.

This seems to lie at the root of the present government’s new draft policy on European immigration, leaked today. As good ‘New’ or economic liberals they welcome foreigners insofar as they contribute to the nation’s economy, mainly by driving down wages but for other reasons too; and don’t appear to be anti-immigration for openly racist or xenophobic reasons, which is what separates them from UKIP and their own Right wing. As I understand it – I haven’t scrutinised the details – the new policy is supposed to take these ‘market’ arguments for immigration on board.

Some Labour MPs might object to it because it’s Tory, and seems ‘illiberal’ in their own, broader understanding of theat word. I’m not sure what official Labour’s position will be, with so many of its natural constituents complaining – possibly unreasonably – of immigrants pricing them out of jobs, houses and health care. If they pander to them, it may lead to their being portrayed as ‘unprincipled’. But it won’t be Labour principles it will be flouting.

Socialism has other ways of dealing with the ‘problem’. State ‘controlled’ immigration might be one, which is what we’re seeing in this Conservative document. Another would be to strengthen minimum wage legislation, to prevent immigrants undercutting other workers, and in particular stopping companies deliberately recruiting abroad in order to lower wages. Corbyn floated both of these ideas during the recent election. Then, if ‘quotas’ were necessary, it could be presented as a way of undermining the power of market capitalism. It shouldn’t be an embarrassment to a socialist. So long, that is, as the policy is operated reasonably and flexibly. Expelling people who have lived in Britain for years – been born there, in some recent cases – just shows how inhumane May’s government is.

That’s ‘economic’ immigrants. Refugees – when you can distinguish them – are a special case. There are totally different, humanitarian arguments for admitting these. But it requires international co-operation. When refugees started ‘flooding in’ from Syria and elsewhere a few years ago, I hoped the EU might ease the burden for more generous countries like Germany and Sweden, by getting every member state to take a fair share. But that’s the EU of my dreams, not the reality.

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‘Two World Wars and one World Cup.’ That’s what English soccer fans used to chant – still do, perhaps – from the terraces when we played Germany. Yes, it’s pathetic; as is the part that the Second World War continues to play in our national self-image, judging by the books, films, and TV dramas and documentaries (watch the Yesterday or History channels any day) we’re still reading and seeing more than seventy years after the conflict came to an end. It also highlights how little ‘we’ have ‘won’ since that date. ‘Pathetic’ seems about the right word.

And yet… Isn’t it just a little comforting that it’s Britain’s part in the Second World War we generally celebrate, rather than the First, or any of our imperial victories? Imperial campaigns are embarrassing now. They are seen as wars of aggression. As is, in part, the First World War: which is currently being commemorated during this centenary period (2014-18) mainly in terms of its perceived pointlessness, and the suffering it entailed. There’s no ‘jingoism’ there.

World War II, however, was different. It was clearly a defensive war: in defence first of all of Poland, long before Britain herself was directly threatened; and then of ‘civilization’, no less, against the Nazi menace. Britain was feared to be next on Hitler’s list after Poland and France, but there was no absolute certainty of that. The Empire was in little danger: Hitler had promised that Britain could keep that so long as he was left alone to rule continental Europe. That is, if you could trust him; a big ‘if’, granted, but a slight opening for the significant number of British Right-wingers who would have preferred to continue appeasing him. Never mind Britain’s diplomatic mistakes before the war, and some of her actions during it (like Dresden); on the whole World War II was a ‘good’ war from Britain’s point of view. It also involved huge sacrifices: of human lives, treasure, and ultimately – as the appeasers saw clearly, but Churchill couldn’t – her Empire.

It was also a democratic war. It was the British democracy, represented mainly by the Labour Party, that ousted the appeasing Chamberlain and replaced him with Churchill. It was the ordinary people who withstood the saturation bombing by the Luftwaffe of London, Coventry, Hull and other cities in 1940-41 with what has always been celebrated in retrospect – and probably exaggerated – as uncommon fortitude, bravery and good humour. (I wrote an LRB piece on this a few years ago: And it was the ‘little people’, some in their ‘little boats’, who rescued almost the entire British Army from the beaches of Dunkerque in May-June 1940, in order to enable them to re-arm and resume the fight against the Nazi menace.

If the ‘Dunkirk’ retreat hadn’t been successful, together with the ‘Battle of Britain’ for the skies (1940), the whole war might have been lost: America not trusted Britain enough to intervene on her side, and neutral countries like Sweden – whose ‘neutrality’ was dodgy in any case – gone over to the Germans. I hope my Swedish friends, with whom I’ll be seeing the film of Dunkirk this evening, will, despite their proud pacifism, and their mocking of us poor pathetic Brits for our Second World War nostalgia, realise that Dunkirk was instrumental in saving them from Fascism, as well as us.

(By the way: I’ve just realised I must have been conceived during the Dunkirk evacuation – born 5 February 1941. I don’t imagine the film will have room for that. But it may give me a special feeling for it.)

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