Stupid

We’re not allowed to say ‘stupid’ any more, of course, because it’s ‘élitist’. But isn’t that what most of the arguments for Brexit are? And shouldn’t we be allowed to call them out as that, rather than hiding behind other, more weasily words for fear of seeming arrogant?

‘Stupid’ doesn’t necessarily mean that people who say stupid things are dumb. Intelligent people can have stupid beliefs as well: usually because they’re not able to get at the facts, or are deliberately manipulated by the media, or haven’t been taught to think things through. (The idea that a trade deal with the USA will make us free-er than our present arrangements with the EU is an example. Read up on ‘informal imperialism’.) And often the people peddling ‘stupid’ ideas know perfectly well what they are, but are nonetheless using them to exploit this state of ignorance for their own purposes. (E.g., I presume, the allegedly clever Boris Johnson.) Lastly, you can have intelligent – if sometimes complicated – reasons for believing in things that only seem stupid on the surface. It was deep thought, for example, that revealed to us that the earth isn’t flat. Much of the case for Brexit, however, and most of the arguments against a second referendum based on present knowledge, are  objectively stupid. And so, I’m beginning to suspect, are the great majority of people’s views about almost anything. Which poses the question: wtf  can we élitists do about it?

My own doubts about the fundamental rationality of the human species were first sown after hearing an interview on American all-night radio in the year 2000, which I retailed a few years ago on this blog: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/22/btl/. What mainly struck and shocked me was this final protest of the interviewee, after the obvious error of his argument had been pointed out to him: ‘I’m a free American and can believe whatever I like’. To me that was a new and startling understanding of ‘democracy’, and now of course in retrospect sheds considerable light on Trump and his admirers. Since 2000 these doubts about human rationality have been augmented by much of the stuff I read on the internet – Facebook, tweets, BTL comments and so on: nearly always semi-literate – which seem demonstrably and self-evidently ‘stupid’; at least to an ‘élitist’ like me. They’re also far more common than I would at one time have guessed. How representative are they of ‘ordinary people’ – and voters? Reading them can lead one to lose what little faith one ever had in democracy. I’m going that way.

Up until now I’ve always felt the answer lay in better education: especially political education. Another solution might be to require a certain level of measurable ‘intelligence’ in people before they’re allowed to vote: except that I don’t believe that intelligence really is ‘measurable’. If it could  be measured early on – in vitro, for example – we could perhaps deny the dumbest children any  education, so that they couldn’t read or write their tweets and BTL comments. No, of course not; I’ve been watching too many TV programmes about ‘eugenics’ recently. Which means that we have to come back to childhood and early adult education: in Politics, obviously; but also – and perhaps most essentially – in Logic.

Of course the present-day ‘populist’ reaction against educated people – the ‘Establishment’, ‘experts’, High Court judges and the like – is a barrier to that; as are the use of the word ‘élite’ to dismiss all of them as a self-serving incubus on society, and the inability  – exploited by the likes of Trump – to differentiate between ‘fake’ and (mostly) true news. This wave of ‘know-nothingness’ seems overwhelming just now. Whatever the solution to it may be, I’m beginning to doubt whether pandering to ‘anti-élitism’ is really going to help. Some élites should be respected – academics (in general), I would say; but then I would, wouldn’t I? And, secondly: perhaps stupidity should be named for what it is. Even at the risk of giving offence.

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History of Our Times

Constantly infuriated, as any professional historian must be, by the distortions of history uttered by the Brexiteers, I’ve been thinking that I as a serious historian ought to write something that will put the record straight – or straighter, at least. I just haven’t got round to it.  Now however that the excellent Cambridge historian David Reynolds has come out with his Island Stories. Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit (William Collins, 2019, £16.99), I no longer feel this burden on me.

Reynolds has done what I ought to have done, but better. I’ve just completed my review of his book for the Literary Review’s Christmas number. It’s really good, as you’ll gather eventually from my piece. (I can’t preview it here; journals don’t like your publishing ‘spoilers’ before their versions are out.) It’s just what we need, in order to counter the nonsense contained in, for example, Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor. How One Man Made History (2014); and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians. Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain (2019): the latter book described as ‘clichéd’, ‘lazy’ and ‘mind-bogglingly banal’ in recent reviews. Most reviewers of Boris’s book thought it was really about himself.

Reynolds sets about destroying these men’s romantic and patriotic – Etonian? – versions of British history with gusto; and in particular their common assumption – expressed in the subtitles of both of them – that history is ‘made’ by ‘great men’; leaving the door open to Boris, as prime minister, to ‘make Britain great again’ just on his own. He also lays into Theresa May with a will. And into Corbyn, very unfairly – a bit Cambridge High Table – in my view. But Corbyn isn’t ‘history’ just yet.

So, apart from that, I was delighted to read this ‘real’ historian’s corrective to all the crap right-wing history that is circulating just now. Until, that is, I realised (a) that the general reading public doesn’t read ‘expert’ or ‘elitist’ history, preferring to swallow the myths peddled by ‘characters’ like Rees-Mogg and Johnson; and (b) that, with Reynolds’s publication date being October 31st, the very day on which the Brexit die is due to be cast, his book has come too late.

That of course is an advantage that rubbish historians have over serious ones. The former can just write down what comes into their heads. Academic historians have to read, research and think first. And that takes time.

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A Historical Parallel

Musing on possible historical precedents for our present political situation (in Britain)  – as any historian must, even those of us who don’t give much credence to ‘historical parallels’: we are what we are, after all, not what we were – it seems to me that the crisis over ‘imperialism’ at the turn of the twentieth century might be worth considering for comparison. Then too we had a great split in the ranks of the more ‘progressive’ party of the time – the Liberals – between Liberal Imperialists (Blairites) and ‘Pro-Boers’ (Corbynites); which also affected, though to a lesser extent, the infant Labour Party; with the governing Conservatives also losing a few members to the anti- or less-imperialist Radicals; and, of course, Ireland playing a big role. The debate then too could be quite vicious, with taunts of ‘treason’ being flung across the Commons at the government’s critics; savage popular demonstrations – called ‘Mafeking’ – in favour of imperialism; a vicious ‘yellow’ press (mainly the new-born Daily Mail) stoking the hatred for all it was worth; and ‘Little Englanders’ (like Corbyn?) portrayed in the most demeaning ways. (I’ve used this contemporary cartoon before; but here goes.)

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One could go further. ‘Brexitism’ shares a few other common characteristics with turn-of-the-century imperialism. By their opponents, each was widely seen as being favoured or even pushed by capitalists. ‘Remainers’, like the anti-imperialists of that earlier time, have tended to be more Europeanist, internationalist, and critical of finance capitalism. And both came at times of (relative) economic depression.

But it’s not a comfortable fit – I can’t, for example, think of a close equivalent of Boris or Nigel in the 1900s (plenty for Cameron, perhaps; for Rees-Mogg one would have to go back further) – and so should not be used to teach any historical ‘lessons’. For those who are tempted to do so, it may be worth pointing out that the Conservatives’ imperialism did them no good in the  medium term, losing as they did the election of 1906, and probably helping to boost the Labour vote both then and in 1910.

Just before then, however, one of the effects of this great turn-of-the-century row was to put a temporary stop to any ‘progressive’ domestic legislation, which had to wait until the furore was over to get back on to the Parliamentary rails again. That’s another parallel. In fact this has been a result of most great ‘foreign policy’ issues in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and looks likely to have the same effect today. Both the imperialists in the early 1900s, and Boris today, tried to link their  causes to that of domestic progress; but it didn’t work in the Radical-Imperialist Joseph Chamberlain’s case, and might not in ‘One Nation’ Boris’s. On most occasions the rise of foreign policy issues to the surface of politics has harmed Labour grievously. In the 1900s this was supposed to be due to working-class ‘jingoism’; and working-class anti-Europeanism is alleged to be doing the same today, thus provoking the suspicion that this may be the deep-laid motive and cause behind it. Brexit was simply a financiers’ ‘plot’ to enable the final triumph of ‘Thatcherism’. Look at the ‘coincidence’ of its coming up on the very eve of a new EU law to block ‘tax havens’. That’s what some are saying. Say it too loud, however, and you can be accused of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’, or even an anti-semite.

So there are tenuous precedents in Britain’s political past. For what it’s worth, however, I still think the more pertinent parallel to be drawn is with the rise of nationalism and Fascism in 1930s Europe. But that bears comparison with the rise of ultra-imperialism around 1900, too. There may be a historical pattern here.

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The Solution, Surely

Two interesting things in the British press today. Firstly Rory Stewart’s resignation from the Tory Party: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/04/rory-stewart-resigns-from-conservative-party. Stewart has impressed me for some time as one of the more thoughtful and reasonable sorts of Conservative, in the mould of those I used to tolerate – if not actually support – in the now rather distant past: https://bernardjporter.com/2019/06/18/eton-mess-3/. Stewart is another Etonian, but young enough, perhaps, to have avoided the ethos of the school in Cameron’s and Johnson’s time, so recently disowned – it appears – by its present Head:   https://bernardjporter.com/2019/09/24/more-eton-mess.

The second is this piece in the Guardian by the excellent Gary Younge:  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/04/jeremy-corbyn-mps-labour-leader-legitimacy. (Yes, the Guardian: an implacable opponent of Corbyn normally.) Young argues here – as I’ve been doing too (pats himself on the back) – that Corbyn’s way is the only hope for those of us who would much prefer the UK to stay in the EU, but, failing that, and in the spirit of genuine compromise, who even more desperately wish to avoid the ‘hard’ Brexit that the Tory ‘Spartans’, as they’re now called, seem to be dead-set on driving us towards. Whatever the ‘people’s will’ was at the time of the referendum (and is today: all the polls suggest it has shifted towards ‘Remain’ over the last few years), it was never that. In 2016 many Brexiteers used to assure us that we could remain in the Customs Union – with all its safeguards for labour rights and the environment – even if we left the political union. This of course would solve the ‘Irish problem’ at a stroke. It should also prevent civil war in the UK. And it is, as I understand it, Corbyn’s plan, which he has already apparently negotiated – albeit informally – with European leaders; suggesting that it might be a goer. It must  be the way forward now.

Surely, even for Corbyn-haters, this – plus the second referendum he’s also promised – is worth giving him just a few weeks in No.10 to try to achieve? I despair of the Lib-Dems’ trying to block this on narrow party-political grounds. (And in the case of their new leader, trotting out again that vile ‘antisemitic’ lie to justify her position.)

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Fake Anti-Semitism (Again)

The truly dreadful right-wing journalist Toby Young, about whom I’ve written before (https://bernardjporter.com/2018/01/03/toby-young-journalist/), has just withdrawn a tweet in which he accused the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond of ‘anti-semitism’, after Hammond threatened to sue him for libel. (See https://www.lbc.co.uk/news/toby-young-apologises-defamatory-philip-hammond/.) Young’s reason for his ‘anti-semitic’ charge was a recent article by Hammond, also reported on this blog  (https://bernardjporter.com/2019/09/29/the-horses-mouth/), claiming that short-termist financial speculators were among those behind the ‘No Deal Brexit’ movement. Young took that as a ‘coded’ anti-semitic reference. Of course it isn’t, necessarily, and is unlikely to have been so in Hammond’s case; but this is one of the difficulties that socialists also have to put up with when they  criticize any aspect of capitalism. Anti-capitalism is claimed to be the same as, or merely a cover for, anti-semitism. That of course widens the field enormously. – But doesn’t it also indicate an anti-semitic view on the part of the anti-anti-semites themselves? Isn’t it revealing, that Young and his ilk should also immediately identify rogue capitalists with Jews?

Two books and an important article have recently been published analyzing the powerful propaganda onslaught on Labour during the past couple of years on the grounds of its supposed ‘anti-semitism’. Here they are:

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and finally:  https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/smears-evidence-and-free-speech-breaking-the-vicious-cycle-of-labours-antisemitism-rows/.

I’ve just started reading the first of these. It’s very academic and objective, and so far – the first couple of chapters – focuses on the part played in this perverse propaganda by the press. (The authors are media researchers.) One initial finding that impressed me is that most people believe that around 40% of Labour members have come under scrutiny for ‘anti-semitism’, whereas the real figure is 0.1%. That’s because of the headlines they see in the newspapers they pass when shopping at Aldi or Tescos or wherever. (Very few read the papers themselves.) It’s by this means that the mud has stuck.

I’m hoping that as I read on I’ll learn more about where this mud came from initially. (I feel I can’t mention the Israeli Government for fear of being labelled an anti-semitic ‘conspiracy theorist’ myself.) As well as this, Bad News for Labour  also criticizes the Labour leadership for its response – it has been a public relations fiasco – and tells how it should  have been done.

But there are also deeper questions raised by these works. One obvious one – not a new one – is what it says about our democracy, if the information on which we base our political decisions can be manipulated and distorted in these ways. Be of no doubt: Dominic Cummings is very aware.

I’ve commented on this ‘Labour Anti-Semitism’ business many times before, starting with https://bernardjporter.com/2016/04/28/anti-semitism-and-labour/,  and going on for a few more posts. It would be nice not to have to do so again. I’m sick of it; and in particular afraid of what it might do to my own – hitherto broadly favourable and sympathetic – view of ‘the Jews’. Luckily I have Haraatz on line, and my own critical faculties, to remind me that they’re not all like Margaret Hodge.

PS. Waterstone’s bookstore in Brighton had planned a launch for Bad News for Labour  on September 23rd, with all the main authors involved; but then was apparently persuaded to cancel it after ‘a barrage of abusive emails, phone calls and tweets’. (See https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/statement/waterstones-censors-academics-launching-book-on-labour-and-antisemitism/.) Who or where these came from we don’t yet know, but it would not be too paranoid to suspect an ‘Israel Lobby’ at work here.  In any case it’s a worrying sign.

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The Cad

There used to be a Public School word for people behaving like Boris Johnson, even if we discount for a moment – because he denies it – his alleged squeezing of the inner thighs of   female journalists. The word is ‘cad’. I don’t think we’ve had quite so notoriously caddish a Prime Minister since Lloyd George; and he wasn’t Public School. Boris excuses his sexual predations on the grounds that he’s ‘got more spunk’ than most men. Ugh.

This obviously affects Boris’s trustworthiness. Whether it necessarily disqualifies him from the job he has now is a matter of opinion. It’s arguable that a bit of caddishness is acceptable – even an advantage – in politics. (I’m trying to remember if Machiavelli said anything about this.) And ‘innocent’ people do not always make the most successful leaders.

Maybe this generalisation will be tested soon; if and when the spunky Johnson comes a cropper, and holy Jeremy – his very antithesis – gets his turn.

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The Horse’s Mouth

Here we have it, from the horse’s mouth, no less: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-news-latest-brexit-philip-hammond-no-deal-radicals-a9124186.html. You can’t get much more horsey than the man who was Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer just a few weeks ago. The ‘no deal’ Brexit movement is being financed and perhaps driven, claims Hammond, by rich hedge-fund speculators hoping to profit from the damage that Brexit will do to the pound sterling and to the British economy.

This is not by itself proof that the whole thing is a ‘capitalist conspiracy’ – in the sense that it is this ‘conspiracy’ that has been the root cause of the current crisis. But, together with the social statuses of the men who are leading the Brexit campaign – Public school and all that – it must at least do something to undermine the myth that they’re trying to put over, that they represent the ‘ordinary folk’ of Britain against the ‘élite’; the ‘people versus Parliament’. That of course, as every historian knows, was a favourite line of just about every Fascist movement in the last century. (I wouldn’t call Boris a ‘Fascist’, yet. But ‘Proto-’: certainly.)

Then there are all those threats of violence, murder and civil war coming from the Right, if it doesn’t get its way. They’re posted as ‘warnings’, but read very much – and are clearly intended to – as threats. So does the war imagery that is being employed now by the Brexiteers.  Johnson, for example, is inveighing against Britain’s ‘surrendering’ to the EU over the Benn Act (which won’t allow him to conclude a ‘No’ deal without Parliament’s consent). That and others of his metaphors – ‘treachery’, and so on – have introduced into the debate images that seem better suited to a war situation; which Britain’s negotiations with the EU are surely not. You ‘surrender’ to threats of violence. Or not, as I hope.

Whether or not this whole thing can be categorised as a ‘capitalist conspiracy’ at root, it has certainly been exploited cleverly by one or more of our genuine conspiratorial élites. To repeat: hardly any of that famous 52% of the British population who voted for Brexit in June 2016 had cared at all about the EU before that vote. But they had been suffering under Austerity, and felt neglected by the Conservatives and the whole political class (especially up here in the North) for years; whereupon they were offered a vote which they felt they could use as a protest, nothing more; and a clearly visible scapegoat for their sufferings in the persons of those foreigners over the North Sea. (Cf. Germany in the 1930s, with the Depression, and the Jews.) The real villains of the piece – not the ‘people’, but the Right-wing élite – seized upon this to carry out their own agenda; which however will only become clear when they’ve finally won their ‘no deal Brexit’. At present Boris is obscuring this agenda with his sudden  ‘One Nation’ promises of social reform. That has been a historical proto-Fascist ploy also. All the other signs from his camp, however, indicate a neo-liberal and pro-American ambition for Britain. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2019/07/29/a-special-relationship/.) We’ll see what the next few weeks brings.

Just as Philip Hammond doesn’t recognise the present Conservative party as ‘his’ party, I don’t recognise the present United Kingdom as ‘mine’. Perhaps I’ve been wrong about Britain all along; choosing – in my historical writings, for example – to over-emphasise its liberal, tolerant and internationalist aspects. My first book was about the ‘anti-imperialists’, after all. I still think that the principles upheld by those men and women reflected an important historical strain in British society. But Farage, Boris and Rees-Mogg, and the ‘patriotic’ thugs that are backing them and adding to the menace in the streets, represent something entirely different.

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Natural Break

Back in Hull to find a burst pipe has flooded much of my house, so I’m rather taken up with that just now. Blogging will have to wait. Has anything happened in the meantime? Are the two straw-tops still President and PM? Are we still in the EU? Can I still find a Polish plumber?

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History in the Making

Be under no illusion: today’s Supreme Court judgment is one of the most important in the long history of our Parliamentary system, and in reasserting the supreme power of representative democracy. (I write that as someone schooled in British Constitutional History: see https://bernardjporter.com/2019/08/28/jr-tanner/.) It was the best result that any of us democrats could have hoped for. Just a few minutes after it, I’m feeling uncharacteristically joyous! (It won’t last.)

Now to see what follows. The judges decided that Parliament was never legally prorogued, so I presume MPs will reconvene tomorrow. Will Johnson have to resign? Probably not; though he may call a snap General Election. Could he be arrested? Very unlikely! And dangerous, of course, to make a martyr of him. Will the gutter press dare to run its ‘Traitors’ and ‘Enemies of the People’ headlines again? We’ll find out tomorrow. Will this result merely encourage the populist Right to continue their proto-fascist ‘People versus the Elite’ campaign into the next Election? Probably. Are we on the cusp of a constitutional revolution – one way or the other?

The next few days and weeks are going to be interesting, to put it mildly. I’ll be flying back to Britain tomorrow to watch it all closer at hand. Although, to be fair, the judgment was  carried live today on STV. The Swedes are loving it, while being glad it isn’t happening to them.

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More Eton Mess

What interests me about this interview with the headmaster 0f Eton, published in the Guardian yesterday (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/sep/23/head-of-eton-hits-back-at-labour-plans-to-abolish-private-schools), is that he seems to have disowned the school’s best-known – or most notorious – recent alumni entirely. Eton used to take pride in the number of leading politicians it had produced. No longer, if this is anything to go by:

Henderson said Eton had changed significantly from the school that produced the likes of current prime minister Boris Johnson, former prime minister David Cameron and the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

“What you are talking about there is a very small number of individuals who left the school over 30 years ago and who have made it to the top levels of politics. Eton in 2019 is a much more inclusive and diverse population than it was previously.

“My responsibility as headmaster of Eton in 2019 is to look at what Eton is doing now and in the future. I can’t change what it may or may or may not have done in the past.” He agreed, however, that the image of Rees-Mogg lounging on the frontbenches during an emergency debate on Brexit was “not a good look”.

It is the behaviour of those three Conservative politicians over the past few years that has, of course, newly besmirched the escutcheon (is that right?) of their old college, and given fresh impetus to Labour’s ambition to abolish the ‘Public’ schools entirely. Whether throwing Dodgy Dave, Boris de Pfeffel and Lord Snooty-Mogg overboard in this way will encourage Labour to call off the hounds is, I would think, unlikely. (With apologies for the mixed metaphor.)

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