Role Reversal

If a nation’s identity is formed by its history, at least in part, then Britain at present appears to be forming a new identity in contravention of hers. I can scarcely believe what I see happening over the water in my country of birth these days: Tories wetting themselves over an ‘invasion’ of poor refugees in rubber boats on the Kent coast – or is that only Farage? please dear God let it be so – and a Government coming very close to a kind of Fascism in what it plans and what it has already done. Of course all these trends have precedents in earlier periods of British history, but they were never dominant, and never part of the ‘progressive’ narrative which I always liked to believe defined us more.

My new book of essays, Britain Before Brexit, due out I think early next year, bears on this; with its main theme – if there is one, in a very disparate collection – being the way that Britain’s and the European Union’s identities have changed, and indeed very largely reversed, over the past fifty years. From being the most generous European country to refugees and immigrants in the 19th century, we have become the meanest; from the most open we have become the most surveilled; from the most democratic, one of the least so; from a country where ‘a gentleman’s word is his bond’, a sink of public deceit and corruption; and from the country with the free-est press in Europe, to one now ranked near the bottom of the scale. History no longer counts for anything in our view of ourselves.

By ‘we’ of course I’m referring to my British half. We Swedes are just as appalled.

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Sweden and the Plague

Living in Sweden as I do currently, I feel I should have some view of Sweden’s very different approach to Coronavirus from nearly any other country in the world. So here goes.

In fact life here seems to be going on very much as normal, although being out on an island as we are I can’t be sure what it’s like in the city. The local krog  (pub/restaurant) is doing a roaring trade, with customers – mainly arriving in boats – eating and drinking happily together; our lanthandel (general store) is trying to enforce social distancing, but without much visible success; and I’ve seen literally no-one wearing a mask. (So much for all those masks I brought with me from England.) Schools, pubs and cafes are apparently still open in Stockholm, albeit with restrictions. There’s no general ‘lockdown’ here, which means that the economy is functioning far better than elsewhere, except where it depends on other countries supplying materials or visitors. We’re receiving our own visitors from Stockholm on our island, without any fear of infection – we think – either way.

But then that’s not typical of the whole of Sweden, whose death-rate from Coronavirus is many times higher than its Nordic neighbours’, for example, and whose government has deliberately set its face against the sorts of restrictions that almost every other country in the world has felt are necessary in order to save lives. Sweden has always been known for its distinctive ‘model’ of society; but this  model doesn’t seem quite right for a modern ‘welfare’ state. It’s also highly controversial in Sweden itself, as well as – of course – abroad. A few weeks ago Sweden was being roundly mocked for it almost everywhere, except perhaps in Trump’s ‘freedom’-loving USA.

But Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, who is responsible for the policy, still insists that in the long run he will be proved right, with fewer fatalities in Sweden from a second ‘spike’ of Covid-19 than other countries will suffer – fewer total deaths, therefore –  and less harm having been done to the Swedish economy along the way. Apparently it all has to do with ‘herd’ (or what they call in Sweden ‘flock’) immunity. I understand that this was one of Dominic Cummings’s pet ideas, too.

An immense amount has been written about this contrast in approaches to the disease. One of the latest and best analyses is to be found in August 9th’s Sunday Telegraph, by Ross Clark (unfortunately behind a paywall). What I can gather from that is that no-one will know for certain whether Sweden or the rest of the world is right until it’s all over – if it ever is. Obviously I can have no informed view of my own. As a demi-Swede I should like my adopted country to be vindicated; but mortified if that means vindicating the hated Cummings – and even Trump – too.

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Me and ‘The Jews’

My attitude towards Jews and Israel has been consistent for 70 years. (Before that, I can’t remember.) First of all, I had no attitude towards Jews at all; certainly not ‘the’ Jews – with the definite article. In my little childhood world they didn’t feature as something separate from the rest of us. Apparently I knew one or two – one was a wartime refugee taken in by my family – but not that they were  Jewish, which in any case would have meant nothing to me. At my secondary school they distinguished themselves by not attending school chapel, but that was true of my Roman Catholic friends also. Otherwise Jews appeared to be fully integrated into our society, so that normally one wouldn’t notice them. It’s the reason why I can never be sure, when asked, how many Jewish ‘friends’ I have had. Even if I had been more aware, my own religion (Methodism) preached tolerance toward all systems of belief; as did the democratic socialism I first discovered in my late teens. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in any of this.

For us ‘the Jews’ (with the definite article) mainly featured somewhat distantly, as victims of Hitler and the Holocaust, which of course engendered enormous sympathy towards them.  In British history they occasionally appeared as scapegoats for racist right-wing movements, mainly in the East End of London, where they had been settled in some numbers since the 1890s; and as prominent men and women in British politics: Disraeli first of all, then a whole raft of leading socialists, including the Millibands’ father. Their depiction in literature – Shylock, Fagin – never influenced my own view of Jews as a people, any more than Lady Macbeth soured my attitude to women. Later I grew to admire Jewish contributions to many forms of ‘culture’; and to like most – probably all – of the self-proclaimed Jews I met as an adult. Some of them were in the Labour Party, which seemed to me to be an ideal home for those brought up in what I understood then to be the basic Jewish ethic.

On the subject of Israel, however, my view is rather more nuanced. When I was younger I knew little about the country, apart from the impression I had that it was run on idealistic socialist lines: the kibbutzim, open-necked shirts, and so on. That, I think, was its special appeal to many in the Labour Party in the 1940s and ’50s. We also of course strongly sympathised with the Jews’ wish to escape from the European anti-semitism that had tyrannised so many of them from mediaeval times onwards, culminating in the Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, to which the formation of a new nation in what was then the territory of Palestine seemed a likely answer, if not the perfect one.

Its initial imperfection derived from the fact that Israel was created on land stolen from others – either the Ottomans, or the Palestinian Arabs – with help from an imperial power – Britain – in pursuit of its own ambitions in the Middle East. That fitted Israel into another narrative: that of ‘European colonialism’, which Labourites like me weren’t quite so keen on – what after all was the essential difference between the Jewish colonisation of Palestine and the white settlement of much of southern Africa? The Zionists had an answer to that, of course, which was that Palestine had been promised to them by God, no less, back in Old Testament times; but that was unlikely to impress anyone who didn’t believe in the literal truth of the Bible. That of course included me.

Nonetheless, I felt that the state of Israel should be accepted now as a fait accompli, just as the modern white-dominated United States is; so long as its origin in colonial robbery and conquest is acknowledged by its present-day citizens, with due contrition. (There’s some of that – though not enough, perhaps – in present-day America and Australasia.) One of the implications of this necessary sense of national guilt would be the fair treatment of the Palestinians, both within and outside the established borders of Israel; which over the last few decades has not been much in evidence. Hence the criticism that has been voiced of many of Israel’s policies – not of Israel’s existence as a state, and even less of ‘the Jews’ – by many people, including the anti-imperialist Labour Left, but also by very many Jews themselves, who see the expansion of Jewish settlements, for example, and the treatment of the Gaza enclave, as affronts to what they regard as their religious principles. It’s widely believed that it’s this that lies at the root of the charges of ‘anti-semitism’ that have been laid against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party; a confusion – deliberate or otherwise – between that vile opinion, and criticism of the policies of the present right-wing Israeli government, which should of course be legitimate – and would be of almost any other nation.

I share much of that criticism, as a strong anti-anti-semite; which is why it was so personally distressing for me to be told – by some Jews, no less – that I had in fact been associating for many years with an ‘anti-semitic’ political party. It was this that provoked my first blog post on this subject, strongly disputing this. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/04/28/anti-semitism-and-labour/.) Basically what that post argued was that the Labour Party, while undoubtedly containing some anti-semites within it (as any large organisation of people is likely to), was broadly innocent of anti-semitism as a party, and that the propaganda against it on the grounds of its alleged Judaeophobia was therefore, at the very least, overblown and unnecessary. At about the same time as this post was published, a very fine MP, Chris Williamson, was expelled from the Labour Party, under pressure from the British (Jewish) Board of Deputies (which has performed a disreputable role in this whole saga) for saying much the same thing.

It was in the light of this that, in common with a number of similarly unhappy Labour members, I submitted my own name to the ‘Governance and Legal Unit’ of the Labour Party for potential expulsion on ‘anti-semitic’ grounds. I was not expecting an answer – I merely thought I was being provocative – but to my surprise one came through the other week. They had thoroughly read through my blog posts, and objected to a number of my statements. The main ones were (a) my placing of the term ‘anti-semitism’ – in reference to the Party  – in inverted commas, which they regarded as ‘dismissive’ (which in this context it was intended to be); (b) my defence, as a historian, of Ken Livingstone’s claim that Hitler at one time had looked favourably on Zionism as a means of getting rid of Germany’s Jews: any mention of Hitler I was told is implicitly anti-semitic; (c) my statement that I wouldn’t let my view of this whole affair affect my attitude towards Jews generally, which was criticised on the grounds that it left open the possibility that I could have let it affect my view of Jews generally; and (d) that a quote I used from a novel by Christopher Isherwood – ‘A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it’ – could feed into a common anti-semitic trope, that the Jews were responsible for their own oppression.’ Well, perhaps; although of course it wasn’t intended to suggest that.

Still, the Unit decided not to expel me, but instead advised me to read ‘A Reminder of Values’, which they enclosed. I’m still not happy, and may later resign from a Party that seems so cowed by the criticism coming from the ‘Israeli Lobby’; which may have played a crucial part in preventing it from coming to power in 2019, and so turning my country away from the doleful future that seems to await it now. I still maintain that I am not in any way anti-semitic; but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Labour Party became less innocent in this regard than it has been, in view of the way the charge of anti-semitism has been falsely weaponised against it.

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Nobs

Many years ago I developed a theory about the British aristocracy. This was long before Monty Python, or Blackadder Series 3, and before I had read any PG Wodehouse; but after I had met some of them at Cambridge. (It was they who put me on to Wodehouse.)

My theory was this. They – and all their accoutrements, including the Public schools – had survived so long in Britain, while France for example was joyfully guillotining its own aristos, because of the image they had learned to cultivate of cuddly eccentricity, too dumb to do any of the rest of us any harm, and so to be worth beheading. That could have been the class inbreeding, I assumed then; but later I hit on the idea that it might in fact have been a deliberate, Machiavellian plot. Underneath the bonhomie and the apparent stupidity were devious minds intent on doing great damage to their country and to ordinary people, but concealed under this clever mask. The theory comes back to me when I regard our current – not strictly aristocratic, but pretty nobby – prime minister. No-one thought such a silly upper-class gaffe-prone clown could ever be dangerous. For one thing he wasn’t bright enough. (Learning Greek tags doesn’t make you intelligent.)

But here we are, on the verge of what could be a fundamental transformation of Britain and her constitution, cleverly thought-out in all its steps and details, under the leadership of this bobo.

Except, of course, it’s not his brains that are behind this, but the terrible Dominic Cummings’s. Boris provides the cuddly cover to what is suspected to be Cummings’s soft version of fascism. Which is why, of course, Johnson was so desperate to hold on to him after the ‘Durham’ fiasco of a few weeks ago. And despite the fact that he can’t even button his shirt up properly.

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Addendum

Well, I sent what I thought was the final version of my book off to the publishers this morning, together with the contract, signed via ‘Adobe eSign’. (That took some time to master.) Good, I thought; I can put the book out of my mind now, lie back in my deckchair in the sun, and concentrate on the sill, the aquavit and our Swedish friends, who are coming over soon. (In fact we have friends arriving all through the weekend. Not from Britain, sadly, due to you-know-what.)

But of course it never works out like that, does it? Almost as soon as I’d pressed the ‘send’ button I thought of things I’d left out. I should probably have waited longer before posting it off; but I was worried that, if I did, something might go wrong with my laptop, and the whole book would disappear. (I actually had a nightmare of that happening last night.) So at least there’s now a second copy in the hands of Bloomsbury Press. And their computer won’t blow up at the same time, surely?

The book is a series of mainly old essays on a variety of topics, but all bearing  – loosely – on Britain’s informal – that is, not official or diplomatic – relations with the continent of Europe over the past 200 years. What I’ve missed out is something that only occurred to me after reading through the chapters again; which is how the situation of each side of the equation in these ‘informal’ ways has changed fundamentally over that period, and indeed in many ways has swapped over in relation to the other. So for example, while in the 19thcentury Britain was the most open and welcoming European country to refugees and other immigrants, now she is one of the most mean and restrictive; where she used to be pretty philistine (I have a chapter on that), now her ‘arts’ are in pretty good shape; where she was a shining light of (political) liberalism, she is now far behind many of her neighbours in that regard; where she once had the free-est press, she’s now reckoned to be near the bottom of the scale in terms of press freedom; where she used to be the most (relatively) democratic nation in Europe she is now the least so by most indices, and also one of the most Right-wing; and where she once prided herself on her public honesty and integrity by contrast with others, she is now acquiring the reputation of being one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. All that must have a bearing on the relations between the two ‘sides’; and must also, incidentally, undermine any notion of a stable British ‘national identity’, based on the virtually unchanging history to which many in the ‘Brexit’ debate, on both sides, have recourse.

I must get my final chapter back in order to flesh out this simple point. In the meantime, though, I have some sill and aquavit to consume.

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Viking Divisions

So the Vikings weren’t all terrible rapists and pillagers, but only the Danes! Norwegians were brave explorers, Swedes enterprising merchants to the south and east. That fits in with the early history of the part of England I come from, where our bloodthirsty, axe-wielding oppressors were always called ‘Danes’. And with Kajsa’s insistence that the Swedes were never part of that tradition, but always peaceful Social Democrats at heart, with a useful side-line in flat-packed furniture.

Not sure about its depiction of the English…

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The Manipulation of Democracy

What the last four or five years has shown us is how easily what is called ‘democracy’ can be manipulated. Clever planning or plotting – ‘conspiracy’, if you like – can turn it into almost any direction. This isn’t a new revelation, of course, but the transparency of it nowadays may be. Both the Left and the Right, and various other religio-political factions, have been manipulating us for centuries, to an extent that makes it almost a natural part of ‘democracy’: what could be ‘undemocratic’, after all, about a trick that we all fall for?

In recent years, however, certainly in Britain and the USA, it has been the Right that has used trickery most widely and successfully; with one of its cleverest tricks being the lie that the Left is conspiring against it. Trump of course is the prime example of this: think ‘fake news’ and ‘voter fraud’. In Britain Dominic Cummings is the great Machiavelli, using simple slogans (‘take back control’), selective data mining (Cambridge Analytica) and the diversion of popular resentments (against ‘elites’) to help to win first the Brexit vote, and then last year’s General Election; with the assistance, of course, of the amoral billionaire press, and some terribly misled members of the British Jewish community. The Left had few defences against that. It tried honesty and decency, in the person of Jeremy Corbyn, and it didn’t work. Rather, it simply allowed the Right to exploit Corbyn’s perceived weaknesses. Which I suppose points the finger of blame for these defeats on the naivety of Labour’s strategy, unable as it was to counter Cummings’s manipulation with Machiavellian tricks of its own.

We’re seeing the results of this today; with a fundamentally corrupt government – look at all those peerages it has showered on Trusties and donors and Russian-born newspaper owners and a cricketer because he went along with Brexit, and even the Prime Minister’s brother – empowered, it seems, to do whatever it likes – to the NHS, for example, and town planning, Britain’s relations with the EU, and the Civil Service, and the very constitution of the country – without any accountability at all for the moment (meaning until the next General Election, if that ever happens) to the democracy it is supposed to represent. It’s a depressing time for any true democrat. And makes me happy – albeit also rather guilty – to have escaped from it. (It really is wonderful in the Stockholm Archipelago today!)

It’s this that makes me think that maybe I ought to support Keir Starmer as Leader of the Labour Party, despite what I regard as his craven – and expensive – submission to the ‘Israel lobby’ (if that really exists) over the lies it spread about Corbyn’s and the Party’s supposed ‘anti-semitism’ during the last election. Clever politics requires shimmying around powerful obstacles rather than butting against them head-on. It’s what Blair did with the evil Murdoch before his 1997 landslide election victory, to ensure the newspaper support he regarded as essential. You need to appease the Devil in order to have any hope of winning in a loaded political environment. Then, and only then, can you set about changing that environment – press reform, electoral reform, political education, and so on – in order to make things fairer, more purely democratic, in future contests.

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A Distraction

I thought Kajsa could help me with this, as an expert in ‘Gender Studies’, but apparently postmodernists don’t bother with these biological things. My question is this. Bearing in mind that gender differences – and ambiguities – aren’t implanted immediately after conception, but only a few months in, which is why men have nipples (in case things go the other way in utero): do we men have scrunched up uteruses (uteri?) inside us, and women minuscule scrotums (scrota?) inside them?

Not an entirely serious question, though I’d welcome any suggestions. But it illustrates how my mind has been liberated since arriving in Sweden a week ago, so that it’s no longer obsessed with Brexit and Boris and all the rest of the awful stuff that has been buzzing around in it while I’ve been imprisoned (‘shielded’) in the UK, but can now focus on trivialities. Freedom is the ability think about silly things.

More serious observations later, I hope. I still of course get news from ‘Home’. It seems just as crazy, but no longer quite so personal. My eternal thanks to Sweden for granting me another and – at present – more congenial ‘Home’.

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Quarantine

IMG_2080.jpgAt last! Sun and sanity at our island sommarhus! The ideal quarantine – no close neighbours, lots of country to move around in, and a lovely bay for swimming; safer therefore than the crowded UK. That’s if I didn’t pick up coronavirus unaware on the flight over. I should know that in a few days’ time – they say it takes 5-6 days before the symptoms show. Visitors would be welcome, social distancing permitting. There’s another little stuga on the estate for guests. Of course, we’ll have to tell you about the toilet arrangements before you decide….

I may stay here for good. It’s such a blessed relief to get out of England just now. I never thought I’d write that; or at any rate, with such feeling. But it’s not my country any more; nor the country that features in my forthcoming book of essays, Britain Before Brexit, which I’m putting the final touches to now. The UK looks to be well on its way towards a more cuddly kind of fascism. Maybe the braver thing would be for me to stay and fight. But the internet gives me the opportunity to do that from here, albeit feebly. I only wish academics were listened to more.

Serious political commentary will follow. That is, if I don’t get the virus. In which case there are worse places than this to struggle to breathe my last.

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Escape

Well, eventually I did it! Managed to get away from Borisgrad (or should it be Dominicgrad?) to (relatively) sane Sweden; albeit with a bit of sacrificing-of-my-principles along the way. The hated Ryanair was the only option open to me, without travelling through London on crowded and probably virus-infected trains; with just a couple of flights a week from Stansted. I took one of those on Sunday, travelling from Hull to Stansted by taxi – only the driver to fear – hoping for the best on the plane (I found that I couldn’t after all hold my breath all the way), and being met at Skavsta Airport by Kajsa in her car. Despite our long separation she refused to let me hug her in greeting, in case I’d caught the virus on the flight. After another two weeks we may be able to touch.

I was all the more grateful to get away from England after hearing my (pleasant) driver tell me that he had intended to vote Labour in the last election until he learned about Jeremy’s ‘anti-semitism’. Only a single example, I realise, but it suggests that the vile libel may have taken hold. I shall never forgive organised  Jewry in Britain for that. Later I’ll recount the Labour party’s response to my own self-submission to it, citing my blogs, on grounds of anti-semitism. It ruled that certain statements of mine could be construed as anti-semitic, including my repeated assertions that they were not; but that they weren’t quite bad enough to merit my expulsion.

But I may resign anyway; certainly if they expel Corbyn. I’ll continue voting Labour, but no longer want to be proudly associated with it. If only there were an alternative. (Attlee’s party would have done.)

There’ll be more commentary when I’ve settled into our island retreat, and finished a couple of boring bits of work, copy-checking. Here’s the picture on my phone that kept me hopeful and sane during our months of enforced separation. (It’s taken from the back of our stuga.) ‘Where is my Engelsman?’

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