Democracy Under Threat

Do we need to give up on democracy? There’s no doubt that democracy as we have it in Britain and America these days is looking pretty threadbare. But then these might not be the ideal conditions for it. 

In order to work well democracy requires two things: first an educated and knowledgeable electorate, and second elected rulers who are decent and honest with the people. Binding these desiderata together are two more: a reliable machinery for translating the wishes of that electorate into power; and secondly respect, each side for the other. Today none of these conditions exists in either of our two countries. It’s partly the fault of the mechanisms, chiefly ‘first past the post’. But much more serious are the ignorance of our respective electorates, too easily manipulated by propaganda; and the bad faith of our rulers, too willing to use those powers of manipulation – in Britain the press, in America attacks on the press – to mislead their electorates. Trump, Johnson and the far cleverer men behind them are adept at ‘gaming’ what passes as ‘democracy’ in their respective countries in this way; to what end can be debated, but probably involving capitalism in some way. 

This is relatively new, at least to this degree, and certainly in Britain’s case; and is the reason why Britain is falling apart just now. From the point of view of the manipulators the ‘game’ seems to be working famously; but at the expense of a display of governmental incompetence, lying and even blatant corruption which at any other period in our history, surely, would have sunk this government, and delegitimised British ‘democracy’. From which the only recourse would be either a new authoritarian dispensation (’fascism’), or revolution, or – of course – both together. It’s difficult to see liberal or social democracy, even in the very imperfect form it takes in both our countries now, remaining unscathed through this crisis.

It might be able to if an effective broad-based opposition could be marshalled against the present (British) government. It’s astonishing that the grotesque mistakes that Johnson and his inadequate ministers are presently making all along the line, in respect of both the Coronavirus and Brexit, are not arousing more anger – or more public manifestations of anger – among the general public; none of whom can be impressed with the government’s response to the virus, and very few of whom want the kind of Brexit settlement that the dominant Right-wing clique in the governing party looks like foisting on them. There must be a majority in the country against all this – indeed, undoubtedly was at the last election, judging by the ‘popular vote’ (as in the USA) – and yet this more reliably ‘democratic’ opinion has no purchase at all. Boris doesn’t need to take any notice of it. That may be the crucial lesson that Dominic Cummings has taught him, exemplified by Trump and Putin: that you can get away with almost anything, whatever past historical experience and maybe your conscience tell you. You don’t need to be honest and decent in order to win. And if ‘winning’ is your only purpose in life, lying and corruption are what you have to do.

How to counter this? Political education for a start – but not in the sense in which it’s taken in totalitarian regimes. The liberation of the media – especially the British newspapers – from their thraldom to tax-dodging right-wing capitalists would be an immense help. Voting reform would be another. That will be for a start. But it’s difficult to see it all coming. People aren’t interested. For the moment we may have to depend on a significant number of Conservative MPs’ being revealed as rapists or paedophiles to turn the tide. That’s something the great British public does care about.

(Purely incidentally, where is Mark Francois?)

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Boris, the USA and Cecil Rhodes

Boris Johnson’s admiration for Trump is pretty well-known (see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/sep/05/boris-johnson-is-fascinated-by-donald-trump-says-ex-diplomat-lord-darroch); and probably arises largely from his observation of how much Trump is able to get away with: his functioning political amorality, in other words. Johnson clearly doesn’t have a genuinely democratic bone in his body, and is only interested in how he can manipulate democracy for his own ends. This is where Dominic Cummings comes in, as the clever bloke who can provide him with the tools with which to do just that: lies, simplistic slogans, propaganda, Cambridge Analytica and all the rest. (Actually, in my view none of this is particularly ‘clever’. We’ve all thought of it. The difference now is Cummings’s willingness to make use of it.)

One of the notable features of these extraordinary times in Britain is the extent to which Boris can make a hash of everything, yet still remain Prime Minister, with his dutiful MPs falling into place behind him even when he acts illegally. His recent determination to flout international law is only the latest example of this. At any other time in our history the thrashing he got at the hands of Ed Miliband in Parliament the other day – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG71rhV9ocI – would have spelled the political end of him. But a Commons majority of 80, achieved by means of a brutal purge of his moderates and then a basically dishonest general election, helped on by a proto-Fascist press and a woefully amoral ‘Israel lobby’, now enables him to do whatever he (or Cummings) bloody well likes. 

What they want ultimately may include a closer relationship with the USA than most of us more liberal-minded Brits would prefer (food standards, and the like). That may be the only way out of the Brexit mess that the fanatical anti-Europeans seem to have landed us in today. It goes without saying that the ‘hard’ Brexit that may be Britain’s only choice at the end of this year was not what most Britons voted for in 2016. The issue was presented then as one between the status quo so far as the EU was concerned – the ‘remain’ side – and simply a looser connexion, probably involving Britain’s continued participation in a European customs union: ‘the easiest negotiation in history’, as it was advertised. Very few people apart from a minority of fanatical xenophobes or nostalgic imperialists voted for a totally clean break, involving higher food prices, queues of lorries at Dover, a shortage of medicines, visas for holidaying on the Costa del Sol, no-one to pick our fruit, hospitals stripped of their foreign doctors and nurses, opting out of human rights legislation, Britain’s reputation plummeting, and all the rest of it. Let alone the draft of authoritarian domestic measures that could well come in the train of all this, judging by hints dropped in recent months by Cummings, Michael Gove, Priti Patel and the rest of the proto-fascist Tory vanguard. If this whole thing were a plot engineered by a small group of tax-dodging capitalists, or American neoconservatives, or Marxist-Leninists, or Putin’s mafia, or shape-shifting Royals, or ‘the Jews’, then one could only say that they’ve done a pretty good job so far. But of course it isn’t. Not as a formal ‘conspiracy’, at any rate.

All this, however, is dragging Britain away from her European neighbours and closer to Trump’s America, in a way that – to don my Imperial Historian’s hat once again – was anticipated in imperial times. Cecil Rhodes – the target of the ‘Rhodes Must Go’ movements in Oxford and Cape Town in recent years – is best remembered as almost the archetypal capitalist imperialist of the later 19th century, and of course the man who founded the colony that used to be known as ‘Rhodesia’ (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). But he was also a very far-seeing pragmatist, who towards the end of his life worried greatly, and quite reasonably, about the capacity of little Britain to shoulder alone the weight of her enormous empire in a near-future of world-domination by far larger powers, like the USA, whose future ‘greatness’ was almost universally anticipated at the time.  Rudyard Kipling’s famous ‘Take Up the White Man’s Burden’ poem (1902), addressed to the Americans, reflected the same anxiety, and a similar solution. Rhodes’s vision was of of a new Anglo-American empire, based on the racial affinity (as he saw it) of all of it – all, that is, the ‘white’ bits – with the USA returning to the British fold again, and eventually running the whole thing from Washington. Thirty-two out of his fifty-eight ‘imperial’ Rhodes Scholarships for study at Oxford University were allocated to American students with this in view. After Rhodes’s death a secret society was set up to further advance co-operation between the two nations with this kind of merger in mind. Several members of successive American ‘establishments’ have been Rhodes Scholars, including President Bill Clinton. That has sparked conspiracy theories in the USA that Anglo-American relations have been subvertly run by the British ‘establishment’ ever since World War I (google ‘Carroll Quigley’); and in Britain that the same applied, but the other way around. In the light of international developments since 1945 the latter sounds more plausible, but without requiring an underlying ‘conspiracy’ to explain it. But in any case, the idea that Britain could become, if not an American colony, at least a minor partner in an Anglophone empire run from Washington, is not new. The American-born Boris Johnson may have heard of it.

But probably not. I don’t get the impression that Johnson has any long-term vision or objective, apart from becoming ‘world king’. Which is probably why he and Cummings need each other: Boris because he’s superficial and essentially stupid, and Cummings because that makes him the perfect vehicle for his bile.

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The Swedish Way with Plague

We went into the city (Stockholm) last weekend – our first trip in for a month from virtual isolation on our island. (I say ‘our’ island, but of course only a bit of it is literally ours.) The ostensible reason for the trip was to have Harriet – the dog – put down, or ‘taken away’, as they say here. She was looking very ill, found it difficult to walk, and was hardly eating; clearly not enjoying even the pleasant doggy life we give her. I was alerted to this by the fact that she didn’t leap up and lick me all over when I arrived from Britain at the end of July. 

So we took her along to the vet, who persuaded us that it wasn’t time yet. In the meantime she had suddenly got more lively, as if she’d been malingering before but now realised the danger she was in. Can they smell the fatal needle? Her only problems, said the vet, were old age and arthritis. It was our choice; but on their own these weren’t serious enough to end her life. – I was a bit relieved, as I suffer from the same two things.

What struck me about Stockholm was that no-one – no-one– was wearing a mask. I had plenty with me, brought from Britain; but if I’d put one on I’d have felt an idiot. I have no idea whether the much remarked-upon ‘Swedish way’ with the Coronavirus is better or worse than Britain’s – better in some respects, I would imagine, but worse for Oldies. The verdict on that, I guess, will have to wait. What does impress me, however, is the calm rational way the chap in charge of Sweden’s approach, an epidemiologist called Anders Tegnell (pic below), is explaining it to the public; and, in particular, communicating his uncertainty about it, and admitting to the inevitable mistakes. That’s because he’s a scientist. True scientists can’t afford to be as confident as politicians; it’s an essential aspect of the ‘scientific method’ to doubt. I find that far more reassuring than Boris’s bluster, even when Dr Tegnell turns out to be wrong. 

In the meantime Harriet has gone back to malingering. A thought: perhaps she has coronavirus? Animals can get it too. Especially old ones.

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Aussie Blowback

My new edition of The Lion’s Share, now in the press and due out on the 23rdof this month, has a chapter on the legacy of the Empire to Britain. That barely mentions Rupert Murdoch, who must be one of the ex-Empire’s most malevolent influences on our (British) way of life and politics over the past fifty years; that is, since he was taken under her wing by Thatcher and then appeased by Blair. I wonder if I can add something about this to the final set of proofs? If you want an example of the ‘Empire Striking Back’, this must be it.

Australia’s malevolent influence on us may not end with Murdoch. We learn today – if the report can be trusted – that Tony Abbott, perhaps Australia’s most controversial ex-prime minister, has been appointed to the Board entrusted with organising Britain’s post-Brexit trade, in the face of widespread opposition to him on the grounds of his known views on other matters. Those views were famously challenged by another Aussie PM in 2012:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2012/oct/09/australia-pm-gillard-misogynist-video;

and then by a refreshingly forceful Sky News interviewer just a few days ago:

https://news.sky.com/story/tony-abbott-matt-hancock-defends-misogynist-ex-australia-pm-over-possible-trade-role-12062211.

For any self-respecting liberal or progressive, Abbott ought to be the worst person in the world to represent the ‘mother country’ in any role at all. But then of course liberals and progressives aren’t the forces they used to be in Britain just a few years ago. Abbott’s reactionary views are now in the ascendant; not numerically, perhaps, but by virtue of the power now acquired – partly through subterfuge, I would say – by the Far Right. This period in our history, with a government majority in the Commons of 80+ and another general election as much as four years away, is clearly the best time for Cummings and his puppets to inflict all kinds of reactionary shocks on us, politically, constitutionally, culturally, and even in the realm of humour – with ‘left-wing’ comedians now being officially targeted by the boss of the BBC. What I used to call ‘The Great Reaction’ when it started under Thatcher is coming to a head. No wonder many are now fearing ‘Fascism’; which of course can come in many guises.

Boris Johnson is an admirer of the old British Empire, of which Australia used to be a part, and is ambitious to revive it – or the ‘white’ part of it, anyway – in some form or another. This may be one explanation for his recruitment of Abbott, in addition to the latter’s politically incorrect views. It so happens that Australia is one of my favourite countries, and the one I was happiest living in. But I do resent its shipping these people over to us, when we have plenty of villains of our own. Is it our fault, for what we did to them all those years ago? Murdoch’s father, for example, was turned against Britain by the appalling conduct of her generals at Gallipoli – the campaign that first enshrined Australia’s national day. Now the Aussies are retaliating; flinging our 19th-century attitudes back in our faces. 

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The Palm Without The Dust

Eton College has furnished us (the British) with twenty prime ministers. Two of them have been pretty good, on the whole – Gladstone and the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. Most of the rest have been rubbish. 

One of the most rubbish was the 5th Earl of Rosebery, prime minister from March 1894 to June 1895. He was a ‘Liberal Imperialist’, but also projected himself as a social reformer. He had ‘charisma’, and a – sometimes confusing – way with words. His ambition was always to be prime minster; but before that he served as Chairman of the new London County Council, and then as a not very distinguished Foreign Secretary. When he eventually became PM – succeeding Gladstone – he turned out to be hopeless. Contemporaries said that this was because he didn’t put the work into it. As one of them put it: he wanted the accolade without the effort – ‘the palm without the dust’. 

Remind you of anyone?

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Swedish Uncharisma

Too much can be made of ‘charisma’. Britain’s greatest peacetime Prime Minister – Clement Attlee – had none at all. Jeremy Corbyn, of course, was reckoned to be pretty deficient in this regard. That may have contributed to his defeat. Those on the other hand who are credited with most of it have very often been disasters. Boris is only the latest example.

Here in Sweden we presently have a Prime Minister who would score pretty low in most charisma tests; but who amongst you in Britain (or the USA) wouldn’t prefer his solid, straightforward honesty over the empty rhetoric, lies and tricksiness that make Johnson and Trump so apparently attractive to the poor, repressed sods who vote for them? We’re doing OK over here, thanks, with the solid ex-welder Stefan Löfven in charge.

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Hopelessness

Am I a coward for having fled from it all? Here in reactionary Sweden – reactionary in the sense of still clinging on to progressive ideas – almost all the news from Britain and the USA is alarming.

The demonstration the other day in London against coronavirus restrictions – by all accounts including a fair number of the ‘tinfoil hat’ brigade, and following a similar demo in Berlin, and shoot-outs, even, in America – makes one fear for the collective sanity of whole nations. Of course, even the largest demonstration isn’t necessarily representative, and there may be a good case to be made for letting the virus run wild amongst us oldies in the interests of ‘herd immunity’ (is that right?); but it can’t be altogether sane, can it, if David Icke, Jeremy Corbyn’s iffy brother and the American Evangelical lobby (‘Jesus will protect us’) are among the marchers. Then there’s all the overt racism springing up after we thought we had educated it out of people; the sheer madness of Brexit; and this latest scheme by Murdoch and others to set up a ‘Fox News’-type TV channel in Britain (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/aug/29/rivals-plan-fox-news-style-opinionated-tv-station-in-uk) to counter the ‘left-wing’ bias (!) of the BBC.

Having recently re-watched the latest BBC documentary series on Murdoch’s ‘rise, fall and rise again’, currently being shown on Swedish TV, I shudder at the implications of that. TV simply to entertain, with the easiest way of entertaining being to shock: that was the formula that drove the earliest capitalist profit-seeking tabloid newspaper barons in Britain around 1900 (John Field knows about that), to the whole nation’s detriment since. A tabloid TV channel in Britain would set the seal on that descent into the sort of media hell that brought Trump to the White House in 2016, and might even revive the justly derided Boris’s fortunes in No. 10. What chance for the Left, and for rationality, and even for the world (cue climate change), in that case?

Corbyn might have stopped it; or, rather, a Labour government with Corbyn’s policies but with a leader less easily demonised by the tabloid press. The alliance between rich tax-dodging media-owning capitalists, the ‘Israel Lobby’ (‘Israel’, not ‘Jewish’), and those clever computer nerds in Cambridge Analytica, acting on people’s fears and prejudices, turned out to be too much for us in 2019; and will be for the future, if we don’t find a better way of combatting them. It’s a huge task, involving radical political, economic, moral and social reform, which it’s hard to see coming soon. Even if this present incompetent government self-destructs, it’s difficult to see an acceptable alternative arising. A more charismatic leader might help; but in a society that bestows ‘charisma’ on clowns like Boris and Nigel Farage that’s not exactly promising. What we probably need is a revolution. But that isn’t Britain’s way, is it?

I feel guilty for hiding away from it all; but of course the news still reaches me across the North Sea, and strikes at me as much as it would back in Hull. I couldn’t do any more there than I can from here. I’m no good at organising, a poor public speaker, and too lame even to go pamphleting. My next two publications – a new edition of an old work, and a collection of past essays: really I’m living off my fat just now – both have chapters excoriating the present madness, but they won’t gather anything like the same readership as books on similar themes by snake-oil celebrities like Johnson and Rees-Mogg. I can’t write the sort of stuff that would get me into the tabloids, or on Fox TV-UK. If we did have a revolution – and if it were the right sort, not a ‘populist’ putsch – I’d fly over straight away and hobble to the barricades. But that won’t happen, will it?

Gosh I miss those few days of naïve hope last December! Hope is the worst thing to be taken from us. OK, my fault, I know.

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Fake Patriotism

If we’re properly aware of the words – ‘Britannia rules the waves’, ‘wider still and wider’, and so on – it’s only to remind us how different things are now; how pathetic these sentiments sound in the 21stcentury, and even sounded at the time, if we know anything of our history; and how low Britain has fallen – or, by my way of looking at it, how far she has advanced – since the days of Thomas Arne and Edward Elgar. Almost no-one takes the words seriously, surely? They’re just fun to sing.

What certain people do seem to be taking seriously is the idea that certain po-faced Leftists are trying to ban them as ‘politically incorrect’, as part of a general campaign against ‘free speech’ which has decent ‘patriots’ afraid to go out at night. That’s the line that our right-wing tabloids are taking; with Prime Minister Boris Johnson – after a fortnight of saying nothing about anything really important – now latching on to it in order appeal to his more xenophobic voters (https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-53902065). Johnson ties it in with a general lack of what he regards as ‘patriotism’ in the country, which he seems to think depends on our being uncritical about ‘our’ history in every regard. Personally, the low points in Britain’s history – which I’m a chronicler of, as well as of the good parts – are likely to make me feel prouder of my country, simply for the fact that we’ve come out of them. That is, if I could ever feel ‘proud’ of a history that was too long ago for me to have any responsibility for.

Incidentally, among the ‘good parts’ I would include the anti-imperialist discourse which was the subject of my first book; invented in Britain – that is, as a general theory – and immensely influential thereafter.

I do wish the young Lefties who object to imperialist songs and statues – however few of them there may be – would shut up. For a start, they’re usually grossly uneducated about the realities of British colonial history. And secondly, their effect is only to goad and encourage our proto-Fascist Right.

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Something to Look Forward To

Porter flyer-2Porter flyer-2

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Bye-Bye Labour

This I think is the final straw for me. It’s an email from the General Secretary of the Labour Party, David Evans, to Constituency branches, telling them what topics branches can and cannot discuss.

‘This will ensure that the business your local party is conducting is appropriate, minimises any challenge to its decisions and does not leave the party – locally and nationally – or its officers open to potential legal liabilities.’

A number of topics are covered in the email, some of them procedural; but the main ones refer to the recent debate on ‘anti-semitism’ in the party.  It’s the last that concerns me most. The IHRA ‘definition’ of antisemitism is, in the minds of most scholars, highly flawed, and by seeming to conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israeli governments has done untold and unmerited damage to the reputation of the Jewish community among many Labour members and supporters. Now however we are told that we aren’t allowed even to discuss it.

Here’s that last instruction.

IHRA definition of antisemitism

We are aware that some CLPs and branches have had motions tabled to “repudiate” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition of antisemitism and its examples was properly adopted by the Labour Party in September 2018. CLPs and branches have no powers to overturn this decision. Furthermore, such motions undermine the Labour Party’s ability to tackle racism. Any such motions are therefore not competent business for CLPs or branches.

As per the previous general secretary’s instruction, any discussion about ongoing disciplinary cases remains prohibited.

This was obviously done under pressure – real or imagined – from what might be called the ‘Israel lobby’ and its press supporters. But whatever the provocation, I’m afraid I can no longer remain a member of a party that curbs civilised free speech in this way. This blog has probably made me liable to expulsion in any case; but I’ll save the party the trouble.

Where I’m to go to now I can’t tell. I no longer have a political home in Britain. As a demi-Swede I may try Vänsterpartiet here: formerly the Communists, but now the closest to Corbyn’s and Attlee’s party I can find anywhere. Of course I’ll still vote Labour in England, and wish Keir Starmer well; but he can have my membership card (of 50 years) back.

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