Beans on Toast

A week or so ago a Tory MP asserted in Parliament that there would be no need for food banks if only the poor would learn to cook and shop for themselves. Their problem, he asserted, was that in this age of pre-prepared meals and takeaways most of them had never been taught to manage their money, or to cook nutritious meals from basic ingredients. He then went on – unwisely, as it turned out – to claim that one could prepare a complete meal in this way, without bothering the food banks, or rummaging around in rubbish bins, for 30 pence a go.  30 pence! Challenged on this, attempts were made to justify it by offering recipes for nutritious 30p. meals: the most convincing of which was thought to be baked beans on toast; until it was pointed out that the costing made no allowance for heating – so it would have had to be cold beans on soggy bread. But maybe that was all the poor deserved. Another MP claimed that the simple answer to poverty was for the working poor to stop complaining and ‘get better jobs’. Again, evidence of just how out of touch the Conservatives are, at this time of recession, price inflation, poor wages and the lowest state pensions in Europe.

But it was ever thus, in always deeply socially-divided Britain. Of course our ‘upper’ classes – especially the private-school educated ones – can have no idea of how it is to live on benefits or minimum wages. (Jacob Rees-Mogg recently admitted that he had never shopped for groceries or cooked a meal for himself in his life. He seemed to take pride in it.) Blaming the poor for their poverty – rather than governments, bankers, hedge-fund investors (like Rees-Mogg) and the like – is an attitude that goes back to the cruel Victorian Poor Laws, justifying condemning the ‘undeserving’ indigent to prisons (called ‘workhouses’: ‘arbeit macht frei’?) as their only alternative to starvation and death. Workhouses are no more, unless you count the actual prisons; but the attitude that lay behind their creation survives. Some argue it was actually part of the rationale behind George Osborne’s policy of deliberate – rather than necessary – ‘Austerity’: to put the blame for it on to the heads of the people who would suffer from it the most. ‘Get on your bikes!’ Remember that piece of 1980s Tebbitry? It’s still here (in Britain; not so much in Sweden, I think): and as fetid and rank-smelling as always.

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Sweden and NATO

So Sweden is joining NATO at last, after decades of studied refusal, and centuries of principled and proud neutrality; which makes the decision of her governing Social Democratic Party, to be confirmed by Parliament today (I think), a truly ‘historic’ one. I was never entirely happy with her traditional policy, believing that the effective maintenance of peace depends on mutual alliances, and knowing how imperfect and one-sided Sweden’s neutrality had been in World War II. But I respected it in principle, and because in any war situation it is valuable to have one or two neutral countries for refugees (in that case Jews) to flee to, and where diplomatists from both sides could meet. So I was never as critical as might have been expected from someone born in the middle of the great London Blitzkrieg (just a few miles from baby me in Hornchurch), when Britain could have done with all the help she could find in order to prevent Nazism from overrunning Europe; including – presumably – Sweden.

The change of mind in Sweden has been rapid, and huge. And of course it has been the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has brought it on. Sweden, remember, is very near to Russia, and Finland even closer, sharing an 800 km border with her. Both countries have been in direct confrontation with Russia in the past. In very recent years Russian military airplanes have been spotted violating Swedish and Finnish airspace, and Russian subs hiding in the Stockholm Archipelago (where Kajsa and I have our sommarhus). Military personnel and equipment are being shipped over to Gotland, the island between Sweden and the ex-Soviet and so under-threat Baltic States. People are being advised to stock up their cellars in preparation for an attack, and Kajsa has bought a wind-up radio in case the electricity fails. No-one really believes war will come, I think; but these preparations may explain why opinion here has turned towards NATO in recent weeks. Putin will take it as evidence that NATO has designs on Russia; but from Svartsö (our island) the main threat appears the other way.

Of course Putin’s paranoia has some basis to it, in the indications that NATO has given that it would like to expand further into Russia’s traditional ‘sphere of influence’, in ways that could be interpreted as aggressive and, indeed, ‘imperialistic’. One of the great problems with NATO is that it is so dependent on, and thus dominated by, the USA, whose grossly ‘imperialistic’ instincts in the recent past are plain for all to see.

Which may open up an opportunity for Sweden and Finland, when they do eventually become members of NATO, to pull the organisation back from the USA, and to re-establish it as the unambiguously defensive alliance it was originally intended to be. Indeed, that seems to me to be an ideal rôle for Sweden to take on, in view of her 200 years of neutrality and pacifism. It might be easier for her to do this from inside NATO, than from without. That is, if Putin – in ‘retaliation’ – doesn’t bomb Svartsö first.

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I don’t know whether the following kind of parallel is at all significant or useful – probably not at all. But I’m often struck by the historical similarities between Britain, where I come from, and Scandinavia, my new home-region. (Part-time, that is.)

According to this comparison, Sweden is equivalent to England, with both of them being the dominant partners in what were essentially tri-national groupings. In Britain’s case the grouping was England, Scotland and Ireland. In the Nordic countries it was Sweden, Norway and Finland, with both of those two latter countries coming under the Swedish crown at different times. From an English point of view the parallels between Scotland and Norway look quite striking: mountains, rugged individualism, hydro-electricity, North Sea oil; and between Ireland and Finland too: English/Swedish colonisation, different cultures and languages, and the ways the dominant partners looked down (still do?) on Ireland’s and Finland’s ‘natives’.

But of course such comparisons are only superficial, as I’m aware from my familiarity with all these six nations; and in any case are not complete. For a start: where does Wales come into it? And Denmark? It would make the pattern tidier if they could be regarded as equivalents to each other; but I can’t see that. (Denmark doesn’t have hills, for a start.) Nor can I see how the sami ‘nation’ could fit in on the British side. So the thesis doesn’t really work. But it’s quite fun to play along with.

I’m sure we can all think of other similar parallels. Northern Ireland and the Donbas region of Ukraine, perhaps? But that hardly helps in the present situation. And anyhow, what do I know about Russia/Ukraine? That’s not my field of expertise.

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Publishing Longueurs

‘The Book’ won’t be out until July, which means it will be pretty out of date by then. It was completed and delivered to the Publishers last August; with a plea to them to get it out soon. When they said they couldn’t, I contacted a couple more publishers, but they told me they couldn’t move any more quickly. I really don’t understand this: why publishers can’t speed up their processes such cases; especially when working from word-processed files which no longer have to be set up with fiddly little metal pieces of type, as my first book was. (And that, as I remember, took rather less time to go through the press, in 1969, than Britain’s Contested History will.) Anyhow, just as I warned them, things have happened in the world since last August; which might not negate my original arguments, but would have brought them up to date, and so made the book seem more ‘relevant’. Oh well.

I’m now preparing some publicity material to accompany the book’s publication; not summaries of the book, but articles linked to it. Here is a draft of one rather long one. It hasn’t found a stable yet; and if it’s published at all it probably won’t be in this form. But anyway…

Brexit, Patriotism and History.

OK, that ship has sailed now, so there’s no point in trying to tow it back. ‘You lost; get over it!’ Even if we British later change our national mind – assuming that is what the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum really did express – there would be little possibility of our re-joining the European Union soon, and on the favourable terms we had negotiated previously. In any case our European ex-partners might not want us back. And who could blame them? We’ve not exactly boosted our national reputation under our current Brexiter government. Most foreigners have given up on us. – So much for Brexit’s being a way to restore our pride and esteem as a ‘sovereign’ nation. But of course, these are early days

And they may give us an opportunity to pause and look back over our national history, in order to understand what its significance was in the context of Brexit. ‘History’ of course is only one element in that context; but it undoubtedly played an important role in the debate over whether or not Britain should leave the European Union, whose outcome – with some political tweaks – is the situation we find ourselves in today. Both sides in that debate used ‘historical’ arguments to bolster their positions, and especially over the question of whether Britain had always been a part of Europe, or not. The ‘Leave’ camp, however, was the one that made the most use of ‘history’, in its desire to establish a kind of British ‘exceptionalism’ so far as the rest of Europe was concerned, in order to justify her separation; and in its reference to events – and especially heroes – from Britain’s past.

For Brexit represented the ‘patriotic’ side of the argument, supposedly (but not necessarily, as we shall see); expressed most crudely in this exhortation by Lia Nici, Tory MP for Great Grimsby (Grimsby was one of the ‘red wall’ seats that turned from Labour to Conservative in 2019): ‘If people are not proud to be British, or of our flag or Queen, they do not have to live in the United Kingdom. Perhaps they should move to another country they prefer’. Flag and Queen, of course, and also – although Lia Nici may not have known it – ‘Britishness’, are all historical constructs; which is my reason for placing ‘history’ at – or at least near – the centre of the Brexit debate.

Remainers used it too, in order to emphasise Britain’s historical closeness to the European Continent from the time of ‘Doggerland’ – linking them geographically eight millenia ago – onwards, and emphasising the narrowness of the ‘Channel’ that came between them when a tsunami (probably) inundated Doggerland. Subsequent invasions and settlement by successive waves of Europeans – beaker folk, Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Iberians, Normans, Jews, Irish; followed in the last century by extra-Europeans: all (except probably the Romans) contributing to Britons’ present-day DNA – give some credence to the idea of Britain as a multi-ethnic country from the very start. It’s also hard to imagine British culture (at every social level) without its links with Europe: Shakespeare, for example, not venturing out of dull parochial Stratford into the extraordinarily diverse and international artistic milieu that was London in his time. (His troop of players visited Denmark. Hence ‘Elsinore’.) On a rather different level, even ‘fish and chips’, supposedly quintessentially English, originated abroad. In addition, most of Britain’s political and religious movements were ‘European’ essentially; as were many of her wars. But these historical precedents were too vague, impersonal and diffuse to catch the imagination of most people in 2016, by the side of those events that appealed to their more tribal instincts: Agincourt, the defeat of the Armada, the Empire, the Battle of Britain, the Falklands war, ‘two world wars and one world cup’ (as England’s football hooligans used to chant), and other stirrers of their British blood. How could Edward Heath – our leader out of Europe – possibly hope to measure up against the much mythologised Winston Churchill, or the truly mythical King Arthur, or Nelson, or Margaret Thatcher, as foci for retrospective national pride? (Ignore for the moment the fact that both Churchill’s and Thatcher’s attitudes towards European integration were ambivalent, to say the least.) The point is that people like to remember ‘great’ events, and to cluster around ‘heroes’. They don’t see many of those around today (now that Boris’s wannabe-Churchillian sheen has begun to fade); and so they delve back into the past for them instead. That is one of the roles that History has played.

Much of it, on both sides, is either simply wrong, or grossly misleading. That’s where we serious historians come in. Some have ventured into the debate already. The latest is Ian Morris, with his thought-provoking  Geography is Destiny: Britain’s Place in the World, a 10,000 Year History – strongly recommended – published in May. My own Britain’s Contested History. Lessons for Patriots, covering a much shorter period, is due out in July. We’ll see what effect these books have on people’s perceptions of Britain’s relations with Europe: that is, if they have any effect at all. Academics’ views don’t usually register widely unless they can be taken or twisted to confirm people’s prejudices. One of those prejudices could be said to be the anti-intellectual one: ‘we’ve had too much of experts’, as Michael Gove once notoriously said, so setting all our hard-won expertise aside. But in any event, and if they were taken seriously, no historical ‘expert’ would be likely to come down unequivocally on either side of the Brexit debate. History simply doesn’t work in that way.

That is because the lessons we might want to draw from it are almost never straightforward. Even the ‘traditions’ that Lia Nici feels ought to cement our loyalty to Britain are more recent than she obviously realises – including royalty, the Union flag, and the very idea of ‘Britain’ as a nation – and were rivalled by other ‘traditions’, which were equally embedded in our British experience, and so just as ‘British’ as hers. There has always for example been an authoritarian and anti-democratic thread running through British history: overtly before the early 1900s, when the ‘mob’ and the monstrous regiment of women were finally granted the vote; and then more subtly, through propaganda, to tame their mobbishness. ‘Democracy’ certainly isn’t a characteristic British feature. Nor are any of the qualities that are usually associated with it. We have never been a corrupt country, claimed Boris Johnston recently. No, not true. Just look (again) at history. Britain was never as stable as she is often thought to have been, coming near to revolution on several occasions, and occasionally crossing over the line. She was never ‘splendidly isolated’, either, so if that is an effect of Brexit it will be something new. Even ‘Fascism’ – depending on how one defines it – has its place in our political culture; never more so – arguably – than today. As of course does her more celebrated anti-Fascism, representing the other side of a British ‘national identity’ that was always conflicted.

The conflict can also be seen in Britain’s relationship with ‘imperialism’. Of course her empire – another focus of retrospective patriotism: ‘we used to rule half the world’, as Ukip crowds used to chant – was an important feature of her identity from the 18th to the mid-20th centuries. But it was not something that particularly distinguished her from other European nations, many of which had overseas empires too, or else hankered after them; and secondly, was not nearly so dominant as ‘half the world’ implies. Within Britain opinion about the Empire was divided, with anti-imperialism being almost as powerful and effective a strand in the national discourse as its opposite, and imperial indifference trumping both. In fact it could be argued that ‘anti-imperialism’ was invented by the British, before it spread throughout the world. (Anti-imperialism on principle, that is; not merely opposition to the particular imperialism that is oppressing you.) As for the supposed effects and benefits of British imperialism, no historian today would claim that they were unalloyed – far from it; or that – despite its dreadful excesses – its results were uniformly ‘bad’. In particular, to address a charge often made by modern-day detractors, Britain’s South African ‘concentration camps’ were not the same Hitler’s; and it’s a gross distortion of history to assume – because of the name – that they were. But the main problem here – apart from that lazy semantic slip – is that both champions and critics of Britain’s colonial history ascribe too much agency to nations and governments, without taking account of the contexts in which these events occurred. Context, in fact, is the serious historian’s major contribution to anyone’s understanding of history; that is, of ‘anyone’ who is prepared to bother with ‘experts’.

The empire however no longer appears to be a major preoccupation today, even for what used to be called the ‘blimps’, or ‘harrumphers’, as Jeremy Paxman calls them. World War II is clearly the main historical focus for retrospective patriots now: the setting for innumerable post-war books and movies, and for their prize examples of typical British ‘heroism’. In this connection no-one today believes – do they? – that Britain really did win ‘two world wars’: on her own, that is. But her great hero Winston Churchill’s reputation, honed and burnished in wartime, still has some mileage in it (as I write this, Boris Johnson is digging up some of his wartime phrases to chivvy the Ukrainians up in their war against Russia: ‘your finest hour’); and this despite Churchill’s very many failings; for which we need to provide ‘context’, too. (Personally, as a child of the London blitz, I can forgive him his flaws, and retain my admiration and gratitude for his stirring words.) But in any case Churchill was untypical of the nation as a whole. Aside from him, we should recall that it was the Conservatives of the time who generally were the ‘appeasers’, not Labour; and the working classes who were the staunchest supporters of the war effort. You wouldn’t think that to hear some of today’s Tories. In this way is history twisted, subtly, into myth.

But in any case it’s questionable whether any of Britain’s achievements in the past can be attributed to individuals like Churchill; those whom Jacob Rees-Mogg – in a much panned history book he published recently – calls Britain’s ‘Titans’, whose ‘spunk’, he thinks, simply needs to be recovered in order to restore her ‘greatness’ again. That, it has to be said, betrays a very old-fashioned, or perhaps Etonian, view. (His school chum Boris Johnson shares it; exemplified in his biography of Churchill.) I believe Eton teaches mainly ancient Greek and Roman history, rather than modern. (I’ve written to the school to ask about its history syllabus, but received no reply.) Of course I may be wrong, both about Eton’s history teaching, and about the role of spunky leaders in public affairs. But the point is that even those leaders – Rees-Mogg’s ‘Titans’ – came surrounded by context; and a context which in Britain’s case was complex and often self-contradictory.

Hence the unwisdom of seeking to build a straightforward argument for almost anything at all on historical precedents, even if those precedents are researched and presented pretty accurately. There are so many of them, often in conflict with one another. Which of them we wish to choose to support our case for or against Brexit is up to us; but it will be just that – a choice – rather than a position founded on ‘history’.

Anyway: why should we want to bring ‘history’ into it at all? Britain is as she is, not what she was. Conditions – context – are different now. Doggerland is no more; so neither is the Empire (formally, at any rate); our anti-Fascist wars are over (unless we’re dragged into the Ukraine imbroglio); and we have other much greater problems to come to terms with: inequality, pandemics, recession, the power of an untamed propagandist press, late-stage global capitalism, Islamicist and Right-wing terrorism, the rise of China, the decline of America, a dangerously resentful Russia, immigration, anti-immigration (not at all backed up by Britain’s ‘history’), the power of the internet, corruption, world poverty and hunger, global warming; not all of them totally unprecedented or unanticipated, but all of them altering fundamentally the context in which we presently live, vote and – so far as our legislators are concerned – govern.

‘Patriots’ especially don’t need to be so fixated on the past. I’m one of those who literally took Lia Nici’s advice to heart – although before she had uttered it – and now mostly live in ‘another country I prefer’. One of my motives for that move – not the only one; I had a more personal one too – was the condition that I felt my country of birth had fallen into politically, especially with the Brexit vote and the arguments that were brought out to support it, and the character of the governments that Brexit, and other factors, had given rise to. I felt then, I hope wrongly, that all this had so fundamentally changed the country that I had formerly felt pretty patriotic towards, as to merit my exchanging Lia Rici’s sort of patriotism for the kind that wants to make one’s country better, rather than defending it as it is. That would involve ditching much of its ‘history’; not the more liberal threads in it that had attracted my original loyalty, but certainly the ‘queen and flag’ version that Lia Nici feels should define a patriot in the age of Brexit. As it happens, that is the sort of patriotism that is taught in Swedish schools (Sweden is my country of refuge): loyalty towards your country’s aspirations, rather than its past, which was pretty bloody in Sweden’s case. (Vide the Vikings, and her Stormaktstiden, when Sweden was a ‘great power’ in northern Europe.) It was also – to revert to British history – implicit in the attitudes of those who, after the last World War, voted to discard their patriotic hero Churchill in order to make Britain a better place than she had been before it. For patriots can want to build New Jerusalems, as well as to return to old ones. And that usually involves dumping large parts of their ‘history’; healthily, in my view.

Of course it is natural to be fond of the country we were born and live in, and to admire its citizens’ past achievements; but we surely shouldn’t be expected to feel pride in those achievements, if we had no part in them, as we obviously won’t have done for most of ‘history’. I’m entitled to feel neither pride nor shame for my country of birth’s imperial past, for example, simply because I happen to live on the same little patch of the earth as the imperialists did 100 years ago. I can possibly admire that past, or regret it, or even help make up for the damage done by it; but I can bear no responsibility for most of it. We can’t choose where we were born or brought up. Immigrants can take pride in the countries they migrated to – they after all did (we presume) choose them. But not the native-born; and not with regard to their country’s past history. ‘I’m sorry, officer. It had nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there.’

This is why Lia Nici’s implied insistence on blind allegiance to ‘flag and Queen’ is not something I can personally relate to. False or over-simplified history – which is what many of those in the current debate rely on – can be misleading. But so can factually accurate accounts, if they come without context. And surely our view of Britain’s relations with continental Europe need not depend on ‘history’ at all. There are other – and I would say much better – arguments both for Brexit and against it, leaving Britain’s past out of the equation entirely. ‘History’ should be handled gingerly and critically. And this advice comes from a professional historian; an ‘expert’, if you will.

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Boris and the Bard

A few days ago Johnson threatened to unleash ‘the terrors of the earth’ against some of the miscreants in his own party. Boris is reputedly engaged in writing a book about Shakespeare (how’s that going, I wonder?), so he will be well aware of the origin of that curse. It is of course King Lear: rejected by two of his daughters and wandering around on the ‘blasted heath’, cold and soaking wet; a narcissistic and foolish old ruler flailing out against his enemies, all the more pathetically because he has no idea how he can punish or stop them. 

I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things –
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the Earth!

Not, I would have thought, the Shakespearean character Boris should really be identifying with. It will be interesting to see how the biography turns out.

I’ve been offline for a while, finishing my review of Ian Morris’s Geography is Destiny. Britain’s Place in the World, a 10,000 Year History, due out next month; a great read – highly recommended – though I have some fairly big bones to pick with it. I would give you a preview of my piece here, but journal editors don’t like us doing that.

Now I have to work on the pre-publicity for my new book, Britain’s Contested History. I finished writing it last August, so it will already be out of date when it’s published in – they now tell me – July. I warned Bloomsbury about this, and even approached other publishers to see if they couldn’t get it out more quickly, but to no avail. That was irritating, to say the least. Why on earth can’t publishers get more of a move on with these things? Especially when the practical stages must have been enormously speeded up with the advent of computer word-processing, obviating the need for a second round of proof-checking to make sure that the type-setters – arranging their little pieces of metal – have it right.

Anyhow, Britain’s Contested History obviously won’t have anything in it about Partygate, or Johnson’s reaction to the war in Ukraine, or Tory MPs’ misogyny (the thing that provoked that ‘terrors of the earth’ quote), or any of the other issues that are dominating the news today. On the other hand, none of these recent events negates or undermines anything I’ve written about Britain’s ‘contested’ history up to last August. If anything, it’s the reverse: they bear out the ideas I advanced then. So the book should still be worth reading. I hope.

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The British Constitution

I consider I’m pretty well-versed in British constitutional history. It was the only compulsory course we had to follow at my university (this was sixty years ago). It was a bit of a bore, and of course very exclusive, in the sense of concentrating on ‘high’ domestic politics, and finding no place in it for the proles (‘social’ history came in only later); or – believe it or not – for the British empire and imperialism. (There was a second-year option on what was called ‘The Expansion of Europe’; but – as I’ve written before – that was only taken by dum-dums who couldn’t cope cerebrally with the history of political philosophy, which was the alternative. I took the latter, not wishing to be classed as a dum-dum; so my Cambridge undergraduate course was not where I was introduced to my later specialism. That came through my interest in political philosophy: in this case ‘anti-imperialism’. But I digress…)

My point is that I consider that my education in constitutional history, much as it bored me initially, has served me pretty well over time. There was a broad theme running through the course in Cambridge, a ‘Whiggish’ one; which taught that England’s (and later Britain’s) political development was one of steady progress via various reforms and one revolution (two if you count the ‘Glorious’ one), towards the happy quasi-democracy that we enjoyed in the 1960s. If this syllabus had a hidden function, it was a ‘patriotic’ one. Britain deserved our loyalty because of this liberal progression, achieved with very little violence, because we were, as a nation, so smart and moderate. Not, note, because of the Empire; which only came into this picture at the stage of ‘decolonisation’, which was supposed to fit the general pattern of democratic ‘progress’.

That aside, the point I want to make here with regard to our present political situation is that my early grounding in the history of the (unwritten) British constitution is probably what has alerted me to the violence that is being done to some of our fundamental national traditions by the government today; especially to the principles of the separation of powers, checks and balances, the primacy of parliament, probity, the independence of the civil service, and many others. This was highlighted the other day by Peter Hennessy, probably our leading present-day constitutional historian, in his castigation of Boris Johnson as ‘the great debaser in modern times of decency and public and political life, and of our constitutional conventions – our very system of government’.

I imagine that Boris and his pals, not having been brought up on Tanner and Elton as I was in the ’sixties – maybe not having studied British history at all, only ‘Classical’ – may not be fully aware of this. If they are, they may want simply to dismiss Hennessy as one of Michael Gove’s derided ‘experts’. In either case, they are clearly departing from the form of ‘patriotism’, and even ‘conservatism’, that was inculcated in those of us reading History at Cambridge in the 1960s.

Recent events have clearly shown how flimsy and inadequate our constitutional conventions are proving today, in the face of these ignorant Borisian assaults. This has left us poorly protected by our ‘constitution’. What this situation requires now, I should like to suggest, is a major public enquiry into all aspects of Britain’s government; embracing the relations between the three classical pillars of the constitution (executive, legislature, judiciary); our electoral system; the funding of parties; the civil service; devolution; the power of the media; class and gender, insofar as they relate to politics; the ‘Public’ schools (of course)…. and so on. It might take many years; but if so, then so much the better. It would require long and deep thought. Perhaps Lord Hennessy could be its Chair. – On the other hand, this wouldn’t suit those who are exploiting the weaknesses and vagaries of the present ramshackle system, to their own undemocratic advantage. So it’s probably a no-no; certainly under the present government.


PS. Another thought – rather more trivial. It relates to Boris Johnson personally. We all know about his vaunting ambition; and that he only ever wanted to ‘be’ prime minister, not to ‘do’ anything in the job. Well, he’s managed that, by playing the crooked game that our tattered constitution has left us with; but is now well on track to become Britain’s worst and most reviled prime minister ever. Does this matter to him, I wonder? After all, he’s cemented his place in the history books. Is that good enough; to feature prominently as a failure and a rogue in the main texts of our future histories – perhaps even have a chapter devoted to him – rather than appearing as merely a footnote? Would he prefer notoriety to marginalisation? At least now he is noticed. That may be all he ever wanted. It fits with his own personal history, right back to Eton and before. But that’s not for us – least of all constitutional historians – to know.

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Operation Red Meat

Does Priti really expect her Rwandan wheeze to succeed? Or does she even want it to? Her Home Office officials are apparently against it, which is why she’s having to use a ‘ministerial directive’ to push it through without their support. Scores of lawyers are warning that it will probably come a cropper in the courts; and the moral outrage it’s provoking from all quarters – the Left, humanitarian pressure groups, even the older-fashioned kind of Tory politician: the ones whom Boris has side-lined so successfully in Parliament because they’re not Brexiters – is likely to give it a difficult run in the months ahead.

Which is leading me to wonder whether all this hasn’t been factored into the scheme from the beginning. We know that at the start of the ‘Partygate’ scandal Johnson and his advisers devised a strategy to convince his political base to stick with him, called ‘Operation Red Meat’. (I imagine his Australian Svengali, Lynton Crosby, had a hand in this.) The idea was to float a number of outrageous right-wing policies that would appeal to them, and keep them on-side in spite of everything that was going on. The Johnson government’s interventions in the ‘culture wars’ on the ‘anti-woke’ side are part of this, together with Priti Patel’s assault on the right to demonstrate noisily, instructions to the RNLI not to rescue ‘boat people’ from drowning, and the attacks by both her and Boris on ‘Lefty lawyers’ and the historic procedures of the Houses of Parliament. Deporting refugees to the middle of Africa fits in with this in a score of ways, appealing to the red-meat eaters’ nationalism, racism, and fondness for ‘firm government’.

So, even if the Rwanda policy fails, and Britain can’t send her poor asylum seekers there, it will still have succeeded in its political purpose; and indeed will have succeeded even more if it does fail, because then Boris and Priti will be able to put the blame for its failure on their favourite populist scapegoats: judges, left-wing politicians, and the ‘metropolitan elite’. That will further stoke the fires of what I like to call ‘proto-fascism’ – the ideological soil from which historical Fascisms have sprung – in order to make the country compliant with their underlying demands. Either way, for the Tory red-meat eaters it’s ‘win-win’.

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One of the great things about having colonies – or ex-colonies, if they’re still dependent on you – is that you can shovel your rubbish into them. Examples of ‘rubbish’ are nuclear waste (the Pacific, I think), criminals (Cayenne, Virginia, Australia), political dissidents (Siberia), and now unwanted immigrants (Rwanda).

I wish I’d thought of that while I was writing my books on the British empire. This perverse new refugee policy of Priti Patel’s is obviously a legacy of European imperialism that I’d missed. Colonies are our dustbins.

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The Fog of War

The reason I’ve not commented much here on the war in Ukraine, despite its being the most important issue of the day (as opposed to ‘of our time’, which of course is climate change), is because I know too little about it, compared with expert commentators in other media; and because my historical expertise hardly helps here at all. Yes, there are superficial parallels that might be drawn, going back to Tsarist and Soviet times, or with other world empires – the Roman, British, Hitler’s; but most of them are misleading, and they can’t really tell us much about the roots of what looks superficially like a simple case of bloody imperial aggression by a powerful and tyrannical ruler against one of his country’s innocent neighbours.

What my immersion in history over the years tells me is very little about the ‘rights and wrongs’ of this particular conflict, but simply to hold my judgment back until the fog of propaganda disperses, and we can see a little more clearly the ‘facts’ of what has been going on. If history ‘teaches’ anything it is that wars are always surrounded at the time by lies, uncertainties and disinformation; which are, indeed, often weaponised by the combatants themselves. Which is why we need historians to sort things out later; by which time, of course, it is too late.

Personally, and for what it’s worth (which isn’t very much), I’m pretty convinced that responsibility for this war doesn’t rest entirely with Putin, but that Ukraine itself and ‘the West’ (the EU, America, NATO) contributed to it in recent years with several mis-steps, to put it kindly; which had the effect of provoking Putin – who seems to have been very provocable, even paranoid (see – to take the action he did. And there are influential ‘neo-Nazis’ in the Ukraine, of course, as there are virtually everywhere, including Britain and the USA; and probably other features of Ukrainian society which make the latter rather less ‘innocent’ a victim than we in the West like to think.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that it is still a ‘victim’, overwhelmingly; and that the evidence of terrible atrocities that we see on our TVs can’t all be ‘faked’, as Moscow claims. (If they are, then it suggests an impressive sophistication on the part of the Ukrainian propaganda department, to be able to fake them so convincingly.) Nothing the West may have done, or Ukraine itself, could justify the clear savagery of Russia’s response. Which is why we British liberals must choose the Ukraine’s side in this conflict; as we did in the case of Ireland, whose situation in the 19th century bears some slight comparison with Ukraine’s in the 21st. But I don’t want to make too much of that.

In my case my support is expressed by my offering my home to any Ukrainian refugees who can get past the obstacles that Priti Patel is putting up against them. Now there’s someone who might be – very loosely – labelled a ‘Nazi’. Deporting asylum seekers over to the middle of Africa, for pity’s sake! It so happens that that was one of the original Nazis’ solutions to their ‘Jewish problem’, before they hit on the ‘Final’ one. Is Priti aware of that?

Sorry. That’s as much as I feel I can write about Ukraine. But it still dominates my thinking, and my reading of the real experts on the issue.

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De Haut en Bas

When Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019, we all knew – didn’t we? – that he was a bad character; or, as TV interviewer Eddie Mair put to him directly in 2013: ‘a nasty piece of work’. (See Since then the evidence of his serial dishonesty and duplicity has been so overwhelming – even his own followers acknowledge it – as to leave no doubt.

But it raises questions. One is whether his rise was in spite of his bad character, or because of it. In other words – and of more general relevance – do you need to be ‘virtuous’ in politics in order to succeed? And if not, what other qualities will compensate for that? A cuddly image? Bertie Wooster-ism? Tousled hair? Seductive promises? Rich backers? Or will your ‘badness’ find you out in the end? – We may of course be about to have that last question answered in the next few weeks or months.

Another notion that has occurred to me is that perhaps the legacy of the old British Empire has something to do with all this. I’ve always argued – and indeed written books arguing – that the Empire left less of a mark on British politics, culture and society than many modern historians (‘post-colonialists’) have argued. I still hold to that. But there may be an important caveat to be made here, in the case of the class that used to run the Empire, and which did not simply wither away when the Empire did. The link here is my old bugbear Eton College (see, and the other ‘Public’ schools which shared the same culture. (Sunak has just donated £100,000 to his alma mater, Winchester.) For in Victorian times one of these schools’ functions was to prepare boys to rule, often over ‘natives’ in the colonies, but also over the ‘lower classes’ at home. This wasn’t always oppressive, by the way; this was in the noblesse oblige era, before the schools had opened their doors to the sons of capitalists, which may be what eventually corrupted them. And George Orwell and Clement Attlee were two of their products.

But he word ‘lower’ is important here. ‘Ruling’ was conceived of as essentially de haut en bas: by a superior class over a separate and inferior species. The whole ethos of these schools – and their classical education, for example, especially the Roman bits – was predicated on this strict division of peoples between ‘rulers’ (them) and the ruled. Hence some of the most unlovely recent activities of the boys who attended these schools: distinctive dress-codes, burning £50 bills in front of beggars, trashing restaurants and then paying for the damage, snobbery, the whole ‘Bullingdon’ business, and the special vein of ‘humour’ that rested on sneering at the ‘lower’ orders. (Before you jump to conclusions, I never felt myself to be a target of this.) All these helped to emphasise the bifurcation of British society into ‘rulers’ and ‘ruled’. So it’s hardly surprising that in formulating their new regulations to make society safer during Covid, it never occurred to this ruling class that the same laws should apply to them too. Really. Hence ‘Partygate’; whose major significance may be in showing how our Public school-educated rulers perceive of their relationship with the rest of us poor proles; rooted in the history of these schools.

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