Taxes

A confession. Fifty years ago I sought to evade British income tax by depositing money I had recently earned in the USA in a Jersey bank account, newly opened for the purpose. It was my friendly Barclays bank manager who suggested the ruse, and – in my defence – I had already paid both Federal and State taxes on the money in America. I can’t remember how much I saved in this way; it can’t have been much.

But I suppose it technically puts me in the same boat as Nadhim Zahawi and Rishi Sunak; those two leading members of the current British government whose far more egregious tax avoidance – or is it ‘evasion’? I never know which – is causing political problems for them today. Zahawi claims that he simply ‘forgot’ to declare £5 millions of his income. Sunak protests that it was his wife, not he, who claimed ‘non-dom’ status – while living all the time in Britain – in order to protect their millions. Zahawi for a short period was actually Chancellor of the Exchequer, and therefore ultimately responsible for setting and collecting other people’s taxes – yours and mine. These are only two examples of the almost incredible level of ‘sleaze’ that is engulfing Britain’s deeply rotten government currently. Another is the revelation that the man Johnson appointed to head the BBC was a Conservative Party donor, and had helped arrange a £800,000 loan for him – ‘to help support his lifestyle’ – just before his appointment; and the couple of dozen charges of ‘bullying’ made against another minister, Dominic Raab, by civil servants.

And that’s without mentioning their enormous failings in the public sphere: migration, Brexit, the NHS, mishandling Covid, dismantling human rights legislation, provoking the biggest combination of industrial strikes since the 1930s, abusing Parliamentary democracy, annoying the Scots and Northern Irish and so endangering their beloved ‘Union’ (of the four nations of the UK); and much more.

Britain’s leading Conservative ministers are of course immensely rich – possibly the richest of any government ever; which is obviously the major factor alienating them from the majority of people they are supposed to represent, as well as to govern. (How on earth, incidentally, can anyone ‘overlook’ £5 millions? Or ‘need’ £800,000?) Another distinctive characteristic is the expensive ‘Public’ School education that most of them received, and at ‘top’ Public Schools at that – Eton, Winchester, Westminster – which really does put them on a different planet from us more ordinary Joes.

Dodging taxes comes naturally to these people, who are brought up to regard taxation as merely an incubus, which it is a mark of one’s intelligence and enterprise to avoid – obstacles in the great golf game of life; rather than as a contribution to the common good. Donald Trump once claimed that his own notorious tax avoidance was merely proof of his success as a businessman: ‘only little people pay taxes’. All of which is why, perhaps, we should never entrust rich people with the government of any country. I’d not have made a good politician at any time; but least of all when I was trying to cheat – or evade – the Inland Revenue.

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Support for Ukraine

Our Ukrainian refugees seem to have settled in well, and are being looked after splendidly by the Hull City Council and by volunteer groups. (Yesterday all the Hull Ukrainian refugees were taken on a coach trip to York.) Nearly everyone we meet is very supportive of them, and embarrassingly complimentary to us – embarrassingly because we don’t think we’re doing anything beyond the call of ordinary human duty by sheltering a family whose home city (Nikopol) is currently being bombed. And at little real cost to ourselves. Kajsa and I after all have another house – in Sweden – to live in.

Not everyone, however, feels this way. We’re not of course surprised by opposition from the Far Right: the likes of the ‘English Patriots’ we encountered when our guests first arrived (see https://bernardjporter.com/2023/01/15/our-ukes-have-landed/). That’s only to be expected of them. And of those mean-minded villagers I’ve also referred to before (https://bernardjporter.com/2022/11/18), objecting to any asylum-seekers being accommodated in local hotels in the countryside. I can understand where they come from, and even their arguments; even if I – emphatically – don’t share them.

But I am surprised by the arguments of those (very) few I’ve come across on the Left of British politics, whose lack of sympathy for what Kajsa and I are doing seems to be based on two main positions. The first is the suspicion that we’re only helping Ukrainians because they’re white, and privileging them over – say – Africans or Syrians or Palestinians on racist grounds. ‘Where were you when the Somalis sought refuge in Britain?’ To which my reply would be that we would have been willing, indeed eager, to put them up, but weren’t asked to; partly because – and this is the government’s fault, not ours – they had far more difficulty acquiring visas to come; which is why so many of them are being imprisoned in detention centres, or drowned in the English Channel, or (prospectively) shovelled out to Rwanda; this despite the welcome that they would undoubtedly have received (albeit patchily) in Britain.

I’m sure that the preference given to Ukrainians over most other species of refugee by the British Home Office is partly based on their ethnicity, and on the nature of the regime that is at present oppressing them. Russophobia has a long pedigree in British history. (Afghans, the other ‘favoured nation’ asylum-wise, have a similar advantage; in their case of having helped British forces against the dreadful Taliban.) In addition, it is possible to draw a distinction between people who are suddenly and dramatically being bombed from the air, and those who are being oppressed in more gradual and subtle ways. But in any case, surely we shouldn’t withdraw sympathy and help from one group of refugees, simply because we think other groups might deserve it more. Or because of the selection made for us – albeit on dubious moral grounds – by our government.

The other reason for the lack of sympathy from the Left that we ‘hosts’ occasionally sense may be the latter’s doubts about the justice of the Ukrainians’ cause. These mainly rest on the belief that Putin’s war was at least in part provoked by Rightists in Ukraine (‘Nazis’), and by pressure from the ‘West’ – the EU, NATO, and behind them all the USA – to draw Ukraine away from Mother Russia, and so to weaken and even destroy that great nation. There is undoubtedly something to be said for this view; that is, in support of the idea that there was and is pressure from elements in the West to change Russia and her relations with her neighbours. Not that Putin has much right to complain of plots to undermine him, in view of his subvert interference in British (and American – and probably others’) politics that is being revealed currently.

These things are complicated. But in any case none of this should have any bearing on our support for people who are the undoubted victims of a terrible and aggressive war, for which they at least bear no responsibility.

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Putin-Hitler?

I’m not normally drawn to historical parallels, which are usually misleading, especially when they feature Hitler: take the most recent and egregious example, Andrew Bridgen MP’s comparison of anti-covid vaccinations to the Nazi Holocaust (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/conservative-mp-bridgen-whip-covid-holocaust-b2260105.html); but you can’t help thinking of Hitler when you look at the actions of Putin today. First Crimea (Sudetenland); then Donbas (Austria); then Ukraine (Poland)…. all in the interests of a ‘Greater Russia’ (Greater Germany); and against the background of what is taken to be an encircling and existential national threat – from Jews in the German case, or ‘the West’ in Russia’s. I’m sure there are other parallels too. And yet it’s Putin who is labelling the Ukrainians as Nazis, based, I presume, on memories – still – of the Second World War. Let’s hope, fervently, that it doesn’t lead to a third World War in this case.

What may be even more alarming are the comparisons that could be made between the ideologies (such as they are) of Putin’s Russia and of other menacing dictatorships just now – Iran and Afghanistan most currently. All of these regard themselves as reacting against Westernisation, or Western ‘imperialism’, or – to put it a way we in the West would prefer – ‘Western enlightenment’; not only in political terms (‘democracy’), but in cultural and social terms (women) too. That brings all these movements together on one side of the latest bilateral global divide, replacing the old ‘capitalist/communist’ and ‘North/South’ ones; and likely to dominate world politics for decades to come.

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Our Ukes Have Landed

Yes, they’ve come at last, flying into Manchester last Tuesday; and were treated to a fish’n’chips supper on arrival in Hull. In return they took us next day to a new Ukrainian restaurant (‘Lena’s’) in the city centre, where the food was terrific – highly recommended; and also the Ukrainian beer. They’re a lovely family, but with some heart-rending stories of death and destruction back home. And of Russian friends – now ex-friends – who have swallowed Putin’s propaganda whole.

When we came out of the restaurant we were met by demonstrations in Queen Victoria Square: on one side anti-refugee, by the self-styled ‘English Patriots’ waving flags of St George (I’d not come across them before); but on the other a crowd ‘welcoming’ refugees. The latter was easily the bigger of the two protests, which I hope reassured our new refugee friends; and indeed went some way to reassure me, after learning about a traffic-stopping demonstration in nearby Cottingham a couple of days earlier against a proposal to house asylum-seekers in a student hall of residence. I’m told on good authority (the police, via a lawyer friend) that most of the right-wing protestors came from out of town.

That accords with the treatment we – both refugees and ‘hosts’ – have been receiving from the Hull City Council, and from local voluntary groups. A lovely Council worker visited us the day after they arrived to talk to Sacha and Tanya and their two girls; to give them each £200 to start them off before their social security comes in; and to offer advice to them and us. Tomorrow we go into the Council Offices to register them formally, get them free bus passes and a bank account, direct them to a job centre, and much more. Kajsa and I were both warmed by the kindness of the City authorities, and of local people we meet – bus drivers, shop assistants, etc. All of which contrasts with the mean-minded hostility of those ‘English Patriots’. And according to Kajsa it even puts Sweden in the shade.

We also called in to a ‘Refugee Welcome Centre’ set up in the city by volunteers and backed by the Council, with activities for all ages organised in friendly and pleasant surroundings, and of course more practical help. Much of the latter is directed to teaching them English; which our family badly needs. We have been using the instant translators on our mobile phones; which are not entirely reliable, but by that token also give us – both sides – a lot of amusement with mistranslations. (Apparently I ‘don’t understand Jews’. I think I said ‘machines’.)

They are turning out to be perfect guests – friendly, grateful, and helpful. We’ll be leaving them to their own devices when we return to Sweden on Thursday. But they’ll have many other people to turn to for help if they still need it after that. Suella Braverman certainly doesn’t seem to represent the good folk of Hull.

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Gott nytt år

Yes, it was an awful year, wasn’t it? Not for me personally – I’ve not got much to complain about apart from the natural effects of old age. (And there are compensations there.) But for most of the world, including certainly Britain, it has been the worst I can remember in my 80-odd years: plague, natural disasters, wars, climate change, strikes, rail and health services breaking down, the corruption of politics at the hands of rogues, liars and charlatans, and – as a result of all this – my birth country’s becoming the laughing stock of the world.

For an oldie like me the decline is all the more painful in view of the hopes we had at the start of those eight decades, and still managed to cling on to for another four of them, only for them to be totally shattered now. The fifties and sixties are often looked back on with disdain, characterised by Britain’s loss of an empire, a declining industry, strikes, poor food, censorship, oppressed women and gays, and black-and-white TV. The Tory Right in particular encourages this image, in order to demonise the social democracy that underpinned it – under both main parties – before the genie of capitalism was released to shower his brightly-coloured benefits on us all.

OK; I remember it all, though I was sheltered from much of it by my relatively privileged situation in society – not being a woman, for a start. But I also recall the one saving grace of those years: which was the conviction, certainly on the Left, that we – me, my class, my country, my continent, the world – were getting better, and could rely on that during the struggles that we acknowledged were to come. Attlee’s government had brought in the welfare state, ending the decades-long struggle between capitalism and socialism; the Empire was being transformed, mainly peacefully, into a ‘Commonwealth’ – lovely word, that, certain to appeal to Leftists; and Wilson’s governments were liberating gays, women, people trapped in toxic marriages, and anyone who before would have been hanged. Of course there was some way to go yet, and much ‘demonstrating’ – against South African apartheid, the Vietnam war and ‘The Bomb’ – in order to push the ‘progressive’ agenda on. The point is, however, that we believed it could be pushed on. Who believes that now?

That’s the big difference between the post-war period and today. Even when the shit was being bombed out of us by the Luftwaffe – I was born in the middle of the London blitz – we were sustained by the knowledge that this could mark the beginning of a new era: which was why Britain elected a Labour government after 1945. People then remembered the suffering that capitalist austerity had inflicted on ordinary folk even before the German bombing started, which could only be cured by a measure – not a huge one, but enough – of socialism. Even the Tories went along with this, the ‘progressive consensus’ of the time, before the sleeping dragon of neoliberalism re-awoke. Now only neoliberals have the hopes that had sustained most of the rest of us in the fifties and sixties; and then only for their own selfish selves.

Yesterday we went to a wonderful nyårsafton performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony in the early 20th-century, ‘national-romantic’, Enkelbrektskyrkan in Stockholm. It reminded me of those more confident times. And of the Beethovian, ‘enlightened’ hopes that have been lost since.

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Privacy

Is privacy a particularly British obsession? Walking round our snowy Stockholm suburb the other night, well after dark, I was struck by how every ground-floor room was open to view from the outside, lights full on, no curtains in any of the windows, inhabitants getting on with their eating, drinking, talking, watching TV – or whatever – in full view of every passer-by; in a way that would be virtually inconceivable in England. Kajsa tells me she is just as shocked by all the closed curtains in Hull at night as I am by the lack of them in Enskede.

This must indicate an important difference between our (my) two nations. Swedes don’t mind if people know what they’re up to. Within limits, of course; but those limits extend much further than lighted windows. Even their tax returns can – as I understand it – be accessed by members of the public. Just imagine a Brit being confronted with that; or, to take a recent and controversial example, an American ex-President. It would be regarded as an attack on one of their fundamental human rights. Every man – and woman – ispace Donne – ‘an island, entire unto himself’; and neither the State nor anyone else has the right to pry into his or her affairs.

This would help explain Britain’s historical objection to ‘espionage’, in principle, in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, about which I’ve written in Plots and Paranoia. It was considered to be almost the worst of all political crimes, even if employed to discover murderers and terrorists. ‘I would rather a hundred people had their throats cut in Radcliffe Highway’, said a member of the House of Lords in 1830 (I think), after a particularly horrible murder spree, ‘than to be subjected to these French methods of policing.’ (I may have the quotation slightly wrong; but the correct version is in Plots and Paranoia.) Yes, I know: Sherlock Holmes used disguises. But this was part of his essential un-Britishness, which the good Dr Watson was there to counter-balance.

I used to share some of that distaste myself, instinctively – probably inherited from my own Britishness. For years I resiled against surveillance cameras in the streets, secret services, and even identity cards. Privacy was an essential pillar of our liberties, I thought, saving us from oppression from any agency that might have more than the most essential access to our affairs. Now, after 25 years (off and on) in Sweden, I feel slightly differently.

In a way it comes down to our understanding of democracy. If everyone in a democratic community has an equal share in saying how that community is run, then surely he or she ought to know how the other members of that community are affected by how it is run presently. That applies to the poorest and most disadvantaged ones, but also to those in the middle, and at the ‘top’. Democracy requires transparency; which ‘privacy’ is the enemy of. So, draw back the curtains, Brits, and let us all gaze in.

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Panto Time

As an 81-year old I’ve never known a bunch of leading politicians as sheerly incompetent, corrupt and stupid, even laughably so, as our present British lot; and as a historian I’ve never read of one – at any rate since the days of the Roman Emperor Caligula. Caligula is supposed to have made his horse a senator; the modern-day equivalent of that is probably David Cameron’s elevation of the lingerie-entrepreneur Michelle Mone  – ‘Baroness Bra’ – to the House of Lords. And just look at the rest of them: Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove… pantomime villains and clowns all of them. All we need now is a cross-dressing ‘Dame’, and they could open in time for Christmas at the New Theatre Hull.

Just recently I’ve been writing the Autobiography that I thought I never would; making it into a kind of chronicle of the last eighty years as they appeared to my kind, so that it won’t only be about boring old me. I’ve written three chapters so far, taking me up to 1968; but with decreasing enthusiasm. So I’m taking a rest from it now to prepare for our Swedish Christmas; and then for a genuine Christmas dinner a couple of days afterwards.

One of the things that make life bearable here for Anglos at Christmas is ‘Taylor and Jones’ British butchers in Hantverkargatan, Stockholm, where we’ll be getting our turkey and all the trimmings. Every Swede I’ve talked to admits that he or she prefers our Christmas dinners to the Swedish herring and cold ham. So why don’t they take it on? Or would that be ‘cultural appropriation’; or submitting to British ‘informal imperialism’?

Anyway: plenty of snow here to make it look Christmassy. Temperatures down to minus 20. We’ll be returning to Blighty on January 10th; to meet ‘our’ Ukrainian family and get them settled in to life in Hull. I wonder if they’ll take to fish and chips and Rugby League? But if they don’t, a Ukrainian restaurant has just opened up locally. There seems in fact to be plenty of support for them in Hull. Expect further reports in this blog on this whole new experience; for the Ukrainans of course, but also for us.

Until then: Веселого Різдва. (I think.)

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Homes from Home

In Britain they make conditions so dreadful for refugees that – or so Suella Braverman hopes – they’ll all be deterred from applying. So we get asylum seekers locked up in disease-ridden camps, or run-down B&Bs, or dumped in London railway termini, or flown off to an unsafe African country – if those Lefty lawyers will allow it – or left to themselves and the elements in flimsy rubber boats to drown in the English Channel.

Here in Sweden – which I believe has admitted far more foreign refugees per head of population than Britain – they do things differently; erecting new temporary homes with all mod cons, and state support, for them to live in while their asylum applications are being processed. Here’s a couple of a long row of them I photographed five years ago, out in the countryside, but only a short walk from a supermarket and other amenities. They’re now erecting some more on an old sports field across the road from where we live in Stockholm, with a children’s playpark attached to them. OK, so they’re not palaces, but are comfortable enough, and evidence of a degree of compassion that is unimaginable in our awful British Home Secretary.

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A History of My Time

I’m thinking once again of writing something semi-autobiographical. Have I mentioned this before? Anyway, here’s my new first draft of a Preface. Whether it will go much further I can’t tell. But it’s something to do, during the cold Swedish winter.

My ‘Ukes’, by the way – the Ukrainian refugee family I’m ‘hosting’ in Hull – will arrive in mid-January. Kajsa and I will be meeting them at Manchester Airport and taking them over by train – if our appalling Northern rail company (private, of course) obliges. I may follow up here with an account of our experiences with them.

A HISTORY OF MY TIME

And from my perspective

Bernard Porter

Foreword

Every history book is written from a perspective, however much its author seeks to allow and compensate for the distortions this will give rise to. In fact historians are generally better at that – at compensating – than other kinds of authors, aware as we are through our researches of the subjectivity of positions taken in the past. One easy way of compensating is for them to try to be open about our own biases and prejudices, often in ‘Introductions’ or ‘Prefaces’ to our books, describing ‘where we come from’, so that readers can be aware of our particular ‘slants’ and discount them if they wish. I’ve done this in my most recent books. One drawback to this approach is that very often we simply aren’t aware of the deepest influences on us – just as our historical subjects were not; but again, it helps to be aware of that. A second drawback is that readers might fall into the opposite error, of assuming that everything we write is totally conditioned by our early experiences. (‘Oh, so that’s why he’s a Tory’ – or a Leftie, or whatever.) I believe – or want to believe – that in my case at least, most of my published views have been formed by research, some degree of objective reasoning, and thought.

However, this book is rather different. It doesn’t claim or pretend to be absolutely objective, although it is not deliberately deceptive. It’s an account of how the world genuinely appeared to me, from the moment of my birth in February 1941, through the next eighty years; which I hope won’t be quite my last. Or rather: it’s an account of how I remember the world appearing to me, which adds another layer of subjectivity to it. Obviously my first few years appear somewhat hazy to me, and so I’ll have to fill in with what I’ve been told. (There’s the third layer.) Thereafter I’ll be describing what I recall of the impressions and concerns of a boy, a young man, a middle-aged man and an elderly man, in different places, different social contexts, and at different stages of my mental development. Most of it will relate to events outside of me, especially political, and my reactions to them. It will not be a personal autobiography, which for someone as boring as me would not be very interesting, might turn out to be embarrassing if it were complete and honest (my early sexual fumblings, for example, though they will be mentioned, decorously), and the whole idea of which strikes me as rather self-indulgent. The personal will come into it – indeed it will need to, in order to provide the account with a structure – but only if I think I can make points of wider relevance thereby. ‘Sexual fumblings’, for example, might serve to illustrate the general innocence of the time and class I grew up in. For the whole purpose of this book is to describe the history of the last 80 years, but from a particular standpoint.

I began writing it in unusual circumstances; although they may become more usual in the future, if occurrences of the pandemic we were suffering from then become a recurring feature of our future history. As a member of a ‘vulnerable group’, due to my age and an ‘underlying condition’, I was living with my partner Kajsa in quarantine on ‘our’ island in the Stockholm Archipelago, unable to return to Britain even if I wanted to – and there were reasons, which will appear later, why I chose to spend most of my time in Sweden – and so cut off from the papers and diaries that could have added flesh to the very bare bones of the personal story that appears here. Which of course was no great loss if I wanted to avoid autobiography, and focus on the general history that I could retrieve from the internet. Our island stuga may look primitive, but it has wi-fi; and it furnishes an ideal writing environment, without the distractions – social gatherings, and the like – that more ‘civilised’ settings inevitably impose. And during two ice-bound Swedish winters, a wood-burning stove and a newly-purchased luftvärmepump kept it comfortably warm.

Thinking back now, as I’ve not really done before the idea of writing this account occurred to me (I’m not a great one for nostalgia), I’m no longer so certain that my life and experiences have been quite as ‘boring’ as I’ve always assumed. I’ve lived through a momentous period in British history, from the depths of war to the collapse of the post-war consensus; taking in the loss of a world-wide empire, entry into and then exit from the post-war European Union, the creation and later dismantling of a welfare state, the social emancipation (to an extent) of women, foreign immigration and its repercussions, a revolution in popular music, sexual liberation following the spread of efficient means of contraception, a ‘cold war’ that threatened to become hotter under the shadow of ‘The Bomb’, the establishment of television as people’s main source of information and entertainment, the whole computer/internet thing, men on the moon, huge changes in the character of the popular Press, even greater changes in eating habits, several frightening pandemics even before Covid, the commercialisation of ‘the People’s Game’ (football), the entire reign of Britain’s longest-living monarch… and much more.

My own place in this history has never been a leading or even a particularly active one, but it is one that has enabled me to observe it from a number of different points of view. That is because of my anomalous and shifting position in the all-important class structure of Britain – or of England, anyway – giving me what I think is an unusual insight into the situations, and especially the prejudices, of them all. My immediate family were aspirant lower-middle class; my paternal grandparents working class; at school I mixed with middle-middle class boys; and at university with the upper and public school-educated classes and even a few aristocrats. I got on pretty well with all of them. (The aristos were very kind.) In university vacations I worked in a factory, and in theatres. My profession has been as an academic, at various different types of university and in three or four countries; specialising in British imperial history, for which I was sometimes mistaken to be an imperialist. I was brought up a Methodist, but enjoyed Anglican church services, and their architecture even more. I was a member of the Labour party for a long period, but no longer. (The ‘no longer’ may give a hint as to my political proclivities today.) I’ve experienced marriage with a Scots-Irish wife, fatherhood, divorce, and a new relationship, this time with a Swede. I’ve lived in both the south and the north of England. I travelled extensively in Europe as a young man, and more later, when I also lived for fairly long periods in the USA and Australia. The only substantial gap in this catalogue of life-experiences is women and girls, whom I scarcely got to know as a boy, or even at university, in my single-sex college; which will explain – I’m sure – those ‘fumblings’. If all these life-experiences have affected my research, teaching and writing in my adult years, they are at least various enough to have likely influenced them in divergent ways. And there are still my attempts at scholarly ‘objectivity’ to set against all of them.

So, on to the substance: the last eighty years of British – and world – history, as seen through the eyes of someone like me; biases and all.

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Enlightenment Then and Now

By the Swedish satirical artist and writer Max Gustafson. (My thanks to Kajsa, who found it!)

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