Concentration Camps

Just to be clear: ‘Concentration Camps’ is the exact right term to describe the cages into which Trump is herding ‘illegal’ immigrant children on the Texas-Mexican border, after separating them from their parents. They were invented by the British during the Boer War (1899-1902) – or perhaps copied from the Spanish – in order to incarcerate, allegedly for their own protection, the womenfolk and children of their enemy. They were appallingly unhealthy places, with a high mortality among the inmates, and on these grounds provoked a substantial protest movement in Britain at the time (google ‘Emily Hobhouse’); but this wasn’t part of their original purpose. Unfortunately for the British Empire’s historical reputation, the term later became applied to Nazi extermination camps, which is why it sounds so bad in both the British and the modern American contexts. But it’s literally and historically accurate. ‘Concentration Camps’ exist to concentrate elements of a population. (John Field will bear me out here.)

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Nigel Back-Tracking

So, Nigel is getting his retaliation in early! Finally admitting that Brexit is going to be a disaster, he’s blaming it on the way it’s being implemented by the government. Brexit was a brilliant idea originally, but is currently being messed up by Theresa May and Co. Rather than accepting their version – whether ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, we assume: we don’t know yet – he’d rather we stayed in the EU. It looks like a volte-face, but really it’s just another variation of the ‘stab in the back’ theory; and one that allows him, whatever happens with Brexit, to carry on being the loud, complaining saloon-bar bore he always was.

http://www.itv.com/news/2018-06-15/nigel-farage-may-should-be-sacked-over-ludicrous-brexit-plans-which-will-leave-uk-worse-off-than-before-referendum/

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Kings Over the Water

If Trump is removed soon, as by rights he should be, he’ll earn eternal glory in some quarters as a martyr, and attract a regiment of followers even after his death. The same fate will probably befall Farage, Johnson and all our own (UK) loonies if Brexit doesn’t go through. The familiar myths about great dead rulers who are merely sleeping in their caves waiting to lead their peoples back to glory when the Call comes will re-emerge: Frederick II, King Arthur, Owen Glendwyr, Margaret Thatcher in her mountain fastness outside Grantham, and of course Jesus. Trump’s refuge, I imagine, will be his ‘Tower’.

That’s the danger in killing off popular heroes. Their failures and even deaths are no bar to their spiritual potency thereafter, especially if it’s reckoned that they were cut off in their primes, perhaps through treachery: the post-World War I ‘stab in the back’, or Geoffrey Howe’s turning on Thatcher, or Judas Iscariot. The effect on politics can be poisonous. So perhaps we should wait a little while before getting rid of Trump and the others, until they’ve thoroughly disgraced themselves. Though how much more it would take to discredit the Donald is difficult to imagine. Perhaps putting children into cages might finally do it?

I’m off back to our Swedish island tomorrow, and for most of the summer. Years ago if you went abroad you could cut yourself off from all the nonsense back home. (I remember saying to friends on a flight back from Austria in the late 1960s that Britain could have had a revolution while we were away. It turned out she had. Martin Peters had been transferred from West Ham to Spurs.) Today there’s no chance of that, with the internet and smartphones, and Swedish TV employing a special London correspondent to mock our imbecilities. There’s no escape. But there should be plenty of sun, sea, a relatively sane and polite politics, and meatballs; which might take my mind off Trump and Brexit for a while.

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The End Time

Of course ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ – to echo Bill Clinton’s famous response in 1992 to the question of what mostly affects elections. Except it’s not ‘the economy’ in the sense of GNP, the Dow Jones or FTSE Indexes, prices, or even figures for wages and employment. Behind all these lie the economic systems that determine these indicators to a great extent, but also do more.

The system we’re living under now, of course, in most parts of the world, is capitalism, and a late version or ‘stage’ of capitalism to boot. This explains everything, at bottom. Only the surface details – politics, the press, religion, Brexit – vary according to other factors. They are – today – the visible and local manifestations of the slow and uneven, but still inexorable, shuffle of the great capitalist leviathan towards its self-destruction; and whatever may follow that. I’m sorry to sound so Marxist here; but Karl was a wise old bird. (He wasn’t sure what would follow the Götterdämmerung, either.) In fact I’ve taken it mainly from my dear old doctoral subject, the mild but immensely influential JA Hobson, who called himself a Liberal. I don’t pretend to have the maths or the grasp of theory which would enable me to prove this, but only my ‘History’, with which it all seems to ‘fit’.

Here’s my very broad take on the history of the last couple of hundred (British) years. The beginning of that period saw the establishment of industrial capitalism first in Britain, and then in Europe and America. In Britain it stimulated a huge increase in production, a surplus of population which helped to keep wages low, and a great boost to her overseas trade, partly in the search for raw materials, and partly to offload the surplus goods – and later capital – which the domestic market, partly because of the low wages, couldn’t soak up. As a result she came to depend on those markets, and on their potential expansion, now in competition with other newly-industrialised nations; which was the main factor behind nineteenth century British, European and American imperialisms and the clashes they gave rise to. By around 1900, with nearly all the ‘virgin’ markets in the (‘third’) world having been taken over by the industrialised economies, expansion became more and more difficult, without the expansionary powers bumping into one another. Hence the succession of wars that marked the twentieth century, which – whatever their immediate motives – had the gruesomely welcome effect of expanding Britain’s and the USA’s overseas markets; partly by winning new ones, and partly through the destruction wrought by them, which eased the ‘over-production’ crisis by requiring stuff to be replaced. That extended capitalism’s life a little longer. Another extension was achieved by the establishment of ‘welfare states’ in Britain and other countries of Europe, which cushioned the ‘people’ against the full and natural repercussions of a struggling capitalism: namely the social privations that today go under the name of ‘austerity’. They might seem to imply – and persuaded many of us non-Marxist Leftists at the time – that Karl had been wrong, and a capitalist Götterdämmerung was not  ‘inexorable’. With some modifications at the edges, we could save the best parts of the free enterprise system without its leading us all to destruction. That’s what kept us from ‘communism’. But then came Thatcher.

Well: not Thatcher personally, who was merely the tool of ‘History’, together with Pinochet and Reagan over the pond. It turned out that the Welfare State created its own tensions, especially for the propertied classes, who were unwilling to pay for it out of their ill-gotten gains, which they spirited away to ‘tax havens’; and who had the Daily Mail, lots of money, a propensity for amoralism, and a quiverful of seductive but mean and reactionary arguments to hurl at the ‘socialists’ (so-called). Hence the ‘Great Reaction’ – my neologism, but it would be nice if it caught on – of the 1980s onwards; a natural outcome of ‘late’ capitalism, which is still determining so many aspects of the world around us today. The commodification of universities is the one I’m best acquainted with; but there are many others: from the language of capitalism which is now almost universal (railway ‘customers’ in place of ‘passengers’, for example; ‘human resources’ replacing ‘personnel’ departments); to the privatisation of even ‘public’ utilities, and the dreadful things that have happened to the Premier League. Most of the things that people complain about today have their roots in this late – and hopefully final – ‘stage’ of capitalism. If only more people were aware of it; rather than blaming their woes on the targets the Daily Mail directs them towards: like foreign immigration, ‘scroungers’, ‘socialism’, the Guardian, and those elitist and ermined ‘enemies of the people’ at the top.

I’m thinking of writing a short book on this, if I can summon up the energy. If I call it ‘The End Time’, I hope people won’t think it’s about the ‘Rapture’. An alternative might be Götterdämmerung; q.v. George Bernard Shaw’s Marxist interpretation of The Ring. Come to think of it, both Wagner and modern eschatological theology could be seen as products of late-stage capitalism.

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Referendum Perpetuum

I’m watching the Commons debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill. It’s even rowdier than usual. Everybody is agreed that the government is in a mess with its Brexit negotiations. At one stage a couple of days ago Boris Johnson was clandestinely filmed saying that he wished Trump were doing the negotiation rather than May: ‘The Art of the Deal’, and all that. May was not amused when Corbyn quoted this back to her at Prime Minister’s Question time. But in truth, the main difficulty is the sheer impossibility of the task: extricating us from forty years of membership, while at the same time trying to reconcile a number of frank inconsistencies – the main one being the Northern Irish border. May is struggling. The Scots Nats have already stormed out of the House in a huff. I keep hoping that at one stage Theresa will give up too – ‘Fuck this!’ – throw her papers in the air, and stalk out of the Chamber and out of our lives. It would make splendid theatre, and might be the only way of getting us out of this mess. It would be in the interests of her nation. But I don’t see her as a willing martyr.

One interesting thing about the debate is that none of the Brexiteers is offering any constructive or reasoned arguments for leaving the EU. They used to point to the advantages they believed would accrue to Britain after ‘independence’ – ‘sunny uplands’ – but they hardly dare to mention these any more. That’s because they have been pretty well proved to be fanciful. Even some Brexiteers accept this: that it’s better to be poor than what Jacob Rees-Mogg calls ‘a vassal state’. Nor can they give any examples of the way EU regulations have harmed us; now that Boris’s old lie about ‘straight bananas’ has been nailed. Almost the only argument that is made, and repeated endlessly, is the evidence of the referendum: for whatever reasons – and Brexiteers insist it really was about the EU – ‘the people’ voted ‘out’ (two years ago); a decision which is writ in stone, and so must be ‘respected’. Not respecting it would indicate an elitist and patronising view of ‘the people’. Seeking to reverse that original decision – even with the facts and difficulties now known, the cheating exposed, and after a second referendum that some of the ‘Remainers’ are asking for – would be ‘undemocratic’, even treasonous.

I’ve addressed this question already. The only point I want to make here is that it has become virtually the only argument the Brexiteers now seem to be clinging to; backed up with chilling warnings – by one Tory MP just a few minutes ago, for example – that reneging would provoke a bloody uprising of ‘the people’.

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1936 All Over Again?

This is beginning to scare me: http://www.standuptoracism.org.uk/violent-racists-draw-15000-in-london-to-support-tommy-robinson-and-scapegoat-muslims/). Yes, I’m sure it was all there before, simmering under the surface; but Brexit must be held partly responsible for bringing it into the open and seeming to legitimise it.

For foreign readers: Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon; I guess he changed it to make him sound more ‘one of the people’), was arrested and imprisoned the other day for repeated offences of contempt of court. These involved photographing and publishing pictures of (Asian) defendants and witnesses attending a trial for crimes involving paedophilia, which if the jury had seen the pictures would have necessitated stopping the proceedings, and ordering a re-trial. ‘Robinson’ is perhaps our most prominent ‘fringe’ Rightist today, having previously been involved in various neo- or quasi-Nazi movements, including most recently the ‘English Defence League’. His main target is Muslims; in the old days it would have been Jews. On this occasion, however, he wasn’t indicted for his political views, and indeed he pleaded guilty to the ‘contempt’ charge. His followers, however, are treating it as a ‘free speech’ issue, and so demonstrating against it in numbers. Their street violence is directed against Left-wing demonstrators (a far smaller number, apparently), brown faces, and the police.

What may be considered odd is that the media – newspapers and TV – scarcely covered this really quite serious riot (for that is what it was) in their papers and news bulletins, in a way they certainly would have done if ‘Lefties’ had been involved – especially when our ‘boys in blue’ were a target. Originally the judge imposed a ban on reporting, but that is lifted now, I think.

I genuinely don’t know the reason for this media silence. I don’t like to hint, conspiratorially, at an ‘Establishment cover-up’, but it’s looking increasingly plausible. If so, I’m pretty sure it’s not because the Guardian and the BBC are on the side of the Neo-Nazis. It might be so as not to give the latter the wider publicity that might encourage them. Or to dampen down the fears of the rest of us that Britain might be heading towards a kind of Fascism. There are certainly signs of that, with the Daily Mail – Adolph’s old champion in 1936 – doing all it can to stir up the resentments and prejudices of the folk who have been failed by the ‘old politics’. And with the American Alt-Right in there too, as revealed in this report.

In any event, I can see – and even hope for – a new ‘Battle of Cable Street’ coming up. Here’s a newsreel of the original one (1936).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AQDOjQGZuA.

Exciting times. (Too exciting for me.)

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Do They Want to Win?

Sometimes I wonder whether the Brexiteers are really serious about our leaving the EU. The whole thing looks such a mess – the issues so much more complex than the Brexiteers led us to believe, and than most of us – even Remainers – expected; the negotiations so tortuous; the negotiators on the British side so uncertain, divided against themselves, and in many cases frankly ridiculous (I’m thinking ‘Boris’ here, but May and Davis are hardly less so); the original narrow Brexit vote largely discredited, clearly based as it was on lies and social media manipulation; the weight of expert opinion now firmly against Brexit on economic grounds, with some civil servants predicting ‘Armageddon’, forcing even the ultra-ridiculous Nigel Farage to peddle back on his claim that it would be good for us; the Lords – surprisingly the cooler-headed of the two Houses, mainly because they’re not so beholden to the Right-wing press (see https://bernardjporter.com/2018/05/10/their-lordships/) – seeking to at least hold the process up; and that same press and its billionaire owners now resorting to insults and calumnies – ‘traitors’, ‘plotters’, ‘enemies of the people’, ‘accept it or go and live somewhere else’ – whose air of desperation must surely indicate that they fear the tide is beginning to turn.

The likelihood is that if this doesn’t force a re-think, in the form of a second referendum or a meaningful vote in Parliament, Britain will exit the European Union in a couple of years against the wishes of her people at that time. Enough oldies – the bulk of the Brexit vote – will have died, to be replaced by pro-European 18-23-year olds (see https://bernardjporter.com/2017/03/29/brexit-unfair-to-the-young/). But they won’t be heard. (Hopefully pro-European oldies, like me, will be spared.)

What effect that will have is hard to predict, but must surely be sowing the seeds of concern in the pro-Brexit camp. Many of those, including Johnson and Gove, never originally expected to win the referendum, but took the side they did mainly to establish their populist credentials. Others, like May, didn’t want to win, and indeed voted the other way. They’re all finding now that it’s easier to oppose than to govern; to pull down than to rebuild. And they must be at least a little worried by the effect this whole event is having on the political and public discourse in Britain and wider afield, with the rise of fascist-leaning nationalisms all over.

Could this be an explanation for the incompetent and chaotic way the government is pursuing its diplomacy in Europe just now? It doesn’t want to ‘win’. Ministers have suddenly become frightened by the prospect of uncoupling from Europe, as its repercussions become clearer. They don’t know what to do. They have no plans, even for their much vaunted ‘global trade’ agenda, aside from accepting chlorinated chicken from Trump’s USA. They’re in a hole – a deep, dark pit, indeed – and know it. They’re secretly hoping that it will all collapse, without the Daily Mail’s  being able to put the blame on them. Perhaps they’re simply waiting for the evil Dacre’s replacement as editor of the Mail in the autumn – by a Remainer, apparently. I suppose that’s the only hope we have, too.

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Brexit Blues

I can’t see any way out of this. We brought it upon ourselves; or at least, David Cameron did. Isn’t it interesting, and also alarming, how much influence smooth, shallow people can have on History, and usually for the worse? That’s a factor we serious historians rarely take account of; just as we’re left puzzled by clowns like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. (And, over the pond, Donald Trump.) Outlandish figures like this appear to make the whole process of History random. And if it’s that, how can we hope to explain it rationally?

Of course it hasn’t been entirely random, although these little twists in the tail of events may have been. Although the Brexit vote wasn’t, as I’ve argued from the beginning, mainly about Europe (see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/), it did reflect something more than mere chance. It was of course a popular protest vote – but not necessarily against the European Union, which was widely blamed but not really responsible for people’s woes. Even ‘free movement’ was not the real cause, having nothing to do with the extra-European immigration that was the sort that people mainly resented. The underlying reason for people’s discontent was the impact of ‘austerity’; or, to put it slightly more controversially, of late-stage capitalism, as it struggles on towards its Götterdämmerung. This in fact was the crucial factor behind most European countries’ (and the USA’s) different forms of protest movement in recent years, either of the Left or of the Right. (Because most people were blind to the ‘late-stage capitalism’ aspect of it, they could go either way; just as they did in the 1930s.) These movements were then hi-jacked by upper-class politicians with very different motives and reasons for complaint, including, in Britain, post-imperial resentment.

It’s obvious to most of us that Brexit will neither restore Britain’s domestic prosperity and welfare, nor her prestige and power in the world – nor even her national independence in the face of the global pressures that will be brought against her in her ‘splendid isolation’. Which means that it’s all been a dreadful mistake.

It’s easy to understand how this could have come about: through the calling of a simple-majority referendum on a single vaguely-defined and yet existential national issue; called (by Cameron) for narrow party political reasons, and against strict constitutional law; decided on the basis of widespread deception and cheating on the ‘Brexit’ side; and moreover, by an electorate which differed fundamentally from what it will become when Britain actually leaves the EU (by which time many of the old Brexiters will have died off, to be replaced by young Remainers); and yet without any possibility of undoing it, even when all these flaws have been made blindingly obvious.

A re-run, or at least a second parliamentary or popular vote on the actual terms of the ‘divorce’ arrangements, would seem to be the obvious solution. Of course the result might be the same, but in that case it would be seen to be more legitimate, because people would have had a better idea of what they were voting for. Brexiters claim it wouldn’t be democratic: ‘the people have spoken, get used to it’; as if democrats aren’t ever allowed to change their minds, or as though two votes are somehow less democratic than one. Hence their resistance to a second vote; backed by the Right-wing popular press, using terms like ‘traitor’ against ‘Remoaners’; one of the worst and least free ‘fourth estates’ in the world – see https://bernardjporter.com/2018/04/26/the-uk-press-number-40-still/ –  but which British politicians appear to crouch in abject fear of.

Imagine what would happen if Brexit were reversed, or even ‘softened’ – with Britain remaining in the Customs Union and European Free Market, for example. Brexiters (and the Daily Mail) would cry ‘Treason’. They might even foment a civil war, of one kind or another. That’s what I’m genuinely afraid of. If Brexit goes through – especially a ‘hard’ one – we on the other side will feel just as angry and resentful, but probably won’t take up arms. We’re better educated than the Brexiters – if that makes a difference. We’re also in less desperate circumstances than were those who were misled into giving the ruling élite a bloody nose by choosing Brexit; or those whose nostalgic yearning for a mythical imperial past has made them desperate in other ways.

So we’re basically fucked. Only a miracle can get us out of this hole. Perhaps ‘Doggerland’ rising from the waves, connecting us geographically to the Continent again. Or Trump’s America attacking us, reminding us of our dependence on our neighbours. Or the Daily Mail switching sides. Or the British people coming to their senses. (OK, unlikely, I concede.)

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Home Office

Home Office’ sounds rather comfortable – ‘homely’, ‘friendly’, ‘family’.  Abroad the equivalent is usually called a ‘Ministry of the Interior’, or some such. That gives off quite different vibes, more suited to police states. Which is what the UK, in its ‘home’ policies, may be gravitating towards.

It probably pre-dates her; but ever since Theresa May’s time as Secretary of State the Home Office has gone out of its way to seem strikingly less ‘home-like’ – harder, a more ‘hostile environment’, less welcoming, less liberal and more unforgiving – than ever before. This is especially true in relation to foreigners; and even towards those of its own legitimate citizens who can’t cope with the obstacle course it puts in their way before it will recognise their legitimacy (q.v. the Windrush scandal). It is also becoming notorious for its rank inefficiency: ‘losing’ its supplicants’ important papers, for example. (See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/may/31/vital-immigration-papers-lost-by-uk-home-office.) And Theresa claims it is still unable to find one big file that was deposited with her a few years ago, containing evidence of alleged paedophile activities by MPs and other bigwigs in the past. Oh dear. You’d have thought that was something they would have taken good care of, wouldn’t you? Or perhaps they did. Is that the problem? Another nasty 1970s scandal – there were plenty of them – brushed under the carpet.

I worked there once, on some late nineteenth century documents they thought weren’t safe to pass on to the Public Record Office – papers to do with foreign refugees, as it happens. I had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and to have the HO vet everything I published that was based on those papers. The OSA covered anything I learned or did in the Home Office, quite apart from the documents I consulted. Anything. I joked to my students that I was breaking the law by telling them how much a plate of plaice and chips cost in the Home Office canteen. That was technically the case. Indeed, I may even be transgressing the Act here by revealing that I signed it there.

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Arkady Babchenko

I still don’t get it. Arkady Babchenko, journalist and critic of Putin, is shot three times in the back in Kiev. There’s a photo of him in all the papers swimming in his own blood. Everyone in the West leaps in to blame Putin. The Kremlin denies responsibility.

Then, a day later, Babchenko turns up at a news conference in Kiev, fit and well. It turns out to have all been a plot. (Or a trick, for those who resile against ‘conspiracy theories’.) Obituaries have to be pulled from the next day’s papers. Boris Johnson in particular gets egg on his face, for being one of the first to be fooled. (This just a few days after he’s revealed to have been taken in on the phone by a trickster claiming to be the Armenian President. He claims he spotted the con immediately, but the phone call was logged at 18 minutes.) The Babchenko wheeze was apparently the idea of the Ukraine Secret Service, with the object of smoking a genuine Kremlin assassin out. There’s a drawing of the man they suspect in the papers. He looks a bit like Jeremy Corbyn. Has this story got any further to go?

So far it doesn’t seem to stack up. How can faking an assassination be used to reveal a genuine suspect, who obivously had nothing to do with it? Maybe we’ll be told. (I can’t believe that there’s no rational explanation. The Ukrainian Secret Service must be cleverer than that.)

The other problem with it, of course, is that it will throw doubt on all those other mysterious deaths of Russian dissidents, which are always blamed on the Russian state, but could – just could – have been similarly contrived in order to mislead. What about the Skripals, for example, who Boris was certain must have been the target of a cunning Russki assassination plot, but who then – a bit like Babchenko – turned up alive and well. Wasn’t Boris, at the very least, a bit hasty in rushing to judgment over that? This Babchenko episode must get us to think again about all these plots. (Only ‘think again’, mind; we can still believe, as I do, that the Kremlin or its agents were probably responsible.)

In any event, the affaire Babchenko isn’t exactly a propaganda coup for the West. Perhaps it was all set up by the Russians, as a kind of double bluff. They’re definitely clever enough. And Boris is definitely fool enough to help.

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