A Wilderness of Mirrors

Gladstone was probably Britain’s last manifestly honest Prime Minister, though he had to wriggle a bit in order to maintain that reputation. (It was I who discovered that he deliberately absented himself from one of his own cabinet meetings, called to discuss the formation of a secret political police branch, so that he could disclaim knowledge of it afterwards. There’s also that business of him and the dirty books…) Since then there have been very few completely trustworthy senior Ministers. Blair tried to make himself out to be a good, Christian statesman, until he was rumbled over the Iraq War. Robin Cook was unusually honest, but then died. Harold Wilson had a reputation for trickery, but in fact was one of the least inclined to tell porkies, unless he really was the Russian spy that MI5 suspected him to be. (He was also, in my minority view, one of our great Prime Ministers.) Thatcher of course was a dyed-in-the-wool conspirator. Major looked honest, which was often read as naiveté. – Indeed, that’s probably the fate that awaits any ‘good’ politician in the modern more cynical age, in which honesty is either taken for weakness, or else simply not credited. Corbyn will get plenty of that, if – when? – he becomes Prime Minister.

There have always been dishonest politicians, of course, but the present age may be the most disgraceful of all in this regard. Ministers seem quite blasé about telling dreadful untruths, often for just momentary effect. An example was Theresa May’s attempt only yesterday to pin the responsibility for the destruction of Windrush arrivals’ disembarkation cards (necessary to claim residence) on the last Labour government, which got her a great cheer from the benches behind her, but was shown ten minutes later to have been a lie. She and her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, can hardly help themselves. It’s said that Johnson really can’t tell the difference between ‘genuine’ and ‘fake’. That figures, if the only use he has of words and ‘facts’ is as counters in a game. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2018/04/08/the-playing-fields-of-eton/.) It also of course fits in with the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ in the US – they’ve got it as badly as us; and with the generally amoral spirit of the times. 

It’s also bewildering: as I suspect it’s partly intended to be. Who can be trusted, if anyone? I’m trying to sort out at present what really happened in Salisbury last month, and in Douma last week, with reports coming in from all sides flatly disputing the official versions of who was responsible for those two poisonings. Of course it’s possible to make some sort of judgment by looking carefully at the credentials of the reporters, the reliability of the media channeling their reports, and – above all – the evidence they present. But most of us don’t have time for all that. Which means that the debate is mostly conducted in what the American spook James Jesus Angleton once called a ‘wilderness of mirrors’. We decide on the basis of instinct, which generally means prejudice.

One of the reasons for my admiration of Jeremy Corbyn – apart from the fact that he’s my generation, with the same sartorial taste, and similar principles – is that he has promised to put politics back on to a more polite and straightforward path. His disavowal of ‘personal’ attacks is part of that; hopefully a revival of political honesty will be another. He has already shown how reliable his judgment is, having been right about most things over the years. The most recent example is his vote – one of only eighteen – against Theresa May’s immigration Act of 2014: the one that has caused all the trouble with the Windrush folks. He has also shown amazing personal endurance, simply by still standing after all the unprecedented and often vile attacks that have been launched at him. Maybe my support for him is naive. From the point of view of his ‘leadership’ image in the Press it might have been better if he had once been a soldier, or a comedy game-show contestant, or at least not made his own jam. But it could mark a real moral revolution in our widely discredited national politics, if he were to win.

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A Conspiracy?

Oh please don’t let it be a Jewish conspiracy! It would undermine my whole historical world view, built up over the last 70-odd years, if it were. As a historian I’m fully aware of the conspiracies attributed to the Jews over time – the blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and so on, which were obviously cruelly false; and – in more general terms – am unwilling to ascribe any major historical event to the plotting of a minority, as against the open decisions of rulers and the broader impersonal imperatives of history. The very idea of world events being significantly affected by secret cabals offends me. 

I accept that people do plot – I’ve written about secret service conspiracies – and it may be that I’m only reluctant to accept the effectiveness of their plots because I’m a rational historian who wants events to happen for reasons that I can rationally understand. (It’s sometimes called the ‘intellectualist assumption’, or ‘delusion’.) I’m also temperamentally very Judeophile (is that the word?), and anti-antisemitic. So I should prefer to believe that the current campaign against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds of his, or its, anti-semitism is not part of a Jewish plot to destroy them. As I wrote a couple of days ago: it would be a tragedy not only for Labour if that were so, but also for British Jewry, giving Corbyn’s supporters at last a genuine reason to mistrust them, and so possibly provoking a degree of antisemitism in the party that was not there before.

But in truth the anti-Corbyn onslaught is beginning to look more and more like a Jewish – or, far more likely, an Israeli government – conspiracy. Why has it suddenly broken out now? Before Corbyn became leader, I was aware of no such public complaints against the party. So why today, suddenly? Why are the many Jewish voices in support of Corbyn, and disputing the charges made against him, being suppressed by – apparently – even the Guardian? (See: http://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/media/guardian-denies-space-to-650-labour-party-members-challenging-hostile-media-coverage/.) Surely the Guardian isn’t part of the plot? Who was behind those huge billboards wheeled past Parliament and Labour’s HQ yesterday proclaiming Labour’s endemic antisemitism? (See http://metro.co.uk/2018/04/17/three-anti-semitism-billboards-criticising-jeremy-corbyn-driven-past-labour-hq-7475128/.) ‘Crowd-funded’, apparently; but by and led by whom?

Lastly, and perhaps most telling: which foreign country is most likely to gain from the defeat of a pro-Palestinian and quasi-pacifist Labour leader at the next election? Some British Jews are clearly of the opinion that criticising any aspect of Israeli government policy in Gaza or the West Bank – settlements, shootings and so on – is tantamount to denying the Jews their right to a national home in Palestine, and consequently indistinguishable from antisemitism. It’s quite possible that they alone are responsible for the anti-Corbyn campaign – egged on, of course, by rich Tories for their own purposes – so we don’t need to believe that the Israeli government or secret services are directly implicated. If they are, however, it must raise questions about the coming election – whenever that is – similar to those raised about Russian involvement in the Brexit and American Presidential votes. 

Again, and for the sake of my Jewish friends: please God – or Jehovah, or Allah, or the fairies at the bottom of the garden – let that not be so. Surely any intelligent Jew – and the Jews are known, stereotypically, for their intelligence – would not risk what seems such a blatant conspiracy. I’m clinging on to that, in order to hold on to my old world view.

PS. Here’s the best defence of Corbyn and Labour on the ‘anti-semitism’ charge that I’ve read so far: from a website called ‘off-guardian’ – perhaps in protest against the Guardian‘s curiously anti-Corbyn bias: https://off-guardian.org/2018/04/18/corbyn-the-anti-semitism-question/. And another, on the letters page of the Guardian itself: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/politics/2018/apr/02/stop-jeremy-corbyns-trial-by-media-over-antisemitism. I’m not alone!

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I don’t want to defend the British Empire – though I might want to excuse it in some small ways – but one of its more admirable traits at its peak was its inclusion of all its subjects as British citizens, irrespective of birth or ‘race’, with the rights to travel, live and work in the ‘mother country’ as freely as the indigenous Brits did (without the colonial people’s permission) in their countries.

In reality, the Empire was always an awkward mix of colonial oppression and genuine internationalism, which is why it gathered the support of some progressives and liberals at the time; with this notion of an ‘imperial nationality’ an expression of its ‘international’ side. Hence the situation that the ‘Windrush generation’ now finds itself in, of not having needed to secure a specific British nationality when they came in 50+ years ago, at Britain’s request – to help her repair her economy after the Second World War – but are now – or were until yesterday – suddenly uprooted from their lifetime homes in Britain, incarcerated in holding camps, and threatened with summary deportation to countries they hardly remember. (‘Windrush’ is a reference to the name of the boat the first 400-odd of them embarked on from Jamaica to Britain in 1948.)

Between 1962 and 1971, mainly as a result of public protest about the scale of foreign and especially ‘coloured’ immigration into Britain, this generous imperial-era policy was severely curtailed, so that – in effect, though this was never explicitly stated – only white colonials had this right. The new laws clearly operated retrospectively, otherwise the Windrush generation could have stayed. That’s the legal root of the position these good people find themselves in. Some may have been deported already. Others are in ‘detention centres’. All of them now feel under threat of removal from the only country they have known as home, and which they have served for – in some cases – half a century.

Fortunately a widespread public protest on their behalf, led by the Guardian newspaper and David Lammy, MP, has resulted in a last-minute re-think by Theresa May, and a stay of execution at the very least. Here is a clip of Lammy’s powerful speech in the House of Commons yesterday.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2q2dQlsywY (just the first part).

OK, so it may all be put right now. But that won’t entirely erase the stain that will attach to Theresa May for having tolerated this situation for all the years that she was Home Secretary, desperate to appease the xenophobes on her side of the house, and intent on making Britain a ‘hostile environment’ (her exact words) for migrants. For a historian of Britain’s proud record of openness and inclusion, that indicates that she has very little idea of the best qualities that used to attach to her country’s self-identity, and of how close she is guiding the country to what could be regarded as the proto-fascist racial nationalism that we used to pride ourselves on being immune from. For someone brought up as a Christian, it also makes me wonder where her self-professed Christianity comes from. Maybe someone should look into her vicar father’s career and beliefs.

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Have You Stopped Beating the Jews?

If you intend to vote Conservative in the next General Election because of Corbyn’s critical attitude towards the present government of Israel, and if that is the most important issue in the world for you, then go ahead. It’s a reasonable line to take. But please don’t argue that it’s on account of the Labour Party’s endemic ‘anti-semitism’, or even its failure to acknowledge and expel the pockets of anti-semitism that may – probably do – exist within the party. As non-racist critics of Israel, including very many Jewish ones, have been screaming at you for years, the two positions are not identical, and to elide them is irresponsible, to say the least. 

I’ve written before here about Labour and the Jews. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/04/28/anti-semitism-and-labour/; https://bernardjporter.com/2016/05/04/antisemitism-again/; https://bernardjporter.com/2017/12/19/more-anti-semitism/; and most recently, https://bernardjporter.com/2018/03/28/israel-jezza-and-imperialism/.) I don’t want to repeat myself; but the salient facts are these. (1) Labour has been the most pro-Jewish party in Britain from its earliest days, anti-semitism usually being associated with the Right. (2) Historically Britain was the least anti-semitic nation in Europe during the periods when most others were falling under its evil sway: we even had a Jewish-origin prime minister, for pity’s sake. And (3), hardly any of the ‘evidence’ being dredged up now for Labour anti-semitism bears much scrutiny, including Ken Livingstone’s notorious statement that Hitler was once in favour of a national home for the Jews, which happens to be historically true. (It was, of course, in order to get rid of them without needing to gas them.) Livingstone’s statement was intended to make the point that you could be anti-semitic without being an enemy of Israel, and vice-versa. It was certainly insensitive, but only to particularly sensitive people, which, of course, on this issue many Jews are. It will have been the combination of ‘Hitler’ and ‘Israel’ in the same sentence that did it.

One can understand this sensitivity, in view of the Jews’ appalling suffering throughout history, and particularly in the wake – and we are still in its wake – of the Nazi Holocaust. But it’s no proof of Labour’s ‘anti-semitism’, or even of Ken Livingstone’s. The same applies to most other isolated examples presented of anti-Jewish opinion within the party, which either represent only a tiny minority (some are anonymous tweets), or are extrapolated from views expressed either about Israel, or about finance-capitalism: with which Jews of course are particularly and historically associated. Lastly, it is simply wrong to claim that the Labour leadership has been reluctant to deal with the cases of genuine anti-semitism it has found in its ranks. Since the Chakrabarti Report (2016) it has taken strict measures – within the constraints of natural justice – to eliminate them. Corbyn personally has made no secret of his distaste for all kinds of racism, which most people accept as genuine. Unfortunately when he joined in a Jewish celebration of Passover a month ago which ought to have emphasised this, it turned out, according to his critics, to be the ‘wrong sorts’ of Jews.

The major point I want to make here, however, concerns the harm that this anti-antisemitic movement could do to Labour’s cause in the next Election. Not only Jews are likely to be turned off by it, but also other liberal voters who have been hearing the clamour and are – I would say – misled by it. Anti-semitism, after all, is the vilest charge that could be directed at anyone in this day and age, with the stench of the Holocaust inevitably attaching to it; more serious – and hence much less often expressed – than other kinds of racism. (Quite incidentally, didn’t I read somewhere of a rabbi in Israel referring to black Americans as ‘monkeys? https://www.timesofisrael.com/chief-rabbi-compares-african-americans-to-monkeys/. You find these sorts of prejudices everywhere. I wouldn’t dream of using them to stigmatise all Israeli Jews.) If a significant number of Jews and anti-racist Gentiles refuse to support Labour on these false grounds it will be a national tragedy, in my view; all my hopes for my country of origin resting as they do on a revival of the moderate socialism of my youth.

It could also blow back damagingly on the Jewish community in Britain, if its shrill cries are blamed for this upshot. One distinguishing characteristic of Britain throughout most of her history has been the low profile the Jews have managed to keep while they’ve been our compatriots. Even when their capitalists have sinned egregiously – like Sir Philip Green a couple of years ago (see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/04/26/bhs-and-a-victorian-villain/) – virtually nothing is made of their Jewishness, if people are even aware of it. This present campaign, exploited of course by the (non-Jewish) billionaire-owned Right-wing press, for whom it is a convenient stick with which to beat a dangerously Left-wing Labour Party, is putting British Judaism in the spotlight again. That could be uncomfortable for them in the longer term, and highly regrettable for us non-Jewish liberals; and all because of what I still maintain is a terrible misunderstanding, at best.


I deliberated long with myself before writing and posting this. These are dangerous waters to dip one’s toe into. Feelings are running too high. I may well be accused of subconscious anti-semitism myself, or of ‘denial’ – rather like holocaust deniers – of the ‘true scale of the problem’. I’ll be told that as a non-Jew I can’t appreciate the discrimination and hostility the Jews face, apparently uniquely. It’s hard for Jews, obviously; but it’s also difficult for those of us on the outside who think as I do: that it isn’t much of a general problem really. It’s rather like the old question: ’have you stopped beating your wife? Yes or no?’ In much the same way Corbyn is repeatedly asked, ‘has the Labour Party stopped discriminating against the Jews?’ The politic answer must be yes; but it’s a misleading one.

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The Full Goebbels

Anyone who doubts how unhinged some of our leading Brexiteers are should take a look at this clip of UKIP’s Nigel Farage, on American TV, freed from the constraints of rational British debate. He’s obviously pandering to a Fox (?) audience. I don’t suppose it occurred to him that he might be overheard here.

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Personality and Ishoos

The late Tony Benn used to deplore the emphasis placed on ‘personality’ in modern democratic politics, to the detriment of what he called ‘the ishoos’. (It came out like the end of a sneeze.) Of course he was right, although it has to be said that in his time – in his youth, at any rate – it was possible for a major political party to be led by a rather dull person. The greatest peacetime prime minister of the last century, Clement Attlee, had virtually no ‘personality’, as it would be defined today, at all. ‘A modest man who has much to be modest about’, was Churchill’s famous – and quite unmerited – quip about him. Churchill, of course, had ‘personality’ in spades. That was probably needed in the War, to buck people up. On the ‘ishoos’, apart from the major one of the time, he was rather unreliable, by contrast with Attlee. (Attlee also, incidentally, though he never bruited it himself, had a more distinguished military record.)

The modern emphasis on ‘personality’ – I blame ‘Big Brother’ – has given us political leaders like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg. None of them has anything else to distinguish him, like intellectual depth or good judgment. Those are qualities which it’s difficult to learn; unlike ‘personality’ which can be taken on like a suit of clothes. It’s often identified with eccentricity – easy to spot in those three examples; but is bolstered by a sense of self-confidence. 

I don’t want to go on yet again about the Public schools; but they must be partly to blame in this latter respect. They are widely famous for instilling a sense of self-worth in their pupils, generally by making them feel superior to the ‘oiks’ or ‘plebs’ – every Public school has its own term for them – who are unlucky enough to go to State comprehensives. But it also gives them an exaggerated idea of their own intrinsic abilities, which is a dangerous trait in anyone. Personally, if I’m to be ruled by anyone – Prime Minister, Boss, Head of Department, wife – I’d prefer it if they were just a little unsure of themselves. 

‘Personality’ is invariably tied up – often confused – with self-confidence. It doesn’t have to be. Churchill had gnawing doubts – his ‘black dog’ – and was all the better for them. Thatcher, the ‘conviction politician’ par excellence, apparently didn’t; and just look at the results. Where Corbyn stands on this scale I’m not sure. I still hope that his gentler and more genuine ‘personality’ will shine through eventually. And that he has his doubts, too.

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Breaking the Mould

It must be Spring. New political parties are sprouting all over. The two latest are Britain’s millionaire-funded ‘Project One Movement’ – a provisional title, presumably: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/apr/07/new-political-party-break-mould-westminster-uk-brexit; and, here in Sweden, the ‘Alternativ för Sverige’ party, the name obviously a nod to the ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ group formed in Germany in 2014: see https://alternativforsverige.se. These were both launched, or at least announced, in the last couple of days, although they had been cooking for several months. 

There’s not much else to connect them. Alternativ för Sverige is a far-Right party, even more extreme than the established Sverige Demokraten, which up to now had been the furthest to the Right that anyone had thought liberal Sweden could possibly go. AfS believes that SD has gone soft on immigration, in its anxiety to be accepted as ‘respectable’ by the other parties. Here’s the opening of its Manifesto (in translation):

‘Sweden was previously one of the world’s most successful countries, but today it is a country in crisis. Previously Sweden was admired all over the world. Today, the situation is completely different. In our Nordic neighbours and in the rest of Europe, Sweden is raised as a horror example. The lessons learned are about avoiding Sweden’s mistakes.

‘Sweden 2018 has few successes and many crises. Migration crisis, police crisis, health crisis. The crisis in defence, at school, in the housing market. The crises increase both in strength and scope, but the ruling politicians offer no solutions. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge the existence of the problems. The same politicians who caused the problems can never be part of the solution. They are the problem themselves.’

I have to say, as an Englishman living in Sweden, that all this seems somewhat over-wrought. If the Swedes think they have problems, look at us! More specifically, according to AfS, Sweden’s problems are, of course, immigration (like other European far-Right parties, incidentally, AfS uses Nigel Farage’s notorious ‘Breaking Point’ UKIP poster to illustrate this); and the ‘political correctness’ that doesn’t allow people to point this out. AfS stands not only for a ban on all new asylum seekers, but also for the ‘repatriation’ of those already here. What its political chances are we’ll learn at the time of the next Swedish General Election, due in September this year. (I’ll be here for that, and even possibly entitled to vote, if they accept me as a dual Swedish citizen in time; and before AfS gets me turfed out.)  

The new British party is much more centrist, rather in the style of the old Social Democratic Party (the ‘Gang of Four’) which split the Labour Party in the early 1980s, on the grounds that the latter was moving too far to the Left. The effect of that, of course, was to give a free-er rein to Thatcher than she would have had otherwise. It seems to be banking on defections from the present Labour and Conservative parties – ‘Blairites’ and Tory pro-Europeans; and the rump (if there is one left) of the Liberal-Democrats. The revival of socialism in the Labour Party is obviously the provocation to this, as it was in 1981. Whether it will prove as electorally beneficial to Theresa May as it was to Thatcher, and as disastrous to Labour and the cause of social democracy, remains to be seen.

The common factor joining these otherwise sharply contrasting groups is their stated desire to ‘break the mould’ of conventional or ‘establishment’ politics in their two countries; a purpose shared by a number of other new-ish ‘third’ parties in Europe, including UKIP in Britain until recently, and Trump’s Republican following in America. This clearly indicates a problem of democracy world-wide. Existing political parties are no longer felt to represent even the people who may have voted for them, so there is a fundamental disconnect between nations and their governments. In Britain this is expressed in terms like the ‘Westminster bubble’; in America ‘the swamp’. Each country has a different set of factors feeding into this – particular grievances, pressures, events – but it is interesting, and must be significant, that they are all coming at the same time. It’s not difficult to espy general circumstances which may lay behind them all: ‘globalisation’, in any of its versions; huge world-wide movements of population, leading to immigration ‘crises’; the recent worldwide spread of militant Islam; possibly global warming; overpopulation; ‘imperialisms’ of various kinds; and the frenzied death-throes of late-stage world capitalism. Feeding on these are various ideologies regarded as ‘extreme’, and so to be feared: the very obvious revival of nationalism, giving tribal comfort to the fearful, but also redolent of appalling dangers we have passed through before; and the socialism that the nationalists and the late-stage capitalists fear so much. Presenting it as a world crisis helps us to understand it, but also implies that the only solution is a world-wide one. Yet one of the major platforms of many of these new political parties (the Right-wing ones) is to reject internationalism outright: the UN by Trump, the EU by our British Ukippers, and apparently NATO by AfS. And an international socialist revolution – which in my biassed view would be the best solution – seems hopeless at the present time. Indeed, another thing that AfS and the new British party have in common is their desire to prevent the rise of socialism, though in entirely different ways.

In the meantime there must be ways of reforming the political systems of some of these countries in order to prevent their being controlled by ‘establishments’, and to make them more responsive to changes in genuine public feeling. In Britain and the USA ‘first past the post’ obviously needs to be looked at, having given rise over recent years to a succession of governments that clearly don’t reflect either country’s ‘popular will.’ Both Trump and May are minority rulers, but with almost unfettered power. In Britain this was clearly one of the factors behind the Brexit referendum result, with the electorate given a proportionate say for the first time in history, and using it to express its long bottled-up dissatisfaction with the political establishment generally, rather than (I believe) with the EU. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/.) To prevent such grotesqueries in the future, our voting system has to be overhauled. (I’ve shown how it could be done while preserving the local accountability of MPs which is the best and most valued feature of our present system: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/.) 

Sweden doesn’t have that problem, which is probably why she’ll be able to weather this aspect of the present world crisis better than us. Her system isn’t perfect; but proportional representation does render her legislature generally reflective of public opinion, and, more importantly, makes it more adaptable to changes in political loyalties and allegiances. If we had had that in Britain, together with Sweden’s less scurrilous and propagandist press (a big factor, this), Corbyn might – just might – have won the last election, and we we could have a decent social-democratic government by now: similar, perhaps, to Sweden’s, whose last fifty years of a sort of socialism has done her no harm at all – whatever Alternativ för Sverige may claim.

(An edited version of this appears on the LRB blogsite.)

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Who Needs Europe? We’ve Still Got The Commonwealth

Here’s an excellent demolition of the delusion promoted by many Brexiteers, chief among them our old friend Boris, that a return to an imperial trading system (in effect) will more than make up for the European losses that Brexit will entail. By one of my old Commonwealth history colleagues. A long piece, but it should be made compulsory reading for all Empire-nostalgics.


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Salisbury and Conspiracy

One trouble with ‘conspiracy theorists’, as well as their usually being crazy, is that they queer the pitch for anyone who believes that ‘conspiracy’ does sometimes have a place in explaining events – even on ‘our side’. Anti-conspiracy theorists will usually accept that enemies resort to it. If it was Putin who ordered the attack on the Skripals, for example, that was obviously a deep-laid (and, let’s face it, rather botched) ‘conspiracy’ on Russia’s part. But on the British Right it is only those who doubt Russia’s part in the plot who are labelled ‘conspiracy theorists’. That’s why so few of us who may distrust the government’s version of events are nervous about admitting it. In the popular, unthinking version of these things it puts us up there with the Holocaust- and moon landing- and 9/11-deniers. (Or, worse, with those – there are some: google ‘David Icke’ – who claim that Prince Philip is an alien reptilian shape-shifter.)

Yet there’s no doubt at all that British governments, as well as Russian, have historically engaged systematically in the sort of dissimulation and invention that is required to effect fairly large-scale ‘conspiracies’; sometimes on the grounds that if their enemies were doing it, they shouldn’t deprive themselves of these weapons against them. MI5 and MI6 furnish dozens of examples. Thatcher was adept at plotting against ‘enemies within’. I know; I’ve worked (historically) in these areas. (That’s not to say that I expect anyone to accept this simply on the basis of my authority: the evidence is in my books, especially Plots and Paranoia.) So it doesn’t make Corbyn a ‘conspiracy theorist’, or, in Boris’s latest barb, ‘Moscow’s willing idiot’, simply for wanting some more reliable proof of Russian government involvement in the Skripal affair than the government has yet put forward.

I was happy to accept that version of events initially, as the most likely explanation in view of what we know – or are told – about Putin and his opponents, but tentatively only, until better evidence was produced. That’s why I strongly supported Corbyn’s brave and measured response to May’s hasty and intemperate condemnation of Russia; that, and because as an academic I don’t like to accept anything on trust. In the days since the original attack I have become more and more sceptical of the official government version, even to the extent of admitting the possibility – though a very faint one – that Salisbury could have been a ‘false flag’ operation. We need to keep open minds, especially in the face of Boris’s bluster, and in view of the seriousness of the diplomatic row it has stirred up. We’ve all learned not to trust Boris, haven’t we? The critique of the official British version I’ve come to trust more than his is Craig Murray’s, in his blogsite. This is his latest post on this affair: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2018/04/portonblimp-down-episode-2-a-tale-by-boris-johnson/. Murray used to be a British ambassador, and has close links with the Foreign Office and Whitehall still. Obviously we should be sceptical of this also; but he does raise some awkward questions. I recommend his site; which saves me from going into the issue here.

Please note – just to make things doubly clear – that I’m not necessarily denying the Government’s version, only doubting it. (As it happens, my money’s still on the Russkies.) Tories (and Blairites) who excoriated Corbyn for his ‘treachery’ in backing Putin over May – which of course he didn’t – ought to be aware of the essential difference. But of course they pretend they aren’t. Scepticism didn’t do much for Doubting Thomas’s reputation in history; and it doesn’t make for effective politics.

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The Playing Fields of Eton

The Battle of Waterloo is supposed to have been ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’; which seems unlikely, in view – firstly – of how many German troops were on our side, and secondly of how generally brainless Britain’s public school-educated officer class has been throughout modern history. (On the origin of the quote, see http://oupacademic.tumblr.com/post/57740288322/misquotation-the-battle-of-waterloo-was-won-on.) 

To the extent that it may be true, however, it could reveal something more about Eton’s and other public schools’ contribution to British public life. The ‘playing field’ was central to them. Cricket and Rugby moulded and tested ‘character’. A good example is Henry Newbolt’s famous poem, Vitai Lampada, which was meant to illustrate how lessons learned at cricket prepared boys for the horrors of war, no less. Here it is, reproduced in full. 

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—
Play up! play up! and play the game! 

Stirring stuff, isn’t it! And if it had this effect – to motivate young men to hurl themselves before the enemy guns by pretending that instead of soldiers in a great global conflict they were No. 11 batsmen in a cricket match between Gryffindor and Hufflepuff – I suppose it might have had its uses. But isn’t it likely to trivialise great events, to reduce them to the level of – essentially – play?

I wonder if our prominent present-day Etonians have been conditioned to look at public life in the same way? It would explain their lack of intellectual depth in dealing with the great problems of the day, which Boris Johnson – the most stereotypically Etonian of the three of them (the others are Cameron and Rees-Mogg) — does appear to treat as a kind of sport, a ‘game of thrones’, to be won for onesself (not necessarily for one’s nation) by any means necessary, without consideration for its broader implications and effects. Hence Boris’s flagrant lies and cheating, intended mainly for effect, and for his own self-advancement. He’s simply playing a game. Is this what an Eton education is all about? Games, Latin, and acting up to the image of the loveable toff? Nothing more solid and substantial, about serious politics, for example, or economics, or the real – modern – world? 

He surely can’t last long. Number 11 batsmen generally don’t.

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