Maggie’s Safe!

[NOTE: This was the outcome of my 3-day rush to complete the LRB’s latest commission. In the end they didn’t like it – ‘not what we wanted’; which was a mere description of the affair, plus some ‘what if’ speculations. Fair enough, but I wished they’d made that plainer when they asked me to do it. I wrote it this way because the book was very superficial – mere reportage of what happened, from the testimony, quoted at length, of those involved. And I reckoned that any reader could find the facts on Wikipedia. Beyond that, there is no analysis in the book, and no context. I may try again with another version. But no ‘what ifs’. Historians are reluctant to join in that game. In the meantime, here’s the original version.]

One of Margaret Thatcher’s most toxic legacies, along with all the others, was her introduction of the idea of the ‘strong leader’ into British politics. That hadn’t been there before. Prime ministers had brought other qualities to the job, like competence, empathy, diplomacy and good judgment. These sometimes worked (Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson), sometimes not. The only comparable ‘leader’ figure before Thatcher was Churchill (‘Winston’ to her, somewhat over-familiarly), but that was in wartime, and he had always liked, at least in public, to give the credit to his ‘people’, rather than himself. Before him, and between him and Thatcher, it’s difficult to think of a British prime minister who relied so much on his own personal qualities of resolution, courage and sheer bravery as Thatcher did during her long years of dominance. That changed the political climate, certainly on the Right. It’s what Tories and the tabloid press have yearned for in their leaders ever since her. They’re still wedded to the Führerprinzip. (Alan Clark used the ‘F’ word too, in reference to her ‘charisma’.) Theresa May’s pitiful efforts to project herself as ‘strong and stable’, and to continue to do so despite humiliating setbacks, reflects that. She has been through fire, but is still bravely soldiering on. That should be a good start, at least, for a Führerin.

Thatcher’s fire was literal. It happened on 12 October 1984 when an IRA time-delay bomb half-demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where she was staying with most of her Cabinet, who were there for the Conservative Party’s Annual Conference. The assumption was, and is, that the bomb was meant for her, but if so it was placed in the wrong room, and she emerged unscathed. ‘The cry went up, “Maggie’s safe!”’ remembered Jonathan Aitken. ‘Such was the relief that strangers shook hands, and clasped each other’s shoulders.’ But one MP was killed, plus four other Tory high-ups, and 34 seriously injured, among them Norman (now Lord) Tebbit and his wife Margaret.

Lord Tebbit has provided a puff and a Preface to Steve Ramsey’s just-published Something Has Gone Wrong. Dealing with the Brighton Bomb (Biteback Publishing, 2018), which is a journalist’s account – no more – of the event seen through the eyes of its victims, the emergency services, the press and the police, from the moment the bomb went off to the arrest and trial in September 1985 of its main perpetrator, Patrick Magee. Tebbit’s injuries were horrendous. (His wife’s were worse. She still can’t walk.) He comes out of this account much as one might expect: stoical (as a former RAF pilot he had been in life-and-death situations before), with quite an attractive line in black humour (‘Are you allergic to anything?’ ‘Only bombs’), and with the political venom for which he was celebrated preserved intact. On returning to the Cabinet in January he told following reporters that he was looking forward to ‘roughing up the Labour Party before too long.’ So, all back to normal.

Thatcher emerges even better. She is presented here as calm and cool after it all, concerned only for the other guests (including her husband, who was sleeping in a separate room), and determined to carry on as usual afterwards. To someone who suggested they abandon the Conference, she replied ‘No way. We are continuing. They don’t beat us.’ This was the theme of the Conference speech she delivered later the same day: that their presence there, despite the bomb, was a sign ‘that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.’ According to her biographer Charles Moore her original draft of the speech had expressly linked IRA terrorism with Trade Union ‘extremism’, but in the end this was only implied.

For Thatcher, the Brighton bomb was definitely a bonus. It confirmed her ‘Iron Lady’ reputation, already pretty well established by her very personal triumph in the Falklands; and boosted her in the polls. Moore also thinks it strengthened her hand against Arthur Scargill in the ongoing Miners’ strike. One downside could have been that it made her look too unflappable, devoid of human emotion, ‘robotic’, to use the word applied to her present-day successor: something that her great hero ‘Winston’ could never have been accused of. That was how she had got through it all. Ramsey marshals all the evidence he can find to counter this: little cameos of her ‘praying, for some time’ before she went to bed, for example; expressions of concern for injured colleagues; and a general explanation for the impression she gave that ‘she’s quite cold and doesn’t really have any normal human reaction’, again from Charles Moore ‘But that’s not true. She’s a very passionate person. But her passion was very much engaged, in her mind, in doing her job. That’s what she puts her passion into.’ That figures.

Having missed the bomb in the first place, the police and security services seem to have been pretty efficient thereafter, according to Ramsey’s account; which however is entirely made up of the accounts, quoted at length, of the police officers he has interviewed. (This is not a critical or analytical book.) A few people behaved badly, including male hotel guests who didn’t want to give evidence because they had women (‘not their wives’) in bed with them, at least one of whom was a Tory MP – ‘but we promised that we’d keep quiet’. The police’s task was made easier by the fact that there was none of that ‘human rights’ nonsense around then to stop them mildly roughing suspects up, for example; or ‘Health and Safety’ to prevent their rescuing people; and they persevered with their jobs regardless, because ‘we hadn’t been clever enough to invent post-traumatic stress. In those days we just got on with it. It was a different world. We didn’t have all these kinds of pansy type things we have today where everybody’s “Oh-ahh”’. These, of course, were the days before Political Correctness.

They were also the days when memories of the Second World War were still quite sharp in the minds of several of the people involved in the Brighton bombing, automatically triggering responses learned forty-odd years before in the London Blitz; especially the ‘British’ stoicism – ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – and resistance – ‘they won’t beat us’ – right down to the ‘lovely cup of tea’ to restore morale. Thatcher and Co were almost re-living Britain’s Finest Hour. That’s what gave them so great a boost. Didn’t the IRA cotton on to this? They couldn’t win – terrorism is supposed to terrorize, but it certainly didn’t then – any more than one hopes the Islamicists can win today. It was Thatcher who won, personally, or at least survived; bequeathing to us in the process an ideal of strong and resolute personal ‘leadership’ – the ‘smack of firm government’ – that the political Right misses and still yearns for today. Maybe Theresa May could do with something like this (not a bomb, please) to really test her mettle.

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Trump and the British Far Right

Trump’s retweeting of fake ‘Britain First’ propaganda a few weeks ago, quickly slapped down by Theresa May, who was then re-slapped down by Trump, isn’t by itself evidence of a two-way link between him and our own neo-Nazis. But there’s no doubt that the latter love him, as a fellow nationalist and racist, and have started to regard him as their great overseas hero, much as the British Right before the War regarded Hitler, and British communists used to regard either Stalin or Mao. Hence Nigel Farage’s fawning on him; and hence also the incident last week when a group of far-Rightists disrupted a Fabian Society meeting addressed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has had his own spats with the Donald; with the disrupters waving American flags (the wrong way round, as it happens) and shouting for both Brexit and Trump. There’s an account of it here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/01/13/pro-trump-supporters-crash-fabian-conference-protest-sadiq-khan/. I imagine that Trump is going to fulfil this role for the British far Right for as long as he stays in power, and even afterwards. (Perhaps as the Risen White Christ?)

I’ve not come across the ‘White Pendragons’ before. From their name they ought to be Welsh. But their leader, portrayed in this video accompanied by a parrot, talks like a Londoner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjoYpUnY-Tk. Watch it, if you can bear to.

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Islam

Just back from Stockholm: a complicated journey – tunnelbana, flyggbus, plane, train, tube, train, taxi, all the way dragging a case full of heavy Xmas pressies – which always leaves me pretty shagged out. I arrived to find a request to write a piece for the LRB in just three days, including reading the book, which is pretty tight. Hence no posts. I should finish the review tonight (the deadline), when normal blogging service will I hope be resumed.

In the meantime, Facebook reminded me this morning of a message I posted there three years ago, which I thought worth re-posting here. It may be thought provocative. I should perhaps hasten to add that I’m against all monotheisms, which insist that their Gods are the only ones, and so indulge in proselytising or worse. That’s the underlying problem of ‘religion’. I’d like to be free to choose mine – and everyone else to choose theirs – off the shelf, to suit us individually, from a panoply or Olympus of Gods; like the Greeks, the Romans and the ancient Nordics – all far superior to us in this regard.

Here’s the original post.

‘I’ve never bought into the idea that Islam is a religion of peace and freedom which is being perverted by a few extremists. Here are two good posts I found on a Guardian blogsite this morning [11 Jan 2015]:

The problem, is that many followers of Islam (the majority in fact according to many polls) believe that the Qur’an is the one and only interpretation of God’s will, and to suggest otherwise is blasphemy, punishable by death.

This seems pretty unambiguous:

Qur’an (33:57) – “Lo! those who malign Allah and His messenger, Allah hath cursed them in this world and the Hereafter, and hath prepared for them the doom of the disdained”
Qur’an (33:61) – [continues from above] “Accursed, they will be seized wherever found and slain with a (fierce) slaughter.”

Islam needs a reformation of its holy text to remove such sentiments, ironically, moderate imams and clerics who advocate change of it are gunned down/killed, whatever.

and:

Ironic really that the country of Diderot, Bayle, Voltaire and Descartes, leading lights in the age of Enlightenment and Reason should be plagued by the forces of darkness, intolerance and ignorance.

‘Of course this applies, in varying degrees, to all dogmatic religions or ideologies. It’s just that today it’s Moslems, or self-styled Moslems, who are representing “the forces of darkness, intolerance and ignorance”.’

Today, three years later, one might add Trump and his like.

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Oxford and the Ethics of Empire

For a socialist and active anti-imperial campaigner for sixty years – apartheid, Suez, Rhodesia, Vietnam – to be seen to be defending the British Empire will strike some as not only perverse, but also dangerous to his reputation, his career, if he has one, and even to his health. But I am a scholar and a professional historian before I am a political activist, although with my politics informed, I believe, by my knowledge of history, and am safely retired to boot; and so I feel I cannot let the recent furore over the upcoming project on ‘Ethics and Empire’, formulated by the Moral Theologian Nigel Biggar and others at Oxford, pass without comment. I’m also a particular authority on the early history of ‘anti-imperialism’ in Britain – my first book was on Critics of Empire – which is supposedly the cause that fires most of Professor Biggar’s opponents.

The row started after Biggar published a short op-ed in The Times provocatively entitled ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’ (https:/thetimes.co.uk/article/don-t-feel-guilty-about-our-colonial-history-ghvstdhmy). That in turn was based on an article by Bruce Gilley, an American political scientist, in a prestigious academic journal which began: ‘For the last hundred years, western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy’. That article, according to Biggar’s piece, provoked 15 members of the journal’s editorial board to resign, a petition demanding its retraction gathering 16,000 signatures, and its eventual retraction after the editor received death threats from Indian nationalists. It didn’t gloss over the atrocities committed in the name of imperialism, but simply pointed out that such atrocities had gone on before the Europeans arrived and continued after they left. So, ‘the notion that colonialism is always and everywhere a bad thing needs to be rethought in the light of the grave human toll of a century of anti-colonial regimes and policies.’ Gilley also pointed to some ‘virtues’ of colonial rule, which ‘often’ included ‘the formation of coherent political communities’, and the institution of ‘order’. Ignore the fact that British imperialism was ‘morally mixed’, Biggar concludes, and ‘our guilt will make us vulnerable to wilful manipulation’, and will encourage ‘the belief that the best way that we can serve the world is by leaving it well alone’. In order to balance this sense of guilt Biggar suggests that we recover some of the ‘pride’ we used to feel in our Empire; the ‘proud’ episode he uses as an example is the Royal Navy’s suppression of the slave trade during the nineteenth century. ‘Pride,’ he concludes, ‘can temper shame’. Only ‘temper’, note; not drive it out.

Biggar’s prospectus for his ‘Ethics and Empire’ project (and John Darwin’s, originally, before he withdrew for ‘personal reasons’), followed along these lines. ‘In most reaches of contemporary academic discourse,’ its ‘Rationale’ begins, ‘the topic of ethics and empire raises no questions to which widely accepted answers are not immediately to hand. By definition, ‘empire’ is imperialist; imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical. Nothing of interest remains to be explored.’ Further, these assumptions pervade other areas of study, and also our reactions to present-day events, often misleadingly.

Then on 19 December last year there appeared an ‘Open Letter’, signed by 58 ‘Oxford Scholars’, objecting to Biggar’s article and his ‘Ethics and Empire’ project, on the grounds that they risked ‘being construed as representative of Oxford scholarship’, and as reinforcing the ‘pervasive sense’ that ‘contemporary inequalities… at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past’ (http://theconversation.com/ethics-and-empire-an-open-letter-from-oxford-scholars-89333). Gilley’s earlier piece was seen as advocating ‘a “recolonisation” of parts of the world by Western powers as a solution to misgovernment in the global south,… so fortify[ing] support for overseas military interventions today.’ The letter took issue with Biggar’s characterisation of present-day thinking about imperialism as uniformly negative, and finished by expressing its signatories’ opposition to what they took to be his implication that ‘it should be rehabilitated because some of it was good.’

I hope I’ve summarised both sides of the case fairly here. I have some problems with Biggar’s piece, and a degree of sympathy with some of the opposition’s arguments: for instance, against the idea that the British Empire can be assessed in terms of a balance-sheet of positive and negative motives and effects. ‘Good and evil may be meaningful terms of analysis for theologians,’ write the protesters. ‘They are useless to historians.’ As a historian myself I’d go along with that; but Biggar is, after all, a theologian. His approach is worth considering, at least. Some useful questions arise from it: for example, do ‘evil’ (or negative) effects always stem from wicked motivations? My studies have shown that, so far as probably most empires are concerned, ‘good’ (and Christian) intentions often gave rise to the worst of results – and vice-versa, although to a lesser extent. That’s a simple, but also an interesting and relevant, moral point. I’m also unhappy with Biggar’s idea of ‘pride’s tempering shame’, believing, as I’ve written before, than none of us should feel either pride or blame for anything done by our forefathers (see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/04/imperial-blame/); and that a better filter through which to observe these things is an objective and value-free one. It may be worthwhile in some cases to remind students about the crimes perpetrated under the aegis of the British Empire, but only in order to counteract excessive reactionary pride in the latter; and, in the same way, to remind the more rabid anti-imperialists of some of Empire’s more positive or neutral sides. And there are plenty of those – radicals who see all imperialism as bad – pace the Open Letterers.

In fact British imperial history is too complex and nuanced to reduce it in this kind of way. British imperialism was weaker and less effective than it appeared from those great (and late) red-besplattered world maps; ruled by a miniscule and generally upright civil service and a larger number of collaborators; its different sorts of colonies governed in a myriad of ways, most of them involving partnership with indigenes or (less happily) settlers; with many colonial subjects being ‘free-er’ than their metropolitan equivalents; acquired in a dozen different ways, not all by force, and a few by local choice; with eventual self-government as its professed ultimate aim most of the time; not always racist – or it would not have wanted to ‘improve’ its subjects; generally aware of the difficulties and perils of ‘improvement’ with regard to non-European cultures, which the British sometimes lauded before their own; and occasionally – just occasionally – appreciated by its subjects, or victims. What happened in the colonies was affected just as much by extraneous factors as by ‘imperialism’ per se: most often by the inexorable growth and expansion of exploitative global capitalism – another kind of imperialism – which the British often rode, but just as often sought to impede, in the supposed interests of their colonial wards. (For more on this see my British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t, 2015.) ‘Imperialism’ and ‘empire’ are too simple, reductive and often misleading words to describe all this. (I once suggested at a conference that we historians stop using them for a bit, in order to focus on the realities behind them. It didn’t catch on.)

In any case the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project is supposed to be a vehicle for the discussion of these matters, which, if it brings nuance to them, can only benefit both our historical understanding, and the ways we use the word ‘imperialism’ in modern political discourse. It will certainly bring some useful  lessons to the question of ‘foreign intervention’, which old-style imperialists wrestled with, both practically and ethically,  too. Historical discussions should not be boycotted simply because the initial statement of aims might appear crude, or wrong-headed, or open to misinterpretation, or to imply (only) one hypothesis rather than another. That is a profoundly unscholarly approach, which brings far more shame on Oxford University than Biggar’s ‘Ethics and Empire’ enterprise.

I should add that I’m unfamiliar with the Oxford scene, and unaware of all aspects of the local context to this dispute. Most of the 58 who signed the ‘Open Letter’ against Biggar are not leading imperial historians, and some of them seem to be quite far removed from the field. (What is a musicologist doing there, for example; or an expert on Diderot?) Who are the originators of the protest? I imagine (but don’t know for sure) that they are remnants of the unsuccessful ‘Rhodes statue’ protest of a year or two ago. How representative are they of the Oxford student body, or the Fellows? I also don’t know why John Darwin – the best of our current imperial historians – withdrew from the project. To my mind it seems a highly worthwhile one; illuminating and valuable not only to new imperialist reactionaries, but also – and more so, I would say – to us better informed old Antis.

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Toby Young, Journalist

Toby Young’s appointment to the new British universities ‘Watchdog’ committee, widely criticised by academics, students and on the Left, is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s selection of people for high office on no other grounds than their ideological views.

Young, of course, is a right-wing polemicist with scarcely any experience in academia apart from having attended university, and once landed a brief ‘tutorial assistant’ job at Harvard. (I had tutorial assistants at Yale; I wouldn’t class them as ‘academics’ yet.) Well, OK, universities shouldn’t be run by university people alone, any more than – say – the armed forces should by run by generals; but a bit of professional experience is useful. The reasons for Young’s choice are, firstly, that he has been an active supporter of the Tories’ semi-privatising agenda for primary and secondary education for years; and secondly, the present government’s obsession with the mildly left-wing orientation of most university-educated young people today, reflected in both the Referendum’s and the last General Election’s voting patterns, which it attributes to the socialist propaganda they’re receiving from their lecturers. Others might infer something else from the fact that educated people are more likely to be leftish and pro-European than thickos; but not the likes of the Johnsons, Gove (‘we’ve had enough of experts’) and Farage.

Young is of a piece with this. He describes himself as a free market liberal, and has come out against ‘diversity’ in education, against providing ramps for disabled students (‘political correctness’), in favour of the eugenic testing of children, and with views about working-class students and women which sound profoundly reactionary, and the last of which one would think should have immediately disqualified him in this ‘Me-too’ age. Here’s a piece on him from the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/02/doubts-cast-on-dfe-claims-of-toby-youngs-qualifications-for-watchdog-post. He even looks the part:

2074.jpg
That may be unfair – to hold a fellow’s appearance against him; except that this is the image (or one very like it) that he chooses to head his op-eds with.

But his appointment is also indicative of another recent trend. I’ve remarked before on how many leading present-day politicians have started their careers as polemicists: that is, as young journalists for Right-wing newspapers. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2017/07/19/boris-the-harlot/.) They’ve formed their opinions, that is, without having done any research or had much experience of ‘life’, and on the basis of theories, or prejudices, that haven’t been properly tested. He lives in – is constrained by – a world of Rightist dogma. That’s different from being the true ‘intellectual’ that op-ed journalists often tend to present themselves as.

His late father – the distinguished Michael Young, a solid social researcher, of Open University and ‘Meritocracy’ fame – must be turning in his grave.

PS. Here’s some of the dirt on him, including deleted tweets.
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/toby-young-boris-johnson_uk_5a4b8331e4b025f99e1d92da?kuu.

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Brits in Europe (2)

I may have been wrong in my assumption that all or most Britishers living on the Continent will have been Remainers. Here’s a piece about a couple of expats who were on the other side of the argument. It’s backed up by further contributions to the ‘Brits in Europe’ blog I’ve taken it from. The reasoning behind it almost beggars belief. Are they aware that Ireland is in the EU?

An insight into the mind of John and Fiona Connolly.

The British couple living in Ireland who support brexit, despite having lived in France for 19 years.

“We’re already losing regular money from our British pensions as a result, but it’s worth it…. We were living in France for 19 years, near Toulouse. We’re in Cork because we wanted to be in a country where people spoke English and property was cheap here. You couldn’t really have conversations with French people. I didn’t speak much French. [!] Personally, I’ll feel much safer when Britain has its own say in Europe, rather than relying on what the EU tells us to do. But we’re too old now to worry about politics.”

British expats in Ireland: You can’t be a ‘stuck-up Brit’ – IRISHTIMES.COM

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Brits in Europe

Since the Brexit vote, a large number of the million-odd Britons living and working in the rest of the EU has been organising on the internet either to reverse Brexit, or else to secure a ‘divorce’ settlement that won’t deprive us of our existing rights in Europe: such as reciprocal healthcare, unhindered travel between EU countries, and (I discover!) data roaming. This is one of them: https://www.facebook.com/groups/britishineurope/. There’s also a more specific ‘British in Sweden’ group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BritishinSweden/. They also campaign for the rights of EU nationals in Britain after Brexit. Worthy causes, both.

One of their complaints is that many expatriates weren’t given a Brexit vote, which might have affected the outcome. As could so many things: Cameron’s foolishness, the Brexiteers’ lies, general conditions in the country irrespective of the EU…. God what a mess! (My New Year’s thought.)

Whether or not these exile groups can achieve anything, I don’t know. They’ve been campaigning hard, as I understand – posting to MPs, appearing on British TV, meeting with junior ministers in Parliament and with European officials, and so on – but with their impact obviously weakened by their scattering, their distance from Westminster and their lack of any real political clout. (Brexiteers may think that their very choice to live abroad renders them/us unBritish and so not entitled to any say in events.) For me personally, however, my recent discovery of them has been a comfort. I’m not alone! We can snuggle together cosily through the trials to come – online, at least.

Anyhow: gott nytt år!

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A Populist and Nationalist Spasm

Lord Adonis’s letter of resignation to the Prime Minister yesterday was a powerful statement, both about the re-privatisation of the East Coast rail line – the one I use most – which was part of his official brief as chair of the independent National Infrastructure Commission; and also, and more significantly, about the government’s pursuance of Brexit: ‘a populist and nationalist spasm worthy of Donald Trump’. I like that.

As usual, Brexiters have offered no response to it so far other than ad hominem ones. ‘He’s never been elected so what does he know about democracy?’ – That was Ian Duncan Smith.

The letter deserves as wide a circulation as possible, even on this little blogsite. So here it is, lightly edited. The final para is a bit OTT, I feel, but was probably put in to make May feel inadequate. Which is worth doing.

Dear prime minister,

…. However, my work at the commission has become increasingly clouded by disagreement with the government, and after much consideration I am writing to resign because of fundamental differences which simply cannot be bridged.

The European Union withdrawal bill is the worst legislation of my lifetime. It arrives soon in the House of Lords and I feel duty bound to oppose it relentlessly from the Labour benches.

Brexit is a populist and nationalist spasm worthy of Donald Trump. After the narrow referendum vote, a form of associate membership of the EU might have been attempted without rupturing Britain’s key trading and political alliances. Instead, by allying with Ukip and the Tory hard right to wrench Britain out of the key economic and political institutions of modern Europe, you are pursuing a course fraught with danger.

Even within Ireland, there are set to be barriers between people and trade. If Brexit happens, taking us back into Europe will become the mission of our children’s generation, who will marvel at your acts of destruction.

A responsible government would be leading the British people to stay in Europe while also tackling, with massive vigour, the social and economic problems within Britain which contributed to the Brexit vote. Unfortunately, your policy is the reverse.

The government is hurtling towards the EU’s emergency exit with no credible plan for the future of British trade and European cooperation, all the while ignoring – beyond soundbites and inadequate programmes – the crises of housing, education, the NHS and social and regional inequality which are undermining the fabric of our nation and feeding a populist surge.

What Britain needs in 2018 is a radically reforming government in the tradition of [Clement] Attlee, working tirelessly to eradicate social problems while strengthening Britain’s international alliances. This is a cause I have long advocated, and acted upon in government, and I intend to pursue it with all the energy I can muster.

Britain must be deeply engaged, responsible and consistent as a European power. When in times past we have isolated ourselves from the continent in the name of “empire” or “sovereignty”, we were soon sucked back in. This will inevitably happen again, given our power, trade, democratic values and sheer geography.

Putin and the rise of authoritarian nationalism in Poland and Hungary are flashing red lights. As Edmund Burke so wisely wrote, “people will not look forwards to posterity who do not look backwards to their ancestors”.

However, I would have been obliged to resign from the commission at this point anyway because of the transport secretary’s indefensible decision to bail out the Stagecoach/Virgin East Coast rail franchise. The bailout will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds, possibly billions if other loss-making rail companies demand equal treatment. It benefits only the billionaire owners of these companies and their shareholders, while pushing rail fares still higher and threatening national infrastructure investment. It is even more inexcusable given the Brexit squeeze on public spending.

The only rationale I can discern for the bailout is as a cynical political manoeuvre by Chris Grayling, a hard-right Brexiteer, to avoid following my 2009 precedent when National Express defaulted on its obligations to the state for the same East Coast franchise because it too had overbid for the contract. I set up a successful public operator to take over East Coast services and banned National Express from bidding for new contracts. The same should have been done in this case. Yet, astonishingly, Stagecoach has not only been bailed out, it remains on the shortlist for the next three rail franchises….

Brexit is causing a nervous breakdown across Whitehall and conduct unworthy of Her Majesty’s government. I am told, by those of longer experience, that it resembles Suez and the bitter industrial strife of the 1970s, both of which endangered not only national integrity but the authority of the state itself.

You occupy one of the most powerful offices in the history of the world, the heir of Churchill, Attlee and Gladstone. Whatever our differences, I wish you well in guiding our national destiny at this critical time.

Yours sincerely,
Andrew Adonis

That’s told her!

(I’m still working on the ‘What did the British Empire do for them’ post. It may take a while.)

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The Colonial Blame Game

Before I pen my contribution to the current Oxford-centred debate over the evils/benefits of the British Empire – see my last post – here is one I prepared earlier. It’s on a slightly different issue, and arises out of another controversy – about ‘compensation’ for colonial wrongs – but it bears on this one too. In case you missed it: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/04/imperial-blame/.

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Free Speech and Imperialism

I have to confess – should it be a matter for ‘confession’? – that I’m entirely in agreement with Jo Johnson, the Tory Universities Minister (and brother of the sillier Johnson), when he opposes student bodies enforcing ‘no-platform’ policies on visiting speakers whose views they disagree with, or even find abhorrent – like the attempted ban on Germaine Greer a couple of years ago for her views on trans-sexuality. (See https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/universities-warned-over-free-speech-by-jo-johnson-bqp2d5np0.) I also strongly disapprove of those – usually students, again – who wish to remove all public traces of historical ‘imperialism’ or other alleged national wrongdoings from our buildings and streets: such as the small statue of Cecil Rhodes over the gate of Oriel College Oxford, which was a recent target. (To its great credit, the College didn’t give in over this.)

My objections to these claims and practices are the same as those of all traditional liberals, and with the same qualifications as theirs – shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, for example; and identical to those of most defenders of universities, as essential crucibles of free-thinking ideas. Consequently they should be too familiar to require repetition here. I may even be a bit of an extremist in this regard: Jo Johnson wants to make an exception in the case of far-Right speakers; I wouldn’t, unless they are clearly inciting violence, or the contemporary political atmosphere is particularly febrile. Even that would mark a failure of liberalism, if possibly a necessary and hopefully a short-lived  one.

In this connection I was disheartened by these reports in recent issues of the Daily Mail, sent to me by a friend who has a stronger stomach than I for seeking out pieces in that particular swamp: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5207687/Oxford-home-Tory-loathing-anti-Israel-academics.html; and (later), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5213269/Snowflake-students-demand-removal-triggering-books.html.  Coming from the Daily Mail, which has been pursuing a vendetta against Left-leaning academics ever since it found out that most university-educated young people voted ‘Remain’ in last year’s EU referendum, one has to take its allegations with a very large pinch of salt. Before I contribute anything more substantial to this discussion, I want to examine the Mail’s allegations more closely. I’m sure there is some truth in them. But how much? Who are these ‘platform-deniers’? How many of them are there? How many senior academics can there possibly be among them? (One can forgive the odd hot-headed young zealot.) Is the wider Oxford academic community taking them at all seriously? – I don’t know the answers to these questions, and genuinely want to find out.

The reason why I feel almost duty bound to stick my oar into this debate is that much of it revolves around the question of ‘British imperialism’, and is conducted by people who regard themselves as ‘anti-imperialists’. That, I’m afraid, is my area of expertise: both the Empire, about which I’ve published several books, and anti-imperialism in particular, which I was (I think) the first to write about (in Critics of Empire, 1968). I’ve desisted up to now because I’ve regarded the modern row about ‘imperialism’, and whether it was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing, to be substantially wide of the mark on both sides; in ways, however, which it will be difficult to explain cogently enough to take its part in this highly simplistic, black-and-white debate. It will require some context and depth.

My most recent attempt to provide this – British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t – came out a couple of years ago, and is pretty concise, but still takes up a whole book. I’ll try to distil it down: first of all, hopefully, in this blog, and then perhaps more widely and publicly. The problem of course is that the more nuanced one is over ‘imperialism’, the more likely one is to be taken as an ‘apologist’ for it. So, for the record: I too have a poor opinion of Cecil Rhodes.

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