So I’m a Swedish citizen. It says so. Back in the good old EU again. F*ck you, Farage!

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Maybe now that worried look and the bags under my eyes will disappear.

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National Independence and Cecil Rhodes

National independence, at least in modern times, is a myth – an illusion, a chimera, a lie, a Trumpism. Every country is dependent on others, including even ‘superpowers’, which depend on others being subservient to them. Imperial Britain depended on her colonies for her markets; modern America depends on the Middle East for its oil. For ‘lesser’ nations, independence is never one of the choices available to them. They must either be subservient to other, ‘greater’ powers, or bound together voluntarily in order to be able to resist their demands. That latter was the choice made by Britain when her Empire fell to pieces after the last War; which now however looks like being exchanged for the other choice – subservience to the USA – if Brexit goes through. Trump’s ludicrously gaffe-prone visit to the UK and Ireland this week makes this clear. Without a ‘free’ European market Britain will depend largely on the USA for its essential trade, which means bowing to American demands with regard to food standards, and (probably) selling off its much-prized National Health Service to American capitalist firms. Where’s the ‘independence’ in that?

No wonder Trump is so much in favour of Brexit, and so pally with our ‘hard Brexit’ politicians. Over on the other side of us, Putin also seems to be playing the Brexit card for all it’s worth, although more cleverly and subvertly. Shouldn’t that make the Brexiteers think again? Or is a status as an informal colony of the USA what they really want?

That takes me back, historically, to the turn of the twentieth century, when every clear-sighted person realised that the Empire couldn’t last for ever – Britain had just been humiliated by a bunch of rough Dutch farmers in South Africa – and that it could only be preserved by drastic means. One that was mooted was coupling up with the new emerging super-power of the twentieth century, which might be seduced into rejoining the Empire it had broken away from in 1776, but with the centre of that Empire now shifting to Washington. An odd American historian called Carol Quigley thought he perceived a great conspiracy behind this – one of the biggest and most successful of modern times – planted by the capitalist-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, by means of a secret society – the ‘Round Table’ – and scholarships given to American students to study at Oxford University to cement the ‘speclal relationship’. Bill Clinton was a ‘Rhodes Scholar’. And Trump’s favourite Brexiteers, of course, were Oxford educated. (Apart from Farage.)

QED? Of course not. I doubt whether any of our upper-class Brexiteers are aware of this. I’m sure that they’re merely misled by the superficial myth of ‘national independence’ that any imperial historian worth his salt should be able to disabuse them of. I only hope that Trump’s much publicised inanities (including that unbelievably stupid one about the Irish border) will bring them to their senses in this regard. But they may have too much invested in Brexit for that.

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Assange’s Extradition(s)

An excellent piece here by the redoubtable ex-diplomat Craig Murray.

It looks as though Sweden has finally come to her senses and abandoned the effort to extradite Assange on the very flimsy ‘rape’ charges laid against him (by his prosecutor, improperly) four or five years ago. (See, et passim.) Whoopee!

But hold your horses. The dropping of the Swedish extradition request now, of course, leaves the American  one the only one left on the table. And that’s much more serious. In Sweden he probably would have been acquitted. If not he’d get a couple of months in a comfortable Swedish prison. (I’ve visited one. It was better than some B&Bs I’ve stayed in.) But there’s much less chance of that in the USA, and far more danger of a really draconian punishment for Assange if he were found guilty: decades in one of those awful American gaols, or worse. And for what? For being a journalist and uncovering American military atrocities.

The glimpse of light in all this is that, in these circumstances, it might be difficult for the British authorities to agree to his extradition to the USA; firstly for decent, liberal reasons, and secondly because of the outcry it would – certainly should  – provoke in Britain. A ‘political’ extradition would be far less publicly acceptable than one for a sexual offence, in this ‘Me-Too’ age. A pro-American Brexit government might not demur.  (Look how the leading Brexiteers are just now cosying up to Trump.) Until that comes about, however, this will be a far hotter potato to handle than the Swedish one. The Foreign and Home Offices must be worried. I bet they wish he was out of the way.

Not that this can have anything to do with the sudden deterioration in Assange’s health since he’s been incarcerated by the English courts in Belmarsh prison, can it? Of course not. Britain doesn’t do that sort of thing, does she? – I genuinely think not; but you can see why more conspiracy-minded folk will be suspicious. In any event there’s trouble afoot. Watch this space.

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Madman, Psychopath, or Machiavel?

Trump has a funny way with crowds. At his press conference today he claimed that there were thousands in London cheering for him, waving American flags, and only a small ‘rentacrowd’ of protestors. Reports of large numbers of the latter, he claimed, were ‘fake news’. The truth, of course, is the opposite. One is reminded here of his statements about his inauguration turn-out. He also, incidentally, at the same press conference, repeated an earlier lie about his having predicted the result of the Brexit referendum before it happened. He didn’t.

It would be useful – and may be crucial – to know whether he really believes all this. Could he have been so sheltered from reality, or so consumed by conspiratorial thinking – believing that the BBC is now part of the MSM that’s out to get him – as to genuinely hold this alternative view of events? If so, doesn’t that make him psychologically and intellectually weak? (Or, if you like, mad.) If not, of course, it makes him one of the greatest liars ever to have bestrode (bestridden?) the international stage. That could be because he really doesn’t have any regard for ‘facts’, except insofar as they can be manipulated for his purposes, or in order to conform to his prejudices and boost his fragile self-regard. (A bit like his friend Boris.) Or, thirdly, it could be because he’s aware of the lies, but knows how well they can play for him with his ‘base’ back home, even when – as in this case – they’re so easily disproved. That would make him immoral, but cleverer. I think I’d almost prefer that.

I’m sure that this has been debated in the USA for months.

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The History Behind Brexit

Nigel Farage hasn’t yet published a British history book, or is likely to, I imagine; but at least two of his fellow Brexiteers have. There was Boris Johnson’s recent tome on Churchill, and another one due shortly, I understand, on Shakespeare; and now there’s Jacob Rees-Mogg’s book of essays on the Victorians: I’ve not yet been offered any of them to review, sadly, and am reluctant to spend good money on the hardbacks. So I can’t offer a professional opinion, and am unwilling to accept the judgments of others uncritically.

Nevertheless, you will be aware of the almost universally bad press that Rees-Mogg’s effort in particular has attracted, and of its poor sales. In connexion with which I was particularly struck by this comment I picked up from Facebook, though I can’t vouch for it. It’s from one Emmie Rose Goodfellow:

‘My publisher father has just gleefully informed me that this book has sold fewer copies than one titled “Adjustable Spanners: History, Uses and Developments since 1970”.’

That’s tasty! But of course one can’t judge the quality of a book by its sales – otherwise some of mine would come lower in the list even than Moggy’s. So I’ll delay my own judgment for now.

I feel, however, that I should read these books, if only to gain an insight into the particular historical mentality that must lie behind both these men’s views on Brexit; which I assume they imbibed in their History classes at Eton, of which they are both alumni. I wonder whether my local library here in Stockholm has copies I can borrow? – Otherwise I can always wait for the remaindered copies, which will undoubtedly appear in the bookshops soon.

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Basil Fawlty in London

I’m not sure why John Cleese believes that London is ‘not really an English city any more’. Most people assumed he was being (surprisingly) racist, and was referring to the brown faces one sees and the foreign lingoes one hears all over the capital. He was roundly condemned for this, except by the Right, who were delighted to find their own xenophobic prejudices being born out by such a ‘national treasure’. In reply, he denied the ‘racism’ inference, claiming that he was referring to ‘cultural’ rather than racial factors, and in particular to the virtual ownership of much of the real estate in London by dodgy foreign millionaires and Russian money launderers. (See – But in any case he’s wrong.

What is wrong is not his observation about the national and cultural diversity of London, but the two little words ‘any more’. That implies that things have changed in recent years. In fact they haven’t, in this regard at least. The distinctive thing about London, from its foundation in Roman times right through the subsequent twenty centuries, has always been its cosmopolitan character. As a world-city, it has attracted people from all over the globe, and of all classes: diplomats, businesspeople, workers, students, immigrants, political refugees, Russian Jews, Huguenots, artists, musicians, academics; and often en masse, so that one can imagine people complaining that it didn’t feel ‘English’ over and over again over the past many centuries. This has always been the nature of London, and the reason why some of us – despite the dirt and the squalor, which have always been there too – love it. (I lived there, or on its edges, for the first twenty years of my life, so I know. Cleese spent those same years far away in stuffy Weston-super-Mare.) It’s one of the reasons Shakespeare went to live there, to hob-nob with aliens from all over. Just think how dull his plays would have been if he’d never left ‘English’ Stratford upon Avon to seek his fortune in the great city! It’s the foreigners who have always made London. In a way its cosmopolitanism is the most English thing about the place.

For in this way London reflects – albeit in in a concentrated form – one of the major historical characteristics of England, and of Britain: which is precisely this cosmopolitanism that Cleese finds so un-English. Britain’s history from way back has been one of immigration, emigration, acculturation, racial mixing, openness, inclusiveness, a world view rather than a narrow parochial one: or at least, it has been when she has been at her best. It may seem counter-intuitive, but, by one way of looking at it, England could be said to be at her most English when she is most international. And that’s why – pace my favourite comic actor – London is still the most English, even British, town in the land.

My next British history book was going to be on this general theme. Its provisional title, in fact, was Cosmopolis. But I can’t see it happening now – too old and tired. I have a volume of essays possibly coming out which will touch on the subject, but only if I can find a publisher for it. I’m waiting for Bloomsbury to get back to me.

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Brexit and Nostalgia

Michel Barnier, who is something big in Europe, has long impressed me; at least on TV. I wish we in the UK had politicians like him. But his widely reported observation yesterday that (in effect) we Brits were against Europe because – or partly because – of nostalgia for our imperial past, I think is wrong. It’s what foreigners always assume about us – I’m for ever having it fired at me abroad – due I think to the sheer apparent size of Britain’s empire, and the myth, created by a number of my fellow historians, that the ‘people’ were complicit in it. On the contrary, my major book, The Absent-Minded Imperialists, argued – albeit controversially – that Britons in the 19th and early 20th centuries were mostly uninterested in the Empire, if not directly opposed to it, and as a result were hardly moved at all when it came to an end after World War II. The main exceptions were the upper and upper-middle classes, which would explain Farage’s, Boris’s and Rees-Mogg’s obvious reactionary empire-nostalgia today; but should not be assumed to represent the (relatively) more sensible element in the Brexit camp. The true roots of popular Brexitness are far more parochial.

I’m at Gatwick Airport just now, waiting for my flight back to Stockholm, and then out to our island summerhouse. So I’ll miss the visit of Trump to the UK, and apparently of his whole family, all of whom want have tea with the Queen. Hopefully she’ll put something something nasty – sennacot, perhaps? – in the pot.

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Miliband Redux?

I was always a supporter of  Ed Miliband, as I told him when Kajsa and I met him at the LRB Christmas party a few years ago.


He was of course monstered by the vile Right-wing press, as are all Labour leaders, which contributed (to say the least) to his party’s defeat in the 2015 General Election. It was that election which established David Cameron as the worst prime minister of modern times, until Theresa May came along; and led to the elevation as Leader of the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, who has become the most monstered Opposition leader of modern times.

When Corbyn was chosen – my vote was for him, in the absence of Ed – I worried that this ‘image’ of him would be a drawback to his achieving electoral success as Labour leader, despite his policies, virtually all of which I shared. My hope then was that he would be invaluable in radicalising the party in a way I felt was necessary, until such time as someone more acceptable – wearing a dark suit and tie, perhaps, which is always reassuring – could take over. (See I always felt that Ed, with his brilliant Marxist father – also notoriously and posthumously traduced in the pages of the Daily Mail as ‘unpatriotic’, which he certainly hadn’t been – was as instinctively radical as Corbyn underneath.

So I was delighted to read this piece in the current Guardian, by the omnipresent young socialist journalist Owen Jones, recommending that he be brought back into the Labour front-line team: Perhaps my selfie-friend Ed could go on from there to put the bacon butty episode behind him – remember that dreadful image of him trying to bite into one? – and take up the reins as Leader again. That’s what I dream of.

Perhaps Hilary Benn could be seduced back at the same time? He’s enormously competent and personable; and I can’t credit that some of his father’s radicalism hasn’t rubbed off on him. Just think what a ‘team’ that would make!

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‘You’re a Nasty Piece of Work, Aren’t You?’

The news that Boris Johnson is going to have to appear in a court of law to defend himself against the serious charge – brought by a member of the public – of ‘misconduct in public office’, is cheering. It arises out of that by now notorious slogan on the side of the ‘Brexit Bus’ in June 2016, claiming that the ‘£350 million’ that Britain is supposed to give to the EU each week could, after Brexit, be spent on the NHS. That was apparently effective in persuading many people to vote for Brexit in the referendum, but was suspected at the time to be a flagrant lie, and was later confirmed as such by the (Government) Office for Budget Responsibility. We’ve been warned not to prejudge the outcome of Johnson’s trial in print, which I presume includes the social media; but there can’t be much harm in referring to his already notorious reputation as a serial liar, squirmingly revealed in this telling TV interview:

The squirming starts at about 8 mins 30 seconds. The ‘nasty piece of work’ quote comes a couple of minutes later.

What is particularly delightful is the timing of this latest announcement, at the very moment Boris is reckoned to be the favourite in the upcoming election of a Tory leader to succeed May, and consequently our new Prime Minister. Boris, as a classical scholar, will recognise the terms hubris and nemesis. Of course, it might not end like that, with his most adoring supporters, rather like Trump’s, seeming not to care how immoral he is.

What would be splendid would be if this acted as a precedent, so putting a curb on the deliberate deception – ‘fake news’ – that is part of the Right’s armoury just now.

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The Euro-Election (in Britain)

Well, that’s it, then; all done and dusted – at least for the time being. In Europe as a whole (certainly in Sweden) people seem to be relieved that the Far Right Populists didn’t do better than they did. In Britain everything turned out almost exactly as predicted: 32% for the new Brexit Party, the Lib Dems doing far better than both Labour and the Conservatives, the Greens getting a good look-in at last. Well done Farage, boo to May and Corbyn. From a party political point of view, it looks like an earthquake. And of course it’s party politics, and political leaders, that the media commentariat is mainly interested in. Politics is a game, between teams and team managers. By this way of looking at it, the red and blue shirts have received a kicking, maybe in danger of relegation; with the new boys on the block – with their Man City colours (or Cambridge University, if you prefer) – running away with the cup.

This election, however, wasn’t really about parties. We weren’t electing a national government, or even delegates to the wider EU one. If Brexit goes through – which still looks more likely than not – none of our new MEPs will be taking their seats anyway. Thursday’s vote was in effect a quasi-referendum on the wisdom of Brexit, with people voting on that issue alone. Those who wanted a ‘hard’ Brexit voted for Farage’s party; Remainers for the Lib Dems, Greens or (in Scotland) the SNP. The Conservatives and Labour were seen as equivocal on this issue, with both of them officially offering compromises: May’s rather poor ‘deal’ on the one side, Corbyn’s clear but – it has to be admitted – complicated policy on the other. Those who generally favoured the two main traditional parties, but felt strongly about ‘Europe’ one way or another, or, alternatively, had been alienated from ‘establishment’ politics in general, chose one of the parties that seemed to reflect their feelings on either or both of these points. Right-wing Tories went over to Farage; Europhile Labour supporters backed the Lib Dems, the Greens or the SNP. (I voted Green.) All these parties had clear, pro or anti, positions on the ‘Brexit’ issue. One hopes – though it can’t be assumed – that most of these people will return to their ‘natural’ allegiances when the Brexit storm has passed over. The Brexit party, after all, doesn’t have any stated policies, apart from Brexit; though scratch its members and you’ll find plenty of nasty proto-Fascist ideas underneath. (See Labour has lots, which might begin to attract support in a ‘proper’ General Election.

Commentators have been busy analysing the voting figures to determine what they tell us about voters’ stand on the issue of Europe. The consensus is that if you add together the Lib Dem, Green and SNP votes on one side, and divide the Labour and Conservative votes between them roughly equally, Remainers outnumber Brexiteers – certainly ‘hard’ Brexiteers, but only marginally: by 52 to 48 per cent, say, which is the same proportion the Brexit referendum was won by, albeit now in reverse.

This is the problem, for Remainers who are demanding a second referendum in order to test how opinion has changed in the three years since the first one. Everyone assumes that with the demographic change that has taken place – elderly Brexiteers dying and being replaced by bright young Remainers – and after the evidence of wholesale illegality and corruption on the Brexit side in 2016, Remain would stand a better chance this time. But you can never tell. Opinion polls before the first referendum were almost universally wrong. You might get an even smaller turn-out this time, which would detract from a new vote’s legitimacy. People might vote Brexit for the same reason they did before: nothing to do with Europe, but because they were still frustrated and angry at the way the government – and by extension the political class generally – had neglected them. And who could blame them? Which may explain why many in the Labour Party, for example, are nervous of the prospect.

Despite this I, for one, wish that Corbyn had come out more firmly in favour of a ‘People’s Vote’ in all circumstances, in the approach to this election. I actually thought he was going to do this, banking on Labour Brexiteers’ realisation that there was no real alternative, after both main parties’ efforts to reach a compromise – the May-Corbyn negotiations – had broken down. If he had, I for one would have voted Labour, and possibly many others too. That compromise would have involved a close (Norway-style) customs arrangement with the EU, which was the ‘red line’ May refused to step over, mainly because it would involve ‘free movement’ still, which she abhorred, in deference either to the xenophobia she believed was rife in Britain, and on her appalling Tory right wing; or to her own. (Her entire Home Secretaryship was defined by its cruel hostility to immigrants – that ‘hostile environment’. She really is a monster, together with all her other faults. Shed no tears for her just because at the end she shed some for herself.)

Corbyn’s compromise, which he set out quite clearly, could have brought this crisis to an end. If he had been in a position to negotiate it with the EU he would probably have succeeded; hence his preference for a General Election over a referendum. It wouldn’t have been my ideal outcome, as a committed albeit critical European (who has even taken up another citizenship in order to preserve his European one); but it would have come fairly close. It also would have ‘honoured’ the result of the 2016 referendum, however little ‘honour’ that referendum deserved. Most Brexiteers – aside from the crazies – could have accepted it. It might even have ‘brought the country together’ again. For the priority, surely, must be to avoid civil war? A ‘hard’ Brexit certainly won’t do that. Nor, I fear, would our return to the EU.

We’ll see what happens after the upcoming Tory leadership election (please not Boris!), and the next General Election, which will surely come soon. In the meantime I’m occupied with trying to work this whole affair into the final chapter of the new edition of my The Lion’s Share – I’m attracted by the idea of using it as a symptom of the ‘fall’ of the British Empire and of Britain; and, secondly, with deciding what to do with all my books, if I finally decide to settle permanently in Sweden, in order escape from a country I used to be fond of, but now no longer consider mine. Anyone want to come to Hull (UK) and take them away? For free?

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