Dinghies and Dog-Whistles

Are the British people really so stupid as to make stopping rubber dinghies full of refugees (or claiming-to-be refugees) coming from across the Channel, their chief concern? Rishi Sunak claims that this is their ‘main priority’; and so is his just now. (See https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-64884435.)

Well, maybe it’s true among a few denizens of the Kent and Sussex coast, binoculars trained on the waters to the south; but even their concerns seem unreasonable, in view of the relatively small numbers entering the country in this way, and Britain’s poor record just now in welcoming and admitting almost any refugees, compared with other European countries, who are taking in far more. (The single exception is Ukrainians, a family of whom I’m hosting presently. But then they’re victims of Russia, an object of phobia in Britain even before Communism, and so more deserving, apparently, of charity.)

Yes, the ‘people smugglers’ who exploit these poor people in this way – leaving many of them to drown in la Manche – are evil (capitalist) bastards, and should be hunted down; and the government should find better ways of accommodating the refugees than in expensive hotels. (Sweden does rather better in this regard: see https://bernardjporter.com/2022/12/10/homes-from-home/.) The ‘people smugglers’ are the aspect of all this that Suella Braverman likes to emphasise, because it makes her look a smidgeon more liberal. But there can be little doubt that it’s the racist tendency in the Tory party and its voters that she is mainly targetting, calculating that this is the single policy that marks them off clearly from Labour and its ‘Lefty Lawyer’ leadership, and so will win them more ‘red wall’ votes in the general election that’s about to hit them in (probably) just over a year. The Conservatives have precious little else to show for their thirteen years in government, after all.

I watched the Commons debate on Suella Braverman’s new (but really quite old)  ‘Illegal Immigration’ bill yesterday, on Parliamentlive.tv. Quite apart from the bill’s obvious flaws even on its own terms (virtually no-one thinks it will work), and the lies, exaggerations and sheer spite she came out with, the thing that struck me as a historian of British patriotism (Britain’s Contested History. Lessons for Patriots: Bloomsbury 2022) was her claim that only those who supported her policy could claim to be ‘patriotic’; which is a monstrous slur on radical and internationalist patriots through the ages. The welcome that Britain gave to foreign immigrants in the 19th century, especially, including to Braverman’s despised ‘economic migrants’, was one of Britons’ major sources of pride then; far more admirable – as I argue in the book – than, for example, their empire. Not many people on the Right today seem to be aware of that.

It’s also somewhat dispiriting to see a British prime minister latching on to these populist prejudices in such an obviously opportunistic way. I’d expected Sunak, with his expensive education, to be more subtle and intelligent than to leap – with all his eggs – into this basket; hoping, obviously, that racism and xenophobia will carry him and his party safely through the hostile territory that the Conservatives have created for themselves otherwise: the cost of living crisis, a collapsing NHS, austerity, corruption, the lingering smell of Boris and his cronies, the disaster of Brexit… and all the rest. Can a dog-whistle appeal to proto-fascism (yes, Lineker was right about that) carry Sunak past all this? We’ll see.

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Historians and Empire

This was intended for a journal, which however hasn’t got back to me. Sorry about the length.

You might think that as an ‘imperial historian’ I’d be itching to dive into the current debate over whether the British Empire was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing: Jacob Rees-Mogg versus the statue-spoilers of Oxford. At present the statue-spoilers seem to be in the ascendant; with Churchill as their next target, and ‘imperialists’ in general being denigrated retrospectively as racists, exploiters, Nazis, and even Tories. Not only that, but anyone today who has a single good word to say for the latter, or is thought to, is subjected to the same vituperation. I don’t want to get involved in any of this. It’s too hurtful.

Apart from cowardice, however, I have another reason to steer clear. It’s one I think I share with most other professional historians, not only of imperialism, but of other things too. We regard the debate, as it’s pursued on this level, as framed entirely wrongly. It shouldn’t be a question of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘beneficial’ or ‘damaging’; but of understanding what it was, why it happened, and whether it could have been done better, or stopped. It’s almost a cliché to say that these events should be looked at in their contexts, and not only their ethical contexts – ‘standards were different then’ – but also the full political circumstances of their times. This involves looking at what the phenomenon we characterise as ‘imperialism’ meant at different periods; how both its practitioners and its subjects (or victims) thought of it; how it changed and varied; and chiefly – in my view – what other large historical factors lay behind it, which might be seen to share the responsibility for ‘imperialism’ more than a single factor called ‘imperialism’ per se. This is the sort of thing that historians – or good historians – do.

The problem starts with the word. ‘Empire’ and ‘imperialism’ are big words, both with Roman roots, which strongly imply power and control. It’s interesting with regard to the British Empire that the early and mid-Victorians avoided either word, refusing to apply them to Britain, in order to distance themselves from the leading – Napoleonic – imperialism of the recent past. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that a number of politicians – both Tory and Liberal – took to ‘empire’ in a positive spirit, and started taking pride in it. (Ordinary people were generally unmoved.) Even then the British was regarded as essentially different from other empires; being founded on the accidental effects of British ‘free trade’ in the world – opening up and defending markets in Africa, India, China and elsewhere. If there was no intentional compulsion involved, at least in principle, then it couldn’t be termed ‘imperial’ as the word was generally understood.

Of course this rested on a very narrow definition of ‘imperialism’, as was pointed out by two leading imperial historians in the 1950s (one of them my Ph.D supervisor, as it happens), who coined the expression ‘free trade imperialism’ to cover this much wider phenomenon. This is now almost universally accepted. In my view it’s fair enough; empires can come in softer guises than Napoleon’s or Hitler’s; or the Romans’, come to that. But it’s important to recognise that in Britain’s case her imperialism always had this ‘liberal’ reputation attached to it; justifying it, albeit over-generously, to liberal-minded Brits, and even to their colonial subjects; obviously in the self-governing ‘dominions’ like Australia and Canada (the ‘white’ ones), but also among many of the non-European ones. Gandhi was taken in by it early on, for example.

Albeit transgressed in practice on many notorious occasions – slavery, the Indian ‘Mutiny’, Omdurman, Amritsar, the Kenya death camps, to name just a few – the liberal streak in British imperialism also fuelled substantial domestic criticism of all these tragedies – and incidentally also of King Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo, the movement against which was centred in Britain – and continual opposition to imperialism more generally. In this connexion it’s worth pointing out that ‘anti-imperialism’ – in the sense of opposition to imperialism generally, not just the imperialism you or your people are being subjected to currently (that rules out pre-1776 American revolutionism) – could be said to have been invented by the British, as imperialism of course was not. More important may have been movements for colonial reform; with most of the ‘reformers’ reluctant simply to abandon their colonies, on the grounds that this would simply leave them open to be exploited and oppressed by others: especially neighbouring empires, African slavers, and capitalists. In other words, there were worse fates than being ruled by others; so long as those others’ motives were pretty benevolent. Which was how the British conceived of theirs. This tradition – false, foolish, partial or hypocritical as it may have been, or is regarded today – was undoubtedly one of the factors behind the general acceptance in Britain after World War II of decolonisation; with the sting partly drawn by the idea – or myth – that this was what the British Empire had been driving towards during its whole existence. Its successor, the self-governing ‘Commonwealth’, was seen as the visible proof of this.

I wouldn’t want to make too much of this – that is, of the essential beneficence of the British Empire – but only to say that this was how it was regarded by nearly all those who went out to rule it, in the Colonial and Indian Civil Services; who saw their task as a ‘service’, rather than an excuse to exploit (in fact they weren’t allowed to exploit their colonies materially) or to dominate. Foolish they may have been: callow youths straight out of Public school, and with many of those schools’ old-fashioned values. And ‘racist’ almost certainly: although their racism could operate in various ways. A sizeable minority of colonial administrators came to admire ‘native’ societies and people more than those they had come from, and to stay on in their ex-colonies after independence – and clearly not only because they could live there in a higher style, or with dusky mistresses. Others were active in colonial nationalist movements. Some of this stemmed from their partiality to the more ‘traditional’ – feudal? – ways they found in the colonies, endangered at that time by the cold capitalist ethic that was creeping in. That may have owed something to their class and their Public school education: noblesse oblige. Or, simply, to their personal experience living among other ‘races’. I don’t think a comparative study has been made of this; but I get the impression that non-imperial societies were more likely to be racist, out of ignorance, than ones like Britain’s. That might knock another common prejudice on the head.

Then we come on to legacies. Past ‘imperialism’ is both credited and blamed for a lot of the conditions in post-colonial polities and societies; but no good historian would argue in that ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ way. For a start it’s clearly difficult to say whether what followed the empire was genuinely the result of it, or in many cases of something – or some things – else. Not all legacies, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, were intended. Sometimes ‘bad’ effects were the results of ‘good’ motives, and vice-versa. (As so often in history, motivation and causation can be very different things.) So moral judgments have no necessary purchase here. And the complex relationships that formed between colonials and colonised during their different kinds of association together, when each side had both strengths and weaknesses, complicate things here even more.

Empire-side weaknesses are not often credited today; maybe it’s that big word ‘imperial’ that’s the problem. In truth, and despite appearances, Britain was never so powerful in her colonies as that word implies. Her army (except in India) was always tiny by continental European standards, and pretty incompetent overall. Her navy was better; but useless to impose order on dry land. Britain’s colonial service – the men (always men) who actually ruled the colonies on the ground – was minimal; about enough bods, all told, to police a moderate-sized English city. That made the empire dangerously dependent on indigènes, in junior administrative roles, and often on indigenous structures and hierarchies, to maintain order. (It was called ‘Indirect Rule’.) Colonial officers were always aware of the danger of provoking rebellion through cultural insensitivity; at least after 1857-8 (the Indian ‘Mutiny’), which taught them a bloody lesson in this regard. That usually inclined them to minimal government, and minimal social and political change – often too minimal for subjects who wanted to be changed. Those subjects – usually the ‘Western-educated’ ones – regarded attempts by their colonial masters to respect their customs and traditions not as signs of tolerance and multiculturalism, but merely as means of keeping them ‘down’; which they sometimes – but not always – were. Proselytization was a two-way, give-and-take, process. In these circumstances, and with the Empire’s numerical weakness on the ground, it was difficult for the colonial power to get things right. Generally, however, it made for inertia; which is perhaps the greatest fault that the British Empire as such could reasonably be accused of.

Inertia contributed to many of the atrocities that stained the reputation of the Empire both at the time, and subsequently. If Britain had been prepared to exert more control over events in the colonies, she might have limited the damage done by settlers, of all nationalities, who were the main (though not the only) perpetrators of the most egregious crimes. Of course it should have done. But that would have required more ‘imperialism’, not less. It is arguable that if Britain had exerted a tighter hold over India, and held its own (Christian) religious fanatics back – that was always its preference – it might have prevented the provocations that gave rise to the ‘Mutiny’.

The reason it didn’t do any of these things was its self-image – mentioned already – as an anti-imperial ‘guardian’ power, looking after more ‘primitive’ peoples until they proved capable of ruling themselves. This was why it saw no necessary contradiction, let alone hypocrisy, in opposing Napoleonic and other imperialisms, including in ‘King Leopold’s’ Congo (probably the worst), all the time that Britain was ‘imperialising’ world-wide herself. That’s difficult to credit, I realise; and even to understand today. Protestations of protection and ‘guardianship’ appear thin when we look back on many of the horrors that were perpetrated on British colonial subjects during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; but they were nonetheless the ideas that attracted most recruits to the Colonial and Indian Civil Services in those years. These young lads (no lasses) didn’t join up explicitly to oppress or exploit subject peoples, but to look after and ‘improve’ them. This was often against opposition not only from their new subjects, but also from the latters’ real oppressors and exploiters, who were the settlers and capitalists.

That they so often failed in this task was due to the greater real powers wielded by those two other categories of colonist, in the face of imperial inertia and parsimony. And the root cause of this was not the desire to dominate –  ‘imperialism’ in its strict sense – but a contemporary middle-class ideology that was far more potent, and not only with reference to foreign rule. That was the ‘liberal’ idea that all government – and this of course included colonial government – was unnecessary at best, and an incubus at worst. Societies worked best when they were ungoverned. Economies certainly did. At the very most they should only be controlled up to the point where they could function on their own, and no further. So Adam Smith permitted the ‘protection’ of ‘infant industries’, for example, before they were released into the ‘free market’. Colonial government was supposed to do exactly that for societies; and with as little material expenditure as possible. Colonies were to be ‘self supporting’, financially. And one way of achieving that was to leave other interested parties – settlers and capitalist companies, mainly – free to govern them, so long as they bore the expense of it themselves. It was an early example of what later came to be called ‘privatisation’. And, once established, it made it virtually impossible for the imperial government to regulate what was happening on the ground.

This is not at all to excuse imperial governments for the dreadful things that happened under them, only to help explain the latter; and, beyond that, to suggest that if we feel we have to make retrospective moral judgments, the bulk of those should fall on the back not of ‘imperialism’, per se, but of the economic system that rode it so effectively. Of course British imperial governments should have done more, not capitulated so easily to ‘inertia’ and to the settlers and capitalists; but you can see why they didn’t intervene, when it would have offended against principles that were so much more vital to the dominant class in Britain than ‘imperialist’ ones.

This is what distinguished nineteenth-century British imperialism from other European kinds; and what lay behind the curious fact – noted already – that anti-imperialism originated and developed earlier and more effectively in Britain than elsewhere. British imperialism always had this element of liberal denial within it – denying formal imperialism at least – which was one of the factors behind, for example, its role in abolishing slavery; its leadership of the ‘Congo Reform’ movement in the 1900s; its leading role in devising and developing an anti-imperial ideology for others (notably Lenin) to wield; the weakness – albeit disputed by some historians – of ‘popular’ imperialism in Britain itself; and, lastly, the general acceptance in Britain – even among self-styled ‘imperialists’ – of decolonisation, when that came after World War Two.

Does this make British imperialism easier to understand? It’s a very different understanding of it than informs both sides in the current debate over it, and a rather more complicated and nuanced one than you’ll find there. (And I’ve left out a whole load of other complexities. For those you’ll have to go to my books – starting perhaps with British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, 2016 – the latest and shortest of them.) But I hope you can see from this brief account why we serious imperial historians are reluctant to dive into the present debate between defenders of and apologists for the old British Empire on the one hand, and its traducers. In the midst of all this simplification, misunderstanding and sloganizing, we wouldn’t know where to start.

To clarify my own position: I’ve always considered myself an ‘anti-imperialist’, even while the Empire was still going. I joined demonstrations over South African apartheid, ‘Rhodesia’ and Kenya. But that was on the basis of understanding, not shallow prejudice.

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It’s natural for historians to look for historical parallels, but also – if they’re good historians – to warn people that these should not be taken too seriously. Recent world politics is littered with examples of far too much weight being put on such parallels, often with disastrous results. British ‘appeasement’ of Germany in the 1930s is of course the main example; with its being called into service repeatedly to warn against – for example – ‘giving in’ to Nasser in Egypt in 1956, to Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the early 2000s, and (in Britain) to the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984. I’ve already drawn one such parallel here, and the most generally misused one at that, the Hitler one  (https://bernardjporter.com/2023/01/17/putin-hitler/); but without I hope implying that any particular ‘lessons’ should be drawn from it. There’s enough in the historical pasts of both Russia and Ukraine to help explain what is going on there today, without resorting to superficial ‘parallels’.

So what follows is just for interest, or perhaps for idle speculation. Walking the dog this morning, I was wondering whether there are any precedents in the recent history of the two countries I’m presently a citizen of, for either of them going to war with a neighbour on the grounds that the latter is or was in fact an integral part of the invading country; as Ukraine is conceived to be of Russia, in Putin’s (quite plausible) view. Both Britain and Sweden used to be attached to nearby countries, in ways that could be seen as comparable with Russia’s attachment to Ukraine. In Britain’s case the ties are with Scotland – which still remains, for the time being – and with Ireland (or most of it), which was broken in 1921. In Sweden’s case her ‘Ukraines’ would be Norway (independent 1905), and Finland (independent, but ceded to Russia, 1806). Both involved substantial breakaways from ‘Great Britain’ on the one side, and from the ‘Union of Sweden and Norway’ (or Förenade konungarikena Sverige och Norge) on the other. Swedish and British nationalists of course objected at the time; but I don’t think they ever went to full-scale war to try to reclaim them. (Ireland is a possible – even likely – exception.)

Of course Britain did go to war (or ‘special military operations’) in order to secure some of her overseas colonies after they had rebelled. But these were never considered to be integral parts of the dominant nation – not even Rhodesia – except by a few extreme imperialists in the early 1900s. France in North Africa is probably a better example. There may be others in more distant parts of the world. China and Tibet? And Taiwan soon? So far as Eurasia is concerned, however, Russia seems to stand alone.

It’s all part of the ‘MAGA’ complex, of course: ‘Make America Great Again’; or in this case, ‘MRGA’, ‘Make Russia Great Again’. There are hints of it even in present-day Britain, in Boris’s and other Ukippers’ dreams that the UK might retrieve some of the ‘glory’ of its imperial past: ‘MUKGA’, if you will. Britain has much in common with Russia, including a recent history of humiliating decline, a feeling of national paranoia in the face of Brussels tyranny and ‘invading’ refugees, and the undermining of her moral standards by libertarianism and fashionable ‘wokery’. At present this appears to be a mainly far-Right phenomenon in Britain (and Sweden); although it may be working its way into the centre ground of politics. So far, however, there’s no sign of its developing into an urge to re-conquer Ireland (or Finland), on the grounds that the Irish and the British (or the Finns and the Swedes) are one. Or of national ‘greatness’ being measured again by the extent of territory a country ‘owns’. That’s a Russian, and – one would think – a very old-fashioned thing. So there’s very little to ‘learn’ from here; as is the case with most of these parallels.

PS. Sorry. Forgot the Falklands War. How marginal it seems after all these years!

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You’ll know about the Koran burning that took place near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm the other week, and the reaction to it of Turkey’s president Erdogan, which was to seek to block Sweden’s application to join NATO. Of course there were other reasons for this too, chief of which appears to be Sweden’s refusal to extradite over a hundred Kurdish refugees whom Erdogan considers to be ‘terrorists’.

But it’s the koranbränning which has dominated the headlines here; touching as it does on two sensitive issues in Sweden: firstly foreign immigration and the Islamophobia that is perceived to accompany it; and secondly the broader question of  ‘free speech’, which is much valued here. There’s also a third issue that probably should be discussed in this connection, but very rarely is. That’s the possible involvement in it of our old bugbear Russia, as suggested here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/27/burning-of-quran-in-stockholm-funded-by-journalist-with-kremlin-ties-sweden-nato-russia. Even if he didn’t directly provoke it, the affair is a God-given opportunity for Putin to weaken NATO, Europe, and his current notion of ‘The West’ generally; and possibly to win over to his side the millions of Moslems who lived in the old Russian and Soviet empires, in his war against Ukraine.

To those of us in the liberal, corrupt and irreligious West, as Putin sees us, it’s irritating – to say the least – to conceive of the whole peace of the world’s being threatened by something as trivial as the physical destruction of a single copy of a supposedly ‘holy’ book. For us it appears like a victory of primitive superstition over ‘enlightenment’; a historical regression, in other words.

Yet I suppose we must take it seriously, in the interests of world peace. ‘Free speech’ after all, isn’t absolute, if it carries the danger of provoking panic or violence. (I believe it was John Stuart Mill who gave the example of a man shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded auditorium.) The Swedish authorities could have banned Rasmus Paludan’s little show on these grounds. Perhaps they should have done. (Would it have been allowed in the UK?) But it would still have left a bad taste in any reasonable person’s mouth: to have been effectively blackmailed into giving in to toxic irrationalism (and, at a second remove, to Russia) in this way. The effect on me personally, and I imagine others, has been to turn us against dogmatic religion – of any kind – even more; thus no doubt adding to what is called ‘Islamophobia’.

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Death and the Free Market

From a journalist friend.


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Teenage Terrorists

I’ve just read that Shamima Begum has lost her legal appeal against the government’s decision to remove her British citizenship, on account of her running away from Bethnal Green to Syria to join Isis when she was fifteen years old. It’s arguable that she was ‘trafficked’ there. She gave birth to three children in Syria, all of whom died, fathered (as I understand it) by Islamic terrorists. She’s now 23. She wants to return to Britain, but now can’t – unless there are further legal paths she can pursue.

I don’t know enough about her to tell whether she deserves any sympathy from us. A recent article in the Spectator by someone who did know her is pretty uncomplimentary (https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/shamima-begum-is-no-victim-and-i-should-know/). But that shouldn’t matter. It has long been understood that citizenship is inalienable, and that no-one can be left technically ‘stateless’ against his or her will. (The British Home Office claims that she could apply for Bangladeshi nationality through her mother; but – as I understand it – Bangladesh has disputed that.) She herself was born in Britain. She has expressed a willingness to be tried for her supposed (and likely) crimes, as a British citizen in a British court. That should surely be enough.

I’m sure the political Right in Britain, our Home Secretary, and of course the tabloid press, will be delighted at her exclusion: all part of their beloved ‘hostile environment’ policy. But it seems to me to be neither very civilised, nor very Christian, for a country whose ‘Christianity’ the Right makes great play of. It must be wrong morally, if not strictly – ? – in international law. Besides this, Shamima was only fifteen when she absconded, and living in a pretty squalid refugee camp presently. And who can know what really goes on in the mind of any fifteen-year old? (I’ve had three of them.) And, more to the point: how they can change in adulthood – ‘grow up’?

It so happens that I know a Swedish woman with a similar history, although somewhat earlier; who was allowed back into Sweden, and ever since has been a model Swedish citizen. She recently published a book about her experiences: ‘My Beloved Terrorist’ (in Swedish). (I’ve been trying to get a British publisher interested in having it translated. Here is the reference: https://www.bokus.com/bok/9789113074276/alskade-terrorist-16-ar-med-militanta-islamister/.) Now, I don’t know how different Anna’s situation was from Shamima’s; but it surely indicates that adolescent (or early twenties) terrorists don’t necessarily stay that way. The true measure of both justice and charity is that they are applied to people we disapprove of, especially for their boyish and girlish indiscretions, as well as to those with whom we agree. Like Anna, Shamima might well have gone on to justify Britain’s Christian generosity, and hence bolstered our national pride; far more than ‘hostile environmentalism’ could ever do.

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I spent much of yesterday composing a new post about the ‘Anti-West’ stance of countries like Russia, China and Iran – in other words, I thought, ‘Anti-Enlightenment’; only to realise that I don’t really know enough about the subject to qualify me to pontificate. So I stopped.

I just wish other bloggers would exercise the same restraint.

But I do know about my dreams. Last night I had one featuring the oily Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg dying, approaching the pearly gates, and meeting Jesus; who tells him: ‘of course, you realise I’m a socialist?’ That would be worth becoming a Christian to see.

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Sorry for the long silence. I’ve been busy: attending and speaking at the funeral in England of a beloved ex-colleague – that’s three of my close contemporaries gone in the last year or so, with just three of us left: who’ll be next? – and exhausting journeys for that and to visit – more enjoyably – my Ukrainan refugees, now installed in my UK home, plus two of my children and their families. Back in Sweden now, I’ve just written a long review of a book on ‘the happiness of the British working class’ (in the 19th century), and a new Preface for the re-issue later this year of a forty-year old book of mine. These tasks have taken my mind off the sadness, temporarily, and given me a reason for continuing to live. I write, therefore I am.

That’s all there is to it, really. I write because I need to write – for no other reason. It’s pure self-indulgence. I’ve given up hoping to influence people with my ideas, in view of the pretty poor sales and non-existent press reviews of my most recent books; which – if people read them – ought to put them right about British imperialism, in particular. There’s so much nonsense being talked now about that, from Rees-Mogg on the idiot Right to the callow young statue-topplers on the Left. But people don’t read me on that; instead they go to rank amateurs – the aforesaid Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Paxman – whose celebrity and therefore attraction to readers rest on other grounds entirely. (The exception may be the assertive Rightist academic Niall Ferguson; but he was never an imperial historian au fond.)

But then, as that other amateur Michael Gove asserted a few years ago: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’; of whom – on this subject – I’m one. I try to write clearly and attractively for a general readership, with even a few jokes to enliven my narrative; but it doesn’t get through. The great British public bases its ideas about almost everything on prejudice, self-interest, the tabloid press, un-mediated propaganda, celebrity, and – especially perhaps these days – ad hominem assumptions about the people who are offering their opinions. I’m not seen on telly, or lounging on the Commons benches, or mouthing off about anything; I’m not part of the London or Oxbridge literati, despite my stint writing for the LRB; I live in Hull, for God’s sake, or far away in Sweden; I’m pretty ordinary – even dull – apart from my writing; and my views on imperialism – or anything else – can’t be reduced to simple slogans. So I’m not getting through. – Or is it simply that my writing is crap? Or my poor choice of publishers? I’m reluctant to think that. I’ve been through about a dozen of them over the years, from OUP and CUP ‘downwards’; and they’ve (mostly) worked pretty hard for me. But in any case that’s now all water – and words – under the bridge. I no longer really care. As long as I’m still writing. Like here.

Moan over. And I don’t think that this is at the root of my enduring depression just now. There are far more serious things, outside my personal experience, to depress any left-leaning progressive Englishman or woman these days; including the current political state of our country of birth, its impact on fellow-citizens far more vulnerable than ourselves, the situation in Ukraine and Turkey, the rise of proto-fascism globally, US politics, climate change, blah blah blah… as many blahs as you can think of.

To which I personally would want to add the situation in my adoptive country of Sweden, which appears to be catching up with Britain and America in the worst ways possible: i.e. sliding to the Right. The forcible extradition (after 18 years’ residence) of an elderly and bed-ridden British woman who was too incapacitated with Altzheimers to be able to fill in the forms that would have allowed her to stay in the country post-Brexit, with police officers rummaging through her belongings to see what she will have to take back with her, is the latest indication of this: see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/feb/15/european-commission-contacts-sweden-plans-deport-british-woman-brexit. Suella Braverman would have been proud of this. It’s all the doing of the Nazi-origin ‘Sweden Democrats’; a minority party, not actually part of the current governing Centre-Right coalition, but seemingly wielding great influence on the government. Remind you of UKIP, anyone?

Back to imperialism. Why don’t you go out and buy British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t? It might boost my sales – and hence my mood – by one or two points.

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

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

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

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

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

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Support for Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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