Brexit and the Abuse of History

By one of our best historians.

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A St George’s National Day

One of Labour’s new ideas is to institute St George’s Day (April 23) as a National holiday – or ‘bank holiday’, as we curiously call them – to celebrate ‘Englishness’. The Scots, Welsh and Irish all have their National days, as do most other countries of the world. The English never have.

In the early 1900s British Conservatives tried to fill this lacuna with an ‘Empire Day’ (on the same date), in order to encourage imperial patriotism, which they thought ran pretty thin among the working classes: rightly, in my view. There were two major problems with that. One was that it expressed a (greater) British  patriotism, rather than an English one, which is the kind that is being sought now. The second was that it was not widely respected by the working classes, except children who were given a half-day off school, ostensibly to indulge in all kinds of empire-related activities, but in reality just to lark around. This was largely because Empire Day was imposed on them from above (a chap called Lord Meath), and didn’t express their own loyalties, which were far narrower. In the self-governing (‘white’) Empire, incidentally, it was different. ‘Empire Day’ caught on much faster in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. That’s one of my arguments, in The Absent-Minded Imperialists, for claiming that imperial sentiment was much stronger there.

There are of course other problems with celebrating ‘Englishness’ on our new National Day. ‘Patriotism’ is a dangerous idea, which can lead to untold evils if taken to excess. I think that’s probably what the French President was getting at on Armistice Day, when he tried to distinguish it from the ‘nationalism’ that he detected in Donald Trump. I also – as I’ve written before – regard it as an illogical concept, if it’s used to instil ‘pride’ in us for something, especially past historical events, we were not responsible for. (See It’s also associated in Britain today, and exploited, mainly by the political Right, with its appeal to deeply reactionary institutions like the monarchy, the military, and the old Empire.

But – as I pointed out in that earlier blog – it wasn’t always that way. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries ‘patriotism’ was more associated with the common people, and with their liberties, as against the oppression they were suffering at the hands of the monarchical-military-imperial complex. It was something they shared with struggling patriots and liberators abroad, especially in France and America. It was literally patriotic because it was rooted in the truly British or English – sometimes Anglo-Saxon or Scottish – freedoms which had been stolen from us by our fundamentally ‘foreign’ – Norman – aristocracy. This is why Dr Johnson famously described it as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’. He was thinking of a people’s patriotism, expressed in the radical mass-movements of the time, liberating and democratic; like the people massacred at Peterloo; many of them carrying – as Mike Leigh correctly registered in his wonderful new film of that name – St George’s and Union flags. It was only in Disraeli’s time that ‘patriotism’ became expropriated by Conservatives.

This morning I attended a meeting of our local constituency Labour Party called by our local MP, Diana Johnson, and John Denham, to discuss what a St George’s Day celebration, instituted in this more radical spirit, should look like. There were many excellent ideas, most of them relating to England’s social, intellectual and other distinctions and achievements. I suggested that Danny Boyle could be called in to choreograph it, after his splendid opening ceremony for the London Olympics a few years ago. (The Tories, incidentally, hated that.) Others suggested multiculturalism. That really would avoid the ‘nationalist’ trap. And they wouldn’t need to exclude either wider ‘British’ or ‘international’ loyalties.

Despite having always personally been a non-patriot – a ‘citizen of nowhere’ as Theresa May notoriously dubbed my kind a couple of years ago – I have to say I can see some virtue in this. John Denham persuaded us that one of the things that militated against the working classes voting Labour in the last two or three elections was its perceived lack of ‘patriotism’. Perhaps we should try to turn that around, and seize the idea of ‘patriotism’ back. After all, why should the devil have all the best prejudices?

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Old King Knut

If Theresa May’s Brexit settlement gets through, says Boris Johnson, it will mean that ‘for the first time in a thousand years this place, this Parliament, will not have a say over the means to govern this country’. (See; 1 minute 34 secs in).

What a poor historian he is! In the first place, the British parliament hasn’t existed for anything like ‘a thousand years’. (A thousand years ago, in fact, most of England was ruled from Denmark.) Secondly, if this is going to be ‘the first time’, it follows logically that the British Parliament has  had a say over the last forty-odd years of EU membership. Wriggle out of that, Boris. (He’s an experienced wriggler.)

And thirdly: there’s this whole question of ‘control’. That’s what the Brexiteers are always banging on about. ‘We want to regain control of our own laws and practices.’ – But what a thousand years of our history do tell us is that ‘control’ isn’t a simple matter of who has the formal reins of government in his or her (or even their) hands. Every polity is buffeted by external influences, and the smaller that polity is the less it can do about them. Freedom from the European Union will not return any meaningful agency to Britain or her rulers. Indeed, we may be even more tightly constrained than we presently are by Brussels: for example by conditions demanded by countries we wish to trade with (chlorinated chicken), or by the raw impersonal imperative of late-stage global capitalism. Old imperial historians like me recognise this as what we call ‘informal imperialism’. The only way of defending our national interests against this sort of thing – American or Chinese informal imperialism, say, or the international and impersonal capitalist behemoth – is in combination with other countries.

Which is why the Brexiteers’ cry of ‘national independence’ is so foolish; as the Danish King Knut demonstrated (in a way) all those years ago, at Bosham in West Sussex, when he set his throne down on the beach and commanded the tide to go back. The point he was making to his courtiers then, of course, which many quoters of the myth miss, is that even a King had no such power. Maybe if he had managed to line up a few more thrones beside him he might have managed to withstand the sea. OK, not the best of metaphors, I admit; but it’s the main reason – the hope of combining to resist the informal imperialism of others – why I voted to remain in the EU. (The Danes are still there, after all.)

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Dishonouring The Dead

As expected, and as was absolutely right, the celebrations yesterday to mark the centenary of the Armistice of 1918 were solemn, sorrowful and deeply moving. They were duplicated all over the old Commonwealth (including India), and, I imagine, in all the Allied countries, and possibly the Axis ones too. Representing the latter, the German President attended the ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, for the first time in a hundred years, and laid a wreath. Over in Belgium, Merkel and Macron cried on each other’s shoulders. (At least, that’s what it looked like.) There was not a hint of triumphalism or jingoism about any of it. No socialist or even pacifist could possibly object. Jeremy Corbyn was there. Of course the tabloid press criticized him, predictably, for wearing a dark raincoat rather than the usual formal black overcoat; but on the other hand he was the only one to stay behind and talk to veterans.

Following it, BBC2 carried a documentary last night, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, which conveyed the horrors of the war on the Western Front, and the attitudes of ordinary soldiers, far more vividly than I’ve ever seen them portrayed before in books or film. (And in the course of lecturing on the subject I’ve read and seen an awful lot of those.) Adding colour to the moving images made an enormous difference; as well as the selection of the images themselves – which included torn, bloody, eviscerated bodies lying in mud. It was my old friend Joanna Bourke who pointed out to us, a few years ago, how all the contemporary images of death in war represented the victims as whole  bodies, even when shot or blown up. This made them easier to be seen as masculine heroes, than lumps of flesh or eyes hanging out of sockets could do. (See her Dismembering the Male, 1996.) Also on British TV last night was Joan Littlewood’s anti-militarist musical ‘Oh What a Lovely War’. (I remember seeing the stage version when it premiered in the East End.) Then tonight they’re showing a programme about the mental after-effects of the First World War on serving soldiers: ‘WW1’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock’. Quite right, too.

Michael Gove, however, must be fuming. Remember his objecting to the ‘Blackadder version’ of the War a couple of years ago:; on the grounds that it was no way to teach children ‘patriotism’. (He was Education minister at the time.) In fact the reality of World War I was far worse than that. You don’t see Baldrick in bits.

In this connection, it was good to hear the French president inveighing against ‘nationalism’ (but not ‘patriotism’) yesterday, in an obvious dig at Trump. That is, at the man who wouldn’t go out and pay tribute to the American dead ‘because it was raining’. Everyone’s saying that this was because he didn’t want to get his beautiful hair wet or his false tan to run. Is he really as vain and shallow as that?

Or maybe it was something else: the solemn, even gloomy character of the celebrations, and their implicitly anti-war message. This is a man who breathes false optimism. Realistic versions of the Great War don’t exactly encourage that. I’d be interested to know how the Americans as a nation celebrated Armistice Day yesterday. My suspicion is that they will have been more upbeat. Can anyone help?

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Checks and Balances

Despite a pretty good education in and experience of American history and politics, I’ve been surprised recently at the degree of power a President can wield if he’s not ‘checked and balanced’. Over the past two years the US has resembled an elective autocracy, rather than a democracy, with the Executive, Legislative and Judicial arms all being on the same side. Let’s hope, after yesterday’s mid-term elections, that the new balance of parties in the House of Representatives can put that right. A democratically-elected dictatorship can be just as tyrannical – ‘fascist’ – as any other kind. Look at the histories of pre-War Germany and Italy, and of dozens of third-world countries post-War.

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Arron Banks

Reading the Wikipedia entry on Arron Banks – the financier whose bankrolling of the Brexit campaign is now the subject of a criminal enquiry – I was struck by certain similarities between him and Donald Trump. (See I don’t know about Banks’s attitudes to women and to other races. I suspect him of being a serial liar, but can’t prove it. (The courts will doubtless rule on that shortly.) But it’s a fact that he was expelled twice from his minor public boarding schools, one with the Dickensian name of ‘Crookham Court’ (I kid you not), for – as Wiki reports –  ‘an accumulation of offences, including the sale of lead stolen from the roofs of school buildings, and high-spirited bad behaviour’. After that he engaged in various kinds of Arthur Daley-like small business enterprises, before launching into insurance in a big way. (He seems to have been more genuinely ‘self-made’ than the Donald.) That’s where he made his millions, most of them spirited into hidden overseas tax havens: which is why the police are on to him now. They want to know where the huge amount of money he donated to Leave.EU  – Farage’s outfit – came from originally. There are rumours that some of it was Russian. There are electoral rules about this. Beyond that, Banks is very right-wing, and a great fan of Trump. He’s reputed to be a bully. His Dad worked in colonial Africa. (I don’t know what to make of that; and it’s not a characteristic he shares with Trump.) And he has a foreign (second) wife.

The similarity that most struck me, however, was the nature  of their businesses. Both of course are capitalist – indeed, almost the purest form of capitalism possible – but essentially non-productive. Neither of them makes anything, except – in Trump’s case – great tower blocks that nobody really needs. They buy, borrow, sell and invest. They do all this personally, which gives them a taste for authoritarian power. (It’s why most businesspeople despise any form of consensual government. ‘If only the country were run like a business…’) Essentially they are gamblers on a big scale. That after all is what the insurance and investment businesses require. The same is true of many of Britain’s other Brexiteers, including Farage, who was an investment capitalist; Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is rumoured to have shifted his investments over to Ireland; and Theresa May’s husband Philip. Unlike industrial or manufacturing capitalists, men like Trump and  Banks have never contributed anything solid to society, apart from pots of money for themselves and their rich friends, and a couple of dubious reputations. That was before they launched into politics.

I think the type  of capitalism they represent must be relevant to the kind of politics they pursue. In the first place, it’s exactly the kind of capitalism that most Marxists believed would represent its ‘final’, corrupt stage, before it swells to bursting point. Capitalism has always, of course, exerted an influence over British and (self-evidently) American politics, but usually behind the scenes. Now this ‘final stage’ of it has ‘come out’ and taken the reins blatantly, with a capitalist President, for pity’s sake; thus appearing to fulfil the prognostications of the Marxists to a T. – Secondly: because it’s essentially non-productive it also encourages amorality – anything to make a buck – and depends on manipulation  for its success. It’s all smoke and mirrors: lies on the sides of buses, gutter press propaganda, Orwellian fears of invasion by Turks or Mexicans, denigration of ‘experts’: all designed for short-term ‘wins’. (I’ve always objected to the common American categorisation of people as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, rather than, perhaps, ‘successes’ and ‘failures’. I write as someone who is happy to regard himself as a moderately successful loser. Trump and Banks are failures who won.) This mirrors the cold and superficial ‘short-termism’ which present-day late-capitalist economies are often accused of.

I shall be watching the results of the American mid-term elections on TV tonight, in order to see whether the downward progress of capitalism can be obstructed a little; and then waiting to see what the current ‘Brexit’ negotiations throw up. I don’t hold out much hope for either. No-one will dare to run counter to ‘the people’s will’ by trying to – for example – impeach Trump, or by reneging on Brexit. Just think of the outcry against us much traduced ‘elites’ in the tabloids or on Fox News. I’m dreadfully afraid that Arron Banks, and the final-stage capitalism he represents, may have finally won. I can just hear Marx muttering, from beyond the grave, ‘I told you so!’ (Ben once bought me a T-shirt with that on, during the 2008 financial crash.) At least Karl is no longer here to suffer the direst consequences; as neither shall I be, probably, at my advanced age. Lucky old us.


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What Did They Die For?

The British (and Commonwealth) World War I dead whom we shall be remembering next Sunday – the centenary of the Armistice – fought and died for a number of reasons. Some of course had no choice in the matter, after conscription was introduced in 1916. For the volunteers however, and for the conscripts once the War had got going, a common motive, maybe the major one, was simple solidarity with their mates in the trenches. A second was to test their masculinity, or experience the excitement – as it was presented to them – of a proper shooting war. Some fought to protect ‘hearth and home’ – wives, girl-friends, sisters and children – from what were presented by the propagandists as unspeakable atrocities, if the Hun were not stopped. Beyond this, and at a broader level, they fought for their country  – Britain, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland or Australia, depending on which nation they felt most identity with. Some fought for the peace that was bound to follow ‘the war to end all wars’. They usually didn’t fight for their commanders, or politicians, or allies in the field. Indeed, they had more respect for their enemy than for any of them. (See my piece on Gallipoli in the LRB: ‘Patriotism’ was a superficial and fragile thing, which for ordinary soldiers generally crumbled under fire.

Still less was there any imperial patriotism at work here. I once undertook a study of the inscriptions on First World War memorials, in connexion with my book The Absent-Minded Imperialists, in order to see how often the ‘Empire’ is mentioned on them. I was genuinely surprised to find how absent the Empire is. ‘For King and Country’ appears quite often; but I could find only one single example of ‘For King and Empire’ – on a stone cross somewhere in Wales. That’s one out of a possible several thousand. (Every village has its WW1 memorial; most cities have several.) The famous Whitehall Cenotaph simply says ‘To The Glorious Dead’. Why ‘glorious’? It doesn’t say.

It may be different with Commonwealth war memorials, in Australia, for example, or those great war cemeteries in France and Belgium, or even India. I haven’t done the research on those; but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. Colonials after all felt far more imperial identity and pride than did most stay-at-home Britons (I think I’ve shown that in my book). What the latter fought and died for was their own folks. By rights, their inscriptions should read: ‘For Their Mates’. Which, to my mind, indicates a far better cause to sacrifice one’s life for, than a country or a King.

But that of course is not what their officers and politicians ever want us to think.

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Good Muslims

I don’t think you can altogether blame people for their hostility to Islam, in view of the numerous horrific crimes committed in the name  of the Prophet, and incidents like the following: Not her release, of course, but the terrible situation indicated by her original death sentence for ‘blasphemy’, and the popular reaction in Pakistan against the brave judges who have lifted it. (They must now live in fear of their lives.) In view of this kind of thing – which may  be over-emphasized by an Islamophobic press (I don’t know), and can certainly be matched in the history of Christianity, though surely not today? – we can hardly wonder that Islam has a negative and indeed scary reputation outside its own culture, and that its claims to be ‘a religion of peace’ sound somewhat hollow.

In which connexion it was heartening to read of this generous response by the American Muslim community to the recent synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, PA: Maybe that’s not unusual. If so we should be told about it. More stories like this one would do a power of good for Muslims everywhere.

I was also, incidentally, heartened by the rejection by so many American Jews of both Trump’s and Netanyahu’s offers of support after the shooting; on the grounds, I guess, that the latters’ own positions and attitudes are likely to have contributed significantly to the ‘white hate’ that fuels both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the USA.

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Doctor Who and Trump

I don’t usually follow Doctor Who, but thought I would look into it now in order to see how its new female Dr Who is shaping up. I thought she was super. Last Sunday’s episode (series 11, episode 4) was up to date in another way, casting a Donald Trump-like figure as its villain. (See; 3’50” in.) He had all the right personality traits, attitudes, and ambitions, including presidential. And was utterly villainous. No-one could miss the parallel. So long, that is, as they weren’t too distracted by the giant spiders. They were super, too.

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Migrant Colonialism

Further to my recent post on ‘Immigration’ – – another important distinction to draw in this context rests on whether the immigrants intend to merge into the societies they come in to, or whether – to put no finer point on it – they come as colonizers. (My special academic area, of course.)

Colonizers migrate in order to set up societies of their own abroad, as for example most British and other European emigrants did in the Americas, Africa and Australasia in modern times. Others come to rule or exploit the indigènes of the lands they move into, in which case it’s called imperialism. Not many recent immigrants into Britain (or the US) fall into that last category, whatever the more extreme Islamophobes may claim. Most of them simply settle, and manage to culturally adapt, at least to an extent that the natives find comfortable with, and after the first generation or two.

The danger may come when they set up settlements of their own which are deliberately cut off from the communities around them, as so many emigrants in the age of European expansion did. It’s not only foreign immigrants that do this, incidentally; my own personal experience of the upper classes (at Cambridge University) taught me how ‘cut off’ they are; although of course they aren’t strictly ‘foreigners’. (Unless we’re going back to 1066.) In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was mainly us  doing the migrating – Brits, Irish and other Europeans – to the detriment, in the main, of the native Americans, the aborigines of Australia, Maoris, and others. But today it’s south Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants into Europe that this pattern is generally associated with; as exemplified by this two-year-old newspaper article, sent to me by RR, about ‘ghettoes’ of immigrants in certain northern British towns:

Now, I don’t think we should take this at face value. It’s from the Daily Mail, after all, and reads as if it comes from Enoch Powell’s time. (Powell’s gross stories of immigrants shoving excrement through whites’ letter boxes, for example, were soon revealed as urban myths.) Nonetheless, I don’t doubt that the Daily Mail story reflects some of the reality of these places – I’ve witnessed it myself in Bradford and elsewhere – and that it can be problematical. The tenacity of Moslem culture among many of these recent immigrants may be one barrier to their – even partial – integration, though it doesn’t seem to have had this effect on the present Mayor of London and Home Secretary. Personally, I take the customary liberal view of this: we should try to make the immigrants welcome, and encourage their integration. Naïve? I hope not.

But I don’t want to pursue this question now. It has little bearing, for example, on the current burning issue of how many we should let in. The only point I want to make here, and to add to today’s debate on migration, is that this sort of immigration should, strictly speaking, be regarded as another form of colonialism, which we on the Left have always been taught to disapprove of historically. So, should we reject this form of settler-immigration for the same reasons?

To tell the truth, I’m not sure what we can infer from this new classification of (some of) our incomers. But as someone concerned about semantic accuracy, and in order to refine the argument, I believe that ‘colonialism’ should always be called out for what it is. – That’s all.

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