Boris the Harlot

I can’t think of another period in British history where leading politicians were drawn from the ranks of professional journalists. Salisbury used to write (anonymously) for the press before becoming PM, but it wasn’t his main occupation. WH Smith – a cabinet member in the 1880s – sold newspapers. Karl Marx supported himself by writing newspaper articles, but he never made it into the British cabinet. Today, however, we have Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, both cabinet ministers, and both indeed vying for the top spot, whose only job before entering politics was writing ‘op. eds’ for the Times and Telegraph. In other words they came down from university straight into inflicting their clever young opinions on the British public in the Tory press, with no real experience of life or public affairs to back those opinions up. They and their editors thought they were entitled to do this, no doubt, because of the patina of ‘intelligence’ that surrounded them – in Boris’s case simply, I suspect, because he knew some ancient Greek – and because of their vaulting self-confidence. In both cases, when you analyse what they say, they hardly live up to that reputation. Gove is a simple-minded ideologue; Johnson an intellectual chancer.

It’s always been my opinion that a representative democracy ought to be represented by representative people, both in parliament and in the cabinet. At present the House of Lords is in this sense, and ironically, rather more representative than the Commons, because – apart from the minority of hereditary peers – it’s composed of people who have done things in their lives; that is, have had proper jobs. How many Commoners have? Most of them have been student union politicians who have later on gone to work for trade unions, if Labour, or, on the Tory side, young privileged men and women whose daddies are rich enough to have supported them in unpaid appointments in Conservative Central Office.

A few professions have done quite well, with plenty of lawyers in the House of Commons – OK, I think, if they have genuinely practiced Law – and a sprinkling of bankers. Again, I wouldn’t object to them if they really were just a sprinkling, proportionate to the total population they were representing, and were broad-minded. And I’ve nothing against Boris’s profession of journalism: a great profession, so long as it concentrates on reporting affairs that would be hidden from people otherwise, and even heroic, if it does this against pressure from governments, bankers and others. Neither Johnson nor Gove comes into this category. Johnson’s ‘reporting’, from Brussels at one stage, consisted in simply telling lies; apparently ‘straight bananas’ was one of his. Gove just vents his prejudices, confidently, backed up by selective reading. At the Leveson hearings much of his testimony, in an area I’m familiar with, was historical nonsense. Beyond these, what other ‘jobs’ are as well represented? I’m not pleading here for a chamber made up of hoary-handed men (and women) of toil, though a few more might make Dennis Skinner and his few hoary-handed mates look a little less isolated – and deter the Tories from mocking Northern accents. Simply for all MPs to have done some kind of ‘proper’ job before standing for Parliament. (Plus a few very young ones who won’t have had that kind of experience, but will know what it’s like to be young.)

Mere scribblers are unlikely to make good governors. How was it that Stanley Baldwin characterized the press of his day: ‘power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’? It must be difficult to shed that once in real power. Johnson and Gove show no signs of doing it.

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New Under the Sun

It’s been a blessed relief to retire to a civilized country for a while, from the political chaos that is present-day Britain. I can’t entirely escape from the latter, of course, with the Swedish broadsheet press covering it pretty well, and unmercifully – they really do think we’re mad; but at least it puts some distance between me, here on ‘our’ idyllic island, and the ‘Eton mess’ back home.

I’ve always tried, in this blog, to contribute some historical context to the current events I comment on, as a justification for commenting at all, I suppose – for I have no other expertise that might raise my views a little above the level of mere ‘opinion’. But it’s difficult to in this case. I can – and have tried – to place present happenings in their very broadest context, of the modern crisis of capitalism, which obviously – to my mind – lies behind UKIP, Trumpery, the Front Nationale, and all the rest. That’s been building up for some time, and so qualifies as a historical phenomenon. But the crisis is taking different forms in different countries, some of which, it seems to me, have no exact historical parallels. I can’t find a very close one for the extraordinary phenomenon that is Trump, for example, though there are some very loose comparisons that can be made with 1930s European fascism; and the present political mess in the UK seems to me to be entirely without precedent. When did we (Brits) ever experience a crisis so self-inflicted, by unwise leaders, crazily idiosyncratic politicians, an irresponsible press, and a grossly misled public, as we (back home) are suffering today?

‘There’s nothing new under the sun’, they say. Oh yes there is. – That may be a historical point worth making.

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Capitalism, Art and Equality

While I have him in mind: two more interesting (?) points about Samuel Laing the Elder.

He was one of the first assertive and ideological philistines I’ve come across in history. He argued that ‘art’ was an unrelievedly bad thing, suited only to peoples at low stages of civilization, before they had advanced into the state of progressive utilitarianism he thought he saw in Norway, where no-one wasted their time on such fripperies but instead concentrated on the solid, material things of life. So one sign of Sweden’s inferiority to Norway was her superiority in the fine arts – painting, decorative architecture, and so on. The same was true all over Europe (where he travelled and recorded after leaving Scandinavia). Italy and France were at the lowest stages because they were artistically accomplished; Britain near the top because she was unartistic, devoting her people’s time, money and efforts to making useful things like steam engines and money. I explored this in another ‘Laing’ article: ‘”Monstrous Vandalism”: Capitalism and Philistinism in the Works of Samuel Laing (1780-1868)’, in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer, 1991). In a later reply to comments on this, I waspishly suggested that this might be the reason why modern ultra-capitalist America was so relatively poor at ‘art’ (except jazz); only to be denounced as elitist, of course. (I’m not really.)

Secondly – and this should be borne in mind when we consider the early ideology of ‘liberalism’ generally – Laing was convinced that the free market and all its trappings were conducive to human equality. It was this that made him a democratic as well as an economic radical. John Stuart Mill, the doyen of Victorian liberals, took this idea from him, in his Principles of Political Economy, where he wrote (2nd edn.) that if that did not turn out to be the case he, for one, would become a ‘socialist’. (Michael Caine voice:) ‘Not many people know that’. It shows how fundamentally the ideology of ‘liberalism’ has changed over the years: indeed, has almost metamorphosed into its opposite. Victorian liberalism, which Thatcher for example professed to worship, must not be confused in any way with the ‘neo’ kind.

Samuel Laing would not have approved of our present-day ultra-capitalists. Or indeed, to return to his ‘philistinism’: of Edvard Grieg. (We hope to make a pilgrimage to Grieg’s house in Bergen next week, after visiting Laing’s Levanger.)

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Sweden contra Norway

I’ve been back in Sweden for a few days now. I’m sleeping much better – it must be the social democracy. But it takes a while to get re-adjusted. Hence no posts. I hope to resume soon.

We plan to go to Norway next week, following the route taken by one of my historical subjects, Samuel Laing the Elder, in the 1830s. (See Laing was an Orcadian travel writer – among other things; he was also a kelp farmer and translator of one of the Norse sagas – who lived and farmed briefly in Levanger, and published an admiring account of contemporary radical Norway. He then followed this with a brief visit to Sweden, recounted in a second book, which painted that country as the polar opposite to Norway: aristocratic- and church-dominated, morally corrupt – he made great use of illegitimacy statistics – and entirely bereft of self-sufficiency and enterprise. Naturally, the Swedes objected. (Their ambassador complained formally to Lord Palmerston.)

I made my study of Laing’s works some time before I came to experience Sweden for myself. Luckily I didn’t allow them to influence my view of the latter. (Please note, Migrationsverket. I’m still waiting for you to approve my citizenship application.) Next week I can put his judgment of our neighbours to the test; as well as visiting the most northerly Romanesque/Gothic cathedral in Europe, Trondheim – I’m really looking forward to that – and some spectacular scenery. I’ve been warned about the food. (When I complain about Swedish cuisine, they always reply: ‘Ah, but Norwegian is even worse‘.)

More serious posts to follow.

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‘We Will Never Let You Rule’

I was intending to post a comment on a widely quoted statement of Theresa May’s at Prime Minister’s Question Time a few days ago, but have since thought better of it. She was reported to have shouted over to Jeremy Corbyn: ‘We will never allow you to rule!’; which, for someone who has studied Establishment (including Secret Service) plots to undermine Labour governments in the 1920s and the 1960s by subversive means (see Robin Ramsay, Smear, 1992), struck me as reminiscent and somewhat menacing.

Anxious however, as any historian should be, to check my facts, I looked in Hansard and on Youtube for the offending words, and couldn’t find them. The nearest was her telling Corbyn, at the same PMQs: ‘We will never let it happen’; but referring, quite clearly, to letting the national debt rise while the Conservatives were in power. That’s an entirely different thing. A discussion on Facebook revealed that others had taken this the wrong way too.

It is, to be fair, in line with May’s authoritarian tendencies: viz her career at the Home Office. But it seems in fact – and unless anyone can come up with another reliable source – to be an example of ‘Fake News’; which we Leftists are always accusing the Right of making up for propaganda purposes, but in this case is either an invention or – at best – a mistake, by someone on the Left. Warning: don’t believe something just because you want to. That way lies Trumpery.

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Christianity and Anti-Immigration

Kajsa tells me – back here in Sweden – that the Sverigedemokraterna (right-wing anti-immigration party, with neo-Fascist historical roots) are trying to make themselves look more ‘moderate’ and respectable by taking on the defence of ‘Christianity’ as one of their policies. There’s already a Swedish Christian Democratic party, but that’s in decline, so I suppose the SDs are hoping to pick up some of its supporters.

I was brought up a Christian of the ‘gentle Jesus’ kind, and so can never understand Christianity’s being hitched to hateful right-wing causes. But then of course, politically speaking, there are two kinds of Christian: those who believe in its ethic and wish that to inform political events; and those to whom Christianity is simply a species of tribe, determining one’s identity and loyalty. I imagine that Theresa May’s, learned at her vicar father’s knee, must be of the latter kind. I certainly don’t recognise it from my childhood.

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The scandalous traducing of Jeremy Corbyn by almost the whole of the British press – including even the Guardian – is widely acknowledged. To an extent it may have been counter-productive, with Corbyn’s principled refusal to respond in kind impressing many waverers.

Yesterday I attended a memorial service for an old college friend who went on to become a financial journalist, in the ‘journalist’s church’, St Bride’s Fleet Street: one of Wren’s finest. I looked there for any signs of Christian contrition, for its worshippers’ persecution of Jeremy. Nothing, of course; until we came to the second hymn, ‘He who would valiant be’: whose second verse, I thought, could easily be taken to refer to followers of our new ‘JC’.

Who so beset him round With dismal stories,

Do but themselves confound – His strength the more is.

No foes shall stay his might, Though he with giants fight:

He will make good his right To be a pilgrim.

‘Who so beset him round with dismal stories.’ The modern press, surely? I glanced around, but no-one else seemed to be catching on. I held back my instinct to start chanting ‘Hey, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ It wouldn’t have gone with my Cambridge college tie; or, of course,with the dignity of the occasion.

Afterwards we adjourned to ‘the journalist’s pub’, the Humble Grape – better attended normally, I imagine, than the nearby church. I met dozens of City journalists there, affable and friendly – I wouldn’t have expected any less of dear Chris’s old friends – but seemingly oblivious of the upheaval that is threatening to pull their whole late-capitalist world down. (?!)

Which is symbolised, of course, by the tall blackened remains of Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, which I saw on my way in from nearby Shepherd’s Bush. We’ve all seen the pictures, but believe me it looks even more terrible and moving in real life. Of course the residents’ wishes should be paramount here; but I’m still rather wedded to my original idea: that a Corbyn government preserve it as it is, as a fitting monument to neo-liberalism.

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Pompous Prat

I’m on my way back to Sweden, where I’m sure they’ll quiz me on all the nonsense they read about daily from the UK. Several press commentators have remarked on how low Brexit, May, Boris and the rest have dragged Britain’s reputation down abroad, in much the same way as Trump has done for the USA. Whether that matters or not, or whether it’s a fair judgment on us, are matters of opinion. But it’s also my experience on the Continent, for what it’s worth.

According to one of the regular commentators on this blog, that’s not very much. He’s been bombarding me with insults for about a month now; his last one (this morning) calls me a ‘pompous prat’. Well, I may be; but my main objection to his contributions is that he grossly misunderstands and distorts what I write, which is of course far more wounding to a serious author than ‘sticks and stones’. I won’t go into details, and haven’t done so with him – mainly because his comments are pseudonymous (he calls himself ‘TB’), and I’ve made it a rule never to reply to anonymous communications. What has become of the days when anonymous letters were regarded as beneath contempt, and indeed deeply un-British, by respectable folk? (See my writings on Victorian ‘secrecy’.) Nowadays the blogosphere is full of these; which is another thing, I think, dragging our nation down.

Apart from this, it’s unfair. I know nothing about him, or where he ‘comes from’ (Google’s no help); whereas he can find out anything he likes about me. Indeed, in his case ‘where I come from’ appears to be the main or even the only reason for his hostility. He knows I’m an (ex-) academic, and so attributes to me all kinds of attitudes and views which he assumes must spring from that – arrogance, elitism, contempt for ordinary people – in the face of what I actually write. (He almost never addresses my arguments.) I’ve always been scrupulous, in the Prefaces to my books for example, to be open about the personal and institutional background factors that might inform my views – and also about my struggles against them: against Cambridge, for example. That’s in the interests of ‘full disclosure’. I’m now beginning to wonder whether this was a good idea.

Out of fairness to him, I’ve always allowed TB’s vitriolic comments to appear beneath my posts – I could censor them out if I wanted – and have assumed that any of my followers who bother to read them will immediately see how ludicrous they are, without my needing to respond. TB will probably regard that as ‘pompous’ too.

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According to a recent poll, 60% of British citizens would like to keep or retrieve their European citizenship after Brexit, even at the cost of – say – £400 a year. ( That will include me, if my dual Swedish citizenship doesn’t come through. I really do feel angry at the way I have been robbed of my European identity by the Brexiteers. Surely this should be a matter of individual choice?

I wonder what individual EU citizenship would involve? Obviously the right to move freely and work in the EU, without special permits or dispensation. Probably the duty of paying taxes abroad. The right to vote in foreign elections? At present, as an EU citizen living in Sweden, I vote in local and European elections, but not for the national parliament. Health care? I’m entitled to that now in Sweden, but this will stop, I guess, after Brexit kicks in. Military service, for younger people? The right to be defended and represented by European embassies in other parts of the world? And would we need to permit EU citizens to buy British citizenship on the same terms, to even things up?

Anyway: surely this way of sharing or splitting one’s national identity among several countries is a good thing, and an acknowledgment of how the world is moving just now. I’m sure there are many like me who feel British (or whatever), but not exclusively; who have other identities as well as their narrow passport or ‘blood’ one, which they feel is far too limiting for them. That’s partly due to ‘globalisation’, and the bad odour into which ‘nationalism’ has fallen in liberal quarters; as well as to the fact that ‘nationality’ can no longer adequately contain or define one’s identity on its own. Most countries of Europe, as well as the USA, are divided between at least two diametrically opposed versions of the local nationality, each of which claims the exclusive right to it: Republican-Democrat, or Trumpist-Sandersist; Conservative-Labour, or UKIP-Corbynista…, all claiming their superior ‘patriotism’ over the others. National identities are not fit for purpose any more. They don’t tell you anything.

So why not allow people formally to choose their own mix of identities, with the relevant passports provided? I hope to be British-Swedish soon, which will more accurately reflect who I feel I am in terms of nationality. (Of course, like everyone else, I have other identities too.) Given even greater choice, I’d probably want to add a couple of others too. Irish? Australian? But that’s a lot of 400 poundses. British-Swedish-EU will do for now.

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Sweden at the Edge of the World

In many countries History is taught in order (partly) to inculcate patriotism. This has meant prioritising one’s own country’s history over others’, and in some cases teaching and learning one’s own history alone. I’ve always been proud that History teaching in British schools and universities from ‘A’-Level onwards has not, generally speaking, followed that pattern. This was one of Margaret Thatcher’s complaints against the new National History (school) Curriculum that was drawn up in the 1980s (I had a very small part in that): that it wasn’t ‘British’ enough. (Her other objection was that it seemed to have jettisoned the rote learning of lists of Kings and Queens with their dates, in favour of critical thought.) My own (Mediaeval) A-level course was as much continental European as it was English; and when I got to university I found that it was impossible to take more than 30-40% of my History courses in British history alone. Most of the other choices were in continental European history, or American. That suited me at the time. It should have suited the ‘patriots’ too; for what better way is there of understanding your own country’s history than by studying it in the context of others’?

I had one gripe then; and I’ve added another to it since. Apart from American, which was seen as a kind of extension of British history, we were able to study very little extra-European history. There was one exception: imperial history, called – tellingly – ‘The Expansion of Europe’; which in any case was not highly rated, but only offered as an alternative for those who weren’t bright enough to cope with its alternative, which was the history of European political thought. (That’s what I opted for. Hence I became an imperial historian without ever having studied imperial history as an undergraduate.) So the syllabus still seemed to me to be Eurocentric, even if it wasn’t Anglocentric; that is, ‘white men’s history’ – yes, just men – alone. I hasten to add that this was many years ago, in the 1960s. I guess it will have changed now.

I wonder whether my other gripe has been addressed? That concerns the geographical limits that were placed even on the European history we were given to study; which comprised, almost exclusively, the histories of France, Germany and Italy – or what later became those nations. Other countries occasionally got a look in if they had fought with any of those nations, or with Britain, or had been invaded by them; so Russia, the Low Countries, the Balkans and the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires were given walk-on roles from time to time. But all the serious action revolved around the core European countries of France, Germany and Italy (together of course with Britain); with what we might call the continental periphery being almost totally neglected. That included the Iberian peninsular, Greece, and the whole of Scandinavia.

It’s the Scandinavian absence that has, naturally enough, struck me most since I started living (partly) in Sweden twenty years ago; not only the omission of the Nordic countries from our history syllabuses, but also the lack of any serious reporting from there in our current British media. The Swedish press has been covering our recent political shenanigans in great detail – and with an accuracy and objectivity we don’t often find in the British press. The only time Scandinavia is prominently mentioned in our papers, however, is when there’s a massacre there; or if it corroborates our stereotypes of the place: IKEA, leggy blondes, the ‘Nordic model’, and so on. When we want to make political or economic comparisons between our own national situation and foreign ones, it’s nearly always to the ‘core’ nations that we turn, even when Scandinavian ones might be more apt. The aptest one would be with Sweden’s (and for all I know Norway’s and Denmark’s) political, social welfare and economic systems. You occasionally find references to Swedish child-care, for example. But these are mere mentions, footnotes, never properly explored in the British discourse. If they were, they could teach us a lot.

Similarly, even we ‘intellectuals’ know very little about Scandinavia’s cultural life, apart from Ibsen, Bergman, Grieg, Abba, and The Scream. When I switch my computer on, it gives out the first chord (I think) of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony; leading me to wonder each time: what has become of Sibelius’s stock now? In my youth he was one of the great modern symphonists; now he is rarely heard on British radio. Is this another example of our (British) marginalisation of the North?

When I left university I still had only the vaguest idea of Scandinavia. One of my father’s friends was a nudist, and went to Sweden to practice his hobby. That coloured my image at the time. We heard stories of young Swedish women – mainly au pairs – being particularly liberal with their sexual favours. We assumed it was cold there all the year round. We also admired Sweden for its internationalism, anti-imperialism and pacifism. In the Labour Party we had this glorious vision of the ‘Swedish model’ of society, our ‘shining city on the hill’, which we hankered after in Britain, but without knowing much about it.

Meeting Kajsa in 1995 was my first proper introduction to the country. I can’t – mustn’t – say I was disappointed (where are all those nudists?), but I was surprised. Its women are not particularly promiscuous. Indeed, the Swedes are rather straight-laced about these things. (It comes out in their particular brand of feminism.) Its summers can be hot, and even its winters seem warmer (because drier) than ours. Historically, the country is not at all innocent of aggression, militarism, imperialism, slavery and collaboration with tyrants (in World War II). No country is perfect. But the Scandinavian ones are still better than most, and worth serious study, both historically and politically, by us Brits. We could learn a thing or two. They shouldn’t be dismissed simply because they’re way up there, on the edge of our ‘civilised world’.

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