Poor Boris

Of course I can’t be sure; but I suspect Hilary Mantel may be right to think that Boris Johnson ‘knows’ he shouldn’t be Prime Minister: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/sep/04/hilary-mantel-i-am-ashamed-to-live-in-nation-that-elected-this-government. If that is so, what a terrible burden to him this thought must be! Having striven all his life to be ‘world king’, encouraged by his schooling and his Tory supporters to think it would be ‘easy-peasy’, and wouldn’t, for example, require any serious thinking on his part, or take up much of his time, he now finds himself floundering in the middle of at least three god-awful national crises, only one of which (Brexit) was any of his doing originally, with a bunch of hopeless ministers to help him out, and with nothing but his teddy-bear image and a few rhetorical flourishes – most of them beginning to look a bit tawdry now – to sustain him. Even his loyal populist newspapers, it seems, are beginning to lose faith. It must be awful to be him just now: knowing deep down that he’s simply not up to it. I almost feel sorry for the bastard.

Which all bears out my long-held view that wanting to be Prime Minister (or maybe any other ‘top’ job) should automatically disqualify one from getting it. If it’s just the status you desire, rather than wanting to do something for society, you shouldn’t be allowed within a hundred miles of Downing Street. Politics isn’t a ‘game’ you learn at your Public school and from Cicero; or just a ‘career’. It’s far more serious and important than that.

Of course Johnson was – and is – simply the tool of other, far cleverer people, and of the late-stage capitalist beast that probably underlies everything that’s going on just now. If Johnson ever gets to realise that, it must make him feel even worse. I don’t envy him his dotage, thinking back on his failures. But maybe young Carrie will find ways to cheer him up.

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ABBA Tilbacka

I was never an ABBA fan at the time. I was persuaded they were too kitsch. (And I was getting into Bruckner then.) But I’ve grown to like them since; partly for their Swedishness: their unisex dressing, for example; and their ordinary decency, by comparison with most other pop artists, except perhaps for that boring old virgin (one imagines) Cliff. And ABBA’s songs are original, and far superior musically. I like their slow introductions, leading into memorable main tunes – ‘Waterloo…’ (A bit like Schubert.) – They used to write their songs, incidentally, in a sommarhus on an island very near to ours. I can hear the skärgård in them. 

What a thrill it was this morning, then, to learn that they were coming back, after 40 years of silence, with a concert in London next May. So they must be in their 70s now? Here are the two tasters they pre-released yesterday (if it works). I think they’re terrific. But that’s probably the kitsch in me. At bottom I must be a sentimental old fart.

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Is This the Way it Ends?

Brexit is a disaster, corruption is rife, the Government is incompetent, plague stalks the land, and people are being blown to bits trying to escape from Kabul. So Michael Gove decides to make a fool of himself. (Having apparently refused to pay the £5 entrance fee: ‘Don’t you know I’m the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster?’)

Good grief. That it should come to this…

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Dan Dare, Anti-Imperialist?

So even our intrepid 1950s space pilot knew it (see my last Post but one)! This is from the Eagle, 17 December 1960. It’s in a story called ‘Mission of the Earthmen’, which is redolent of the British liberal-imperial values of the time. Someone ought to write a research paper on it. I would, if I had time.

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I’ve finished my ‘popular’ book – for about the sixth time: I always think of something to add – and am waiting for my publisher to get back to me. Unfortunately she’s on holiday – how dare publishers take holidays! They should be on call to their authors every minute of every day!! – so I’m left in limbo for a week or two, suffering from the post-natal – or should it be post-coital? – depression that always afflicts me at this stage. Is the book as good as I thought it was when I was in the throes of creation? Or is it a load of crap? In particular, have I allowed my feelings about Brexit to undermine my scholarly objectivity? Or can I persuade readers that those feelings genuinely arise from the objective history I’ve tried to record in the book? And will this affect the publisher’s judgment of whether the completed work should be accepted into her stable? (Bloomsbury are mainly an ‘academic’ publisher; but they were pretty complimentary about the ‘proposal’.) I won’t know until Emily gets back from her – I’m sure fully deserved – holiday; refreshed and happy enough, I hope, to smile on my curious Patriot’s History.

What I need to do now is to free myself from the obsession with the book that has taken me over during the last six or eight months, and focus on something else. We’ve just acquired a new puppy (Irish Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier – our third of that breed) who is doing a good job of distracting me, mainly by licking my face and biting my toes. (She seems to be a foot-fetishist.) I wanted to call her Bobby, after the great Bobby Moore, but Kajsa wasn’t having any of that (I can see her point: the puppy is a bitch); so she’s now named Tjorven, after a character in a Swedish children’s book. 

Apart from Tjorven, I’m trying to get back to reading novels, which I haven’t done for months, or even years. There’s a pile of them by my bedside. The one I’m into now is Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Under Ground; for which he couldn’t find a publisher while he was alive, but which has just been issued by the Library of America Press. I discovered Richard Wright many years ago, and read and hugely admired all his books. The Man Who Lived Under Ground  is up there with the best of them; but – you should be warned – it’s not a cheerful read. I’m reminded of Dostoyevsky, and perhaps Kafka. Not the best cure for a post-natal (or coital) depression, perhaps, but I’m determined to finish it. And then perhaps Emily will cheer me up.

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Afghan Lessons for Imperialists

As a lesson in the futility of even ‘liberal’ imperialism – if you can credit the USA with that motive, at least in part – the present situation of Afghanistan could hardly be bettered. The Americans’ (and British) mistake was to allow a mission initially designed to root out terrorists who were threatening other nations, including their own, to morph into a ‘nation-building’ one, with the object of converting the country to ‘liberal democracy’ in its Western form. That was unwise. (As of course was America’s role in backing the Taliban against Soviet-inspired Afghan communism before that.)

Nation-building of this kind, incidentally, was what the British only rarely tried to do in their empire. This was partly because the Brits – sometimes for racist reasons: the ‘natives’ weren’t up to it; partly because of their weakness on the ground: I don’t know if many people appreciate how tiny the British colonial establishment was, and so fearful of rubbing up its subjects the wrong way; but also because many of them were genuinely respectful of the cultures they were supposed to be lording it over, and harboured doubts about their own – usually chose not to interfere in those cultures; indeed, often incurring the resentment of Western-educated indigènes for that reason. In the particular case of Afghanistan, which the British army invaded on several occasions in the nineteenth century, always being beaten back, Britain also – eventually – learned from experience; an experience the US might also have profited from, if she had known any British imperial history. 

Democracy – or liberalism, or ‘freedom’, or whatever – can only very rarely (Japan may be an exception) be imposed on a country from the outside. It has to come from within. I’ve been searching for a quotation I’ve used before from a nineteenth-century imperialist, no less, who said just that, and can’t find it for the moment (stuck out here away from my books!); but no matter: in any case Kajsa tells me that Marx made the same point. That was the huge and tragic mistake that the more culturally confident American Neo-Cons (remember them?) made in Bush’s and Blair’s time; an appalling error from which so many countries – but especially Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – suffered so grievously in the age of late American imperialism, ‘liberal’ or otherwise. 

It may be a general law of empire, in fact, that bad results can often come from the best of motives. You don’t have to believe that imperialists were only after gold or oil or cheap labour or any other form of lucre (although of course many were) in order to be critical of their achievements. Many of the most unfortunate effects of colonial rule were well-meant. (There may be instances the other way round, too: transportation?) That’s important to know, because it frees us from having to make difficult moral judgments about the people and nations who indulged in imperialism. We can make judgments about their judgment, perhaps, which is at the root of my criticism of Tony Blair over the Gulf War; but that’s another thing. Blair and Bush were appallingly wrong; but that doesn’t make them necessarily evil. Foolishness can be as fatal as wickedness, and ignorance – of past history, for example – can make it worse. 

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The Return of the Lordlings

The ‘Public’ schools – Britain’s ‘peculiar institution’ – were not always the blights on her society they are today. Early on, of course, they were meant for ordinary people (boys, that is), which is why they’re still called ‘public’ now. By the early 19th  century they had become finishing schools for the privileged, but effectively run by the boys, which explains Tom Brown’s Schooldays; and also the school riots that broke out occasionally, some of them having to be put down by the military. At least these could be taken as evidence of independent thought on the part of the boys. Then, ‘reformed’ in the middle of the 19th century, the schools entered into their golden age of service to the nation, supplying it with prime ministers and bishops to keep it running in a ‘civilised’ way. For the Empire, expanding and needing people to rule it, they were its major source of ‘prefects’, as one historian of Indian administration has called them. 

This wasn’t all bad, because the values inculcated in these young stripling rulers were generally moral ones, as ‘morality’ for the upper classes was understood then: in terms, that is, of helping those less fortunate – or ‘civilised’ – than themselves. Sometimes this involved protecting the colonial indigènes from voracious capitalist exploiters, or at least trying to; thereby rubbing down some of the sharper edges of imperialism. For the Public schools’ dominating ethos then was, basically, not a capitalist but a ‘feudal’ one, best expressed in the term  ‘noblesse oblige’; which was of course why Margaret Thatcher despised these men so much: the ‘wets’, as she called them, mostly with Public school backgrounds, who were such a barrier – temporarily, at least – to her dream of a totally ‘dry’ – materialist – economy and society. 

But this particular Public school ethos in any case seems not to have outlived the decline and fall of the British Empire, which took away much of this particular raison d’être  of the schools, and hence of the values that had underpinned them. At the time it was widely assumed that it would also make the schools themselves less prominent in at least the higher reaches of British politics and society; with much being made of the much lowlier origins and schooling of a succession of prime ministers from Harold Wilson – replacing the Old Etonian Harold Macmillan – onwards; and including of course Thatcher herself. (But not Blair.) This was supposed to indicate Britain’s final emergence into the light of the modern day; when – reflecting what British society had by now become – her leaders would be chosen from the sorts of schools the majority of her people had attended.

Until, that is, 2010; when another Old Etonian entered No.10 Downing Street, so reasserting Eton’s grip on British politics; to the surprise of many of us, who had assumed that such establishments had gone the way of the rest of English feudalism, together with jousting and burning witches, never to return. David Cameron’s and then (especially) Boris Johnson’s whole demeanour and attitudes reflected their Etonian upbringing, almost embarrassingly for some of us – Boris’s ‘jokes’ in particular; but not the old sense of morality, or obligation (‘oblige’), and the better values that had been associated with the Public schools in their Imperial days. Those had gone. All that remained were the sense of entitlement that was probably the least valuable legacy of the old Public school system, and the immature school-boyish behaviour that went along with that. In place of the duties and ‘obligations’ that the schools had once engendered there were just self-aggrandisement, corruption and foolishness; which one assumes had been drafted in to replace the older values under and after Thatcher, to enable Eton – and the other Public schools – to survive in a more mercenary age. You needed a lot of – probably ill-gotten – money to be able to send your sons there. It wouldn’t do for the schools then to teach those sons to despise the system that had enabled that. And so we have Boris, and Jacob, and Nigel, and the rest of them, lording it over us.

If any of my Old Etonian acquaintances are reading this, by the way, I don’t mean you. Or George Orwell, of course. (Although he would probably have agreed with me.)

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Outside Insiders

Yesterday evening came news that Priti Patel was to be given overall control of the British Security Services. – Priti Patel! The most outrageously authoritarian (or proto-Fascist, if you like) member of the present UK government; she who wants to bring back hanging, and to imprison lifeboat crew who save asylum seekers from drowning at sea! ‘I must write a blog about that’, I thought, being as I am a bit of an authority on the history of the security services (seen from the outside, I hasten to add), and probably more genned up on it than she is. I was planning the post as I fell asleep, fitfully; only to awaken this morning to find that Johnson had ‘u-turned’ on this in the meantime, and had appointed someone else. So I’ll leave the juicy topic of the relationship between the secret services and the political Right for now. (You can follow it up in my Plots and Paranoia, 1989, if you’re interested.)

The incident however did get me thinking about Ms Patel, and her extraordinary situation, as the daughter of asylum-seeking immigrants (Kenyan Asians) turning out to be the most anti-immigrant minister Britain has ever had – even including Theresa ‘hostile environment’ May. At the very least I thought that this must have something to do with her ignorance of the more liberal aspects of Britain’s ‘national identity’; which may in turn have had something to do with her education, which so far as I can gather took in very little history. Others might point to her ‘ethnic’ origins, or to her gender; not in the sense that implies that only Anglo-Saxon men can be truly ‘English’, but in giving her a feeling of ‘alien identity’, on both these grounds, which inclines her towards what she believes are more assertively ‘English’ attitudes, in order to establish her Englishness. Or perhaps she’s just pandering to the ‘mob’? Or, alternatively, and to give her the benefit of the doubt: perhaps she has in fact thought it all through rationally, and genuinely believes in what she says and does.

Whatever: the phenomenon of ‘outsiders’ adopting more fervently ‘insider’ views in order to compensate for their foreign or lowly origins is a fairly common one. I remember that one of the most Right-wing members of our ‘High Table’ when I was a Cambridge Fellow was the only one (apart from me) who wasn’t upper-class and Public school-educated. (The genuine ‘nobs’ may have been no less Rightist, but had learned – perhaps at their schools – to politely conceal it.) And isn’t it interesting how many of the present Tory cabinet are of Asian and African origin (admirable in itself, of course)? And how many of the leading Brexiters have scarcely-hidden ‘foreign’ family origins: Nigel Farage, Mark Francois, even Boris himself, born in America and with some ‘Turkish’ DNA? And remember that Hitler was an Austrian, and Stalin a Georgian. (No other comparison with Farage and Co. intended here!) There must be other examples; all of them ‘outsiders’, anxious to establish their ‘insider’ credentials.

This impressed me too when I was studying British imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries: that many of the most rabid ‘British’ imperialists and imperial propagandists of that time had either German or Indian or Ulster Protestant backgrounds, placing them outside the general run of English liberal thought. (I’ve cited examples in my ‘imperial’ books.) I don’t know how significant this pattern is; but Priti seems to fit it to a ‘T’.

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Historical Objectivity

Towards the end of writing my ‘Patriot’s History’ book (see previous posts), and coming up to the present day, I found myself getting more and more opinionated. I’m sorry, but I can’t see Brexit as anything other than a huge mistake, and the people who misled the electorate into voting for it as other than short-sighted or malign, in one way or another. Boris’s lies are called out in the book (though I call them ‘fibs’, to soften the impact a little), and I make no secret of my distrust of his motives, and my poor opinion of the competence of most of his cabinet. I try to be fair to ‘both sides’, and my ultimate explanation for the Brexit fiasco is I think well argued and reasonable; but it may strike unsympathetic readers as a bit ‘left-wing’, and so lacking the objectivity that one should expect of a history book written by an academic. My response to this would be that I believe my interpretation to be based less on my present-day prejudices than on my knowledge of British history, which gives me the right, for example, to say that the present British government is the most incompetent and corrupt in history; and, secondly, on my conviction that this judgment will endure and be corroborated by future historians looking back on our times; unless, of course – which is perfectly possible – an even worse government intervenes, or the Age of Unreason finally comes upon us. 

That being so – if it is so – why should I be prevented from saying it, simply because it may be taken to be partisan by readers at the present day? If I’m wrong, I shall be retrospectively punished for it in future history books. I remember from my school days that we were not allowed to study any history beyond 1914 (yes, 1914) on the grounds that more recent events no longer qualified as ‘history’, but as ‘politics’, which it was feared Leftist history teachers might turn into ‘propaganda’. (‘The General Strike? Far too controversial.’) But if I believe there are important historical factors, some of them coming from ‘the Right’, which helped to skew the 2016 referendum result, shouldn’t I be allowed to say so?

I really do believe that a study of history can shed huge light on present-day events; not in the form, necessarily, of ‘precedents’ or ‘lessons’, but by providing a broader context to what is happening, and so putting ‘Brexit’, in this instance, in its place. That’s one of the two main purposes of my ‘Patriot’s History’. The other is to demolish some of the more conventional kinds of ‘patriotism’, which rest on false or misleading views of modern British history. Most of those – but not all – are found, I’m afraid, on the ‘Brexit’ side.

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What Now?

I wouldn’t particularly welcome a revolution; firstly because you never know how they’re going to turn out, and secondly because – on the personal side – I’ve got a certain amount of ‘stuff’ I’d like to keep. But it’s hard to see how we Brits (or half-Brits, in my case) can get out of the mess we’re in without one. Parliament isn’t working. The Labour Party doesn’t seem to have much going for it just now: nothing, that is, to inspire the enthusiasm  (but also to provoke the hostility) it did under Corbyn. Our politicians aren’t half the men and women they used to be; unsurprisingly, in view of their poor reputation as a class, which stalks ahead of them. Those who rise to the top – in cabinet – seem to be the worst of the lot. This must be the most incompetent, dishonest and corrupt government Britain has ever had in her history. The bulk of her ‘people’ are apathetic, accepting it all as ‘normal’, and dreadfully misled by their media; manipulated as that is by plutocrats who don’t have their true interests at heart. This isn’t just the result of Brexit, which has simply been used – I would say – by those plutocrats and others to pursue their  interests. How else would they be able to ‘complete the Thatcher revolution’, which is the explicit ambition of many of them? (Viz. my next book.)

There may be ways of correcting all this: electoral reform, press reforms, tax reform, social reform, political education (that is, simply teaching kids about ‘democracy’ and the checks and balances that are necessary to keep it ‘pure’); but that would take far more time than we have at our disposal, with the forces ranged against us, including apathy and stupidity, and the widespread popular prejudice, especially, against ‘politics’ of any kind. Incremental reform may not do it. Which would only leave the barricades.

But in the meantime it may be worth trying for an anti-Tory electoral coalition next time around (that looks awfully far away just now!) to emphasise the Conservatives’ – and especially these extreme authoritarian Conservatives’ – minority appeal in the country as a whole. I would put aside my own Leftist principles – and my doubts about Starmer – to achieve that. Once Boris and his crew have been replaced by a wider-based progressive government we can debate and see to all the other things that need mending (culminating in the climate crisis – if there’s still time). Is that the way to go?

Even this, however, might require more popular backing than seems likely now. For a political shift on this scale people need to get really worked up, and against their true enemies; not immigrants or the EU, but the Brexiteers, and the plutocrats behind them. (Hopefully Eton would lose a bit of its shine too.) Unfortunately I can’t see much sign of this just now. Virtually the only ‘anger’ I can discern out there (from across the North Sea) is over empty supermarket shelves; and even those are being blamed by the yellow Press on the EU. 

Are people only  thinking of their stomachs? And in the individualist selfish way Thatcher taught them to? And not for example about Priti Patel’s assaults on their traditional liberties? Is not being able to buy Spanish peaches (or whatever) a solid enough foundation for a popular movement that could remove a government peacefully; and – more to the point, perhaps – replace it by a liberal one? If not I can see only a kind of fascism, or a much less gentle Leftist revolution, looming ahead. 

So let’s go for a progressive alliance: Labour, Lib-Dems, Greens, SNP, PC, Independents and the ‘wetter’ (and wiser) of the Tories, shelving their tribalism for a while, and pulling together for the common good. Like they are supposed to have done in World War II. 

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