Keep Clear of Zimbabwe

Britain should not try to intervene, even to ‘help’, in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, remember, used to be a British colony, founded by a wealthy rogue – Cecil Rhodes, hence Southern Rhodesia – and neglected by the British for the whole of its colonial history. This is crucial to understanding the country. The neglect was because it was cheaper for Britain to devolve, or ‘outsource’, its ruling function to ‘white settlers’ – as in South Africa and Australia too; and the Rhodesian white settlers were basically agricultural capitalists, with none of the paternalistic instincts (at least in theory) of Colonial Office men, but only interested in using their authority, and even their own soldiers, to seize African lands and labour for their own profit. In the end Britain was desperate to get rid of Southern Rhodesia, but without any civil servants of her own there found she couldn’t; short of sending in British troops, who might have mutinied, against the white minority rulers. So strictly speaking it wasn’t the British state, or the ‘Empire’, which ruled and oppressed the Rhodesian Rhodesians directly; which is not however to dispute Britain’s ultimate responsibility, and her shameful conduct in not living up to it.

Nonetheless, one of the ways Mugabe has cemented his surprising popularity among Zimbabweans up to now is by claiming that the ‘British imperialists’ were all the time plotting to get ‘Rhodesia’ back. Boris blundering in would only confirm those suspicions. So, leave it to Zimbabwe’s African neighbours to ‘help’; or else to someone like the Swedes, whom everyone seems to trust, and don’t have – or don’t think they have – Britain’s colonialist baggage.

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Trahison des Clercs

I’m not surprised at this – Ever since British universities became a ‘market’, they’ve adopted market ethics; especially – but not exclusively – the lower-status, and so more vulnerable, ones. I first noticed this when I was directing my own university department’s submission for the ‘Teaching Quality Assurance’ and ‘Research Assessment’ Exercises in the 1990s, the outcome of which partly determined how much money we would get. Other universities were cheating on a considerable scale: literally hiding away poor lecturers when the assessors came, for example; ‘sexing up’ their research dossiers; and so on. It’s what happens when competition, of this material kind, comes into conflict – and it is a conflict – with academia. One of an academic’s main functions should be to determine the truth of things, insofar as that is possible. The conduct of Falmouth (of which I’d never heard) and all these other institutions, named by the Guardian, is nothing but a trahison des clercs. Strictly, they should be closed down.

But of course it’s not only the clercs who indulge in this sort of conduct now, in this age of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. The rule seems to be, for some politicians (I’m thinking here of course of Boris) and others, that what you say doesn’t have to be true, but only what you can get away with. Isn’t this another example of late capitalist values spreading throughout society?

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Parliament’s Brexit Vote

Everyone now seems to agree with me ( – though I’m sure they didn’t get it from me: it’s pretty bloody obvious, and scarcely anyone reads this blog) that the great EU Referendum last year wasn’t about Europe at all, except for a few fanatics, but about other issues, chief among them the effects of ‘austerity’. (For example, in today’s Guardian: As well as that, a good slice of opinion – shall we call it ‘educated opinion’? – also shares my view that basing such a huge national decision on the narrow result of a foolishly-called one-off referendum goes against the Constitution (such as it is) of the UK, as well as against all common sense. Why that result should still stand when we can be pretty sure that a crucial proportion of the original ‘Brexit’ voters are now dead (see, rather than testing – again – the opinion of the still living, also appears self-evidently ridiculous, and surely not ‘democratic’. A second referendum would have the advantage of determining the opinion of the people now, and with the repercussions of Brexit – in other words, what we’re asked to vote for – more clearly spelled out. But of course the Daily Mail regards any suggestion of that as ‘treason’. (Isn’t it interesting, and rather shocking, by the way, that Theresa May should have decided to attend a dinner the other day to celebrate Dacre’s 25 years as Editor?)

Last night, returning from a performance of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the Hull New Theatre in a rather low mood (it’s a depressing play), I was cheered to hear that the Government had given in to pressure for a final Commons vote on the terms of its Brexit deal; which would restore the constitutional supremacy of Parliament. I slept well. Waking up, however, I was cruelly disabused. The vote will be a ‘take it or leave it’ one: either accept the deal, or reject it and still be cast off from Europe into the inky blackness. It’s going to be ‘Brexit’ whichever way they vote. That’s no sort of ‘choice’.

And what are we to think, incidentally, of the arch-Brexiteer Redwood (previously known as the ‘Vulcan’) advising people to move their money abroad before Brexit strikes? (See

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On the Other Hand….

….could it be a diplomatic ruse by Boris to lead the Iranians to think that he believes them, so making them more amenable to the idea of releasing her? Is Boris as clever as that? (I imagine his FO advisers are.)

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Of course Corbyn is right about Boris Johnson: Everywhere you go abroad he’s regarded as a joke. If he remains much longer as Foreign Secretary he’s likely to be a disaster, for his compatriots as well as for him.

It puzzles me why anyone ever thought he was ‘bright’. It must be because he went to Oxford, where he learned to spout ancient Greek. In the nineteenth century it was assumed that anyone with a good Classics degree could do anything – run the country, rule a colony, even organise a piss-up in a brewery. What the ancients taught about politics was carved in stone, applicable in every conceivable situation. And their politics never got beyond the idea of ‘aristocracy’. (That figures.) You could always dredge up a Latin tag about any political situation, which seemed to fit. In fact my experience of those who excelled in Latin and Greek at my own school, and won Oxbridge scholarships, was that it proved they had good memories, and nothing more. None of them, to my knowledge, went on to achieve what was expected of them. That’s because their study of the ancients didn’t teach them to think. Not like modern History. Am I doing the study of Classics an injustice here?

Here’s an (edited) version of Boris’s biography in Wikipedia. It really shows him up, I feel.

Johnson was awarded a King’s Scholarship to study at Eton College, the elite independent boarding school… At Eton, Johnson began using the given name “Boris” rather than “Alex” and developed “the eccentric English persona” for which he later became known…. Although school reports complained about his idleness, complacency, and lateness, he established himself as a popular and well-known figure within the school. His friends were largely from the wealthy upper middle-classes…. Johnson won a scholarship to read Literae Humaniores, a four-year course based in the study of Classics, at Balliol College, Oxford.

Arriving at the university in late 1983, he was part of a generation of Oxford undergraduates who later dominated British politics and media in the early 21st century, among them senior Conservative Party members David Cameron, William Hague, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, and Nick Boles. At the university, he… associated primarily with Old Etonians, joining the Old Etonian-dominated Bullingdon Club, an upper-class drinking society known for its acts of local vandalism. Johnson entered into a relationship with the aristocrat Allegra Mostyn-Owen and they became engaged while at university.

Johnson became a popular and well-known public figure at Oxford…. In 1984, Johnson was elected secretary of the Oxford Union. In 1986, he ran for president…; his campaign focused on reaching out from his established upper-class support base by emphasising his persona and downplaying his connections to the Conservatives…..  Johnson won the election and was appointed president, although his presidency was not seen as particularly distinguished or memorable, and questions were raised regarding his competency and seriousness. Having specialised in the study of ancient literature and classical philosophy, Johnson graduated from Balliol College with an upper second-class degree, but was deeply unhappy that he did not receive a first.

So he wasn’t even the best at Classics. (And my experience at Cambridge was that Classics gave out an awful lot of Firsts.)

As an imperial historian I agree, too, with Corbyn’s references to the ‘imperial’ flavour of his ideas. It permeates everything he says, and imagines, deludedly, about Britain’s ‘place in the world’. It’s interesting that his Oxford College was Balliol, which was known as the ‘seminary of Empire’ in British imperial times. Johnson’s background, education and former career (as a mere journalist!), as well as his clownishness, and his appalling judgment (over the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, for example), should rule him out of contention for any responsible job. He needs to resign, and then get fundamentally re-educated, if he ever wants to get back, into any higher position than the jokey blimpish panelist in that famous episode of Have I Got News For You. That was probably the high point of his career.

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Wear Your Poppy with Pride

Poppies are not patriotic. They are worn to remember the terrible slaughter of war, irrespective of the poor victims’ nationalities. For this reason it’s wrong for the International Football Association to ban players’ wearing them for international matches; but equally wrong for this decision to be objected to on patriotic grounds. Unfortunately that was the argument of one Tory minister six years ago; to which I responded with this letter to the Guardian:

‘“Wearing a poppy,” writes our sports minister to Fifa, “is a display of national pride, like wearing your country’s football shirt” (Report, Sport, 9 November). I have worn a poppy at this time of year for as long as I can remember. For me it has always been in sad remembrance of the slain of two world wars, with no shred of nationalism attaching to it. Talk of “national pride” and “football shirts” cheapens the gesture. If this is what it really signifies, I shall not wear one again.’

I am wearing one this year, believing that most people share my interpretation. But in sorrow and sympathy; not with any particular ‘pride’.

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True Allegiance to Her Maj

On my way to London to give moral support to my daughter-in-law at her ‘citizenship ceremony’ in Chelsea Old Town Hall tomorrow. She needs it, otherwise she might not be allowed back in after she’s spent this Christmas with her folks in Australia. We had a scare two or three years ago, when she was laid up in hospital in Melbourne while her visa expired; lawyers and her local MP came to her defence, but we didn’t know until the plane landed at Heathrow whether or not she – and her new baby – would be let off. I think the Home Office (under the dreadful Theresa May) was wanting to make an example of her: firstly to demonstrate to Brexiteers that it was ‘serious’ about cutting immigration; and secondly to reassure liberals that it wasn’t only darkies it was trying to keep out. After tomorrow, she’ll have dual nationality, and so be (relatively) free.

Dual nationality may become the norm quite soon. My children can all claim dual Irish citizenship whenever they want – their mother has an Irish passport. I’m in the process of applying for joint Swedish (no word yet). In my case and, as I understand it, thousands of others, it’s in order to remain a citizen of Europe, once Britain has cast herself adrift.

That was the cruellest aspect of Brexit for people like me, though I sense that others will be affected worse and more materially. Why do Brexiteers believe that one essential part of being a British ‘patriot’ lies is keeping yourself apart from other nations? That’s not my understanding of the history of our ‘national identity’; about which I’m presently writing – or, rather, compiling, from old papers and unpublished lectures – a new book. It will be a kind of democratic history of the relations between Brits and Continental Europeans over the past two centuries, at the level of ‘the people’ rather than of governments. The working title is ‘Cosmopolis’.

I’ve been to one of these ‘citizenship ceremonies’ before: for my son-in-law, an American (now Anglo-). It was rather low-key: a tiny room, two flags (one for Hertfordshire County), a civil servant administering the oath – not Queenie: that was a disappointment – and the national anthem played on a portable CD player. The oath itself is a bit tame – ‘I, [name], [swear by Almighty God] [do solemnly, sincerely and truly affirm and declare] that, on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs, and successors, according to law’; there’s nothing there about having your head chopped off if you don’t. Doesn’t becoming British deserve a bit more pomp? Tomorrow’s is a group affair (several new citizens), which might make it jollier.

I’ve nothing to add on the great issues of the day – the Cabinet falling apart, Boris’s clowning, dirty old Conservative MPs clutching women’s bottoms, increasing poverty, Donald’s idiocies, imminent war with ‘Little Rocket Man’, famous people (including Queenie) cheating the taxman; West Ham sacking Slaven… It’s all been said already. Weird enough, i’d have thought, to make Kellie think twice before becoming one of us. Can you apply for more than two nationalities? It could be a good escape route for all of us. And express our multiple ‘identities’ more meaningfully.


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Democracy and Tyranny

‘Tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.’ So said Socrates, apparently. (It’s been decades since I read Plato’s Republic.) Here, one Andrew Sullivan explains how, with reference to Trump. I have to say this impressed me.

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Our Seditious Universities

Analysis of the votes cast in the 2016 Europe Referendum and in this year’s General Election revealed, among other patterns, two quite striking ones: that both Remain and Labour voters tended to be (a) younger and (b) better educated than the rest. This set some on the Conservative and Brexit sides ‘blaming’ the rapid expansion of University education in Britain in recent years for the difficulties they had experienced. There were several possible conclusions that could be drawn from this. The ‘elitist’ one was that Remain and Labour were the more intelligent or educated ways to vote. (But we’re not allowed to say that.) The one that many on the Right favoured, however, was that students were being over-influenced by the views of their academics, who were reputed, probably correctly, to be predominantly Leftish.

It must be this that has given rise to the extraordinary and alarming suggestion by one pro-Brexit Tory MP yesterday, that Universities report to the Government on courses that include studies of British-European relations, especially those that bear on the issue of Brexit, to the extent even of forwarding their syllabuses, booklists and outline lectures, and naming lecturers: That would have included me, when I used to teach the history of Britain’s relations with Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This is, of course, appalling. Apart from its being based on entirely erroneous ideas about higher education – that it consists of lecturers dictating their own views to students, rather than encouraging them to think (I see that Chris Heaton-Harris went to the University of Wolverhampton, an institution the existence of which I was snobbishly unaware of before today: is that how they’re taught there?) – it has brought to many critics’ minds the spectre of ‘McCarthyism’: policing teaching and so undermining freedom of thought in universities, which of course is the basis of all academic enquiry and teaching in a ‘free’ country. Universities will certainly resist it for this reason. Hopefully the Conservatives will too; even – or perhaps particularly – the Oxbridge-educated ones. (That’s one thing you can say about Oxbridge.)

There has always been an element in the Conservative Party that has opposed all popular education on the grounds that it would give the working classes ‘ideas above their station’. This may be what is behind Mr Heaton-Harris’s fears for the effects of Higher Education on the classes that have only recently been admitted to what had previously been a mainly elite cadre. Keep them ignorant, and they’ll be more likely to vote Tory. (Or for Trump in the US. Did his voters break down demographically the same way?) Benjamin Disraeli is supposed to have consigned this attitude to the past with the famous declaration he made in support of the 1870 Education Bill, passed at the time that Parliamentary democracy was just beginning to emerge in Britain: ‘We must educate our masters’. But only – Heaton-Harris would say – if their educators are carefully monitored.

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