The Road to Hell

So the Tories’ newly appointed Director General of the BBC is pulling a popular satirical TV show because it’s too left-wing (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9354927/BBC-axes-left-wing-satire-Mash-Report-presenter-Nish-Kumar-hits-back.html). This comes on top of the (Tory) Home Secretary’s bringing in new draconian laws against peaceful (but noisy) political demonstrations (https://www.politics.co.uk/comment/2021/03/11/silencing-black-lives-matter-priti-patels-anti-protest-law/?cmpredirect), and this shortly after she had been forced to settle a case against her of bullying, at the cost – to the public – of £340,000: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2021/03/why-do-politicians-keep-getting-away-scandal; the PM’s refusing to correct a downright lie – among many – in the House of Commons (https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/boris-johnson-slapped-down-speaker-23681360); and the High Court’s adjudging the government to have acted illegally in granting Covid-related contracts to Conservative Party donors (https://dpglaw.co.uk/high-court-declares-government-acted-unlawfully-in-its-ppe-procurement/). All this in the last week alone; and probably much else besides.

With the Government’s Commons majority of 80 having been won by rank deception; all decent Tories having been effectively expelled from the Party; the official Opposition demoralised and  toothless – Corbyn’s teeth having been pulled by the Tories’ propaganda agencies; 80% of the press in the hands of proto-Fascists; and Ministers setting aside Britain’s centuries-old democratic ‘checks and balances’ in order to force through Parliament their Right-wing agenda: Johnson seems to be on a roll. He’s had an extraordinary run of luck recently, especially with the coronavirus, on which he can lay the blame for the effects of Brexit – that together, of course, with the evil EU, which his tame Press is still stoking up popular hatred against. 

Or has it all been, not luck, but a deep-laid plot? Not the virus, of course; but the moves – including Brexit – that have allowed the Tory Right to pursue its neo-Thatcherite late-stage exploitative-capitalist program with impunity: impoverishing the poor, protecting the tax havens of the rich, stirring up xenophobia, and giving Israel a free hand against the Palestinians – and the Saudis weapons to use against the Yemenis. In almost any other period of British history any one of these scandals could have been impeachable, by one means or another. In this new situation Johnson, despite his blatant inadequacies and character flaws, must feel that he and his mates can now do whatever they like; unless, of course, the present situation is only temporary, and turns against them. The fear of that must be why they’re in such a rush. Strike while the iron is hot. They might not get another chance to complete the not-quite-finished Thatcher revolution, and turn Britain into the essentially  Fascist state – though of course it wouldn’t be called that – it seems to be headed towards. From my viewpoint, self-isolating in the frozen but sensible North, it looks dispiriting, to say the least. Does it really feel  like this in Cardiff or Colchester or Clackmannan or Coleraine? Or are they inured to it? Or simply blind? Or ignorant? Or apathetic? Or deceived by the propaganda? Or all of these? – Or am I wrong?

Kajsa thinks I shouldn’t go back. She’s also cross about Britain’s stealing the EU’s Covid vaccines away from us. (Is that true? We still haven’t had our jabs; our local vårdcentral tells us it’s run out of them.) I’m more worried generally, about what is becoming of the once-beloved country of my birth. It has always had its dark underside, of course: exploitation of workers, poverty, homelessless, gross inequalities, shocking treatment of Ireland, Enoch Powell, Eton College, perfidy in its foreign relations, much (not all) of what went on in the Empire; and plenty of other stuff. But Britain – and especially, perhaps, Wales and Scotland – also used to have some brighter aspects: literature, science, enterprise, the welfare state, the NHS, a kind of democracy, liberalism (before that became ‘neo’), toleration (of immigrants, even), cricket, humour, village churches, religious nonconformity, a thriving social-democratic movement: all those things celebrated in Danny Boyle’s glorious 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. That seems to have been a turning point. There’s not been much to celebrate since then.

For the moment I’m seeking a mental refuge in the past: 1838 to be precise, when ‘my’ Samuel Laing, the Liberal Orcadian, visited Stockholm while it was in the middle of a controversy over Press freedom, with an editor being sentenced to death for criticizing the King, provoking popular riots. In the end the editor – one Magnus Jacob Crusenstolpe – won. Laing’s foreign take on that is interesting. So I thought I’d write it up. It’ll take me back to a far more hopeful historical era. Laing thought they were on the Road to Heaven then. Ah, to live in equally dark, but crucially more optimistic, times!

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That Interview

I didn’t watch the Royal (ex-Royal?) interview, though I heard and saw some snippets, inadvertently. I can’t get really interested in Royals until they’re played by proper actors (https://bernardjporter.com/2020/12/01/the-crown/), and preferably with their lines written for them by Shakespeare. But I understand that it has re-ignited calls for the abolition of the monarchy. Which of course is a nonsensical institution, especially on the scale – and at the expense – it takes on in Britain (Sweden’s is much more modest); and so is difficult to defend as an institution, in – as they say – ‘this day and age’. 

But… Can you imagine whom we might get as Head of State if he or she were democratically elected?  After the Brexit vote I’m not sure that I’d trust my British compatriots – 51.9 per cent of them at any rate – to make a wise decision. We’d probably get a popular footballer or stand-up comic; or a ‘national treasure’ like Delia Smith or Dame Judy Dench; or – God forbid – Nigel Farage; or even our present amusing prime minister, for the next tenant of Buck House. At least Liz and her offspring (and her offspring’s offspring) are saving us from that. No; better leave it to the historical chance which landed us with the present bunch of hapless and unhappy misfits and their heirs, maybe cut down to size, like the ones here in Sweden. If, that is, they’re still willing to take on the job. I wouldn’t be. And clearly Harry isn’t. Good for him. 

From what I gather – and I’ve not been a close student of this – my sympathies must lie with the (ex-) royal couple, both out of admiration for the fact that they’ve had the gumption to escape from their gilded captivity, and also because their main persecutor (as I understand it) has been the British tabloid Press, which I have no love for either. Abolish the monarchy if you like, and if you can find a way of finding some inoffensive old buffer or dame to take its place. But please find some way of democratising the Press first. 

The interview is all over the Swedish media as well today. The latter is not very respectful –  in case you imagined that her monarchy bestowed any ‘dignity’ on Britain as a nation. It doesn’t; any more than it would if it were made up of the cast of Coronation Street. Who might, if you think about it, make rather a better job of it. I don’t think even a future Shakespeare could get any real drama out of this boring lot.

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Second Comings

So Farage is stepping down as leader of his – third? fourth? – political party to take up a new role in the vanguard of the fight against (a) lockdowns, (b) unpatriotic history – which in this context is what the ‘culture wars’ are all about; and (c) ‘the increasing influence of the Chinese communist party over our whole way of life’. (See https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nigel-farage-quits-politics-brexit-reform-party-b1813509.html.)  Gosh! I must say I’d not spotted that last one. Does it come in our Szechwan Chilli Chicken and fried rices? I must be more vigilant at our local Chinese take-away in the future. (Actually they’re mostly Thai in Sweden. Are they in the plot too?)

The news of Farage’s leaving the ‘Reform UK Party’ is not unwelcome, of course – he did seem to have a bit of a personal following – although I don’t think RUKP carries much political clout these days. It has too much competition from other groups on the far-Right, including the present-day hi-jacked Conservative party. What is mildly irritating at best, and downright scary at worst, is that he’s threatening to come back again in this new guise, just as Trump is promising to do in America; in the style of all those ‘I’ll be back’ villains in history and in SF and detective novels: Napoleon, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Moriarty, the Mekon (if anyone remembers him); or, if you like, and if you’re of a different political and moral persuasion, Jesus. (Sorry. Deeply inappropriate.) Second comings, while people are congratulating themselves on having seen off the original danger, and are lowering their guards, can be just as dangerous as First comings. The whole modern Neo- (or proto-) Fascist phenomenon, reprising the 1930s in so many ways, is an example of this. Lulled by victory over Hitler and by years of European peace and relative comfort since, and distracted by false threats (mainly the Soviets), few of us saw it coming, at least in such strength. Which was why David Cameron decided to throw his ‘referendum’ dice, confident that the ‘fruitcakes and closet racists’ of UKIP could never prevail. Which of course they did.

The battles Farage intends to fight now, and which one suspects have been his true obsessions for years, are of course the traditional ‘conservative’, reactionary, blimpish and what one historian has called ‘harrumphing’ ones: liberalism, socialism, health and safety, students, political correctness, long-haired men, short-haired women… and so on. They’re all here, in this glorious tirade by ‘Jimmy’, introducing his ‘private army’ to ‘Reginald Perrin’, in the original series of that name: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJ-9R6NCZ0A. That’s one of my favourite comedy scenes of all. (It mentions Chinese restaurants too.) The punch-line is delectable. And the late Geoffrey Palmer even looks a bit like Farage.

I have to say that I’m not wholly out of sympathy with Nigel when it comes to the ‘culture wars’. I too am irritated by some of the more way-out aspects of what is called ‘political correctness’, especially – as a historian of the subject – its simplistic view of ‘imperialism’: see https://bernardjporter.com/2021/02/27/imperialism-for-or-against/; but much else as well. I associate these views with callow and ignorant youths, whose hearts may be in the right place, but whose knowledge and reasoning power are sadly deficient, and who are doing harm to the cause of real progress (or whatever you like to call it) by allowing themselves to be used and so easily ridiculised by the anti-progressive Right. I wish they’d shut up; or – better – read up and think a bit before they target (for example) Churchill’s statue. But they don’t merit a ‘war’ being waged against them, when there are so many bigger and more worthy battles to be fought. 

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Soundbites

Just a note, but it may be significant.  Yesterday I got involved – very unwisely – in a Facebook argument with a Brexiter about the Shamima Begum case (see https://bernardjporter.com/2021/02/28/shamima/). He seemed to have got the basic facts of it entirely wrong, so I tried to put him right. He still didn’t ‘get’ it, so I politely suggested that he ‘read up on the case’. This is his reply.

‘Nothing to read it’s a sound bight [sic] like I said.’ 

Reading between the lines of that, it occurred to me that some people – he can’t be the only one – simply don’t know that there are sources of information open to them quite apart from slogans, newspaper headlines and ‘soundbites’.  That might explain a lot.

[Incidentally: on the Samima Begum case, here’s a post by the excellent Jon Danzig: https://yorkshirebylines.co.uk/facebook-backs-down-after-wrongly-banning-me/?fbclid=IwAR269TVOfuJo8R95C1gUx-gh7rvwNloBTkxblwgTKRhoQQgMY6JHMDg1zXA.  I don’t think Facebook have taken down my piece yet on the grounds that it’s ‘defending terrorism’ (which of course it isn’t). Too obscure, probably. But how can one tell? Do they let you know?]

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Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

This book ought to mark the end of Boris Johnson’s political career. It’s about his habit of lying, shamelessly, about anything and everything, as a journalist, a politician and a married man; and about his journalistic sources, Brexit, coronavirus, Corbyn, and his mistresses. It finds room for other well-known liars too, like Blair (‘WMDs’), the odious Michael Gove, and of course the liar-in-chief over the water; but it’s Boris the book focuses on. It also directs the reader to a website which conveniently lists his many deceptions over the years. You might like to take a look at it: https://boris-johnson-lies.com. Extraordinary.

Here’s the book itself, as advertised on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Assault-Truth-Johnson-Emergence-Barbarism/dp/139850100X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2I3XHK41A0PC6&dchild=1&keywords=peter+oborne+the+assault+on+truth&qid=1614615563&s=books&sprefix=Peter+Oborne%2Caps%2C216&sr=1-1.  It’s by Peter Oborne, who used to be a Right-of-centre political newspaper correspondent, like Johnson, but has now turned against his old pal. For a nicely-produced hardback it’s quite cheap. (I bought it from an independent Swedish bookseller, by the way; not Amazon.)

There have been other books like this, going back some time. I have some of them in England, which I’ll look up when (if) I can get back there. Boris’s rank duplicity has been well known and indeed unquestioned for a few years now, which is why when I’ve called him out for that in my latest books (as well as in earlier blogs: search ‘Boris’) I’ve had no fear of being sued for libel. 

Which bears on the other – and more important – question raised in this book: how on earth is he allowed to get away with it? Oborne devotes his final chapter to this. One answer, of course, is supposed to be his personal charm and even magnetism – ‘he’s a character, isn’t he?’ – although having lived with other ‘charming’ public schoolboys at one stage in my career I’m afraid that does nothing for me any more. The other main factor is the societal and political context  in which he’s allowed to operate. The craven media is of course a major part of this, most of it backing his lies and his ambitions, and the less craven section of it pussy-footing around them. Oborne, as a journalist himself, has inside knowledge of this.

Beyond that there are certain more general contemporary trends, most of them associated with what is called ‘populism’. Distrust of conventional (‘establishment’) wisdom and authority is one; confusion (at the very least) over what is ‘truth’ is another. (Oborne is very good on what he calls the ‘privatisation’ of ‘truth’.) Johnson deliberately plays to all this. This is despite his own solid gold ‘establishment’ credentials – Eton, Oxford, the Daily Telegraph, and all the rest. (But then wasn’t Oswald Mosley a ‘Sir’?) He has also played along with it, for example as Prime Minister by removing a number of higher and traditionally-minded civil servants who turned out to be too keen to ‘speak truth to power’. Oborne argues, persuasively, that this, together with Johnson’s emasculation of Parliament and attempted curbing of the judiciary (‘enemies of the people’) – both probably inspired by Dominic Cummings – is all leading to the destruction of Britain’s democracy, through the undermining of the institutional ‘checks and balances’ that are meant to safeguard it. It is this, incidentally, that makes Oborne’s argument a conservative  rather than a radical one. Radicals – or ‘progressives’, as he calls them – are the enemy here; radicals of the Right, however, rather than of the Left. I’d go along with this. (It’s why, even as a ‘Leftist’, I’ve always had a soft spot for the House of Lords.)

The very end of this book reads as a kind of manifesto for how to resist and counter the danger; but in a non-‘radical’ way. So far as we – ‘we the people’ – are concerned, it mainly comprises writing to Tory MPs and Lords. I’m not sure that will be enough. But it has to be said that Oborne has stated the problem convincingly. Yes, Johnson is a ‘character!’ – that’s part of the problem – but a highly dangerous one. At almost any other time in British history he could not have survived the publication of this quite damning book. But of course he will; at least for a while, or until he’s found out in a really scandalous lie. 

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Shamima

Here’s another reason to feel ashamed of being British just now, and glad of my (dual) Swedish nationality. I don’t want to push historical ‘lessons’ too far, but just to say that the present British government’s determination to prevent Shamima Begum from returning to Britain, to be tried there voluntarily for her crimes in joining Isis in Syria, conflicts with one very proud British tradition; which used to be to admit everyone into the country, even potentially violent foreign refugees (and Shamima isn’t even foreign, or wasn’t until the Home Office took her citizenship away), without question. If they were thought to be potentially dangerous, then the Special Branch put a watch on them. In Karl Marx’s case this lasted until after his death. I’ve seen a report by the police officer charged with this task. (True! I imagine him camped by the grave in Highgate Cemetery in case the old Commie popped his head up through the daisies.)

So the Victorians would never have tolerated thishttps://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/feb/26/shamima-begum-cannot-return-to-uk-to-fight-for-citizenship-court-rules. And Shamima was only 15 when she absconded!  After which, having married an Isis fighter and had several miscarriages, I believe, it must have been difficult for her to escape, even if she’d wanted to. I hate to think how many of us would have fared if as adults we were judged on our views and actions as 15 year-olds. (At 15 I was backing Eden over Suez, for pity’s sake!) As it happens I have a Swedish acquaintance who also went over to join the Jihad, and had children with ‘terrorists’, but then was allowed back into Sweden and is presently a model citizen here. Is there any reason to think that Shamima, with care, would turn out differently? Well, maybe. Perhaps Priti Patel and MI5 have good evidence that the poor girl would be a ‘danger to national security’. I can’t judge; though I doubt whether the Court of Appeal could, either.

The only point I want to make here, and it’s directed at all the Brexiteers and xenophobes and self-styled ‘patriots’ who are violently abusing her on social media just now – here’s one I spotted: ‘she is a traitor to united Kingdom, rot in hell I say’ – is that in terms of many of Britain’s proudest past traditions this was a profoundly un-British  – i.e. unpatriotic – decision. For what that’s worth. (It’s only History, after all.)

PS: Kajsa tells me that there are similar cases to Shamima’s coming up in Swedish courts just now where the legal debate appears to be similar to Britain’s. So Sweden may no longer be as safe for Isis ‘returnees’ as it was for my friend. I’ll look into this, and maybe report back.

PPS: There’ll be a chapter on Britain’s past ‘asylum’ policy in my forthcoming Britain Before Brexit. That is, if you don’t want to bother with my The Refugee Question in Mid-Victorian Politics CUP, 1979. I’ve only cited these so you’ll know that I know what I’m talking about.

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Imperialism: For or Against?

I suppose my main objection to ‘sloganising’ (see my last post) is that it oversimplifies issues, to the extent sometimes of getting them completely wrong, and always of misleading us. The same applies to the use of certain words without qualification, like – to take only the main political ones – ‘democracy’, ‘socialism’, ‘fascism’, ‘liberalism’, ‘conservatism’, and ‘imperialism’. I can present myself as a democrat, a liberal and a socialist, as only a bit of a conservative (see https://bernardjporter.com/2021/02/20/the-good-old-days/), and emphatically not as a fascist, but without any of those monikers really explaining my political views or the absence of them, and some of them (‘socialist’, for example) being wide open to misinterpretation.

On ‘imperialism’ I can’t say where I stand. These days it has to be on one ‘side’ or the other, apparently, as I’ve learned to my cost from the reception of my books on the British kind. The Lion’s Share was generally welcomed in its first edition (1975) because it was seen as a critical corrective to the generally somewhat celebratory books that were available on the subject of ‘Our Empire Story’ until then, but is now sometimes criticised for not being anti-imperialist enough. In fact it’s neither pro- nor anti-imperial, but rather an attempt to describe why the Empire happened and how it worked, as well as other forms of ‘British imperialism’ that weren’t coloured in red on the maps. Except in relation to certain incidents – notorious colonial ‘atrocities’ for example, of which of course there were many – it avoids moral judgments entirely. In 2015 I published a kind of précis of the book, called British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t – the clue is in the subtitle; and then at the beginning of this year a sixth edition of The Lion’s Share, with a couple of added chapters about how the history – or myth – of the British Empire has been used and misused recently, especially with regard to ‘Brexit’. 

In fact, even after fifty years researching the subject, I still don’t know – or at least cannot bring myself to generalise about – whether I ‘approve’ of the British Empire or not. More importantly, I’ve come to the conclusions that the demand to come out on one ‘side’ of this question or the other is profoundly perverse; and – secondly – that the common use of the word ‘imperialist’ to denote something as condemnable as, say, ‘Fascist’, is a grotesque distortion – at the very least – of real history, and even dangerously stupid. For a start, it can distract us from what was really going on under the cover of ‘imperialism’, and why. The same applies of course to those who glorify it. Imperialism was (and is) a complex phenomenon, is therefore far more interesting than the black or white versions of it, and ‘teaches’ different and deeper ‘lessons’. I imagine – though I don’t know so much about it – that ‘Fascism’ is similar.

All of which explains why, despite always having supported ‘anti-colonial’ movements in the past – South Africa, Rhodesia, Egypt, Cyprus and so on (the full list appears in The Lion’s Share ch. 10), I refuse to lend my allegiance to present-day ‘anti-colonial’ movements that for example seek to pull down the statues of men (always men, I think) who are regarded as ‘imperialists’, Churchill being the most controversial example; or to join in the current Left-wing chorus of condemnation of ‘imperialism’ in all its forms. I certainly reject the common assumption – on the ignorant Left – that imperialism is in any way equivalent to Nazism, for example, or even essentially ‘racist’, or defined by ‘slavery’; so that to dismiss something as ‘imperialism’ without any fine analysis simply condemns it to association with those evils. I also try to undermine the assumption that ‘imperialism’ was generally a ‘policy’, that can be pinned on certain people or nations, therefore, rather than something that to a great extent just ‘happened’, like the weather. (I haven’t decided whether I’m pro- or anti-rain, either.) I’m sorry if readers think that this is because as a successor to those old ‘imperialists’ I wish to avoid the inherited national ‘guilt’ of Amritsar and the Irish potato famine and the Kenya Emergency and the rest of it; but I apply the same analysis to – for example – US imperialism, which similarly appears to me as something ‘natural’. (My Empire and Superempire is about that.) My later books were supposed to be correctives to that kind of lazy thinking. 

But of course no-one who ‘matters’ in this debate reads them. So I’ve now given up hoping. From my ‘ivory tower’ I’m clearly not going to change the minds of those at the base of the tower who simply react to slogans and loaded words. What serious thinker does? (And don’t give me Marx. Or Jesus. Or Steve Bannon. Or any other thinkers or moralisers who were simply riding tides of opinion; and whose words have more often been misused than not.) I suppose it was arrogant of me to think I even could.

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Sloganising

I won’t have been the first to notice how rational political discussion these days has been replaced by slogans, usually consisting of just three words. ‘Get Brexit Done’ seems to have won the last General Election for Boris; following on from ‘Take Back Control’. These proved more effective than – in the previous election – Teresa May’s ‘Brexit Means Brexit’, which was a bit of a cheat, because it was only two words really; and ‘Strong and Stable’, which was pleasantly alliterative, but sounded unconvincing in the light of her obvious weakness and recent change of mind on Brexit. (It may also have reminded senior voters of the old toilet-paper ad: ‘Soft, Strong and Soluble’, which won’t have helped.) Now the government is seeking to repeat this winning tripartite formula with its simple posted injunctions at its Coronovirus press conferences: ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’. (Currently. They vary it.) Other simplistic formulations that seem to have hit the spot in recent years are ‘Project Fear’, to demonise the pro-EU cause, before it turned into ‘Project Reality’; and – reducing it now to a single word – ‘Sovereignty’. In an age of banner headlines, advertising slogans and ‘sound-bites’, and with an electorate largely uneducated for its democratic role, this seems to have been a winning strategy. More subtle, intelligent and developed appeals – such as Corbyn’s compromise Brexit policy, the virtues of which we can all, surely, see today – stood no chance. The ‘sloganising’ way of dismissing that was as ‘indecisive’. Labour and the pro-EU side, it appears, had no answer to this. 

I’m sure the Left and ‘Rejoiners’ could come up with some pithy slogans of their own, if they only put their minds to it. ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ was a good stab at it, which seems to have resonated amongst the young in the 2017 General Election – the one that May nearly lost. ‘Take Back Control’, recycled, might even work now for Remainers, seeing how much ‘control’ Brexit has taken from us. (OK, probably too confusing.) I can think of negative ones to use against Johnson – ‘Delay, Dither, Panic’ comes to mind immediately for those coronavirus press conferences; and we could of course focus on the government’s blatant incompetence and corruption. ‘People Before Profit’ might work again. But we need something more original, positive and pro-European, in order to motivate people in the same way that the idea of ‘Taking Back Control’ did. I’m sure that the Labour Party and the Rejoin Europe movement will receive any suggestions gratefully.

Of course this is not new. Some of us will remember ‘You’ve Never Had it So Good’; and ‘Life’s better under the Conservatives; don’t let Labour ruin it’…. and so on, back to the time of Disraeli and Gladstone, if not before. (And I’ve just remembered my school motto in the ’fifties: ‘Virtue. Learning. Manners’. Obviously not Eton’s; not in that order, anyway.) All of which doesn’t however detract from the necessity of trying to combat this strategy in the present, and with counter-slogans if necessary; however painful that might be to those of us who would prefer more extended and rational forms of debate.

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History Lessons

‘History’ – the subject, that is, not the events themselves – has a lot to answer for. (Well, the events themselves too, obviously; but that’s another matter.) I don’t know how important it is in helping to explain our present fraught situation (in Britain): my own view is that the reasons for that are more immediate and more material; but History is certainly being made use of a lot, chiefly by the ‘Brexit’ side.

‘Taking back  control’ obviously rests on a view of recent history, when we presumably had  control; just as does ‘Make America Great Again’. Beyond that, references to the Second World War, which it is claimed ‘we’ won; to Winston Churchill, whom Johnson appears to want to emulate, in his rhetoric at least; and then to the Empire, which is supposed to have given Britain control of ‘half the world’ in days gone by, pepper the discourses of the Right. There are others. Appeals to our ‘unique’ history as a freedom-loving island, and to our ‘splendid isolation’ in Palmerston’s day, are often brought up as justifications for our separation from the European Union at the present time. Again, I don’t know whether these are genuine motives: whether Empire-nostalgia, for example, really does run this deep in people; or if they’re just smudges of historical relish at the side of the plate – a bit like illustrations in a serious book – to make the dish seem more palatable. In either case, historical ‘precedents’ are nearly always misleading, for two main reasons.

The first is that they are usually wrong, even historically. Britain didn’t win the Second World War: the USSR and USA did; which is not to belittle Britain’s ‘pluck’ in holding out against the Nazis before those two powers came in. Churchill was a pretty second-rate war leader, except  in his resolution and his rhetoric, which really did inspire people; and only came out on the winning side because Hitler made even more mistakes. The British Empire was never quite the dominating entity it’s generally taken to have been, but only ever survived on sufferance, and was at least as much a source of weakness to Britain as of strength. (I can’t go into this now, but it’s a main theme of my ‘imperial’ history books.) ‘Half the world’ is obviously an exaggeration; and even the more usual claims of ‘a quarter’ or ‘a fifth’ are questionable. ‘Splendid isolation’ is a myth, except as a Palmerstonian boast, with Britain never having been as cut off from other powers as she threatens to become now. ‘Uniquely freedom-loving’ depends, of course, on one’s definition of ‘freedom’: her industrial proletariat might not agree; as neither would her Irish subjects, living on her other ‘island’; those, that is, who had not been forced out by famine. All together these aspects of Britain’s ‘history’ can hardly be used to support the case for ‘Brexit’ today; or, indeed, for any other broad national policy, including, of course, a pro-EU one.

The other reason why we should beware of ‘historical precedents’ is that they are  only ‘historical’, forged in different circumstances, and so unlikely to fit the circumstances of today. Insofar as Britain was either ‘imperial’ or ‘splendidly isolated’ in the nineteenth century, it was because of her massive lead over the rest of the world in manufacture and later in overseas investment, which of course is entirely absent – the first of these, at any rate – today. To stand on its head a much-used Victorian formulation, touted by imperialists to justify themselves: British trade didn’t ‘follow the flag’ then, but the very opposite. Britain’s influence and power in the world, such as they were, grew out of her domination of its markets by her manufactured goods – things to sell and materials to buy to make them from. The other basis for Britain’s ‘global’ success was the absence of significant foreign competition in these markets, until an industrialised Germany and then America came along. A few contemporaries saw the writing on the wall even as early as this: before, that is, Britain’s empires – both ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ – had begun their long ‘decline and fall’. Obviously there’s no way of our returning to those conditions. Unless, that is, Boris knows some way of triggering a second (or is it third?) ‘Industrial Revolution’ in Britain, which he hasn’t vouchsafed to us yet. Or will the neo-liberalism which our leading Brexiters all seem to yearn after – it’s one of their reasons for wanting to escape the EU’s regulations, especially over tax havens – do the job?

Today’s world is so different from Palmerston’s and Disraeli’s and even Churchill’s (in his imperial dreams) that it seems not merely misleading but downright dangerous to hark back to their times for guidance. To take one example, a word emphasised by Brexiters to express what they believe disengagement from the EU will give them. ‘Sovereignty’ has never been an absolute reality for any nation which wishes to engage in any way with other countries, and especially for medium-sized countries without the sort of material base that Britain’s first Industrial Revolution gave to her. The Brexiteers’ great delusion is to see sovereignty only in terms of independence from formal alliances, confederations or empires; whereas ‘history teaches us’ (I hate that phrase, but it may be justified in this context) that informal bonds can be at least as restrictive, or more so. The major example today is the commercial treaty Britain may  need to make with the USA, in order to compensate for the loss of her free European trade, which could leave her with less choice – ‘sovereignty’, in other words – than she would have otherwise. Several economists and political scientists have warned of a post-Brexit Britain’s becoming, in effect, an ‘informal colony’ of the USA; just as so many of the countries of Latin America, for example, became informal colonies of Victorian Britain in her prime. The easiest way to avoid this would be to unite with other countries – in this case the obvious one would be the remaining EU – in order to acquire negotiating muscle, as well as for its alternative and more acceptable markets. In truth, ‘sovereignty’ follows not from isolationism – ‘take back control’ – but from co-operation with others; and is what the EU gave Britain before she shrugged off its help.

History can be useful, but not if it is misused in this way. We’ve seen it before: the ‘Hitler’ analogy being employed to unseat other dictators whose circumstances were entirely different – Nasser by Eden, for example; the liberation of Baghdad assumed to be as welcomed by its people as the liberation of Paris in 1944; and in the present case the EU’s being painted – by some extreme Brexiteers – as a continuation of the Nazi Reich. Then of course there’s Margaret Thatcher’s idea of ‘Victorian values’, employed in order to give historical validity to her free-marketist policies in the 1980s. What the people who indulge in this kind of thing forget, or more likely never knew, is that all historical events need to be viewed in their contexts; which is how professional historians study them all the time. Just as contexts can rarely be transplanted from one period to another, let alone one place or another, so nor can the events and actors they surround. Whatever Churchill’s views were on a United Europe – this is disputed, but was also complicated by the existence of the British Empire then – they can’t be taken out of their  context to shed light on the situation today; any more than can the Empire or ‘splendid isolation’ or nineteenth-century ideas of ‘freedom’. If these ‘historical’ memories and myths really do lie behind some of the policies of today, then they can be downright dangerous. 

But that’s not our fault. Serious historians can rarely get a word in when it comes to the use that is made of their discipline. Self-serving myth is always more attractive than either reality, or constructive doubt. My next book, Britain Before Brexit (Bloomsbury, May 20), tries to put people right on this, but of course it won’t be noticed where it matters. Politicians, in particular – even those who dabble in the subject on the side, like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg (and I’ve read both of them) – aren’t exposed to serious History, or Historical method. So I don’t hold out much hope.

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Back in Blighty…

I had thought that seeking refuge in Sweden would release me, blessedly, from the political worry, pain, frustration and rage that I was experiencing almost every minute of my life in the new, post-Brexit UK.  Far away from the sound of the guns, in a relatively sane national environment, and a loving domestic one, I could relax and contemplate the other things that used to be important to me: nature, music, painting, literature, architecture, cricket, families (I have two), friends, the mysteries of the universe, and my work.  But no chance. The anxiety and anger are still with me, eating away at my peace of mind, disrupting my sleep, and even taking away my appetite for my favourite Janssons frestelse. The internet is much to blame for this, of course, bringing us news of the inanities going on in Britain instantaneously. Boris, Jacob, Nigel, Rupert, Govey, Matt, Priti and the rest of that gang of villains loom as large in my nightmares as I imagine they do in many home-based Britons’. And we no longer have the competing spectre of the Donald to push them aside. All the attention now is on our clever fools.

Do other political refugees, from eviler regimes, and much worse forms of persecution, carry this unhappiness for their home countries with them too? And how long does it last for them? I’d like to know how soon I can expect to shake mine off. I imagine this will depend on when I can become ‘Swedified’ enough to lose my former identity, and its memories. At my advanced age, however, with family back in England and the Empire (Australia), and my passion for cricket, which the Swedes refuse to take seriously, that may take a while.

For me the situation in Britain appears even sadder viewed from Svartsö (our island refuge). Distance is meant to add enchantment, but in my case it has done the opposite. When in England I could understand, to an extent, what was going on, although without of course approving of it; I was living in the same social and political environment, and so was affected by the same context that had made so many of my compatriots mad. That was a comfort, in a way. I also had a community of like-minded Britons around me – in my middle-class, professional suburb – with whom I could huddle together for warmth. Here in Sweden I have plenty of like-minded friends and family, but all of them from this very different culture, so that their sympathy appears patronising, even if they don’t mean it to be. It’s not based on shared experiences, any more than are my sympathies for the oppression of other races or women or gays, however genuine and heartfelt they may be. 

This makes a difference, I find. Being away from the source of the problem also distances me from the defences that are encircling it. And from the ability to do anything, even in a small way, about it. Apart, that is, from publishing this very insignificant blog.

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