Tuesday 30 November 2010

Benedict Arnold in cyber space

I’m a snoop; I read other people’s letters; I even read letters intended for the sovereign in person, top secret, highly revealing documents that could cause tremendous discomfiture and embarrassment if published...or they could have caused these things if they had been published in the seventeenth century, the time when they were written!

Now there is WikiLeaks; now there is publication of confidential information online for all to see. And what do we have? In a lot of cases pretty much the small change of international diplomacy, the sort of things that people say in confidence and never expect to see repeated, at least not in their lifetimes. The action we see in history, the things that happen, really are the tip of an iceberg or, better said, they are the few seeds germinating from the thousands thrown.

It seems to me that a lot of the Wiki stuff is of such a nature, seeds that would never have germinated, lots of inconsequential gossip. I note the Iranians even believe that the whole thing is a fiction, designed to put additional pressure on them. Perhaps it is; perhaps it’s an indication of what might happen, a warning of how much ill-feeling there is against them across the region? I’m just anticipating the inevitable conspiracy theory!

The whole thing is an embarrassment for the State Department, a look at diplomacy in the raw; but is it anything more? Yes, it probably is; for it makes the confidence, frankness and the trust within which diplomacy must be conducted all the more difficult. I have no hesitation in saying that this is a form of sabotage, a threat not only to the interests of the United States but to its friends and allies also.

I think the hacker, Julian Assange, his collaborators and associates, are stupid, or malicious, or both; if they are Americans they are clearly traitors. I certainly hope that they are caught and pursued to the full extent of US law for theft and for espionage.

There are wider lessons here, though, in dealing with future attempts at cyber terrorism - I offer no apology for the use of that expression – which I hope are learned quickly. It’s really difficult to believe that there could have been a security leak on this magnitude, documents that should really have been left to future historians to interpret, the snoopers of a different age.

Monday 29 November 2010

I’m just crackers about Ed!

I really love Wallace and Gromit, my favourite animation by far, one that absolutely delighted me when I was growing up: Wallace, an inventor in the Heath Robinson style, and Gromit, his wonderful dog. So it came as a bit of a shock when I looked at the Times on Saturday. There he is, Wallace himself in the paper’s main political cartoon on a student demonstration, except it’s not Wallace at all – it’s Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party! The really shocking thing is that he looks like Wallace, the same teeth, the same weird eyes.

I’ve been doing a quick spot of internet research and it’s now clear that the buzz on this goes back some way. During his victory speech at the Labour conference in September some commentators were already remarking on the resemblance. But it goes back even further than that. There is clearly a conspiracy at work; for, you see, Red Ed does not look like Wallace – he is Wallace!

I’m truly grateful to The Economic Voice for making me aware of The Facts in the Case of E Miliband. Writing for this gloriously informative online publication, Richard Henley Davis points out that the former minister for melting ice caps and light bulbs never appears on chat shows with Wallace because the two are one and the same. The information comes to him from a highly reliable source, Ian Rottweiler, a researcher for The Daily Something or Other;

Up until now Ed has managed to keep his true identity a secret by not making too many television appearances and ensuring no one can take a sample of his DNA, which he masks with a fake compulsive cleaning disorder. Mr Rottweiler who noticed his Mr Miliband’s strange ability to fall into a northern accent and his ability to invent useless objects on the spot was a clue that he was actually leading a double life so he decided to follow him for 3 months and stake out his house. However Ian was amazed when one night he watched as Ed’s moonlit silhouette appeared on the rooftop of his house riding a flying motorcycle and sidecar with wings attached.

Oh dear, another illusion gone, another hero dead. How will I cope? Well, I suppose I could drop my own secret identity as Tory Girl and follow Ed Wallace into the Labour Party. It’s so wonderfully bland these days, almost as bland as Wallace’s favourite cheese. But Ed is doing his best to give it just a spot of vim. Fronting student demonstrations, or not fronting student demonstrations, not being able to make up his mind one way the other, he recently announced that socialism is not a dirty word, that he intends to persuade the public that it is not a dirty word. I imagine he must have cleaned it up in one of his super machines.

Ed or Wallace, you take your pick, has a splendid socialist pedigree, the son of Ralph ‘if it shows any life at all nationalise it’ Miliband. Oh, but he does not think like dad; he does not want public ownership of everything; he simply wants to tackle the ‘big unfairnesses’, as he puts it, in our society.

That’s the odd thing about the Labour Party, about Labour governments, the more they talk about tackling the ‘big unfairnesses’ the bigger the unfairnesses seem to become. Life on a council estate, suffering bad health, rotting teeth, unemployed and on welfare, with no prospects at all, is this, I wonder, what is meant by a ‘big fairness’, a levelling down, perhaps? No?: well it’s all that Labour seems to offer so many of its benighted voters. After thirteen years of Blair and Brown it's all most of them got. But Ed Wallace is right: there are still too many ‘big unfairnesses’ as yet untouched, far too much free enterprise and unlicensed inventors, too many people wearing the wrong trousers.

Meanwhile Wallace or Ed, while you are thinking about the big fairnesses, I would really like an answer to that most perplexing question of all: what is wrong with Wensleydale? After all, there is no use prevaricating about the bush.

The tale of Peter the Painter

Jack the Ripper is one of the black legends of London’s East End. But let me bring another to your attention, one you may not have heard of. It's the story of a man simply known as Peter the Painter. Peter entered the stage of our history exactly one hundred years ago, and then exited it again, almost as completely and as mysteriously as Jack the Ripper.

Let me take you back to a different time, a different England, one so unconcerned by the prospects of terrorism that it was even possible to bring firearms and bomb-making equipment across the border without raising undue concern. It’s London in the early years of the twentieth century, a city full of exiles from the Russian Empire, coming in the wake of the abortive revolution of 1905. These exiles, Latvians and Lithuanians among them, were dedicated revolutionaries, many of them Bolsheviks, who took refuge among the Jewish community of Whitechapel.

Where there are Bolsheviks there are also Bolshevik methods, including the doctrine of ‘expropriation’, theft by all normal standards of crime. All is fair in the ends of revolution, all capitalists were fair game, even if the ‘capitalists’ in question were petty shopkeepers. And if anyone got in the way, even the horny handed sons of toil, then that was just too bad. After a gang of these desperados killed a fifteen year old boy and wounded fifteen other people in a botched robbery in 1909 they were lauded in the French left-wing press as “audacious comrades” under attack from “citizens, believers in the State and authority.”

A year later other ‘audacious comrades’ were at work, trying to break in to a run-down jeweller’s shop in the district of Houndsditch from an adjacent property. So loud was the noise that the neighbours called the police. They came, only to be greeted by gunfire, killing one officer outright and wounding a further four, two of them mortally. The gang in question, as Clive Bloom details in the latest issue of the BBC History Magazine (Terror on the Streets of London), were all members of ‘the Flame’, one of Lenin’s criminal front organisations. Its leader, according to legend, was Peter the Painter.

The murderers, who treated the English police as if they were the Okhrana, the notorious Tsarist secret police service, managed to escape, but in the subsequent manhunt they were discovered to be of Latvian origin. Eventually they were found, holed up at 100 Sydney Street, a three-floored tenement near a brewery. Peter the Painter was believed to be there. This time the police came armed. Thus began the Siege of Sydney Street.

The details given by Bloom in his account are really quite startling, almost amusingly so. Police incompetence is nothing new, but it’s the naïveté of the time that it’s most astonishing, a time of greater innocence, a time when criminals, even foreign criminals, were expected to understand the rules, the gamesmanship. Inspector Wensley, head of the Whitechapel force, began proceedings at Sydney Street by sending some officers to knock on the door, seemingly having learned nothing from the Houndsditch incident. When answer came there none they even threw pebbles at the window! These pebbles were greeted by gunfire, wounding one officer. Things now went from understatement to overkill.

Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, was asked to provide military support. He did, and he also provided himself, helpfully armed, to be greeted by onlookers with shouts of “Oo let ‘em in”, an expression of their anger over lax immigration policy. He was also unwise enough to allow himself to be caught on film, later the cause of condescending comment in the foreign press, including the Russian and German, who offered helpful hints on modern policing methods!

The siege lasted for more than five hours, coming to an end in a shoot-out, with the building on fire. In the ruins the bodies of two men were found – Fritz Svaars and Joseph Sokolow. There was no sign of Peter the Painter.

Peter, like Jack the Ripper, was never to be caught. For a long time his presence was so elusive that questions were raised over his very existence. The problem here is that Russian revolutionaries were in the habit of using a huge number of code names and aliases. Lenin and Stalin had dozens before alighting on their final forms. Some of the more obscure figures are therefore almost impossible to trace. But, in the end, Peter was traced, although it took almost a hundred years. Discovered, yes, but in such a way that the mystery deepens even further.

In 2009 British scholars working in the Latvian archives managed to piece together the story of one Peter Piatkow, who also went by the name of Janis Zhaklis, a house painter and dedicated Bolshevik. Even before coming to London he had been involved in robbings and shootings in his native Latvia, then a province of the Russian Empire. As with so many others in the shady revolutionary underground, it’s also possible that he was working as a double-agent for the Okhrana.

But that’s it; there is nothing more. After 1911 Peter the Painter vanishes from history. It still cannot be proved that he was head of the Sydney Street gang or not; it cannot be proved that he was even there. There is just one tiny and intriguing fact, that of an unnamed prisoner in Stalin’s gulags who, as late as the 1950s, told intimate and detailed tales of the activities of the Bolshevik underground in London. Was this Peter the Painter? Alas, we will never know. There are some mysteries that history never reveals.

Sunday 28 November 2010

It’s not fair

We are all born with elementary concepts of justice. Even the youngest child when she or he feels that something is not right will announce that “it’s not fair.” Sadly there is so much of life that is simply unfair; even justice can be unfair, justice where there is no justice.

In 1995 Philip Lawrence, a headmaster, was stabbed to death outside his school in West London when he went to aid a boy being attacked by a gang. One Leareo Chindamo, born in Italy of an Italian father and Filipina mother, was later charged and convicted with the murder. A juvenile at the time, he was jailed indefinitely, with a recommendation from the judge that he serve at least twelve years. In July of this year he was released by the parole board. At the time he made some pious statement to the effect that he would spend the rest of his life atoning for his crime and intended to do so “by living quietly and decently.”

Well, we now know what this creature means by living quietly and decently. A few days ago he was arrested on suspicion of being involved in a street mugging, allegedly threatening a man with violence before stealing his wallet and mobile phone. He has now been recalled to prison while the matter is under investigation.

In August 2007, three years before his release, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled that he could not be deported back to Italy on completion of his sentence because this would be a breach of his human rights under the 1998 Human Rights Act. This came in spite of a warning from the Home Office that he represented a “present and serious threat to society.”

Frances Lawrence, Philip Lawrence’s widow, was understandably angry; she continues to be angry at the manifest unfairness of this absurd law. It makes me angry too. Please forgive that profanity, but fuck this man’s human rights and fuck the 1998 legislation. Sorry, I really don’t like swearing; this is just a measure of my frustration, I imagine the frustration of so many others.

To all those who would cry with me that “it’s not fair” I would like to point to Switzerland. There a referendum is being held calling for the systematic expulsion of foreigners convicted of a range of crimes, anything from murder to welfare fraud. The campaign, being heavily backed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), is estimated to have the support of 54% of the electorate. There are no half measures here, no caveats, no ands, ifs or buts. The law, if passed, will allow for the deportation of all foreigners after completion of their sentence, even if they have lived in Switzerland all of their lives. Fabrice Moscheni, president of the SVP, puts it thus;

It’s very simple. We think that people whom we welcome to Switzerland should respect the rules of this country. If they don’t they should go away. If you welcome somebody into your house, and he comes and destroys everything, I don’t think you would want him to come back.

No, you would not.

The government, worried by this exercise in people power, and fearful of breaching treaties with the EU, has suggested a compromise, whereby cases would be judged on an individual basis. But people are angry, understandably so when one considers that foreigners account for as much as half of the country’s crime.

The liberal establishment is at work trying to badmouth the campaign. It’s a xenophobic abuse of the Swiss referendum system, says Amnesty International, an initiative that “clearly and knowingly breaches fundamental norms of human rights.” But at least some are prepared to admit that the present mood has been caused by ignoring the problem for too long, largely for reasons of political correctness.

For me the issue is perfectly clear: there are some things more important that artificial concepts of human rights; there is justice, justice for the victims of crime, some of whom, like Frances Lawrence, having done no wrong, are still left with their own life sentences without prospect of parole. It’s just not fair.

The Lady Protector

It’s now over twenty years since Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street, the consequence of a Caesar-style assassination that surely ranks as the nadir of the modern Conservative Party, the lowest point in its history. She’s a controversial figure, she remains a controversial figure, there is no point in denying that but, my goodness, love her or loath her, she casts every other British Prime Minister since the Second World War deep into the shadows.

I read articles by two completely contrasting historians, written to mark the occasion: one by Andrew Roberts in the Telegraph (My Tears for the Iron Lady) and the other by Dominic Sandbrook in the BBC History Magazine (The Jury’s still out on Thatcher’s legacy).

Roberts is a super historian, a personal favourite, who invariably makes one see the past in fresh and invigorating terms. He is also delightfully right-wing, a refreshing contrast to the Guardian-style orthodoxy of so many in the academic mainstream. He was twenty-seven at the time of the Iron Lady’s downfall. As a mark of his personal sorrow he bought some blue flowers to take to Number Ten, there to be greeted by a crowd of jubilant lefties outside the gate. “Bad day for you mate”, they shouted at him as he handed the flowers through to the policeman. “Yes”, he replied, “but a bad eleven and a half years for you.”

And so it was: a bad time for all those who sought to undermine and destroy this country. Who else but Thatcher could have stood up with such determination to trade union blackmailers, IRA hunger strikers, Argentinean generals and European Union bureaucrats? Above all, we must not forget her proudest achievement, the part she played in collaboration with Ronald Reagan in bringing the dreadful Soviet imperium in Eastern Europe to an end, finally redeeming the shabby betrayal of Yalta.

Roberts’ article was published shortly after Baroness Thatcher won the 25th Threadneedle Street Spectator Parliamentarian Awards for “Statesman of the Era.” Her achievements are so varied, not least the example she gave to women. Although she never professed to any form of feminism, at least a theory of feminism, her struggle through the ranks of the most male-dominated party in England and through the most male-dominated profession truly are inspiring, a practical role model who broke every glass ceiling that one can imagine. How shabby it is, then, that only last September Harriet Harman’s Equalities Office left her name off a list celebrating fifty years of women in power, while including utter nonentities like Baroness Scotland and Diane Abbott.

Considering the present crisis in the eurozone, Roberts provides a timely reminder that it was the issue of Europe that provided the spur for Brutus and his cronies, not the Poll Tax, as so often assumed. Geoffrey Howe, a man who makes dead sheep look positively exciting, executed the first cut, resigned from her government precisely because she would not agree to a timetable for British entry into monetary union. It was her Commons speech of August 1990 opposing economic and monetary union that turned Howe and the rest of his ghastly Europhile gang against her, bringing the end to her premiership and beginning a twenty year crisis in the Tory Party. How grateful we should all be for her courage and foresight, courage that went so far as sacrificing her political life.

Sandbrook’s piece on the Thatcher legacy makes some cogent and persuasive points about her stature in British politics. It’s perfectly possible to write an article about the 1930s, as he says, without mentioning Stanley Baldwin, or the 1960s without mentioning Harold Wilson, but it would be quite impossible to write one on the 1980s without mentioning Margaret Thatcher;

Since we are used to seeing Mrs Thatcher as a hugely controversial figure, we easily forget how unusual this is. Twenty years after his resignation in 1976, Harold Wilson was almost totally forgotten. The twentieth anniversary of Attlee’s departure in 1951 passed off almost unnoticed, and I doubt many people will care much about Tony Blair in 2027. Even David Lloyd George, perhaps the only 20th century prime minister who rivals her as a genuinely divisive character, had become largely irrelevant by 1942…Mrs Thatcher, I suspect, will go down in history as one of those endlessly controversial characters that English history seems to do so well.

I can’t argue against his conclusion, the parallel he draws between Baroness Thatcher and Oliver Cromwell, another middle-class radical and enduringly controversial figure in our history. Here we are, three hundred and fifty years on, and there is till no consensus on Cromwell…but people are still talking. I agree that, projecting the same period into the future, that people will still be talking, and arguing, about the legacy of Baroness Thatcher. I can think of no better measure of her greatness.

Castro’s Crooners

I’ve got exciting news for you if you are Cuban and a fancy-dress dancer. Your government has decided that you can work for yourself. That’s right, yours is among the 178 occupations that the Castro regime, in its limitless wisdom, has decided can be privatised. There is only one tiny drawback – you have to perform in the same style of costume as that of Benny Moré, the 1940s crooner. No, it’s not a joke: humour was first serious shortage ever created by communism,

I sincerely hope there are a lot of Benny Moré look-a-likes out there because, as I’ve mentioned before, Raul Castro, in an attempt to revive the moribund economy of a moribund state of a moribund revolution, is laying off 500,000 public sector workers. The private sector, such as it is, and it isn’t much at all, is expected to take this superfluous value. But in the unimaginative and bizarre world of orthodox communism the state has only been able to come up a fairly limited range of options, Benny Moré among them.

If you don’t have the required costume you can always become a clown or a button sewer, both of which made it on to the list. If you don’t fancy that you can try your hand at furniture repairs, just as long as you don’t try to make the stuff, and thus risk “accumulating property”; run the risk –Fidel forbid – of becoming a capitalist.

All these ideological dinosaurs are doing is simply legalising, if legalising is the word, a pre-existing informal economy rather than creating fresh opportunities. The caution is laughable, this fear of throwing out the baby with the bathwater when there was never a baby in the first place. Besides, the bath has a hole, so there is no water either.

Never mind that. Let’s be positive. All the Benny Moré guys will now be able to hire staff (does Benny Moré need staff?) beyond the immediate family. They will be able to have ‘employees’, in other words, one of those pre-revolutionary expressions long incarcerated in a verbal gulag.

When it comes to the Castro comedy people are understandably sceptical. Too many remember the previous liberalisation of the 1990s, when businesses thrived, only to be suffocated by red tape and exorbitant taxes after cheap Venezuelan oil started to flow in. People are now so used to things the way they are, used to the one step forward and three steps back approach, that many believe that things will never change for as long as the Castro Nepotism remains in power.

But they are wrong; things do change – for the worse, always for the worse. If you’ve been to Cuba I feel sure you will have heard the stories, the hard luck stories of people on the hustle. One acquaintance told me he had no choice but to work in the black economy because, in his words, he was paid shit by the government. Yes, they are paid ‘shit’, under $30.00 a month at the unofficial exchange rate, but at least there was guaranteed employment (never use one person when fifty will do), subsidised housing (dreadful places) and a basic food ration (go and stay if you can live on black beans and rice). Now that, too, is going there will be more beggars and hustlers than ever on the streets of Havana. No too many Benny Morés, though.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Thankful for Thanksgiving

My goodness, what a day it’s been, what a day I’ve had. It was Thanksgiving, the American harvest festival. The roots allegedly go all the way back to the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrim Fathers, though as a national holiday it really only extends back to a proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

There was actually a political reason for this, one, I note, that does not appear in the Wikipedia article on the subject. It shifted the national focus away from those nasty rebel cavaliers in the South to the earnest puritans of the North! The thing is the much lauded Pilgrim fathers were not the first white settlers in North America, an honour that belongs to the community established at Jamestown in Virginia, clearly not something that Lincoln wanted to draw too much attention to, given the circumstances of the time.

Anyway, my family, as English as they come, celebrate Thanksgiving also, always held on the last Thursday in November. I came down from university specifically for the occasion, bringing some homesick American friends with me, to join others, friends and colleagues of mother and father. We had a splendid time, fourteen of us to dinner, the traditional Thanksgiving feast of turkey and all the lovely American trimmings, all washed down with an excellent Californian vintage. And for pudding, what else but pumpkin pie! Actually, I made this myself. It's one of my favourite puddings, something I really enjoy preparing. Pastry handmade, mind you, no dreadful supermarket elastic! The turkey is no hardship so close to Christmas because we, by our own tradition, always have goose, pheasant or capon then, or occasionally fresh salmon for a change.

So, why, you might ask, does an English family take part in an American festival? Well for one thing we in England have long lost or own harvest festival tradition, rather a pity in so many ways. But more to the point mother and father lived in America for a long time before I was born. In fact it’s where they met for the first time. Our family has so many American friends and, as I've said previously, I spent a great deal of time travelling backwards and forwards to Georgia when I was growing up. It seemed natural to adopt Thanksgiving as our holiday also, which only helps to brighten up November, the most dismal month on the calendar. So thank goodness for Thanksgiving. What about the 4th of July, you may ask, do we celebrate that also? No, we are still English and that might be going a tad too far! What would King George think? :-)

Now I’m tired, emotional and off to bed!

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Pigs no longer fly

Hjalmar Schacht, the German financier and banker tried and acquitted for crimes against peace at Nuremberg, was a bit of a magician when it came to money, attested by the fact that one of his books is called The Magic of Money. He more or less ended the German inflation of the early 1920s by announcing that it was over, by replacing old paper money with new paper money which remained - you guessed it - paper money! But the Germans were seduced and reassured by this legerdemain. The inflation was over. One crisis had ended; the next was over a distant horizon.

Oddly enough, or understandably, perhaps, it was Schacht who came to mind when I was thinking about the present crisis of the euro zone, the crisis of Ireland, a seriously-ill patient to be kept alive by liberal transfusions of cash, including our cash, pounds as well as euros. We have to help a friend in need, we have been told, of course we do, though I wonder if our government is aware just how wasteful public sector expenditure is in the Republic, the pork barrel for a corrupt and clannish political elite. It's really quite something, it says a lot about Ireland's political class, when Gerry Adams rides in as a possible saviour.

But there are wider lessons to be taken from the Irish fiasco, lessons about the magic of money and the stupidity of politicians. The euro, that one size fits all currency, was based not on economic and political realities but on a bizarre dream, a dream that a strong economy like Germany could happily bed down with weak economies like Ireland and Greece. Piigs might fly, piigs did fly, but now they are falling one by one, the piigs of course being Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain.

The unemployment rate, high in Ireland, is ludicrously high in Spain, running somewhere at around 26%, a level that destroyed European democracies in the 1930s. But neither Spain nor Ireland can devalue; they are tied in to a monetary system that looks good in Berlin but dreadful in Madrid and Dublin. The warnings were always there, that buying into euroland involved the potential surrender of all fiscal flexibility, the ability to tailor one's financial policy to one's economic circumstances. Ah, but the piigs thought, the euro is riding high, it will never fall, we must ride high also. That, you see, is the magic of money. Or is it the witchcraft of money?

Not so long ago Ireland was being referred to in economic terms as a 'Celtic Tiger.' Well, now the tiger has been shot, skinned, and mounted on the wall of the German Chancellor, a woman who really knows about the magic of money, Europe's new Fuhererin. Ah, poor old Ireland, if only it had kept the punkt and not been seduced by the euro. There is no reason to suppose that the present crisis would still not have happened. It's the nature of capitalism to move through peaks and troughs, and those who tell you that it is possible to bring and end to 'boom and bust' are fools, or liars, or both. Under its old independent monetary system Ireland would still have been struggling, it may even have needed to ask for IMF loans, but it would have had the capacity to deflate, to let values and prices fall, thereby stimulating demand.

The insanity of the present position was wonderfully illustrated by Charles Moore (I'm his groupie in chief!) in this week's Spectator. As he says, it's possible to buy a decent hunter in this country for £6000. But in Ireland the same horse costs the euro equivalent of £7000. It simply makes no sense. Domestic demand in Ireland has grown much weaker over the past few years but the price for sterling buyers still remains artificially high. But this is the logic, the crazy logic, of euro land.

The single currency has benefited Germany, achieving a power over the outer fringes of Europe without the expense of sending in the Wehrmacht. The euro is operating in its magic a little like Schacht's Rentenmark, producing its own political logic. It might even be a jolly good idea to take the magic that one step forward and rename the currency the Euromark.

And there is Ireland, holding out the begging bowl, stuck in the economic and political margins, suffering a more complete humiliation than at any previous point in its recent history. Centuries of struggle against the English for this, a pot full of cash and eyes full of EU stars. What an irony it is to think that the country would be better off, as Moore suggests, if the Union Flag was still flying over Dublin Castle. Money is magic, yes, but it's also a curse. Or is the real curse the stupidity and the venality of politicians? How Schacht would have laughed.

Bewitching tales

Some of my school chums went to Durham University, girls I used to visit for long weekends when I was an undergraduate. It was a super opportunity to explore a part of the country I did not know that well - Northern England and the Scottish borders. There is still a wonderful romance that clings to so many places here, an echo of old, unhappy, far off times and battles long ago.

One of the places we went to was Flodden Edge, the site of the camp of an invading Scottish army in 1513 led by King James IV in person. The battle of the same name wasn’t actually fought here but a little further to the north at Branxton, where the Scots were defeated, and the king killed, by an English force led by the Earl of Surrey. There was only the three of us that day on the hill of Flodden, a lonely, almost haunted place, with the wind whistling lightly through the trees. We came across a spring, muddied and covered in leaves, with a stone surround carrying the following inscription;

Drink, weary pilgrim ; drink and stay
Rest by the well of Sybil Grey.

Apparently the structure was commissioned in the 1880s by Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, the words referring to an incident in Walter Scott’s poem Marmion, his Homeric epic on the Battle of Flodden. The old spring was the place the poet was thought to have had in mind when describing the death of Lord Marmion, the Scottish knight, offered water by a ministering angel in his last extremity.

There is another place associated with Walter Scott we came across, further north and across the border. Here the romance is at the most intense, the ghosts of the long Anglo-Scottish wars the longest lingering. And the past is nowhere better symbolised for me than at Smailholm Tower in the wild, bleak, impossibly romantic countryside close to the town of Kelso. Scott, whose family farmed land nearby, knew and loved Smailholm as a boy. To see it is to love it, to love the old legends of witches by night and reivers by day. To see it is also to understand life on what was once a dangerous frontier.

Smailholm is not a castle, not the sort of place that could ever have withstood a siege. Rather it’s a bolt hole, a kind of fall-out shelter, originally built in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. From the top one has an excellent view of the local countryside for miles around, now a scenic pleasure, once an essential safeguard. From there an early warning could be given at the approach of English raiders, pouring over the border from Northumberland. On these occasions it was better to be inside than out!

Scott mentions Smailholm twice in his poetry, in The Eve of Saint John and again in Marmion. The Tower is a wonderful and evocative reminder of a strange and violent past, captured superbly in Scott’s epic;

And still I thought that shattered tower
The mightiest work in human power
And marvelled, as the aged hind
With some strange tale bewitched my mind
Of forayers, who, with headlong force,
Down from that strength had spurred their horse,
Their southern rapine to renew,
Far in the distant Cheviots blue,
And, home returning, filled the hall
With revel, wassail-rout and brawl
Methought that still with tramp and clang
The gateway's broken arches rang;
Methou lit grim features, seamed with scars,
Glared through the window's rusty bars.
And ever by the winter hearth,
Old tales I heard of woe or mirth,
Of lovers' sleights, of ladies' charms,
Of witches' spells, of warriors' arms…

Of witches’ spells and warriors’ charms and lovers’ dreams, the wonders of a country in romance, beguiling, enduring, eternal.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Justice and Imagination

A week last Sunday BBC television started screening of a new series of Garrow’s Law, a legal drama loosely based on the life and career of William Garrow, one of the most significant figures in the history of English common law, the man who is largely responsible for the adversarial court system, the man who coined the phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ I watched the first series too, or as much as I was able, because I find legal drama as beguiling as history. Combine the two and I’m hooked!

Anyway, the episode in question dealt with the Zong case of 1781, in which the master of a trading ship stood accused of jettisoning worthless cargo and then submitting a fraudulent insurance claim for loss of profits. The plea was one of necessity, which the insurance company rejected. Dry stuff, you might think, except the cargo was human beings, African slaves being transported to the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Those who were thrown overboard, a hundred and twenty-two people in all, were mostly women and children.

It just so happened that I had not long finished reading On Reason and Imagination, an essay by William Hazlitt, a leading English radical and contemporary of Garrow’s. I was immediately reminded of the following passage;

…there are enormities to which no words can do adequate justice. Are we then, in order to form a complete idea of them, to omit every circumstance of aggravation, or to suppress every feeling of impatience that arises out of the details, least we should be accused of giving way to the influence of prejudice and passion? This would be to falsify the impression altogether, to misconstrue reason, and to fly in the face of nature. Suppose, for instance, that in the discussions on the Slave-Trade a description to the life was given of the horrors of the Middle Passage (as it was termed), that you saw the manner in which thousands of wretches, year after year, were stowed together in the hold of a slave-ship, without air, without light, without food, without hope, so that what they suffered in reality was brought home to you in imagination, till you felt a sickness of heart as one of them, could it be said that this was a prejudging of the case, that your knowing the extent of the evil disqualified you from pronouncing sentence upon it, and that your disgust and abhorrence were the effect of a heated imagination? No. Those evils that inflame the imagination and make the heart sick, ought not to leave the head cool. This is the very test and measure of the degree of the enormity, that it involuntary staggers and appals the mind.

The deliberate murder of these women and children certainly staggered and appalled my mind. But what staggered it even more is that they were not even considered to be human beings, that the charge was not one of murder, that they were of no more significance than any other cargo. The really horrifying thing is that neither the law at large nor the court on the day was interested in the moral atrocity at the heart of the Zong case; no, it was simply a question of commercial propriety.

We live in an age of atrocity, in the shadow of the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide and the Bosnian Massacres. It’s really not possible, then, for me or anyone else to sit in judgement over a more distant past, knowing full-well the kind of things human beings are capable of. Nevertheless, I still found the details of the Zong Affair unsettling for the simple reason that there was a time in England when, in the eyes of the law, certain human beings, merely because of the colour of their skin, had no right to life; that they were merely goods, as disposable as any other goods. This is made all the worse for me because this is a time when Christian belief, a Christian sense of morality, was much more central in daily life than it is today. But in the end justice, morality and even goodness itself are bloodless, self-referring and abstract concepts. Hazlitt was quite right: the understanding of suffering requires a leap of imagination.

The Prophet Irrelevant

I mentioned last December that I visited the house, now a museum, of Leon Trotsky when I was in Mexico City, his last place of exile (The Artists and the Revolutionary). I walked through the bedroom where the bullet holes from the assassination attempt of May 1940, led by the artist David Siqueiros, can still be seen. And then there is the study where Ramon Mercader lethally assaulted him with an ice pick in August of that same year, a time when the world’s attention was elsewhere. Finally, in the garden, there he is: his grave, with the hammer and sickle carved. The whole thing simply filled me with a sense of melancholy, not readily dispelled by the hot Mexican sun.

I have no sympathy at all for Trotsky as a politician or a thinker. But, my, how could I not be moved by a fate of a man who went from the height to the depths of history in such a short space of time; the hero of 1917 to the exile and outcast of 1940, living constantly in fear of his life. No longer the prophet armed, not even unarmed; simply irrelevant.

Trotsky was the author in so many ways of his own doom. A brilliant organiser, the man who created the Red Army almost single-handed and led it to victory in the Civil War, he was still a very poor judge of people, and quite hopeless when it came to playing the treacherous back-stabbing political game so favoured by the Bolshevik party, which became particularly intense after Lenin went into decline, suffering successive strokes before his death in January, 1924. Above all he misjudged Stalin, his nemesis, describing him as a ‘grey blur’, dismissing him in the most condescending and racist terms in a highly tendentious biography.

There is a tendency to assume that if Trotsky, rather than Stalin, had been the victor in the internecine party struggles of the 1920s things would have been so much better. I see no evidence at all for this. His conduct during the Civil War and after was just as brutal as any other Bolshevik apparatchik. More than that, the Stalinist programme of collectivisation and industrialisation, pursued with such murderous energy after 1928, was earlier the programme of Trotsky and the left opposition. Trotsky as Vohzd may have been less paranoid than Stalin. I do not believe he would have been less murderous, especially given that both men shared the same visceral hatred for the Russian peasantry.

When he died that August all those years ago he had long since been bypassed by the main currents of history, his rag-bag followers organised, if that’s the word, in the so-called Fourth International, another irrelevance. He died the last victim of the Moscow Show Trials, a victim of the relentless malice of Stalin, a victim of his own delusions. My previous assessment of the man still stands;

…one has to reflect that, in his days of power, it was he who denied life to others, who acted in a brutal and oppressive fashion, a fashion that closed so many futures forever. Too much was sacrificed on that abstract alter to which he dedicated his life, the alter of a frightful idol. We all, each and every one of us, only ever live in a perpetual present. It is a terrible thing to destroy others in the name of a bloodless utopia.

Monday 22 November 2010

Gatsby on the outside

Fortunate is the writer who creates a novel in perfect tune with the times; fortunate was F. Scott-Fitzgerald, who, in The Great Gatsby created the novel and the times! It’s not just the novel of the Jazz Age, a term coined by Fitzgerald; it’s the novel for the Doldrums Age, judging by the popularity of a new Broadway reading of the book. I saw from a report in the Sunday press that a new film version is also planned, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Jay Gatsby, the part played by Robert Redford in the 1974 adaptation.

It’s easy to understand its popularity because the message goes beyond all ages, all times. It’s a novel that is read with hindsight, if that makes sense – from the lows of the 1930s looking back to the highs, the thoughtless, effervescent, champagne bubbles of the 1920s; from the lows of present-day America back to a vanished prosperity of Gekko-land and greed is good. The American dream and the American nightmare go hand in hand; they always have.

I suppose there is a combination of emotions here. There is nostalgia for the good times, and the Jazz Age was in so many ways the best time of all, the best time to be young, rich and alive, whirling around in a endless round of parties and social engagements. Nostalgia, yes, but accompanied by a realistic appreciation of the sub-text; that all was not quite right, that were there is brilliance there is also decay; where there is Eden there is also a serpent. The thing about impossible dreams is that they are, well, impossible. Gatsby, it’s as well to remember, was published in the 1925, right at the height of the Roaring Twenties. It celebrates the period, it defines the period…and it presages its end.

I love the figure of Jay Gatsby, a brilliant social climber who successfully manages to disguise his roots, who creates an elaborate illusion in pursuit of love. He is a fraud, yes, but he’s more endearing, nobler and more refined than the ‘old money’, represented by Tom and Daisy Buchanan. The tragedy is that he is himself deceived by a greater illusion; that Daisy Buchanan is a figure worthy of pursuit when the reality is that she is shallow, insincere and essentially worthless for all her wealth. Daisy is love alright, with money, which is to say with herself.

There is so much symbolism in this simple novel, so many possible readings. Baz Luhrmann, the director of the new movie, said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that he sees parallels between the rise and fall of Gatsby and our modern economic hard times;

If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says ‘You’ve been drunk on money’ they’re not going to want to see it. But if you reflected that mirror on another time, they’d be willing to. People will need an explanation of where they are and where they’ve been – and The Great Gatsby can provide that explanation.

Daisy and Tom still have their money; they always will. Gatsby and his kind are still on the outside looking in. Perhaps they, too, always will.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out Daisy's light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

England and the Spanish Armada

When I was an undergraduate I once addressed myself to the question what would have happened in the Spanish Armada had succeeded in landing in England. I know the ‘what if' school of alternate history is frowned on, but I quite like it, as I like all kinds of games. Here is the answer I gave, as close an approximation of the facts that I can muster.

Alternate dimensions in experience and time: I suppose we are entering the realm of history as a form of 'game theory'. It is possible, in such abstract situations, to construct just about any scenario, with equal degrees of conviction. The answer that I am about to shape is probably no more convincing than any other, but I will try to build on the foundations of evidence.

If Parma had landed on the south coast of England his professional army would have faced a national levy of volunteers, badly trained and even more badly equipped. He would, in other words, have faced almost precisely the same situation as the Germans, if they had managed to affect a landing in 1940. For months, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's chief minister, had been taking steps to ensure that all due preparations had been made. England did posses a kind of 'home guard', based on the county levies, the so-called trained bands; but the training these men had received was haphazard and patchy at best.

The Privy Council received numerous reports on the inadequacy of the county forces, including one from Sir Edward Stanley, who wrote that the men of Cheshire and Lancashire had not been mustered, and had received no training, in two years. A Spanish agent also reported that from the whole population of London scarcely 10,000 men had been assembled.

Some of the men in trained bands were armed with muskets, some with pikes, and still others with the longbow, the traditional English infantry weapon going all the way back to the Hundred Years War. Against well trained Spanish tercios they are likely to have fared badly. There again, the rate of fire of a well-trained bowman was considerably in excess of the cumbersome and slow loading fire arms of the day, so enemy casualties are likely to have been high.

As for Parma, on the assumption that he brought his whole force safely across the Channel, he would have had 40,000 men at his command, plus another 20,000 from the Armada itself. Exactly where the landing would have come we cannot be certain, though Kent seems more likely than Essex, as the Spanish would have known that the English forces were concentrating at Tilbury, to the north of the Thames. Robert Dudley, the English commander-in-chief, at the very last minute sent 1000 men to strengthen the defences of Dover.

Once the point of invasion was known, all of the English forces, along the whole of the south coast and the Home Counties, would have massed for a counter-attack, which would have demanded the utmost speed before the Spanish took Rochester and crossed the Medway. The Tower would have been able to withstand a siege, although for how long is almost impossible to say. If Leicester's army had been defeated, all that would remain would be the levies of the north. The Queen had her own personal army, though for the sake of royal security that may have fallen back on Wales, which would have become the centre of national resistance. It is likely that every able bodied boy and man, from the age of sixteen and sixty, would have been mustered, around 130,000 from a population of just fewer than 5 million.

From the Spanish archives we know, in outline, what would have happened in the event of victory. The country would have been subject to complete military occupation. A viceroy would have been appointed, or Phillip II may have nominated a king, possibly Parma, from his own family. Before her execution, Phillip had hoped to marry Parma to the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, which would have greatly strengthened his claim. Elizabeth, if captured, is unlikely to have lived, because of the threat she posed to the security of the occupation regime.

The heretical English Church would have come under the control of the Spanish clergy, 1200 of whom sailed with the Armada. Catholic recusants are likely to have received favourable treatment, though whether many would have chosen to be cast in the role of traitors and collaborators is impossible to say. In 1588 England was a much more unified nation than it had been in 1066, the time of the last full-scale conquest, so resistance would have been prolonged and bitter, possibly aided by James VI of Scotland, whose ambitions for the southern throne would have been ruined by the Spanish conquest.

So that’s it, that’s my best guess! Before leaving this I would like to thank This Royal Throne of Kings, a blogger whose page I recently visited, for reminding me of one of the most inspirational speeches in English history, that of Gloriana, England's greatest queen, England's greatest monarch, to the troops at Tilbury. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

Sunday 21 November 2010

The Thoughts of Citizen Pete

Those of you unfamiliar with English ritual and custom might not be aware that we still have an established church, a national church, supposedly. Yes, we have the Church of England, the dear old C of E, the church in which I was baptised and confirmed. It has ancient roots as part of a worldwide Catholic communion, though since the Reformation it has been headed not by the Pope but by the reigning monarch as Supreme Governor.

Now the powers conferred by this office are really residual in nature. Still, the archbishops and bishops all owe a basic loyalty to the institution of monarchy. But the Church of England, you see, is a broad church, with room for all sorts of people; it even has room, as I discovered recently, for republican bishops: it has room for the likes of Pete Broadbent (apparently he insists on ‘Pete’), Bishop of Willesden. Now that’s another new discovery for me: I had no idea that there was a Bishop of Willesden.

Anyway, Bishop Pete is a trendy sort of guy, a sort of Tony Blair kinda cleric. He twitters and tweets and he has a Facebook page. He’s used Twitter to announce to the world that he was going to have a ‘republican day’ in France on the occasion of the forthcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Not content with that, he went on to Facebook to describe them as ‘shallow celebrities’ whose marriage would last seven years at the outside, before proceeding to a sustained assault on the monarchy in general, with some offensive and distasteful remarks about Prince Charles (Big Ears) and his late wife (Porcelain Doll) thrown to season the stew.

What can I say about Pete? He is entitled to his republican and anti-monarchist views, of course he is, though I would have thought that this was something of a problem for a senior cleric in a church that professes outward loyalty to the royal house. But set that aside, for is there not something even more basic, anti-Christian, it might even be said, in his churlish and boorish dismissal of the marital prospects of a couple setting out on life together? It does not really matter if they are celebrities or not (William can hardly help being a celebrity), it does not really matter of they are ‘shallow’ or not (judging, I suppose, by his depth); they deserve the respect that every other couple is entitled to, not this ghastly man’s uncharitable and hurtful rudeness. With people like him in charge small wonder that the decline of the Church of England in recent years has been so rapid.

I simply can’t abide ill-manners, boorishness and discourtesy in any degree. When a man like Pete (a citizen and not a subject, as he says on Facebook) jeers at a couple who have given no offense and caused no harm, other than to announce that they intend to marry, then it becomes absolutely intolerable. But I’m not as uncharitable as Citizen Pete. I really do hope that the sun shines on his republican day and that the French make him very welcome. I hope they make him so welcome that Willesden and England never see Citizen Pete again.

The faces of Janus – a response to Calvin

Calvin, there are two things you must understand about me: I’m a rationalist…and a romantic! The seventeenth century is by far my favourite period in history, the time of the Stuarts, the time of the Civil Wars. If I had been living then I like to think that I would have been cast in the same mould as Charlotte de La Trémoille, Countess of Derby, a royalist who in 1644 successfully defended Lathom House with only a few men against a much larger enemy force, led for part of the time by Sir Thomas Fairfax in person, the foremost parliamentary soldier.

What was the depth of her attachment? It was based on emotion, on loyalty and on the attractions of legitimacy; on a belief that Charles I, the king, had been divinely appointed and that monarchy was the rightful government of the land. It’s an institution honoured by tradition; it’s an institution that continues to be honoured by tradition. It was for Charlotte de La Trémoille; it is for me.

But, you are right: strip it back and kingship, any form of monarchy, arose in the way you suggest; that it is an original exercise in tribal power obscured by the passage of time, sanctified by the veneer of religion. You might, if you have not already done so, have a look at William Hazlitt’s ‘demolition’ of royalty and divine right in his essays On the Spirit of Monarchy and On the Connection Between Toad Eaters and Tyrants, both written in the early part of nineteenth century, in which he more or less makes the same observation as you: that a king is no more than a rich thug surrounded by a gang of flunkies. As for your point about Mugabe and Blair it’s something I addressed myself in L'etat, C'est Moi – a response to Adam.

You are also right about our present Queen: she is a monarch by honour and tradition alone. Her powers, the powers of the royal house itself, have devolved over time to the office of prime minister, the real source of power in our constitution, more important than parliament itself, with forms of patronage that Charles I would have envied. But the Queen is still transcendent; the Queen and her heirs represent the nation at a deeper level, at a level above politics. We all require some kind of symbolism to identify with, a flag in your case, a person in ours. There are no rational arguments I can draw on here to justify this process, because none exists. It’s all about emotion, all about sentiment.

Now, why do I prefer monarchy to the other traditions you mention? To begin with I would say that monarchy both incorporates and transcends a theocratic tradition, too narrowly based in itself to stand the test of time and change. Purely sacred monarchies had a tendency to collapse when they lost the mandate of heaven. Democracy and anarchy, to take these purely as intellectual concepts, might be said to be so closely allied that there is little practical difference; that pure democracy is anarchy, and anarchy is unworkable as national idea. Roman democracy collapsed in anarchy. The state was only saved by a new form of monarchy.

So, I’m a monarchist, a royalist, to be exact, because royalty gave shape to my nation, because it gave cohesion and identity where there was none; it gave continuity through time. Continuity, now that’s the thing. Thinking specifically about England regicide was the exception, not the rule. Kings were removed, yes, often because of incompetence, but they were invariably replaced by other kings from the same family, not by outsiders. The seventeenth century regicide is the great exception here, when Charles I was replaced by a republic. What then happened? Why, the republic was replaced by a monarchy, which became a republic again, a position of constitutional chaos only resolved by the return of the King!

The King returned in 1660, that’s true, but matters were never quite the same again. Absolutism - which never really existed in England in the sense of Brunei or Saudi Arabia in any case - had but a limited lease. A new monarchy arose in 1688, one that has been adapting and modifying ever since, one that takes the shape of the age. That’s why it’s been so enduring, that and the fact that it was still able to stand above the common political fray.

In the end it all comes down to sentiment and romance, I can give you no better reason for my attachment to royalty than that. The origins are unimportant; only the tradition matters. Besides, I have the luxury, which you do not, of being able to hate the head of government while loving the head of state. Surely there can be no better reason for believing that royalty is the best possible institution for my nation? Others can do things differently. We should just muddle along as we have for the past thousand years or so! And, if I can return to my previous blog, I have now taken Kate Middleton completely to my heart, a sign that tradition and novelty is the Janus image that England shows to the world, looking back and looking forward at one and the same time. I hope we always shall.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Queen Kate

Karl Marx spent a good bit of his life as an exile in England. It was the place to be, the place at the most advanced stage of industrial development, the place with the most developed working class; it was the place where revolution, by the lights of his theory, was bound to come, had to come. After all, it was historically inevitable.

Except it did not come; it never would come. For all his time in this country he acquired no understanding at all of the English way of doing things. We do not rebel: we absorb, we adapt, we adjust. According to Marx the bourgeois should have overthrown the aristocracy, just as they in their turn would be overthrown by the proletariat. But no- it was the middle classes who became the measure of all things, not the aristocracy or the proletariat, the middle-class who would be the motor of change from the high Victorian age onwards.

The truth did actually dawn on the old prophet towards the end of his life. He began to share the cynicism of Friedrich Engels, his collaborator, a factory owner from whom Karl had not the least hesitation of skimming off a spot of ‘surplus value’ now and then to support his own bourgeois lifestyle. The English proletariat, Marx said, “"was becoming more and more bourgeois, so that the most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie."

Marx! thou should’st be living at this hour. Yes, he should, because he would be able to see that he got one thing right at least: the bourgeois advance has continued. We have a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat, yes, but now we have a bourgeois monarchy!

This is a long and convoluted way of saying that I’m absolutely delighted at the announcement that Prince William is to marry Kate Middleton, his long-standing amour from Saint Andrews days, an impeccably bourgeois girl! Actually she is more; she has poise and she has elegance, the most fantastic dress sense I’ve seen on a public figure for such a long time. I think she will make an absolutely delightful queen for a new monarchy, a monarchy for the twenty-first century, a monarchy for the people, by the people, of the people.

She won’t be the first commoner to marry into the royal house, an honour that belongs to Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV in 1464. There have been others since, not just commoners but people without any aristocratic lineage. I'm being disingenuous, though, in suggesting that that Kate is the harbinger of a new middle-class monarchy; that’s long been in evolution, a monarchy of quite domesticity and familial duty; a monarchy really created by Victoria and Albert, impeccably bourgeois in taste and morality despite their disreputable Hanoverian lineage. Edward VII was really the last king with any vestiges of the old fashion. Thereafter it was comfort, duty and dependable mediocrity! Now Kate brings a touch of colour and style, a new bottle for old wine. I wish her well, our once and future queen.

A modern Boadicea

This is another of the essays I wrote for a multi-author site not long after I finished reading a biography of Edward Heath, prime minister of Britain in the early 1970s, a fairly disastrous time in our history. I think it worth preserving here, especially in the light of our present circumstances.

Having read Edward Heath-the Authorised Biography I could do with a jolly good antidote; I could do with Margaret Thatcher – the Authorised Biography. The commission was given some years ago to Charles Moore, one of my favourite columnists, and I suspect the exercise is largely complete.

There is only one small problem – it’s not scheduled for publication until after her death, something I would not advance, or wish to see advanced, by a single degree. The longer this great and wonderful lady is with us the better.

Looking back over the history of Britain since 1945 I see Margaret Thatcher standing like a political colossus, a refreshing contrast to every other prime minister, and I do not exempt Winston Churchill, whose peacetime ministry was little better than a disappointing postscript to his wartime days.

Reading the reviews of a newly published biography of Charles de Gaulle oddly enough it was Thatcher he brought to mind, because I think she occupies an analogous position in British history to his in the history of France.

Think about it; think about the position of our country in 1979. We hadn’t been defeated in war, that’s true, but objectively speaking we may very well have been, judging by the political and economic condition of the nation. Inflation was out of control; trade union barons, like medieval condottieri, were in the habit of marching in to Downing Street to dictate terms, the whole social fabric of the nation was in danger of unravelling in the face of continual political mismanagement, appalling under Labour, not that much better under some Conservative administrations.

The rot goes back to 1945. The nation was bankrupt; there needed to be a major period of economic retrenchment and renewal. Instead our capital was frittered away on ruinous welfare programmes, things we simply could not afford. So, our major competitors, who did not make the same mistake, had a march on us. The Germans emerged stronger in defeat than we had in victory. We had won the war only to lose the peace, a cliché, I know, but one that sums up the ensuing period so well.

By the time Labour left office in 1951 the damage had been done. A new orthodoxy emerged that welfarism and the mixed economy was a ‘good thing’, an orthodoxy that was to go by the name of Butskellism, combining the names of Rab Butler, a Tory Chancellor, with Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party prior to Harold Wilson. Perhaps if Churchill had been in the vigour of life, perhaps if he had taken a greater interest in domestic economic management rather than foreign affairs, things might have been different. Unfortunately they were not.

Then came the age of the two Harolds, MacMillan and Wilson, a time when Butskellism reached its high tide, a bogus age, a dishonest age when underlying problems were simply ignored, problems like the ever increasing rate of inflation and poor productivity, only disguised by a favourable international situation. The whole illusion was sustained by the hocus-pocus of Keynesian economics, the belief that the state can regulate the economy for the benefit of all, forever, and ever, and ever. Well, it can’t.

For a time it looked as if Heath was set to change direction, to break this dreadful consensus, on the basis of the Selsdon Programme, but he turned out to be worse even than the Harolds; he turned out to be the greatest exponent of state management ever; the greatest socialist who was not a socialist.

By 1979 the lies and deceptions that had sustained the country through the previous three decades could no longer be ignored. What was needed was a revolution in economic and social policy; what was needed was a revolutionary; what was needed was Margaret Thatcher.

She swept away all of the illusions of the past, the thing I admire most about her. She was as courageous in the face of adversity, often coming from within her own party, as Heath was cowardly. She was no theoretician but her common-sense approach to economic questions harmonised very well with monetarism. Her belief in markets over the state gave new life to the economy. She broke the power of the union condottieri, broke the power of the enemy within as she broke the power of the enemy without. Once again Britain had standing in the world after years of declining prestige.

For all these reasons and more I believe her to be the greatest living Englishwoman, greater, by far, than all her male contemporaries. Her legacy will shine far into the future.

Exorcising the past

I saw from a report in the press on Saturday that the exhibition on Hitler and the Nazis, currently on show in the Berlin Historical Museum, is drawing the crowds, hardly surprising, considering that it’s the first time ever such an event has been staged. It’s part of a ‘coming to terms’ process long delayed in Germany, which suffered for so many years from a self-induced historical amnesia.

Now comes Das Amt und die Vergangenheit (The Ministry and the Past), an official publication by the Foreign Ministry detailing the department’s activities during the Nazi era. Das Amt has caused a minor stir; it even featured in the main evening news broadcast here not so long ago. The issue is this: the official line long taken by the Foreign Ministry is that it was not complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime; that it was manned by ‘gentlemen’ in every way different from the downmarket fanatics in other branches of government. This is far from being the case, as Das Amt has confirmed. The Foreign Office was complicit in the very worst crimes, including the Holocaust.

I have to say that I was more than a little surprised at this ‘revelation.’ The historical record is absolutely clear. Though there were certainly diplomats who took an active part in resisting and undermining the regime, most were complicit even in the basest actions. Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister himself, was convicted and hanged on a charge of crimes against humanity, amongst other things. During the War, when normal diplomatic activity all but ceased, one of the remaining functions of the Ministry was to ensure the co-operation of Germany’s allies and satellites in the deportation of their Jewish populations to the death camps.

Das Amt, from what I have read, really only provides additional empirical support without breaking any new ground. It seems to be of greater use as an exercise in myth-breaking, in destroying a cosy and rather snobbish departmental consensus. The way it came about is rather interesting in itself. Joschka Fisher, the first foreign minister from the Green Party, a man with particular sensitivity over Holocaust issues, was disturbed by the self-congratulating complacency of the department, which even saw diplomats eulogising former Nazis in obituaries. The details have destroyed all remaining illusions. Eckart Conze, one of the four authors of the 880-page Das Amt, has gone so far to describe the Ministry under the Nazis as a “criminal organisation” in an interview with Der Spiegel.

The past is a ghost only ever put to rest by understanding, not denial.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Heia Safari!

Having mentioned Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in passing I now feel obliged to say a little more about him, the last of the German cavaliers; to say why I find him so admirable as a soldier and as a man. There is really no secret: he was as courageous as he was resourceful, carrying on a single-handed war in East Africa against superior Allied forces, keeping his small army in the field throughout the First World War, almost completely cut off from the Fatherland and any possibility of resupply.

Hunted from place to place, he raided Kenya, Uganda, Rhodesia, the Belgian Congo and Portuguese East Africa, always avoiding capture and escaping pursuit. He made the most effective use of the country and of his Askari troops, who were devoted to him. In the end he was the last German commander to surrender because he only received news of the Armistice in Europe after it was signed, formally laying down arms, undefeated in the way that his European colleagues were not undefeated, at Mbal in what is now Zambia on 23 November, 1918.

With a small contingent of German officers and non-commissioned offices, the backbone of his army were the Askaris, only some 2,500 men to begin in fourteen schutzttrupe, though additional recruitment would take his strength up to some 14,000, still only a fraction of those available to Jan Smuts and other Allied commanders. Lettow-Vorbeck, who could speak fluent Swahili, treated his soldiers with considerable respect at a time when African soldiers were viewed in colonial armies with racist and snobbish condescension. He told them that there was no difference between his white and his black soldiers, that they were all Africans. True to his perception, he appointed black officers, so far as I can gather the first European commander to do so.

Clearly he was driven by necessity here, though there really is not very much doubt that he valued his men as men. In the end he had only 1600 Askaris left, but he had achieved his aim of pinning down as many enemy troops as possible in an African 'side show', far from the Western Front. It seems to me that his action in deploying and using inferior forces in the most effective way possible bears comparison with that of General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson, particularly during the Valley Campaign of 1862 - hit and run, hit again, and hit again; advance where the enemy is weak, retreat when he is strong.

In Guerrilla: Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and Germany's East African Empire Edwin Hoyt described his four year campaign as "the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful." After a brief interment he returned to Germany with his European troops, only some 120 survivors, in March 1919. For a demoralised nation the return of the Africans was the occasion for a brief moment of celebratory pride, as the they paraded down Unter den Linden in their faded and tattered colonial uniforms, Lettow-Vorbeck at their head mounted on a black charger.

Lettow-Vorbeck was soon caught up in the political chaos Weimar Germany, induced by left-wing adventurism. As a serving soldier he performed valuable service in suppressing the communist Spartacus rising in Hamburg, but his career came to an end in 1920 after he became a leading figure in the right-wing Kapp Putsch, whose aim was to install a military dictatorship intended stop the country's political anarchy.

Although he later sat in the Reichstag as deputy for the conservative German National People's Party, he was immensely distrustful of the Nazis. He avoided all personal compromise, even refusing Hitler's offer of the ambassadorship in London despite his straightened financial circumstances. In the 1960s a former schutztruppe officer was asked about this in an interview with the historian Charles Siller. "I understand that Lettow told Hitler to go fuck himself?", the question was put. "That's right", came the reply, "except I don't think he put it that politely." After this he was kept under surveillance by a regime, though he was still too well-respected in the country to suffer any further inconvenience.

Lettow-Vorbeck earned the respect of his former enemies. In 1929 he was even invited to London as the guest of honour at a reunion banquet for veterans of the East African campaign. There he met Jan Smuts for the first time, the two men remaining close friends until the latter's death in 1950. In 1953 he returned to East Africa, now the protectorate of Tanganyika, where he was received with full military honours by the British. But surely the greater honour, the greater source of pride, is that the surviving Askaris all turned out to greet him, singing Heia Safari, their old marching song.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck died in 1964, now well into his nineties. He was buried with full military honours, two of his Askaris being flown to Germany to attend the ceremony. To mark the occasion the Bundestag agreed to pay back pay to all of the surviving African soldiers, a move he would have approved of, as he tried unsuccessfully to make this one of the conditions of his surrender in 1918.

Bliss was it in that dawn

Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa features on my list of all-time favourite non-fictions. Blixen, who originally wrote under the pen-name name of Isak Dinesen, was a Danish writer, a marvellous teller of stories, including some in the Gothic genre. But she is still best known for her memoir of her life on her farm in what was then British East Africa, now Kenya.

Published in 1937, it opens so evocatively- “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills”, proceeding as a wonderful retrospective on her time as a coffee planter, both before, during and after the First World War. I was intrigued to discover that on the way out she voyaged on the same ship as Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a soldier on his way to take command of the troops in German East Africa, now Tanzania.

Both, in their separate ways, were to become the stuff that legends are made on: Lettow-Vorbeck as one of the great German soldiers (he’s another of my heroes!), a field commander and guerrilla leader of genius: Blixen as an icon of single-minded female determination, a survivor against all odds. They had a common interest in horses, Lettow-Vorbeck later writing to her asking to send some of her best stock. Unfortunately by this time the war had intervened.

Blixen was to meet other remarkable people, the most remarkable of whom in my view was Denys Finch Hatton (if you’ve seen the movie based on the book he is played by Robert Redford). Finch Hatton in so many ways was the last of the adventures and buccaneers who built the British Empire. A scion of one of the best connected English families, he was educated at Eton and Oxford before he came out to Africa at the age of twenty-four, the same age I am now, and stayed for the rest of his life. He was a professional hunter, but he was so much more- an intellectual, a flyer and a lover, a man of highly refined feelings, the passion of Blixen’s life.

In the early 1930s he took her flying in his De Havilland Gypsy Moth, an experience she describes in the book as the “most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm.” Blixen wrote to her brother of Finch Hatton that “to love the ground he walks upon, to be happy beyond words when he is here, and to suffer worse than death many times when he leaves.” In May 1931 he left forever, killed when his Gypsy Moth crashed at Voi airport. He was buried in accordance with his wishes in the Ngong Hills, where his brother later erected a memorial with a line from Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner – “He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast.”

In so many ways Out of Africa describes, in transporting prose, a vanished world, a better world, a more heroic world. It’s a time in which I could see myself, a time when there yet more worlds to conquer. Bliss it must have been in that dawn to be alive, but to be young would have been very heaven. By the time Blixen left it was over- the pioneers were gone, the game was gone, the land was gone. In came the awful Happy Valley crowd, as mediocrity and tedious bourgeois decadence walking hand in hand!

Tuesday 16 November 2010

We will we will tax you

From 1688 to 1815 England and France were involved in what might very well be thought of as a Second Hundred Years’ War (Yes, I know, but the first one lasted more than a hundred years also!) Of the two sides France was by far the strongest, the most populous, the better placed and the better armed. Yet England still won. Why? That’s simple; because we are not as Napoleon suggested a nation of shopkeepers: we are a nation of accountants.

The downfall of France was brought about by ruinous profligacy, especially under the Ancien Régime. In England Parliament, nit-picking and parsimonious as it often was, kept a close watch on expenditure, thus making sure that no more was raised by taxation than was absolutely necessary, and that every penny was made to count. By this process naval efficiency in particular was maximised, good, well-designed vessels captained by skilled seamen making a major contribution to victory, particularly during the Seven Years War, when England was established as the paramount naval power.

Ah, but the past is a foreign country; they did things better there. Now our Parliament is in some ways no more than an impotent regional assembly; now we are part of a new Ancien Régime: now we are part of the European Union, which has none of ‘our’ traditions and all of ‘theirs.’ Our Prime Minister went to Brussels determined to put a stop to the endless demands for more and more money. He came, he saw…and he didn’t quite conquer. The ‘budget freeze’ will still cost the British tax payers millions at a time of serious nation retrenchment.

Our brave new Europe has ‘their’ traditions, yes, the tradition of milking the peasantry of wealth to be squandered away without consequence. It used to be said of the British press that it exercised power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout history. The Commission and the pathetic European Parliament is the new harlot, taxing and spending without fear of consequence.

Let me give you but one example, that of Project Galileo. I confess that anything to do with space, space travel and objects in space bores me absolutely rigid, so I’d never heard of this until I read Costs in Space, an article by Douglas Murray in the latest issue of the Spectator. It’s a scheme dreamt up in the late 1990s because Jacques Chirac, the former French president, thought it would be a jolly good idea for Europe to rival the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, used today in almost all of our satnav devices. There was no need for this but, you see, GPS is owned by the United States, and Europe, if you will forgive the expressions, simply had to get it up.

Here we are more than ten years after: no satellites have gone up, just costs, astronomical costs. You see, that’s what the EU does best, that’s what the Ancien Régime does best: not make things, not achieve things, no, just spend money, more and more and more money. Murray apparently phoned the EU (who, I wonder?) to ask about the final costs. It’s too early to speculate in terms of amounts, he was told. That’s right: after ten years it’s too early to speculate in terms of amounts. Let me translate that: it will cost billions. Originally projected to cost 1.6 billion the final cost is now estimated at 22 billion, based on information leaked to the German government by the Commission.

No taxation without representation was the battle cry that began the American Revolution. We will tax you whether you like it our not, is the motto of the EU. Failure does not matter; failure is of no consequence because the European tax payer will always, in the final event, be made to pick up the tab, to pick up the tab for Galileo and every other wasteful project. Murray puts it thus;

The cost to the UK taxpayer for this political ineptitude has shot up from £385 million to £3 billion. That’s the difference of one of those aircraft carriers that our armed forces need. No organisation other than the EU could come up with routine budget discrepancies literally the size of an aircraft carrier. But what’s a rise like that between friends? After all, we’ll be paying an extra £387 million each year after our Prime Minister’s ‘spectacular’ victory in Brussels the other week.

That’s the thing about Europe, the thing about the Ancien Régime: there is no punishment for failure, almost nothing in the way of accountability beyond the corrupt and venal European ‘Parliament.’ How I envy those American colonist who got so upset over a tax on tea. We’ve gone beyond the Tea Party stage; eyes should now be on the Bastille.