Tuesday 31 January 2012

The Mouse in a Spin

Politics is a constant surprise to me, politicians an endless source of bemusement. I look at a silly little man like the preening Nicholas Sarkozy and wonder how this laughable Mouse, a kind of music hall turn, ever became president of France. It’s a sign of our age, I suppose, the relentless advance of mediocrity, evidenced by Obama in America and Sarkozy in France. The Daily Mail describes him as a ‘right wing conservative.’ Well, if that’s what passes for a ‘right wing conservative’ in France I would really hate to come across a ‘left wing socialist.’

The Mouse is looking pretty desperate these days, ever more fearful that the French public has finally seen him for what he is, a built-up personality in his built-up shoes. He and his shallow wife, all glamour and no substance, may have to hand back the keys of the Élysée Palace soon. With the first round of the presidential election scheduled for the end of April, it looks likely that the French people will send an eviction notice.

Poor little Mouse; he’s been in such a tizzy since David Cameron vetoed the European treaty amendments last December. There he is, throwing the occasional tantrum, the baby who did not get his way. He’s in the huff with Cameron, in the huff with England.

On Sunday, in defending a sharp hike in French value added tax (VAT - a sales tax), he appeared on national TV, even more fatuous than usual. It’s all part of an attempt to breathe a little vitality into the failing French economy. When told by a journalist that a similar hike in British VAT led to a rise in prices, he sneered (there is no mistaking the Sarko sneer) that “The United Kingdom has no industry anymore.”

Au contraire, monsieur, came the response, not from these islands but from his own national press. Le Monde, the leading evening newspaper, pointed out that Britain actually has more industry than France, with production standing at five per cent higher. The claim of the Élysée Mouse was ‘totally false', it went on to stress the point. It also inconveniently mentioned that the rate of industrial decline is stronger in France. Ah, le weekend, labour protection legislation, early retirement and short working weeks, not to mention the interminable lunch, must surely all factor in here.

When I think of Sarkozy I think of the character of Will Roper, the muddle-headed hot head from A Man for all Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More. Roper, much given to changing his mind on questions of faith, is admonished by More “Now listen well. Two years ago you were a passionate churchman. Now you are a passionate Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head’s finished turning your face is to the front again.”

Last year Sarkozy claimed that a similar VAT rise in England had absolutely failed to stimulate the economy. This year he is all in favour, adopting the measure from Germany, where he says that it helped to boost that nation’s competitiveness. I rather suspect that his head will still be turning when he faces the electorate in April, a people with less money in their pockets and even less competitiveness.

Yes, price rises in a country with a declining industrial base and some three million unemployed, a country which recently lost its triple-A credit rating. “If we lose the triple-A, I’m dead”, he said some time previously. At least that’s one point he and I can agree on

Meanwhile Germany’s Angela Merkel has offered to support the embattled Mouse in campaign rallies. Angela on the hustings; the French being lectured to by the fat Reich’s Chancellor. Yes, things really are that bad.

Monday 30 January 2012

How Are the Mighty Fallen

I admire China; I admire the present Chinese government. Oh, please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that I admire communism; I don’t; I loath it, but it’s doubtful that the Chinese system has anything to do with communism in any meaningful ideological sense. No, as an idea it was effectively abandoned at the same time as the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia and China then took the high road to capitalism, chaotic for the former, controlled for the latter.

What I admire is the technique of realpolitik, the wholly Machiavellian outlook of the Chinese. This is likely to be their century not simply because of their economic power but because they play the game carefully, looking always to their own interests.

What a sense of humour Clio, the goddess of history, has, what an acute love of irony. There was America at the end of the Cold War, the only great power left in the world. There was Francis Fukuyama saying that history itself had come to an end, a humourless plagiarism of Sellar and Yeatman’s contention in 1066 and All That, published in the 1930s, that America was clearly Top Nation and history came to a .

But it didn’t, did it? America, the paramount power in 1991, has frittered it all away in one fruitless crusade after another, war after war, intervention hard upon intervention, the gift of the neo cons who have nothing at all to do with genuine conservatism or any kind of political realism. All they achieved was more and more spending with fewer and fewer results. Now the country has reached the lowest point in its history, the nadir, headed by the hopeless and incompetent Barack Obama, not a neo con just a con, a Marxist in Marxist clothing.

Now look at China, the communist capitalist super power. This is a country with the good sense to stand and stare, to consolidate its power, not waste it all away. This is the new empire, extending its influence over much of the developing world, particularly Africa, large parts of which are effectively a Chinese economic colony. I simply could not imagine the Chinese getting bogged down in a hopeless place like Afghanistan for a hopeless cause. I simply can’t imagine any country headed by an intelligent leader doing so, a leader with even the lightest grasp of history.

But America did, here, there and everywhere, taking the wolf by the ears, unable thereafter to let it go. Good sense and good politics would have kept America out of Iraq, a country which, no matter how repellent its dictator, kept a check on the regional ambitions of Iran. But good sense and good politics was not at a premium in the Bush Whitehouse; it has not been at a premium ever since. How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Brokeback Bureau

I waited an age for one biopic only to have two come along at once! Well, almost at once. It’s not long since I saw Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, a stunning performance in a less than stunning film. Now I’ve seen Leonardo DiCaprio, one of my favourite actors, play J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar, a stunning performance in a less than stunning film.

Hoover, the long standing Director – Dictator might be a better word - of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is in many ways an even more controversial figure than Thatcher. A man of impeccable moral stature, the self-appointed guardian of all that was good in American life, he had no scruples at all in subverting civil liberties in pursuit of his particular ends. At his funeral then President Nixon said that he was;

…one of the giants…He personified integrity, he personified honour, he personified principle, he personified courage, he personified discipline, he personified dedication, he personified loyalty, he personified patriotism.

Oh, but how are the mighty fallen. He also, according to his many detractors, personified venality and corruption, a message that his been relentless hammered ever since, to the point where his legacy, his very real contribution to fighting crime and subversion using the latest techniques, has been obscured under a mountain of superfluous and vicious tittle-tattle.

J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood and based on a script by Dustin Lance Black, goes some way towards rehabilitation. It paints a more nuanced portrait of a complex and driven man. Still, it does not avoid the old canards, the wholly unproven contention that Hoover was a closet homosexual and cross-dresser.

That the old queen never came out is clearly the fault of his mother, a commanding performance by Judi Dench, who tells him that she’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son. A life of frustrated sexual tension lies ahead, touched on in Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his long-standing deputy at the FBI.

My criticism here is that Hoover’s sexual preferences, whatever they were, are not that material to the story of his life and times. His principle relationship was not with Tolson or with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his life-long secretary and confidant, but with the FBI, the organisation which he created virtually single-handed, or rather shaped into a tough, modern crime fighting force out of the old amateurish and bumbling Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department.

I admire Eastwood as a director; I hugely admired movies as diverse as Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby. But I have to say that there is a falling off with J. Edgar, signs that he is no longer quite in command of the medium as he once was. The pace is uneven and too much of the story is taken for granted, particularly over the kidnapping and death of the infant son of Charles Lindberg, the aviator, a defining moment in the history of crime in America.

Incidentally, speaking of aviators, DiCaprio seems to slightly reprise his depiction of Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Like Hughes his Hoover uses a handkerchief to clean his hands after he greets someone, another hint, presumably, of deep-seated personal neurosis.

On a more technical point it was a huge mistake to allow actors playing their young selves also to play their old selves, caked under ever more grotesque and ridiculous layers of rubber, to the point where they resemble puppets. This was an error avoided in The Iron Lady, where the young Margaret and the old Margaret are entirely different people. As J. Edgar cuts back and forward between the present and the past a considerable amount of time must have been spent in donning and discarding prosthetics!

It's a thoughtful film, though perhaps not thoughtful enough. Even so, setting the central performances to one side, it’s also a plodding and ponderous one, coming close to its subject, then skipping away. After some two hours I was no closer to understanding the real Hoover than I was at the outset.

The thing I found most frustrating was the failure to draw parallels between the Red Scare that swept America after the First World War, touched upon in detail, and more modern concerns and threats. The central question about Hoover’s career surely must the extent to which it is legitimate to subordinate civil liberties to national security in times of emergency, not his chaste and asexual personal affairs. Director and writer are to be commended for humanising the man, but, as another reviewer writes, they have in the process created a kind of bureaucratic version of Brokeback Mountain.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Nietzsche in America

In an article I wrote about the infamous prosecution of John T Scopes (Monkey Trial, 14 October, 2009), an American teacher put on trial in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee for teaching the Darwinian view of evolution, contrary to local law, I made the point that Clarence Darrow, Scope’s defence attorney, was an enthusiast for the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as the biology of Charles Darwin.

He was influenced here by H. L. Mencken, a leading American journalist. It was Mencken who introduced the German thinker to America in his 1908 book The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. His Nietzsche came as an angry Moses, a prophet armed, ready to knock away the cosy nostrums of American life. The strong only grow stronger by despising the weak and, so far as Mencken was concerned, by despising Christian morality. The Scopes trial was an ideal opportunity to pour scorn on “booboisie”, the backward ignoramuses of the Southern Bible Belt.

That’s one American perspective on Nietzsche. Interestingly a totally different one was to come from another participant in the Scopes trial - William Jennings Bryant, a former presidential candidate, who acted for the prosecution. The year before he appeared at the trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb – this time for the defence -, both accused on the kidnap and murder of a teenage boy, for no better reason than to prove that they were Supermen, beyond all conventional notions of good and evil. At least that was Darrow’s argument, claiming that they were acting under the influence of Beyond Good and Evil!

Bryant won both cases, clear in the first (at least insofar as his clients escaped the death penalty), pyrrhic in the second. But perhaps his more immediate victory was over Mencken and Nietzsche. His view certainly was more in harmony with American thought, insofar as Americans thought of Nietzsche at all. After all, this was a thinker contaminated by association with German militarism, then even more contaminated by association with the Nazis. What is the philosophy of an anti-Christian, antidemocratic madman doing in a culture like ours? Why Nietzsche? Why in America?

Actually these questions are not mine. They are posed by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen in American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, published by the University of Chicago Press at the end of last year. The answers she makes clear in the course of this lively, thoughtful and entertaining book. It begins with America and it ends with America; or, rather, it begins with American thought and ends with American thought. You see, when I was a teenager I was reading Nietzsche; when Nietzsche was a teenager he was reading Emerson!

It was in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson that Nietzsche found a “brother soul”, as he puts it. Here was a thinker free from all inherited burden, a believer in the sovereignty of the self, full of scepticism about traditional morality and received religion. “The most fertile author this century so far has been an American”, he declared. Nietzsche used Emerson not to get closer to him but to get closer to himself, as Ratner-Rosenhagen puts it. I would simply add that Americans, in their various ways, have used Nietzsche to get closer to themselves.

To use the cliché, here is a man and a thinker who has been all things to all people. His admirers did not just include obvious social Darwinists like Mencken, but Emma Goldman and others on the left, who saw Nietzsche’s attacks on democracy and religion as a way of arousing the masses from their lethargy.

He was also admired by Jack London, a socialist whose views on the ‘degeneracy’ of the herd are not so far removed from those of Mencken. There is also Margaret Sanger, the high-priestess of American birth control, who read Nietzsche selectively, attracted to his views on Christian sexual ethics, ignoring his obvious misogyny.

That’s just the thing about Nietzsche and America – he has been read selectively, something the author herself is mildly guilty of, a point I’ll come to a bit later. He has been sanitised, if you like, made acceptable to an American audience, a democratic audience; an audience where every man, and woman, has the capacity for endless self-discovery. It’s the Superman as the ordinary man!

It’s true that his reputation suffered – unjustly – by association with the Nazis, but after the war America was given a new reading. Here was a soulful voyager for the existential age, an interpretation advanced – irony of ironies – by Walter Kaufmann, a Jewish scholar and translator who escaped to the States from Nazi Germany in 1939.

The American Nietzsche, as Ratner-Rosenhagen makes clear in a dedicated chapter, is largely Kaufmann’s Nietzsche. I have to be frank and say it’s a slightly dishonest interpretation, more wholesome and less challenging than the raw original!

In some of the more bizarre readings I’m reminded of the character of Otto in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, who, when accused of being an ape, said that apes don’t read philosophy. “Yes they do, Otto”, came Wanda’s response, “They just don’t understand it.” How else is one to interpret the view of Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Movement, that Nietzsche thought “slave morality” was a good thing?!

One of my favourite chapters is devoted to the ‘fan mail’ sent by ordinary and unknown Americans and kept by Elizabeth, the philosopher’s Nazi-sympathising sister, a woman who did more to poison his legacy than any other individual. Some of theses missives are beyond eccentric. There is one letter of condolence sent after the philosopher’s death in 1900 by John I Bush of Duluth, Minnesota, who announced to Elizabeth that he was the Superman her brother had been looking for;

May you hereby have the consolation and delight to have lived long enough to know that the visions, prophecies, and hopes of your brother have been fulfilled to the very letter; for the author of this scribbling is the very man prognosticated in Zarathustra.

Bush, hmm; is there any connection here, I wonder?

Now, I said earlier that the author is slightly guilty over her own misreading. Her book, she claims, is less about Nietzsche than interpretations of Nietzsche. But if she begins with Emerson she also ends with Emerson by way of Harold Bloom, Stanley Cavell and Richard Rorty, all of whom have tamed Nietzsche to a degree, leaving out his more anti-democratic sentiments.

Yes, it’s Nietzsche by way of Emerson, a transcendentalist, free of the sarcasm and aggression so evident in his manner of thought and mode of expression. This is a philosopher for all seasons, a philosopher for an American season. It is perhaps a misreading, but who cares. I’m sure Nietzsche, the greatest of all of the great iconoclasts, would have loved it, as much as I loved this book, as much as I admire a country and a people who are continually striving for fresh and novel interpretations. It’s the very thing that keeps thought alive.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Restraint of Appeals

Following my recent piece on the European Court of Human Right’s ruling that England should be a refuge for the huddled masses of foreign terrorist, yearning to breathe havoc, I read Following in Henry’s Footsteps?, a thought-provoking article by Stephen Cooper in the January issue of History Today.

We, as a nation, are the plaything of a supra-national power, a new Roman conglomerate, if you will. But this is not unique in our history; we have been here before, subject to the decrees and laws of an old Roman conglomerate.

David Cameron has talked in general terms about the repatriation of powers from Europe. Henry VIII, suffering from a little local marriage difficulty, did not just talk; he acted. He wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his first queen, but in such matters the Vatican acted as the Supreme Court. Pope Clement VII was not inclined to go along with the royal wishes; he was not ‘simpatico to the direction of change’, as Tony Blair would doubtless express the point.

So, with the aid of Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister, the king cut the umbilical cord, the age-old link between the English and the Universal Church. He repatriated all legal powers to England in the 1533 Act of Restraint of Appeals. This had the effect of ending all appeals to Rome, allowing matters to be settled on the spot, declaring to the world that England was an empire, not subject to the rule of a foreign princes or courts. How wonderful!

The thing is, you see, up to that point England effectively had two legal systems; it had ever since the Norman Conquest. There was the common law of the land and there was canon law, the law of the Church. Two sets of laws meant two sets of courts, with the ultimate arbiter in all matters affecting canon law being the Vatican. This included all family law, issues pertaining to wills and, of course, marriage. This was the basis of Papal power in England, which by the early middle ages was considerable.

Papal interference got so bad that, in a deeply anti-clerical mood, Parliament enacted the Statute of Provisors and Praemunire in the reign of Edward III, which attempted to curb papal interference. But the two systems still remained in place until Henry’s marriage problems saw not just a break with the Roman Church but an amalgamation of law, or, if you prefer, the repatriation of law.

The Act of Restraint of Appeals had great significance in English history, far beyond offering Henry, as head on an independent English Church, a way of ending the Roman logjam. It was a declaration of political sovereignty, an Act of Parliament rather than a royal proclamation.

The danger in this usurpation of canon powers is that Rome would place the country under an interdict, as it had in the time of Innocent III, the great medieval pontiff, which put a rebellious King John firmly in his place – the papal pocket. To prevent this, the Act allowed for imprisonment of any priest who refused to perform the sacraments. More than that, the provisions of the fourteenth century Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire was brought to bear, threatening those who invoked the authority of the Pope with confiscation of property.

The Act was so successful that even during the Catholic reaction of Henry’s daughter, Mary, it was never repealed. For all her orthodoxy Mary remained Supreme Head of the Church, effectively the Pope in England. There were no more appeals to the Papal Curia, no more foreign laws.

If only we could have a new of repatriation, an Act of Restraint of Foreign Legal Stupidity, one that would serve the same purpose, one that would end the diktats of the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights.

We were warned, but too few were prepared to listen, warned of the approaching flood of alien law, set to drown our own inherited traditions. In 1975 the people in this country were deceived, deliberately so. They thought they were voting for an economic union, but the small print contained so much more.

The year before the referendum on membership of what was then the European Economic Community, Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls, in Bulmer v Bollinger observed –“When it comes to matters with a European element the Treaty is like an incoming tide. It flows into estuaries and up the rivers. It cannot be held back.”

History has been reversed. We are far more in thrall to the new Roman power than we ever were to the old. How I admire the audacity of Bluff King Hal. Henry! Thou should be living at this hour: England hath need of thee.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Some Animals are More Equal than Others

Earlier this month the African National Congress, the ANC, celebrated the hundredth anniversary of its foundation. This is the party of Nelson Mandela, terrorist come secular saint, that rules South Africa, the wonderful ‘rainbow nation’…or a sad cesspit of corruption.

The latter is the view of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the country’s other secular saint, who once observed that the ANC had stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on board. Actually he may have underestimated the problem, at least according to the writer Zakes Mda, who has said that the new South Africa is overtaking Nigeria in patronage and cronyism.

The ANC has been sadly misrepresented. In the good old bad old days of apartheid it was taken to be the face of black South Africa. In reality it was only ever the face of a self-interested and self-serving minority, one that hijacked a cause to advance its own ends. The old apartheid state was bad; the new rainbow state headed by Jacob Zuma, its corrupt, polygamous and laughable president, is not really that much better.

In some ways South Africa is a little like post-communist Russia, a place where a few well-placed individuals established a monopoly over the good things in life. It was a case of power not to the people but power to themselves. Almost two years ago I wrote an article in which I made the following points;

Socialism or capitalism, it really makes no difference, because the principal beneficiaries will always be the ANC nomenklatura. Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, has accused Zuma and the ANC of corruption and the abuse of power. It’s easy to see why when some seventy million rand has been spent on perks; on grace-and-favour homes for cabinet ministers wives and families, and of course cars and more cars, the kind of gas-guzzling toys African leaders love.

Zille, the conscience of the nation, has faced death threats, been called a “filthy whore” and “an exponent of a new apartheid” for her outspokenness. But look beyond the villas of the ANC cadres, look beyond the houses and the cars, and one might easily conclude that there is no need for a new apartheid, for the simple reason that the old apartheid is still very much in place; that the new bosses look very much like the old bosses, except for the colour of their skin; that oppression and poverty feel like oppression and poverty no matter if the ruler is white or black. In many places people still live in squalid townships where the government fails to deliver on the most basic services, including clean water, sanitation and power. Protesters have been dispersed by riot squads using rubber bullets.

Under apartheid the black majority were second class citizens. They are still second class citizens. To deflect them from the miserable condition of their lives a scapegoat has been found, and the scapegoat is the vulnerable white minority, repeatedly blamed for all of the country’s problems by the black racist Julius Malema, onetime head of the ANC’s youth wing, a man who takes Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as a model. Yes, indeed; Robert Mugabe, who transformed one of the richest nations in Africa from a breadbasket into a basket case.

Richard Dowden wrote in the Spectator that the new South Africa is an archipelago of fortified islands of luxury in a sea of poverty. To be more precise, it is a fortified sea of black luxury amidst a sea of black poverty.

The ANC has become what it always was, not a party for the people but a party for itself, an elite determined to protect its own interests. In November of last year the nation’s parliament was told by Willie Hofmeyr, head of the Special Investigative Unit, that some five to seven billion dollars a year was being lost in corruption, negligence and incompetence in the public service. Not long after he was sacked.

Fearful of further exposure the government drew up the Protection of State Information Bill, a measure which effectively treats any investigation of official activity as spying, carrying a possible twenty-five year jail sentence.

Here we are eighteen years after the ANC came to power and South Africa has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The poor may be poor, miserably poor, but at least they have one comfort in their bleak lives – they no longer suffer from oppressive white rule. But, alas, the pigs are in the trough. All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.

Monday 23 January 2012

Independence for England!

In 1290, following the death of Margaret the Maid of Norway, the Scottish throne fell vacant. With no generally acceptable candidate the Scots nobility turned to Edward I as an arbiter. Edward arbitrated alright, but at a cost. Scotland got its king, John Balliol, only to lose its freedom. As part of the deal Edward insisted that all appeals against the judgements of Scottish royal courts be reserved to his person, undermining the very thing that defines a sovereign state – the right to determine its own legal affairs.

England now finds itself in the same position; the country has lost the right over its legal affairs; the country has effectively lost its sovereignty and its independence. Last week the European Court of Human Rights decreed that the government cannot deport Abu Quatada, a notorious terrorist and hate preacher, a man once described as Osama Bin Laden’s ambassador in Europe, to his native Jordan, where he is wanted for conspiring to carry out bombings. The suspicion is, you see, that he will not get a ‘fair trial.’

So we have the trial instead, the threat of this appalling individual living free in our midst. At present he is being held in Long Lartin, a high security jail, but, if the judgement is allowed to stand, he could be released in three months, to join his wife and five children, all supported at the expense of the tax payer, and that expense so far has amounted to more than a million pounds.

These foreign judges, people with an outlook wholly alien to our traditions, accept assurances that Qatada will not be ill-treated in Jordan. But that’s not enough, oh, no; for some of the evidence to be used against him may, I say, may, have come from torture. This after the Law Lords in our own High Court of Parliament ruled that there was no proof that any of the evidence against Qatada had been obtained by torture.

So, on a supposition, we are left with the reality, a perpetual threat, one who will have to be monitored continuously at yet more astronomic expense. Can things, I ask myself, get any crazier? Yes, with these foreigners undermining our government, our parliament and the highest court in the land they can and they will.

In 1296, the Scots, having had enough of Edward’s legalistic tyranny, threw off the shackles and began a prolonged struggle for national independence, this with a fraction of the provocation we have suffered at the hands of Europe. It’s time England had its own war of independence, to begin with a referendum on membership of the European Union, an organisation and a tyranny of which I, for one, am heartily sick.

Sunday 22 January 2012

The Plague

There are two movies which gave me some limited understanding, like an archaeological evaluation, of the tragic modern history of Algeria – The Battle for Algiers and Of Gods and Men.

On the face of it they are about two completely unconnected events. The first deals with an episode in the Algerian War of Independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962; the second with an incident in 1996, when a small community of French Cistercian monks, living in a monastery in the Atlas Mountains, were kidnapped and murdered, allegedly by mujahedeen guerrillas, fighting a prolonged and brutal war with the government.

The connection lies at a deeper level; it lies in the nature of French colonialism in Algeria and the reaction of the local people; it lies in the nature of the resistance movements created in the drive for national liberation; it lies in the nature of a particularly brutal war that, so far as France was concerned, at lest until fairly recently, wasn’t a war at all; in lies in forms of uncompromising extremism, in torture and murder as legitimate political techniques; it lies most particularly in the pursuit of power, to he seized and held at all costs.

In Algeria: France’s Undeclared War Professor Martin Evans, who has previously published on Algerian history, weaves the various threads together. It’s an exhaustive piece of work, looking deep into the prehistory of a conflict that stands apart from Africa’s other wars of liberation in the intensity of its brutality. It also draws attention to its lasting significance, an unhappy postscript.

For a long time the Algerian conflict, like Vichy and war-time collaboration in general, was a particularly sensitive area in French national consciousness, visited at some peril. How could it not be, given that over a million settlers, the so-called Pieds-Noirs, were obliged to resettle in metropolitan France after Algeria achieved independence in 1962? Full of bitterness and resentment against the right-wing government of General De Gaulle, they went even further to the right, forming an active constituency that would eventually become the backbone of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front.

That’s perhaps the central paradox of France’s Algerian conflict: it was started by the left and ended by the right. In 1956 Guy Mollet, head of the Socialist-led Republican Front government, ordered the army to begin ‘pacification’ operations against Algerian nationalists. Although himself opposed to colonialism on principle, he had a duty, as he saw it, to defend the civilising mission of the Fourth Republic against the fanatical and barbarous forms of Algerian nationalism. As so often the defence of civilization descended into the forms of barbarism allegedly being fought against.

Evans writes that Algeria was one of the longest and most difficult episodes in the whole decolonisation process. There is one simple reason for this: officially it wasn’t a colony at all; it was part of metropolitan France - it had been since the 1880s -, no different from Brittany or Normandy. It was an illusion, of course, a legalistic fiction, but one with particularly bloody consequences.

The civilising mission was always barbarous. From the outset in 1830 the French intrusion into what was then an Ottoman province was marked by savagery. This was a genocidal war, one of partial ethnic cleansing, which might usefully be compared with the American expansion in the West at the expense of the indigenous peoples. It is estimated that by the mid-1850s Algeria had lost almost half of its pre-colonial population of some four million people. That’s when the settlement was planted, with roots so deep that they could only be pulled up in extreme violence.

The difference between the French and American example is that there were never enough settlers; that strong as they were the native Algerians were stronger. Fighting a war against history and demography, the French settlers, unlike the American colonialists, could never go their own way, which meant that France could not go its own way either without difficulty; without the death of one republic and the birth of another.

The French were brutal, certainly but, as Evans shows, the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), their leading opponent, were just as brutal, not just towards the colonialists but towards rival nationalist movements, applying savage cruelty even to deviationists within their own ranks. Liberation for them was about achieving power, to be held at all costs, which was to lead eventually to their own ‘pacification’ campaign against the Islamists in the 1990s.

The French mission was always hopeless. It gave rise to the ‘long hatred’, one of the key themes, as the author argues, that led to the revolt of 1 November, 1954, a new plague, that Albert Camus, author of The Plague and himself a Pied-Noir, had not anticipated.

There had been a prologue several years before in eastern Algeria, when a hundred Pieds-Noirs were killed in violent demonstrations, their corpses afterwards horribly mutilated. In wholly disproportionate acts of retaliation, the French slaughtered thousands, destroying many villages. “Nothing could be the same again,” Evans writes, “Rural Algeria had confronted European Algeria, producing a society more polarised than ever.”

The war caused thousands of lives and has left an unresolved legacy that exists so far as today; in Algeria, where the FLN ensures that there is no end to the Arab Winter; in France, where the 2005 riots by alienated migrants showed that the country still suffers from the ‘Algeria syndrome.’ For De Gaulle Algeria was a millstone around the neck of France. It still is.

Evans is to be congratulated on splendid piece of research, lucid, scholarly and balanced. He unfolds a tale whose lightest word harrows up the soul. Once again the lesson of history is that we learn nothing from history, otherwise we would not have had other ‘civilising’ missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, other plagues.

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise

Tuesday 17 January 2012

American Disease

When I take timeout I have to climb a mountain of emails on my return. It takes a while to catch up and to respond. But on this occasion there was one that quickly caught my attention and spurred my intellect.

Sent by a friend (thanks, Nobby!) who shares my general political outlook, it was a link to a YouTube video, a documentary about the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and the evolution of political correctness, with particular regard to the United States.

In The World Crisis, his book about the causes and course of the First World War, Winston Churchill, in a particularly memorable simile, wrote that the Germans transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia. Well, cultural Marxism and political correctness, its most toxic cell, were similarly transported like a plague bacillus from Germany to the United States.

Interested? I bet you are! I’ll make things a little bit clearer further on but first a word or two about the context, the medium, if you like, carrying the message. The presenter is William S. Lind, the former Director of the Centre for Cultural Conservatism, which doubtless means that some will dismiss the thesis without further consideration. That’s a pity, really, for there is real meat here, a thread into the labyrinth of the present American malaise.

The argument itself is simple enough: that Marxism in its classic form was a failure because the working class did not perform the walk-on part allotted to it in a turgid drama that went by the name of Historical Materialism. But the play did not die. Instead it was rewritten as a cultural critique of Western society and civilization as a whole.

The Institute for Social Research was set up in Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany in 1924. Here a new hybrid was created as if on the island of Doctor Moreau, a melding of Marx and Freud. The basic theme here was that everyone was repressed by capitalism, politically and sexually, if only they knew it, if only they weren’t so beset by ‘false consciousness.’ With the ascent of the Nazis, a particularly virulent form of false consciousness, the School relocated in America, where its ideas were to have the greatest impact of all.

The documentary did not really tell me anything that I did not already know, either about cultural Marxism, the Frankfurt School or the corrosive effects of political correctness in general. In reviewing Anthony Browne’s The Retreat of Reason, which examines the creature in a British context, I wrote;

The author identifies what might be referred to as the pre-history of PC. Although Marxism failed in both political and economic terms it made significant advances in the cultural arena, through universities and opinion-forming bodies, to the point where ordinary debate was contaminated by a new orthodoxy, one which amplified the perceived injustices done to minorities, even so far as silencing debate over uncomfortable issues.

The documentary therefore did not come as a revelation but it helped put things into a slightly sharper perspective, particularly in an American setting, where PC is overwhelming FC – factual correctness -, where, supported by a repressive totalitarian mindset, it has advanced to the point where liberty and free speech, those core American values, are in real danger.

The Frankfurters were quick to make an impact in the States, especially after the publication of Theodor Adorno’s book The Authoritarian Personality. In this fascism was freed from a specific set of historical and political causes. Instead it found a new home in the human psyche, in the psyche of the American people at large, who, according to Adorno, possess many of the traits associated with fascism. In other words, the supporters of traditional American culture and values are psychologically unbalanced, prone to the worst forms of sexual repression and authoritarianism.

So here, in short, we have what was to become the ideology of the counter-culture. Here we have, paradoxically, a new orthodoxy taking shape, which allowed all those who took a contrary view to be dismissed as ‘fascists’, people in need of analysis or ‘sensitivity training.’ Herbert Marcuse, who was to be the most influential of all the Frankfurters, added to the mix in Eros and Civilization, which condemned all established sexual norms, calling instead for ‘polymorphic perversity.’

While the old-fashioned working class, too wedded to the material benefits of capitalism, had been abandoned, a new carrier of Utopia was alighted on in the 1960s - the Politically Correct Coalition, a variety of fashionable causes and movements, which stormed campuses across America, in the process creating a new narrative, a new hegemony, one which continues to dominate contemporary discussion.

Know it or not, the carriers of the counter-culture, are under the direct influence of the Frankfurters, particularly Marcuse, not just in embracing ‘polymorphic perversity’ but in cudgelling any view different from their own. Free American society, Marcuse argued, was actually a deception. Instead he argued for something he termed ‘liberating tolerance’, another paradox, for the tolerance only extends to the politically acceptable.

It was tolerance for all views coming from the left; intolerance for all views coming from the right. While political Marxism killed free speech in Russia, cultural Marxism is killing free speech in America, rather ironic, don’t you think? That’s the legacy of Frankfurt; that’s the effect of a plague bacillus that continues on its course.

Monday 16 January 2012

¡A mí la Legión!

The Spanish Civil War is more surrounded by a fog of myth and misconception than any other single event in history. For the political left it has the aura of a crusade, to me a rather delicious irony.

Here, at last, so the narrative went, the working class were making a stand against the onward march of Anti-Christ. Many of the benighted individuals who volunteered to fight in the communist International Brigades went without the first clue of the realities on the ground, without the first clue about Spain or Spanish history. They went at the behest of an even greater tyranny, a tyranny more ruthless towards its ‘friends’ than its enemies, as many were to discover during the Barcelona May Days of 1937, so memorably described by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia.

There were other volunteers, people who are not part of the martyrology because they chose the ‘wrong’ side; they chose to fight for Franco. I have in mind one particular individual, an Englishman by the name of Peter Kemp.

There is something wonderfully romantic about Kemp, something freebooting and uniquely English. He falls so easily into a buccaneering tradition, along with the likes of Sir Francis Drake and Lawrence of Arabia. Soldier, writer, adventurer, Kemp, was born in August 1915 in Bombay, where his father was a judge. Educated at Wellington School and Trinity College, Cambridge, he started to read for the Bar when the Spanish Civil War began in 1936.

Already alarmed by the menace of communism, Kemp, a High Anglican and self-styled Tory Radical, set off on the right direction, while Orwell, Auden, Spender, Hemingway and so many others set off on the left! In Spain he joined the Carlists, a royalist and legitimist faction within the Nationalist army, about as far removed from contemporary notions of fascism as is possible to imagine. The red-beret of the Requetés, the Carlist militia, a movement that harmonises so well with my own romantic and royalist vision, was just as important in the Nationalist camp as the blue shirt of the Falange.

Later he transferred to the Spanish Foreign Legion, where he rose to command a platoon, a unique distinction for a foreigner. He saw action on the Madrid front, in the Bilbao sector and in the great offensive of 1938 which drove the Republicans out of the Aragon area. Wounded several times, he stayed on duty until a mortar bomb broke his jaw that same year. Then Franco personally approved a long convalescent leave back in England. By the time he recovered the war was over.

His subsequent career was just as varied and distinctive. No fascist sympathiser, in the Second World War he served with distinction in the newly-formed Special Operations Executive, taking part in cross-Channel commando raids. In the Balkans he saw operations in Albania and carried out SOE missions in southern Poland. With the war in Europe coming to an end, he transferred to the Far East, helping to supply arms to French troops in Indochina, where they were fighting the Japanese, on the one hand, and the communist Viet-Minh, on the other.

Later still he was in Hungary during the anti-communist uprising of 1956, when he helped some students to escape into Austria from the advancing Russian forces.

In 1957 Kemp published Mine Were of Trouble, an autobiography covering his time in Spain. In the main this is an account of his military adventures, with little in the way of political apologetics. To the end of his life, though, he maintained that his cause was the just one, that communism was a far greater danger to Spanish civilization than the Nationalist right, far more conservative than fascist.

He also makes the unanswerable point that while Franco accepted Italian and German aid he never allowed them to direct his war in the way that the Republicans allowed the Russians to direct theirs, even importing the NKVD, the murderous Soviet security service, which used the opportunity to extend the Great Purge to Spain.

Kemp died in October 1993, having lived long enough to see the end of communism in Europe, the end of a struggle in which he, at the outset, had played a small but noble part. ¡A mí la Legión!

Sunday 15 January 2012

Bishops and Toads

James Delingpole is one of my favourite journalists. He was in great form last month in the Telegraph, aiming several well-placed shots at the risible Dr Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London and the third most senior clergyman in the Church of England.

Apparently the benighted bish visited the Occupy protestors on Christmas Day, handing out a box of chocolates in his munificence. These are people whose dirty presence (they certainly look dirty to me) has disfigured Saint Paul’s Cathedral for several weeks now, the worst kind of rent-a-mob lowlifes in their ugly little tents, like some kind of gypsy encampment.

The sooner they are off the better, one would have thought; the better for London, the better for Saint Paul’s and the better for the Church. But, no; Chartres has promised them a permanent memorial. With the chocolate came some saccharine: “The canons have been very imaginative and consulting with the protestors about how to leave a legacy of the protests. We are looking for honouring what has been said when the camp moves on.”

Is he married, I wonder? He reminds me of Bishop Thomas Proudie from Barchester Towers, the novel of nineteenth century clerical doings by Anthony Trollope. If so, he really should have a wife as indomitable as Mrs Proudie to put him in place, to draw him away from his embarrassing public absurdities.

Dear James might serve in the role, judging on the basis of his remarks, direct and to the point;

What’s particularly depressing about this episode is that Chartres is supposedly one of the Church’s more traditional senior clerics. If this is the line the Church’s reactionary old school is taking, imagine what insanities its more progressive elements are yearning to impose on us. Presumably they won’t really feel that justice has been done until St Paul’s has been razed to the ground and replaced by a permanent Anti-Capitalist Peace Camp.

Actually, I’m going to change gear completely here. I almost never read the comments that follow articles, written by so many jackals following a lion, petty, snarling and vicious. On this occasion I’m glad I did because there were truly excellent remarks by someone posting as Tayles. His point was quite simple, that the leftists are not opposing capitalist society as it really exists, but a fictionalised version that forms part of a broader narrative;

According to this narrative, the poor and the disadvantaged are victims of oppression and prejudice by the rich and powerful. Capitalism is the economic expression of this travesty, allowing the rich to hoard wealth at the expense of everyone else, who must make do with whatever crumbs the rich deign to brush from their table.

As he quite righty says this is rubbish. I would only add that it’s complete rubbish. Capitalism, unlike socialism, isn’t even a system; it’s freedom, it’s what happens when people are left to their own devices. Condemn economic liberty then one condemns personal liberty.

But the left-wing narrative, the narrative embraced by the Protest crowd, is far more satisfying for some, Tayles proceeds, portraying as a ‘mistake’ the kind of society that evolves when people are free to express their wants and needs. It condemns success as much as pardons failure, all gains, of course, being ill-gotten.

It’s a narrative that would turn the things upside down, granting wealth and power to those who, by their natural incapacity, would be denied these things. It creates, above all, a paradigm of good versus evil: “If you are a clergyman, a control freak, a metropolitan poser, an over-entitled layabout, or an envious toad, the left-wing narrative holds considerable appeal.”

Envious toads – how I love that! Returning to the Bishop I don’t think he envies very much at all; he’s just a trendy doing the trendy thing. Sadly the trendier the C of E gets the less relevant it becomes, less relevant to those who care, and irrelevant to those who don’t, like the happy campers.

However I’m feeling charitable enough in this New Year to offer Chartres and the canons suggestions for the prospective permanent protest memorial. I think a mountain of Starbuck cups might serve, cast in bronze, or an unmade tent in the style of Tracey Emin. I would favour the latter. Perhaps talentless Tracey might even be commissioned for the project? The Bishop might even be charitable enough to extend the principle of memorial to embrace the summer riots. A statue of a hoodie carrying away a TV would be good, a real anti-capitalist statement.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Iron in the Soul

There is one compelling reason to see The Iron Lady – Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher. This is not acting; it’s almost as if an uncanny doppelganger has come to life, a performance which seems to clone the real-life Thatcher; her speech patterns, her mannerisms, her movements, her gestures; a fine observation of the finest details. This really is iron. The movie itself, though, is a little more like wood.

I have no hesitation at all in saying that Margaret Thatcher only stands comparison with Oliver Cromwell as the greatest commoner in British history. When people like Ted Heath, her immediate predecessor as leader of the Conservative Party, and John Major, her immediate successor, are long forgotten, her legacy will continue to inspire and divide. She will continue to be loved and hated: a Roundhead for the Cavaliers, a Cavalier for the Roundheads; there can be no indifference here.

Given that the subject is still alive, The Iron Lady, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, was always going to be a controversial film, all the more controversial because there is a strong focus on the alleged effects of Baroness Thatcher’s dementia. As a plotting device it works, at least up to a point, focusing in and out of the key events in her remarkable life. But the state of her mental health takes far, far too much time, crowding out so much of greater significance.

It’s a sympathetic portrait, certainly; it humanises a woman that so many have demonised, but it really casts her achievements somewhat into the shadows. The highlights are all there but presented in a rather shallow, episodic fashion, sung out, if you like, as political karaoke, appropriate enough, as Lloyd’s only other movie was the smash hit Mamma Mia.

The narrative is also rather confusing, events not coming in sequence. Moreover, Thatcher’s observation that a woman would never be Prime Minister in her lifetime was made in 1970, not after she became leader of the Conservative Party, when it stood to reason that a woman was likely to become Prime Minister if she managed to win a general election!

In so many ways The Iron Lady is more of a personal odyssey, the Journey of the Grocer’s Daughter, from hopeful dawn to sad twilight. As a biopic it simply does not stand comparison with Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which managed to humanise another controversial figure without skimping on the political substance. It’s also too ambitious in scope, far less focused than The Queen.

As a movie it’s really more about aging and loss than anything else, and it might be best appreciated on that level. It managed to beguile and infuriate me by turns; beguile because of the sympathetic intimacy; infuriate because I wanted so much more, wanted to understand just what motivated her to act and believe as she did. I simply got no proper sense of the real Thatcher, the woman within the politician, the politician within the woman.

The play on Alzheimer’s reminded me of Iris, the 2001 biopic on the life of the writer Iris Murdoch, all the more so as Jim Broadbent reprises his role as supportive partner in the midst of decline. In The Iron Lady he is there as Denis, Baroness Thatcher’s husband, except that he is not there at all, merely a ghostly companion in her own demented mind, the only person with whom she continues to share intimacies. Broadbent’s performance is dryly amusing, though perhaps a little too much of the amiable buffoon.

The flashbacks take us to Grantham and the early days of then Margaret Roberts, full of wide-eyed admiration for Alfred (Iain Glen), her grocer-come-politician father, a living representative of the kind of solid, unassuming virtues that made England the greatest nation of shopkeepers in history. Young Margaret is played by Alexandra Roach, another wonderful performance, second only to that of Streep. In what I thought the best scene in the movie we see her from above, freshly elected to Parliament in 1959, a flash of young and feminine blue in the midst of middle-aged masculine grey.

There are two other performances I would flag up, that of Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe, Baroness Thatcher’s onetime cabinet colleague and eventual political assassin, and Olivia Colman, who plays her daughter Carol with affection and devotion, receiving little in return from a mother who is too self-absorbed, a mother who clearly prefers Mark, her distant, and absent, son.

Still, with all of the wooden inadequacies, I came away from The Iron Lady with an even greater sense of affection for the best British peace-time Prime Minister; a woman who was tried time and again and not found wanting; a woman who had the guts and determination to see things through; a woman who had the courage to tackle fascist thugs, trade union bullies and European bureaucrats - enemies without and within - when nobody else did, certainly not the dead sheep and appeasers with whom she was obliged to share office. Her betrayal in the end was the shabbiest act in Conservative Party history, a political assassination from which it has taken two decades to recover.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

A Party for All Seasons

“There is properly no history; only biography,” so wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Robin Harris in The Conservatives: A History has remained true to this dictum, writing what is in effect a biography of the Conservative Party. Thomas Carlyle would have approved, inasmuch as it is an account of the great, and not so great, who have made their mark on one of the most remarkable and enduring political associations in history.

It’s a commendable piece of work, at once scholarly detached and polemically engaged, written by a man who is better qualified than most for the task, both as a historian and as a political insider. The author of an elegant biography of the French statesman Talleyrand, Dr Harris is a former Director of the Conservative Research Department, during which time he acted as Margaret Thatcher’s special adviser and speech writer. He is presently writing a biography of the former Prime Minister, to be published after her death.

It’s a slippery beast, the Conservative Party, almost impossible to define in terms of a core philosophy, anything beyond conservatism, that is, a reverence for established tradition and a suspicion of novelty. Disraeli famously said that England does not love coalitions but the Tories themselves are a kind of coalition of different interests, with the pattern shifting and changing over time. The truly remarkable thing is that what began as an alliance of rural aristocrats, ranged behind the crown, ended as party of the urban middle-classes; from Bolingbroke to Thatcher in several remarkable steps!

The Tory Party is a chameleon; it always has been, paradoxically committed to the way things are yet capable of quite revolutionary adaptations, unlike its great rival the Whigs, once the strongest contenders for the future, now cast well into the past. This is not because it represents some noble and enduring principle, no; it’s simply because it is a pragmatic force built for one thing and one thing alone – to win elections.

In his introduction Harris quotes from the resignation letter of James Purnell, a former Work and Pensions Secretary, sent to Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, full of all sorts of risible and mawkish sentiments in reverence of the Labour Party – “We both love the Labour Party...We know we owe it everything and it owes us nothing.” Harris’ comment on this is telling;

No Conservative politician at any stage of the party's history would have written such a letter. No one has ever pretended to "love" the Conservative Party. It is doubtful that even the most sentimental backbench MP would have claimed to "owe" the party "everything". Any serious Tory figure adopting such a pose would incur immediate ridicule. The Conservative Party exists, has always existed and can only exist to acquire and exercise power, albeit on a particular set of terms. It does not exist to be loved, hated or even respected. It is no better or worse than the people who combine to make it up. It is an institution with a purpose, not an organism with a soul.

Harris traces the origins of this ‘institution with a purpose’ back to the great constitutional and religious struggles of the seventeenth century, coming to a head in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Tories were the High Church Party, the party of insiders which, time and again, adopted outsiders as mentors and guides. Evolution and adaptation, that’s the key to a party that was Tory and then Conservative and then Unionist and then Conservative again.

The intellectual foundation of the modern party was laid, irony of ironies, by Edmund Burke, an Irishman, a Catholic-sympathiser and a Whig! Burke reacted against the horrors that followed in the wake of the French Revolution. So, too, from the ministry of Pitt the Younger onwards, did the Tories, reacting against the forms of abstract thought and utopian politics that had brought it on.

But reacting did not invariably mean reaction; it meant embracing change when change was unavoidable, often turning it to conservative ends. After all, it was the Tories, the High Church Party, who introduced Catholic emancipation; it was the Tories, the Party of the Landed Interest, who repealed the Corn Laws. It was the Tories who began by opposing extensions to the franchise only to extend it right down to the urban working classes. In Salisbury, the pessimistic aristocrat who hated the idea of democracy, they had a leader who created ‘villa Conservatism’, making the party a home for the new middle classes, a process from which so much electoral benefit was to be drawn in the course of the following century.

It was the Conservatives, the religiously orthodox, who were so brilliantly led by a converted Jew. It was the Conservatives, outwardly the most ‘sexist’ of all parties, who were to be the first to elect a woman as leader, a woman who went on to become the country’s most revolutionary Prime Minster. Paradox, hard upon irony, hard upon paradox – that’s the story of the Tories.

Harris writes with such brilliant insight. His is a story of personalities, each shaping the party in their own image. I’ve long taken the view that Disraeli’s vicious attacks on Sir Robert Peel after the repeal of the Corn Laws was born of ambition rather than principle, but Harris persuasively argued that Peel had been a bad leader, too remote from his party. To make one major change of direction without consultation – that over Catholic Emancipation - , is a misfortune; to make a second one – that over the Corn Laws – looks like carelessness. The comparison here is surely with Ted Heath, another remote and ill-omened leader.

The author has penetrating things to say about all of the party’s leaders. He’s particularly good on Disraeli, an organisational and political genius whose credentials as a reformer have been hugely exaggerated by posterity. His overriding concern, rather, was for the monarchy, the landed interest and national prestige. His zeal was for the greatness of England, as Salisbury, his successor as party leader, put it in a posthumous tribute.

Disraeli along with Salisbury, the longest serving Tory Premier, and Margaret Thatcher constitutes the author’s triumvirate of greats, a contention with which I have no argument. Winston Churchill, I also agree, is a case sui generis, a political maverick, whose reputation was surely only saved by Hitler! Party meant little to him, even less in the context of his wartime Cabinet, and on so many issues he was just as ‘unsound’ as Lord Randolph, his brilliant but mercurial father, too full of greatness, or a perception of greatness, for his own good.

I also agree with his lows, particularly his assessment of Harold Macmillan, the grossly overrated ‘Supermac’, whose irresponsible economic and social policies were to create a poisonous legacy for the party and the country. Disraeli famously said of Peel that he caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes. The same might be said of Macmillan, only in his case the clothes were those of the Labour Party. Harris writes of him;

By some definitions, and by analogy with Disraeli, he could just about count as a Tory. But, by no known definition was he philosophically speaking a conservative. This, through his legacy to the Conservative Party, was a problem – nor necessarily one that is extinct.


I love the author’s style, his liberal peppering of waspish and mordant wit. Some barbs made me giggle, particularly that delivered at Arthur Balfour, who succeeded Salisbury, his uncle, as party leader and Prime Minister. Balfour said that the Carlton Club, one of the well-springs of modern Conservatism, was a ‘beastly’ place, infested with political bores. Harris writes “When Balfour, or any other Conservative leader, lost the bores, he lost the party.” Similarly his verdict on Stanley Baldwin, the inter-war face of what I think of as Ostrich Conservatism, is absolutely spot on;

Baldwin won huge majorities. He just did not know what to do with them. At a deeper level, undoubtedly he reflected the mood of the times. This, in fact, was the problem. He reflected it too well. In Baldwin the country got what it wanted and, arguably, to stray into more disputed territory, it got what it deserved. But it did not get what it needed.

I wrote at the outset that The Conservatives is both a work of scholarly detachment and polemical engagement, the polemical element becoming ever more obvious as we move towards the present day. The final chapter is headed Cameron’s Party?, with a question mark that does not speak so much as shout! History’s judgement on David Cameron is indeed open – is he Peel or is he Heath or is he still the ‘heir to Blair’? We shall see.

The author is generally fair (his brickbats are thrown elsewhere), though I share his scepticism over the present modernising project, over what John O’Sullivan, writing in the National Review and elsewhere, describes as the “Dianification of Toryism”, promoting all sorts of trendy causes that no ordinary Tory voter gives a damn about. Conservatives will never win elections by pretending to be liberals.

The final paragraph of the final chapter simply soars;

Disraeli, the Jewish outsider who championed traditional institutions, Salisbury, the fastidious aristocrat who won over the bourgeoisie, and Thatcher, the woman who crushed the unions, the Argentinean Junta and most of the Cabinet, and restored the economy to health, are all, in their different ways, completely surprising. It matters to the country that the Conservative Party should retain its capacity to produce surprises, and so harness the eccentric, distinctive qualities of British national greatness.

This is an entertaining, engaging and lively book with so many highs. That only makes the occasional lows all the more irritating. For example, Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, the fifth Marquis of Landsdowne, who succeeded Salisbury as Foreign Secretary in 1900 (hitherto he had held this post in conjunction with that of Prime Minister), is never properly introduced, with the result that the index, presumably compiled by someone other than the author, conflates him with his grandfather, the third Marquis, a leading Whig politician.

Similarly, when Salisbury resigned from the premiership in July 1902 the author writes that “the Queen took Salisbury’s advice and asked his nephew [Balfour] to head the government.” Can this be Alexandra, wife of Edward VII and queen consort? Edward was indisposed at the time, ill in the aftermath of peritonitis, so I suppose it might have been Alexandra, though I wasn’t aware that consorts had that constitutional authority. It certainly can’t be Victoria, the only other Queen referred to up to this point, who died over a year before!

Once again this is me reading with the eye of an academic, ever attentive to detail, no matter how petty. Set against the overall value of a book that is bound to serve as a standard modern introduction to the history of the Conservative Party it’s of little substance, mole hills beside a mountain.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Black Mediocrity

I see Diane Abbott, the Shadow Minister for Public Health, is in trouble again, shooting off her mouth. She’s part of the Labour Party front bench and, as I say, the Shadow…oh, wait a minute, I think that should be Black Minister for Health, out of the shadows! Yes, she’s Black, the caps used deliberately here, for she takes pains to play her race card, something she does repeatedly as an all round mouth and professional Black woman. (Italics give a spot of added emphasis, just in case the point had escaped you!)

Not known for her subtlety, her latest gaff, as you may very well know, was a bird-brained tweet on Twitter, where, in discussion with one of her followers, she made an obviously racist remark, a generalisation about the attitude of whites, or should that be Whites, or maybe Whites.

Responding to a comment from another black woman, to the effect that the term ‘black community’ was born of lazy thinking, Abbott wrote that she was playing into the ‘divide and rule’ agenda. “White people”, came the twit, “love playing divide and rule. We should not play their game.” It’s a tactic, she continued, as “old as colonialism.”

Now the little house collapses around her ears. With several brickbats flying in her general direction (a perfect little storm in the press!), she says that her words were ‘taken out of context’ and ‘maliciously interpreted’. It’s just so amusing when politicians reach for this stale phrase; it must be on the most thumbed page of their professional lexicon. Unfair! Unfair!; you’re taking my words out of context. I’m not at all sure what context her words should be taken in, other than that of her bird brain.

She’s since been forced to issue a weasel-like apology by Big Brother Ed, the leader of the benighted Labour Party. But she will not be prosecuted under race relations legislation, despite a number of complaints lodged with the Metropolitan Police. Now just imagine if Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, had made some off the cuff remark about black people. No, you have no need to imagine. And all poor Aiden Burley did was to hire a costume!

Abbott has history here, a pattern of stupidity all based on her Black perceptions of the world. I wrote about her on the My Telegraph blog in June, 2010, a piece I called Diane Abbott – hypocrite, certainly; racist, perhaps. This followed a broadcast of This Week, a late-night BBC news show, in which she appears as a regular guest. In defending her decision to send her son to an expensive private school, when her own party’s policy is against the independent sector, she said that “West Indian mums will go to the wall for their children.” “So”, Andrew Neil, the show’s host, asked, “black mums love their kids more than white mums, do they?” Answer came there none, whereupon Neil went for the jugular;

Supposing Michael [Michael Portillo, the other regular] said white mums will go to the wall for their children. Why did you say that? Isn’t it a racist remark? If West Indian mums are as wonderful as you say, why are there so many dysfunctional West Indian families in this country? And why do so many young West Indian men end up in a life of crime and gangs? You didn’t want your son to go to a school full of kids who have been brought up by West Indian mums.

The paradox here, as I indicated at the time, is that she clearly does not believe that West Indian mothers are somehow better than other mothers, for she was prepared to buy her son a way out from a significant West Indian presence in her local comprehensive;

In doing so Abbott has freed him from the dangers of the gang culture that besets West Indian boys, something that she herself alluded to recently, a culture nurtured by worthless state schools. But it’s alright for others, the sink comprehensive and all that it leads to, alright for the benighted people who send this hypocrite, this champagne socialist, to Parliament. All black people are equal but clearly some black people are more equal than others.

On reflection I think that should be be all black people are equal but clearly some Black people are more equal than others.

Diane Abbot represents everything that is wrong with so much of contemporary and public life. I think of the great figures of the past that have walked through the corridors of Westminster and debated in Parliament, figures of stature, intellect and substance. Then I think of this woman, a small-minded, silly, tweeting pygmy; a Black mediocrity. You can take those remarks in any context you like.

Monday 9 January 2012

Storm in a Fondue

Here we are: it's the opening of Act IV in the drama of Ana! I got back yesterday from a wonderful skiing holiday in Val-d'Isère, right in the heart of French Savoy. I’ve been before; I was there two seasons ago, and I’m pleased to say that things remain much the same as they were. The skiing was good, the company was good and New Year was wild!

Actually, it’s not really the skiing I want to talk about; it’s something else altogether, a storm in a fondue. We spent one day at the nearby resort of Val Thorens. It was here that Aidan Burley, a Conservative Member of Parliament, attended a Nazi-themed stag party last month in the excellent ( I know: I've been!) Restaurant La Fondue in the centre of town.

One of the party, addressed by the rest as Himmler, wore a black SS uniform, which it turns out was hired by Burley himself. Various toasts were drunk to the Third Reich and Nazi ideology. The fall-out was sadly predictable: Burley was sacked from his post as Parliamentary aid to the Transport Secretary by David Cameron, the Prime Minister. In France, where it is illegal to wear Nazi uniforms, a preliminary investigation into the incident has been opened.

What is there to be said? For a figure in public life to be involved in this sort of thing clearly shows that he’s a bit of an idiot, one who has now wrecked a promising political career. But what a fuss about nothing. It was a stag party; people do the stupidest things; and when men are stupid they are really stupid. If anything it shows that the symbols of Nazism themselves have become a bit of a joke, dress for comic party antics, by appointment to Prince Harry!

Burley was there certainly but he wasn’t dressed like a Nazi, unlike the Labour's Ed Balls, now the Shadow Chancellor, who donned German uniform when he was a student. And this is a man who actually served in government!

It’s the hypocrisy that gets me most, the double standards. There was a long and pompous, blah de blah article by Martin Bright on the Spectator’s Coffee House Blog, of all places, having a go at Burley and “boorish Tory oafs” in general. In the course of this he makes a point of waving his own left-wing credentials when he was at Cambridge during the 1980s, the Thatcher years.

Yes, a time, I feel sure, when Che Guevara, Trotsky and Marx stared out from the walls of thousands of dirty bedsits, these avatars of an ideology and political practice in every way as abhorrent as fascism. More abhorrent, if the calculus of death plays any part in the assessment of such things. One respondent to the Bright article makes the same point;

Isn't this just another boring article illustrating the left's enduring fetish about Nazis? The Nazi Party and its acolytes were utterly destroyed over 65 years ago and its leading lights were killed or imprisoned. Either way Nazism was totally discredited as a creed while the architects of the left's monstrous (and in many ways greater) crimes suffered no such fate. Yet in the best traditions of Joseph Mccarthy, the UK left would have you believe that there are closet Nazis everywhere....in, under and on the bed. It's utter self-serving b******s which enables them to shift attention from the crimes committed by the left.

Nazism did not survive the Second World War, shovelled into the dustbin of history. Marxism did, mutating in a thousand forms, still trendily present in Labour and other socialist parties. There was never a proper summing up, no truth and reconciliation committee. Red flags and stars can still be displayed; swastikas can’t. Stalin is the fashion in Moscow and Mao in Beijing; Hitler the fashion nowhere. But when some overgrown schoolboy is seen in the company of Hilarious Himmler - oh, my, the horror, the horror. It’s springtime for Hitler and Germany.

Happy New Year. :-)