05 August 2014

Peter Hitchens' War on 1914

Unlike most of my associates, I imagine, I do not regard Peter Hitchens' views as wholly disreputable. He seems to think about things, which is a good quality, even if one may decide he reaches the wrong conclusions. He is part of a group of British media personalities who have been banging on about the idea that Britain should have stood aside in August 1914, and let a general European war run its course. As a result, he has kindly created not one but two blogging opportunities for me!

Today, I want to deal with the argument that Britain had no obligation to intervene in a general European war. In a post published today, he builds a case out of quotations from Douglas Newton's The Darkest Days. Hitchens reports that the book has been subject to some criticism, although a quick google didn't offer any reviews.

The problem is that Hitchens puts more weight on the idea of an obligation than the handful of men who took Britain into the war would have. The 1839 treaty that Hitchens links to was a pretext for war. That Britain was likely to take part in a general European war in 1914 was the inevitable consequence of a series of individual decisions taken by groups of men over the first decade or so of the twentieth century. It was because Britain had no formal alliance demanding she participate on the side of France and Russia in a war with Germany, that the British government had to identify such a pretext. But I'm sure Hitchens realises that. He is addressing what we are taught. Britain went to war because plucky little Belgium, which subsequently would be the scene of German atrocities, refused to allow German armies passage across its territories to France. Britain went to war against German militarism, which had been disturbing the peace of Europe since 1870. And, by the way, Germany was the foe of liberty. This is, one might say, the Lloyd George school of interpretation. George, an adept politician as the war would prove, was seeking to justify his own betrayal of the non-interventionist position, where one might have expected him to end up.

Hitchens doesn't quote a much earlier statement (February 1906) by Sir Edward Grey, quoted in Decisions for War, 1914-1917, a distillation of a much longer academic work. Grey cites the increasing closeness between France and Britain, and its implications in the case of a war between France and Germany, then notes

If this expectation is disappointed, the French will never forgive us...
What created this closeness was a series of steps starting in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War. Japan was Britain's ally, while Russia was allied to the French. So the first step towards Britain's entry into war in 1914 was the desire for peace with France, in the context of a war between Russia and Japan. Other steps followed, but in each case a specific action was taken in response to a specific problem. And the accumulation of steps made by small groups of men responding to particular problems closed down alternative avenues, because men were dealing with men. 'France', in this context, was the ministers and officials with whom men like Grey had to deal with. Grey and other men in the British government, I would argue, could not escape their human condition, and disregard entirely the promises made to other men in public life, any more than they would have been able to in private life, without a pretext that good faith had already been broken. In the same way the British government needed a pretext to go to war, so they needed a pretext not to.

Without doubt, the evidence shows that a good portion of the Cabinet in those last days of peace wanted a pretext not to intervene. Three things derailed such a pretext. The first was the difficult situation in Ireland, where the army appeared to be out of step with government policy of a devolved Irish parliament, and which seemed to be an existential crisis for the British state. The second was the remarkable slowness with which Grey responded to the start of the crisis at the end of June. The Cabinet first discussed the crisis on 24 July, as a new issue, almost a month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. It was only in a series of meetings over 29 July-2 August that the Cabinet really came to grips with the matter. It was literally a 'rush to war'. The third was Grey's threat to resign, which would have created a political crisis at a time of a grave diplomatic crisis and a grave political crisis, something the opposition Conservative and Unionist party could easily have exploited.

The Liberal cabinet was trapped by a political situation that itself was the product of several steps that had created the current unstable political situation. The Liberal party had already split over the issues of the Boer War and then Home Rule some years earlier. Four years earlier it had led the country into a major political crisis over the powers of the House of Lords, which resulted in a major constitutional reform. On 2 August the Conservative and Unionist party's leader privately expressed support for Grey's position, a neat manoeuvre that encouraged the Liberals to adopt the Conservatives' more aggressive attitudes towards the Germans in order to avoid the previously mentioned political crisis. (The then-Liberal Winston Churchill himself explored the possibility of a coalition between pro-war Liberals and the Conservative and Unionists.) Grey had approached both Russia and Germany with a proposal for a conference over the crisis, the traditional European solution to diplomatic problems. It was the German unwillingness to entertain this that denied those Cabinet members opposed to intervention a pretext. Had a conference been held, and had France and Russia still opted for war, it seems plausible that enough of the Liberal ministers might have risked the political crisis that would have resulted from non-intervention.

There were all too human calculations involved in Britain's entry into the European war, and nothing to do with legalistic interpretations of 1839 treaties. For the Liberal government to follow the path of non-intervention would most likely have caused the collapse of the government, and the formation of a new, pro-intervention (and anti-Irish Home Rule) Cabinet. From the point of view of August 1914, remaining in office ensured that those opposed to intervention would retain some authority over both the conduct of the war and the post-war settlement, as well as maintaining other Liberal policies. In the event, the later collapse of the government invalidated that assumption, but no-one knew that a hundred years ago. The Belgian pretext held the government together, and to put too much weight on it is to hamper our understanding of why events happen.

04 August 2014

A Hanoverian Succession?

One hundred years ago today, half of the Anglosphere went to war with the German Empire. It probably bears repeating that there was neither debate in Parliament, nor consultation with the Dominions. A few men in London had a few meetings, and issued an ultimatum to the government in Berlin during the morning of 4 August 1914. The other half of the Anglosphere had no immediate intention of joining this conflict, even though the occupant of the White House, Woodrow Wilson, was one of the most Anglophile presidents in American history. One could argue that the First World War was the inception of the Anglosphere, the moment when the idea of an English-Speaking People really became something with practical effect, despite the long debate that took place before the United States went to war. The Dominions, through their armed forces, acquired identities that were no longer mere creations of distance, prone to fragmentation by the scale of their countries, but focused on a continuing national project that required social mobilisation to an unparalleled degree. Not only could they claim to be separate, but they could now point to an effort that deserved equality. Britain began to accept that it was no longer the centre of the Anglospheric universe, but simply had a claim to be primus inter pares.

All of these developments relate to what one might call the 'lost cousin' of the Anglosphere, Germany. Given any opportunity, I vigorously promote the idea of thinking about an alternative to the Anglosphere that I call 'the Hanoverian Complex'. The United States was founded, not out of Britain, but out of the realms of King George of Great Britain, Ireland and Hanover. German-speakers were a major stream of immigration into the United States, and the era of 'Liberty Cabbage' (a re-christening of sauerkraut) during the First World War threw something of a cloak over just how prominent German was in the United States was before 1917. In this, parts of the United States fitted into what might be called a German-sphere. Even up to 1914, Germany remained something of a geographical expression. There was a king in Bavaria until 1918, and it is better to write of the German armies going to war in 1914. Bavarian, Saxon and Wuerttemburger forces all had distinct identities from the 'Prussian' force that overwhelmingly predominated. Just as the war divided the Dominions from London, the conflict united German states to Berlin more thoroughly than had been accomplished by the Franco-Prussian war. The German-Speaking people came together as the English-Speaking one drew apart.

Germany, Britain and the United States have had an odd triangular relationship during the past two hundred or so years. Germans were important emigrants both to the United States and to the British dominions, while Queen Victoria was a determined Germanophile. (Her daughter-in-law, Alexandra of Denmark, was quite hostile towards Germany, and arguably played an important role in changing British attitudes.) Changes in this triangular relationship, initially broadly friendly, at first glance coincide with the accession of Wilhelm II as German emperor. Wilhelm, whose mother was the daughter of the German-descended Victoria and her German husband, literally possessed a 'love-hate' relationship towards Britain, and his pursuit of extra-European expressions of German political power clashed with the United States' own taking up of 'the White Man's Burden'. In the five years before August 1914, the most important episode of this from the perspective of Washington, DC, came in German attempts to influence the course of the Mexican revolution, which had started in 1910 and turned into an ongoing civil war after a coup in 1913. Tension between the two also arose in China, another site of a revolution that offered an opportunity for Germany and the United States to expand their influence. For the British, German economic competition and Wilhelm's bellicose rhetoric, as well as plans for a much bigger German navy, made for an uncomfortable neighbour. On 4 August 1874, relations between the three countries were certainly cordial, if not friendly. Forty years later, Germany was perceived with grave suspicion by the English-Speakers. What remains constant is that the English-Speakers shared an opinion at both moments.

So, thus, we come to the article that stimulated this post, Simon Jenkins' request for Britons to set aside their fascination with wars against Germany. Jenkins wants Britons to face the future, which requires remembering the friendly Germany, and not the one that was responsible for the massacre at Dinant, the sack of Louvain and other German attacks on civilians in 1914, let alone the worse business of 1939-45. The problem is that Germany appears to have been run in 1914 by a group who perceived themselves to be victims of a plot to keep their Empire from its proper role as primus inter pares in Europe, a view complicated by the fact that they believed that Russia's power could only get stronger. It is not unreasonable to connect the conduct of German soldiers in Belgium and elsewhere with this same paranoid outlook. This paranoia has turned into something of a self-perpetuating phenomenon, as the ”Stab-in-the-Back Myth” or the controversy over the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt and the 1960s' student protest movement which spawned the terrorist Red Army Faction and Revolutionary Cells can all be seen as symptoms of attitudes that were shaped around the turn of the twentieth century. Of course, it doesn't help halt the self-perpetuation when foreigners readily turn to reminders of a guilty past when angered by German policy.

Jenkins was profoundly wrong to apologise to the Germans for English-Speakers' worship of the First World War. Not only was the war was possibly the single most important event in shaping the Anglosphere, but “the problem with Germany” is really a German problem. German leaders needed to recognise that history moves slowly, and their fears in 1900 were a long way from being realised. It is the Germans who need to break out of that self-perpetuating persecution complex, and they need a certain resilience in the face of crass equations of German assertiveness with Nazi aggression. Who is to say, at this point, that they aren't already on a path to becoming more like the Germany of Bismarck, which recognised how to maintain the dignity of and knew the limits to great power status?

In another way, though, Jenkins was right that Britain may need to move on from its victories over Germany. Arguably, to adopt the mood of Berlin 1914, the Anglosphere as we know it is falling apart. The United States could already be inescapably headed out of it and into Latin America. Many Canadians seem embarrassed about their Anglospheric roots, see more in common with the United States than the 'Mother Country', and seem likely to opt for a globalised identity. Only Australia, New Zealand and Britain still value a shared cultural identity, although I am too far from Australia to judge that with any accuracy. One notes that one day Prince George of Cambridge is due to ascend the British throne, and by that time perhaps Britain will be wiser to embrace the 'Hanoverian Complex' rather than the 'Special Relationship'.

03 August 2014

The Living Dead

This post departs somewhat from the cultural history theme on which this blog is supposed to focus. Towards the end I introduce some themes that are not particular to Anglo-American Culture, but which Anglo-American culture played an important role. So if you read the posts on this blog for their historical content, I recommend you skip this and wait for tomorrow's contribution.

In recent years, I have become more acquainted with cancer than one might find comfortable. Cancer was responsible for the most formative event in my life, the death of my sister when she was twenty-five, just as my childhood was ending. The rest of my life has taken place in the context of this event, in ways almost none of my family nor my closest friends had or have any real appreciation. Six years ago my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Although she survived, in mutilated fashion, one has had to live through treatment and through almost annual scares in the years since. This year, my mother died as a result of a cancer. As I get older, and the probability of me developing cancer increases, I feel like a member of a herd of animals, a herd attacked by predators who pick off individuals. The survivors are relieved, but fearful. I do not claim any special status in writing this. I expect that at least a million individuals in the world can share a story similar to mine, if not millions.

That's why I recommend this podcast, in which a literary critic, D G Myers, mortally ill with cancer, talks about how he copes with a death sentence, and what it tells him about life. His advice is sound, speaking as a witness to cancer, and I recommend those who have need of such advice to pay heed. However, I'm more interested here in discussing other things that the podcast raises.

Myers and his interlocutor, a Stanford University economics professor named Russ Roberts, both raise a point about what one might call a history of perception. Roberts mentions how in the nineteenth century children might be taken on visits to cemeteries as a kind of exercise in memento mori, a concept I haven't observed used by a living person in a non-monumental environment since 1983 and even then in a proto-hipsterish ironic way. Death, of course, was a much more familiar rite of passage to people a hundred and fifty years ago because of infant mortality, shorter lifespans and a poorer understanding of the causes of disease, as well as a general lack of safety measures on trains, ferries or even the street. Mourning was expected in a more religious society, as was a cult of the dead, who were seen to have a role still in life. We were expected to pray for them both on their behalf, and to intercede on ours. Nowadays, however, we tend to obey the Gospel injunction of the Lord of Life in Matthew VIII:22. Except on officially sanctioned occasions that serve to commemorate service to the state, such as Armistice Day, we are encouraged to put mourning behind us quickly. This was most significantly observed by Geoffrey Gorer, a friend to George Orwell, an anthropologist, and a decidedly Anglo-American figure. Gorer held that mourning, by the 1960s, had become like sexual urges during the Victorian era. To be too open about it was something shameful, a burden to those around one. This attitude still persists today. Yet, as Myers points out, death and the accompanying grief are important reminders to us that our time has value, We are only allowed so much of it, and we should consider carefully what matters, before the doctor's diagnosis forces us to consider what matters.

As Roberts negotiates his way past the mortality of Myers, asking about lists of good novels or forgotten writers (which, to digress, tragically includes Graham Greene, according to them) he comes to discuss the environment that both work in, the Groves of Academe. Myers throughout makes some telling points about the difference between 'creative writing' and 'literature', and the problem of having practitioners of the one teach the other. They conclude with a discussion of the transformation of the Groves, into corporate bureaucracies that have reached the conclusion that an English Literature degree does not require the study of Shakespeare, let alone Milton or Chaucer. As a Classicist, I could have told Myers that this was inevitable once the study of Latin and Classical Greek had been marginalised, instead of being the bedrock of a humanistic tradition in education that reached back to the fifteenth century in Europe. 'First they came for the Classicists, &c'. What students get, more or less, is an offering of lecturers' hobbies, and the student can pick and choose amongst them, and thereby reach a personal connection to English Literature that in its essence divides him or her from fellow students. Whereas in the past the completion of the degree was to share in a tradition, now the object is to satisfy appetites of both teacher and taught.

I don't think I'm wrong to connect the reduction of a societal emphasis on marginalising a continuing connection to the dead with the reduction of personal emphasis in education from shared experience to individual development. Both are a consequence of Modernity, that condition that marks our own time from that of the now-dead. The themes of Modernity are The New, The Young, Fashion, Consumption (or as I prefer to designate it, Appetite), Celebration and The Individual. Before was about The Tradition, The Mature, Ritual, Preservation, Duty and The Group. To connect to the past is dangerous, because it delays The New, reminds The Young that they will be old, shows us that Fashion will fade, that Appetite will impoverish, that Celebration must end and that The Individual to dust shalt return. Paradoxically, the more that the centres of power shift from the individual to the corporate, the more that this individualist collection of themes comes to dominate cultural discourse. The family-owned shop or diner is replaced by the chain or franchise. The Anglosphere led the way in supplanting individual investors with shareholding capital organised through 'unit trusts' or 'mutual funds'. Even in sports, the local team becomes secondary to the Major-League one.

The corporate entities that dominate Modernity are themselves in principle eternal. They have the potential to outlast their personnel, to stand as paper assemblages of capital as long as the Sphinx or the Pyramids. The monarch may die, but the Crown endures. In this way, and in this only, Modernity has a capacity to resist change. Modernity's desire for change is only motivated by its need to control, and by continuous rupturing of the social environment its to disorienting changes transform us from people with a past and with traditions into goldfish living in a perpetual now. Looking out of our bowls we are frightened into a false obliviousness of our inescapable end. Traditions and rituals connect us to a death that renders all that Fashion, all that Appetite, meaningless. Modernity ignores the final change of all, Death.

Yet when confronted with death-change we identify what is important and we focus on that. These important things, if Myers is to be believed, are tied to friends and family (a group), habitual pleasures (rituals) and a request to be treated with honesty as the same person as one was before the diagnosis (preservation). Tradition connects us not only to the past, but also to the future. Those cultural traditions that we share with those who came before are ones we can also share with those who shall come after. I don't think it is any accident that that Dante Alighieri was led from the Inferno to Paradise by a poet who had been dead for 1300 years at the time he found himself in a dark wood wandering.

19 July 2014

Baroness Thatcher's Party?

In the 1997 British general election, after five years of heated argument largely within the Conservative Party over Britain's relationship to the European Community, the promise to hold a referendum on the topic attracted 2.6 per cent of the votes. This was the sole issue on which the Referendum Party fought the election. It did not campaign to leave the Community, only to offer a vote on the topic. Up to that time, the party was one of the most successful minor parties in British electoral history, and received a much higher percentage than a rival Eurosceptic party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

A previous referendum on the subject in 1975 had endorsed membership, and one might have thought that the question was settled. The 'Yes' votes in 1975 secured a margin of about two-to-one over the 'Noes'. Here is an excerpt of one speech in support of the 'Yes' cause.

It is not surprising that I, as Leader of the Conservative Party, should wish to give my wholehearted support to this campaign, for the Conservative Party has been pursuing the European vision almost as long as we have existed as a Party....

We can play a role in developing Europe, or we can turn our backs on the Community.

By turning our backs we would forfeit our right to influence what happens in the Community.

But what happens in the Community will inevitably affect us.

The speaker was the future Baroness Thatcher, on 16 April 1975, exactly forty years before 2015's anticipated British general election. Mrs (as she then was) Thatcher was in her first year as leader of the Conservative Party, the party that had taken Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, and the party which had first applied for the United Kingdom to join the Common Market, in 1961.It is absolutely key to understanding my topic in this post to recall that

(a) the Conservative Party was, prior to 1997, the more Europhile of Britain's two main parties; and,

(b)Margaret Thatcher, given an opportunity to vote against Britain's membership in the European Community/European Union, rejected it.

It is clear, therefore, that something dramatic changed. Baroness Thatcher became the ringleader of Euroscepticism until she retired from public life, while the Conservatives became increasingly sceptical in outlook towards the European project, at least until David Cameron was elected leader. To what can we attribute this change?

Thatcher on several occasions was quite explicit about her reasoning, even before her resignation.

There are some things for which there was majority voting within the Community when we went in, and we accepted that, and for the specific objective of achieving the Single European Act only, there have been more matters. Now there is an attempt to get far more things passed by majority voting. That means that we would have more laws imposed upon us, even if the House was flatly against them. We expect our people to obey the law, mainly because it has gone through all the legislative processes in this House, and we should be very slow to add to any majority competence on the part of the Community.
Mrs Thatcher's statement to the House of Commons, 30 October 1990, the occasion of the famous 'No, no, no' line which precipitated the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe.
The point of that kind of Europe with a central bank is no democracy, taking powers away from every single Parliament, and having a single currency, a monetary policy and interest rates which take all political power away from us. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson ) said in his first speech after the proposal for a single currency was made, a single currency is about the politics of Europe, it is about a federal Europe by the back door.
Mrs Thatcher's speech to the House of Commons, 22 November 1990
[The Maastricht Treaty] takes us over the top to a new political entity, a European union, which we have never had before. Before that, we had never gone that way but had kept quite a bit of sovereignty, and it is the last lot that we are in danger of losing.
Baroness Thatcher's speech to the House of Lords, 7 June 1993
For the European Union not only wishes to take away our powers; it wishes to increase its own. It wants to regulate our industries and labour markets, pontificate over our tastes, in short to determine our lives. The Maastrict Treaty, which established a common European citizenship and greatly expanded the remit of the European Commission, shows the outlines of the bureaucratic superstate which is envisaged. And Maastrict is the beginning, not the end of that process....

Indeed, we are increasingly seeing the emergence of a whole new international political class. Some of them are politicians who have failed in their own countries, and so have tried their luck overseas. Some are officials who understand nothing of our British distinction between the legitimate powers of the elected and those of the unelected.

the inaugural Keith Joseph lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in 1996

These selections from Thatcher's speeches are consistent in their theme. According to them, the Maastricht Treaty fundamentally altered the EEC, symbolised by the change of name to European Union. The Referendum Party specifically addressed this, by arguing that such a fundamental change required a renewal of the promise made by the British people in 1975. The problem was, however, that the bulk of Conservative MPs during the government of John Major believed that Britain could achieve some kind of accommodation with the European Union. In this they continued the Conservative Party's postwar traditions. Thatcher, meanwhile, played a duplicitous game of at times seeming to support rebels against the Major government, and at others declaring her loyalty. The result was the creation of a cadre of Conservative MPs opposed to further changes in the nature of the European Union. The defeat of the Major government in 1997 (which in no way can be attributed to the Referendum Party) thus marked a turning point in the history of not just Britain, but the European Union. It is conceivable that a Conservative government elected in 1997 would have been much less enthusiastic about the arrangements in the Nice Treaty, and thereby slowed the rate of European political integration during the time of the Blair government (1997-2007). We shall, of course, never know.

That Nice treaty included some articles governing EU citizens' freedom of movement within the Union. Today's British politics sees immigration as an important issue, and concerns about asylum-seekers (who would have been non-European) featured strongly in the Conservative election manifestos in 2001 and 2005. From the late 1950s to the early 1980s, immigration had also been a significant political issue, although the nature of that immigration was very different. In January 1978, over a year before the 1979 election, Mrs Thatcher addressed the topic in a television interview:

...there was a committee which looked at it and said that if we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples' fears on numbers. Now, the key to this was not what Keith Speed said just a couple of weeks ago. It really was what Willie Whitelaw said at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, where he said we must hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration because at the moment it is about between 45,000 and 50,000 people coming in a year. Now, I was brought up in a small town, 25,000. That would be two new towns a year and that is quite a lot. So, we do have to hold out the prospect of an end to immigration except, of course, for compassionate cases.

Mrs Thatcher further addressed the matter in her memoirs, when she wrote:

Ever since Enoch Powell's Birmingham speech in April 1968 it had been the mark of civilised high-mindedness among right-of-centre politicians to avoid speaking about immigration and race at all, and if that did not prove possible, then to do so in terms borrowed from the left of the political spectrumm, relishing the 'multicultural', 'multi-racial' nature of modern British society. This whole approach glossed over the real problems that immigration sometimes caused and dismissed the anxieties of those who were directly affected as 'racist'. I had never been prepared to go along with it. It seemed both dishonest and snobbish.
The Path to Power, pp 405-6, my italics.

Mrs Thatcher's gift for populism is much in evidence here. It is curious to see a Conservative politician use the word 'snobbish' as snobbery is at the root of the Conservative party. It historically has been very much what the Marxists would call 'a class party'. It exists to defend the interests of the propertied (which for much of its history meant those who owned the land), but at the same time it has been rooted in the defence of key institutions of the British state — the monarchy, the Church established, the armed forces. By contrast, its nineteenth-century rival, the Liberal Party, was more of an alliance of groups who needed to protect their own interests against the core represented by the Conservatives. The stresses of modernity broke up the Liberal coalition during the first three decades of the twentieth century, while leaving the Conservatives largely intact. However, many traditional Liberal voters drifted over to the Conservatives during the 1920s, among them an Alfred Roberts, a grocer in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and the father of Margaret Roberts, later Baroness Thatcher. (Mrs Thatcher's official biographer, Charles Moore, is quite explicit about this, p.15 of the first volume.)

During the nineteenth century, it was the Liberal party that in Britain supported a programme of cheap, small government, that regarded the 'Establishment' with suspicion and supported free trade over protectionist economic management. These are all approaches that we have come to associate with the late twentieth century's archetypal British Conservative, Baroness Thatcher. But they weren't the attitudes of the Conservative tradition. And in the twenty-first century, it is UKIP, not the Conservatives, who are loudest on themes of Euroscepticism, controlling immigration, suspecting the Establishment and wanting to reduce government intervention in the economy and society. In many ways, UKIP represents the real descendant of Mrs Thatcher, and are part of the continuous reinvention of the British political system that has been going on since the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, and the 'New Liberalism' of the 1906-15 Liberal government.

During the nineteenth century, it was the Liberal party that in Britain supported a programme of cheap, small government, that regarded the 'Establishment' with suspicion and supported free trade over protectionist economic management. These are all approaches that we have come to associate with the late twentieth century's archetypal British Conservative, Baroness Thatcher. But they weren't the attitudes of the Conservative tradition. And in the twenty-first century, it is UKIP, not the Conservatives, who are loudest on themes of Euroscepticism, controlling immigration, suspecting the Establishment and wanting to reduce government intervention in the economy and society. In many ways, UKIP represents the real descendant of Mrs Thatcher, and is part of the continuous reinvention of the British political system that has been going on since the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, and the 'New Liberalism' of the 1906-15 Liberal government. European integration exposed the fault lines in the Conservative movement that had been hidden by a common opposition to Labourism on the part of traditional Conservatives and what might be called Gladstone Liberals. We could well have entered a period in British political history like that of a hundred years ago, when the main parties remade themselves, leaving the rump of one to be pushed to the margins. And at the end of the process, where will Baroness Thatcher's party be?

04 July 2014

'London's Not in England Any More?'

This is the first of a handful of posts I hope to write over the next ten days or so related to the phenomenon of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This post was started before the European Elections, and the first draft of it seems to have been lost in a computer crash, although I would swear on the proverbial stack of Bibles that I had saved it. Then, a later computer crash caused me to lose all my data for the charts, although in this case I know I had not saved it. However, a recovery function should have allowed me to recover the data, but that did not happen here. The good news is that all this delay means it has more hard analysis than originally was envisaged. The bad news is that it wound up very much longer.

One of the striking facts about the recent European Elections in Britain (which mysteriously are being presented as a defeat for Ed Milliband, because his incompetence is the agreed-upon media narrative), is the divergence between the London metropolis and the rest of England on the matter of UKIP. Since Greater London is the most cosmopolitan part of England, this might seem hardly surprising. Many immigrants have settled there, not just during the post-1945 era but throughout history. The financial institutions of the City do well out of the European Union, not least because it might prove harder to sustain London's status as the European financial centre and linch-pin of the global financial markets outside of the European Union. But, as an historian, I find myself wondering if deeper forces are at work here, forces that are shaping one possible future not just for Britain but for the whole world.

First of all, let's look at some electoral data for three British general elections. These are not the same beast as European Elections, but I want to illustrate something about London's electoral behaviour. The data starts with the 1987 election, which is arguably the last time that Labour ran on a 'traditional' Labour economic platform. Its manifesto offered a 'National Economic Summt', continuing the tripartite partnership between unions, businesses and government that characterised the Butskellite era, a nationalistic scheme to use the tax system to retain British savings for investment in British industry, as opposed to letting the market draw British savings wherever the rates of return were best, and a mergers policy aimed at protecting the national base for technological research and development. By contrast, the 1992 manifesto included no such partnership and no attempts by government to control the flow of savings out of Britain, nor to use economic considerations to influence policy on mergers. Whether the ambitions of the 1987 manifesto would have been achievable under the regime established by the Single European Act (which took effect a few months after the 1987 election) is open to question, but without doubt by 1992 Labour's promises were more like New Labour's than Old Labour's.

The figures in the following chart are based on data at the Electoral Calculus web site. What you need to know in addition are the following 'National Swing' numbers, which sum the swing to or from Labour with the swing to or from the Conservatives, seeking to make a positive integer of it.

1987 3.5 to Labour
1992 4.1 to Labour
2001 3.6 to Conservatives

The chart shows that London's voters did not swing towards Labour in 1987 as much as the rest of the country. Whether this was caused by what we might now recognise as the anti-globalist Labour manifesto of 1987 is open to question, but the two things do coincide. In 1992, by contrast, London ran ahead of much of the country in choosing Labour. In fact, John Major's Conservatives won a narrow majority. The chart does not show 1997, in which a Labour landslide saw northern England track the national swing much more closely than it did in 1992, suggesting that Major's victory was down to him holding on to Conservative votes in Labour heartlands. 1997 represents a peak for Labour during the period under examination.

Funny things start happening under Tony Blair. In 2001, London again lagged behind a national swing towards a combative Conservative manifesto that demanded a reimagining of the European Union into 'a network Europe'. Although it was silent on the subject of immigration generally, it specifically expressed concern about the asylum system, and proposed changes to that.

The Conservative manifesto of 2005 strengthened the commitment to immigration changes, adding ideas about enhanced border security to 2001's concerns about asylum. On the European Union, a commitment to a referendum on the EU constitution was given prominence. The idea of 'a network Europe' was restated as 'a deregulated Europe'. In 2005, while the data appears to show a 'third-term fatigue' drift towards the Conservatives, in fact it masks a massive swing towards the Liberal Democrats in London, the Midlands, Yorkshire, the Northwest and the far north including Newcastle and Durham on the order of around eight percent. The Liberal Democrats in 2005 were the most anti-war of the big three parties, yet also were more committed to Europe than the Conservatives. London was continuing to show a support for the European idea, but we might also be seeing the effects of large concentrations of Commonwealth immigrants in rejecting both the Conservatives' EU antipathy and concern about secure borders, as well as Labour's support for the American war on terror.

The Conservative campaign in 2010 was almost certainly the most pro-European since the 1992 election, so I will not discuss it here. Instead, I will skip forward to the 2014 European elections and direct you to a set of charts, I think produced by the BBC, which I found on the blog of Porthleven councillor Andrew Wallis. These charts show London clearly standing apart from UKIP's voting heartland. UKIP, in fact, were strong in both traditional Conservative and Labour heartlands. Using this information, and my own studies of the general elections, I identify England as divided into four 'provinces':

London
South Scotland, the northwest and northeast of the country votes more like its Scottish neighbours than other parts of England
Tory England, the southeast and south
UKIP England, everywhere else

UKIP is most disruptive of the old party system in an area stretching from Yorkshire south to London, and from Humberside west to Cornwall. UKIP England incorporates the area, excluding the Tory South, that was most enthusiastic about the Conservatives' 2001 election campaign, as this data show:

It is basically the old Roundhead territory of the English Civil War, except that it trades London and the Southeast for the West and Southwest. But even this is slightly misleading. In Tory England, if UKIP repeats its Euro-election performance, it could replace the Liberal Democrats as the main opposition to the Conservatives. (The Liberal Democrats in 2005 sneaked past Labour in the total vote here, and increased that lead quite sharply in 2010.) Of course, that's a big IF, but not entirely fanciful based on current polls.

The point is that UKIP is also in a position to add the Southeast to the rest of UKIP England, increasing its resemblance to Roundhead England. But it looks unlikely to add London. London, in many ways, does not now conform politically or socially to the rest of England. Unlike South Scotland, it can produce a Conservative plurality of votes (although the last time was 1992). Unlike Tory England, it votes Labour. Unlike UKIP England, it has a long-standing tradition of preferring pro-European, pro-globalisation policies, going back to 1987.

London's economic profile, as a centre of finance, services and the media, make it suited to the needs of the globalised economy. In fact, London is already a key member of a network of global cities which are the organisational centres of the global economy. These metropolitan areas include New York, the Bay Area in California, Tokyo and Toronto. What would be interesting would be to establish whether, like London, these all are developing a politics that to a greater or lesser degree diverge from those of the country in which they are situated. More importantly, are they resembling one another's politics more than they do those of the rest of their country's. I certainly think there are strong parallels between Toronto and London.

London, as the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens proposed in February (scroll down to the heading 'London's Not in England Any More'), may not be an English city any more. The 2014 European Elections could be a sign of that.

23 June 2014

A G.I. Bride

My mother was a GI Bride. It probably is the act that most defined her life, a life which illustrates the effects of historical processes on 'little people', those whose absence from archives makes comprehending the past so difficult for historians. The briefest summary of her life shows how none of us can live free of the past, no matter how much we might think it is possible.

She was born in Portsmouth, on England's south coast, in 1927. The year and place establish that she would be exposed to two of the most critical events of the twentieth century, the Great Depression and the Second World War. But being born in England meant that she would be among the relatively privileged of the world, even if her parents were not among the elite of English society. She had the opportunities of a better education, better health care and access to the earning potential of work in one of the world's most advanced economies. The reasons why Britain could make all this available to her rested on the course of events over some three hundred years of history, from the reign of Charles I until my mother's own time. During this, Britain had risen from a Western European power into the greatest of Great Powers, with an empire that encompassed all of South Asia, much of Africa and included a degree of economic dominance of the South American economy. This power and wealth provided a job to her father, who made a career serving in the Royal Navy, that insulated the family to some extent from the effects of the Great Depression.

Her life would be changed utterly by the Second World War, like so many. She was very bitter about this, although would rarely talk about it. Once she commented that the Germans had robbed her of her adolescence, which itself was a concept that really only took shape for people of her social situation in the aftermath of the First World War. By the time of the war she was living in Fareham, a town along the Solent coast between Portsmouth and Southampton. There was some bombing of Fareham, although it was not 'blitzed' as heavily as Portsmouth. It seems she was bright enough to attend some kind of tertiary education, but the patriarchal mentality of that time meant that she left school at sixteen and went to work as a kind of office dogsbody in a Southampton hotel. It was in Southampton that she met he future husband, a G.I. who worked at the hospital at Netley. The war itself made possible this meeting.

After the war, she crossed the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary to live with her husband in Detroit, Michigan. We rarely think of the Second World War as a time of great migrations, but displaced persons and G.I. or wartime Brides were part of a notable transference of people from one part of the world to another. The United States made special legislation, the War Brides Act, to cope with this situation. In Detroit, she found an industrial city that had continued its tremendous twentieth-century expansion during the war. Younger people today may have difficulty in understanding just how well-off one could be living in Detroit after the Second World War. Union jobs in factories associated with the car industry made the workers of Detroit enviable — if they had seniority. They could afford houses, cars and appliances that their parents could only have dreamt of during the straitened days of the Depression. Layoffs and long-term strikes, however, created difficult times, and contributed to my mother's tremendous sense of thrift. By the 1960s, however, my father had built up sufficient seniority that we were eventually able to afford a trip to England, during which my mother met her parents again for the first time since 1945, almost twenty-five years.

My mother was disturbed by the notorious racial tension in Detroit. She always expressed antipathy towards the very notion of 'white flight'. She also had a few telling observations about how jobs at J.L Hudson's downtown department store were segregated. There was little that an individual could do in the face of institutional prejudice except to treat the people one met on their merits. She did, however, believe strongly in education as the means by which people should equip themselves to overcome any disadvantages, and that meant a degree of assimilation to the dominant social mores. The 1950s and 1960s were the final years of the WASP Ascendancy, that time from the Gilded Age until 'The Sixties' during which the American elite was a caste rooted in the northeast who lived somewhat as 'offshore Europeans', aping either the luxuries of the pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy or the lifestyle of a British landed gentry. She raised her children to use this caste as a yardstick.

Her children all succeeded in the tertiary education that she missed out on. They benefited from the expansion of higher education that resulted in part from the G.I. Bill, but also from other Federal government initiatives that ensured students from humble backgrounds could acquire higher education without putting themselves into severe debt. I would think that this was the achievement of which she was most proud, because it would not have been possible without her help in making us self-disciplined, literary and mathematical. Nonetheless, it would not have been possible without a social policy that sought to ensure that capable students could benefit from inexpensive higher education. Currently, the Anglosphere drifts towards a system of higher education that burdens young people with debts while being stingy in the supply of good-paying jobs to equip the students to pay off those debts.

During the early 1980s, my mother returned to England for a time and lived in London. However, the birth of her eldest grandchild in 1983 transformed a temporary visit into a permanent one. In this she finally experienced the suburbanisation of America, as her Detroit home that she finally left in 1980 was within the city limits of Detroit. Subsequent to 1983 she lived in low-density neighbourhoods in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, in the city of Davenport, Iowa, and in the area of Kalamazoo, Michigan. This urban sprawl produced unprepossesing strip malls and big-box stores, while housing tended to be inaccessible by public transport (although not in the case of Davenport, where she lived by a bus stop). She never learned to drive, so in the absence of buses she was reliant on my brother to travel .

At the end, medical and pharmaceutical technology ensured my mother outlived her own mother by about four years. She suffered from colon cancer a few years ago, which was successfully treated, but a mystifying incident in the autumn of 2012, when she had a faint, took a heavier toll on her health. She wasn't quite housebound after that, but her mobility was sharply restricted as she became too weak to walk for too long. Tumours began to squeeze her œsophagus shut in the winter of this year, although a cough that seems to have been associated with lung cancer suggests trouble there, too. In May she decided she only wished to undergo palliative care, and lived out her life in a hospice until she died in the early hours of 20 June, last Friday. Despite having lived in the United States for almost her entire adult life, she remained British in her official citizenship, never having taken out American nationality. However, having been offered the chance to have her remains transported home, she declined. As the wife of a veteran, she was allowed to be interred in a nearby military cemetery. The last act of her life remained literally linked to the title of this post.

The point of this very long blog entry is to illustrate how a single life can be used to structure a history course. Simply by highlighting these broad historical themes, one can see how our lives are not matters of individual choice, but are subject to historical conditions over which we have no control, starting at the very moment of birth. Think of a eleven-week course constructed around this life, including some topics I haven't covered in this little essay:

1) Britain's empire in the twentieth century.

2) The Great Depression

3) The Second World War

4) Migration in Britain and the United States

5) Racism and the Urban Question

6) From urban to suburban in North America

7) The rise and fall of mass tertiary education

8) Women's role in peace and war, 1930 to 2010

9) 'Live Long and Prosper': medicine during the Postwar Era

10) From cinema to downloads, a history of modern entertainments

11) The strange rise and impending decline of the Anglosphere

History at its inception was a narrative art, and largely bounded by large events, just like a human life.

24 April 2014

Britannia Christianae gentis?

The question of Britain's status as a Christian has erupted (probably too strong a word) this Eastertide. Let's quickly go over the chronology.

First, the prime minister, David Cameron, had an article published in The Church Times asserting a Christian identity for the United Kingdom with the words ' we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country'.

A few days later, a letter from a group of dogmatic secularists was published in The Daily Telegraph proclaiming instead 'We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives and a largely non-religious society. To constantly claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society.'

Cameron's stance then found support on the BBC Today programme (the most prominent morning national news presentation on the wireless) from the Labour party's Jack Straw. Straw, an avowed Christian, said: 'There has to be a clear understanding that this is the UK and there are a set of values, some of which I would say to the letter writers to the Daily Telegraph are indeed Christian-based, whether they like it or not, which permeate our sense of citizenship'.

Subsequently, the debate rumbles on, with the attorney-general and the British Humanist Association trying to define the grounds of debate. The attorney-general suggested that atheists were 'deluding themselves' over the advance of atheistical views, while the British Humanist Association's chief executive thought that 'in a very diverse society like today's we need to build an inclusive national identity not a narrow on', and that Cameron's original article wasn't really helping.

Britain has an Established Church, which ties its administration tightly to a Christian Heritage. In contrast the United States famously has no established religious structures, and in an official capacity has tended in my lifetime towards a kind of soothing ecumenical attitude of 'with malice towards none', except those with no religion. Despite this, in one of those ironies about life that amuse me greatly, the United States has a flourishing Christian religious culture, with talk of God and churchgoing quite commonplace. My experience in Britain was that religion was very much a private matter, only to be mentioned insofar as it affects other social engagements. Much the same attitude seems to be held here in Canada.

So does Britain have a Christian identity? In this matter, let us turn to the United States, and quote a Supreme Court justice, David Brewer:

I could go on indefinitely, pointing out further illustrations both official and non-official, public and private; such as the annual Thanksgiving proclamations, with their following days of worship and feasting; announcements of days of fasting and prayer; the universal celebration of Christmas; the gathering of millions of our children in Sunday Schools, and the countless volumes of Christian literature, both prose and poetry. But I have said enough to show that Christianity came to this country with the first colonists; has been powerfully identified with its rapid development, colonial and national, and to-day exists as a mighty factor in the life of the republic.
That is from his 1905 book, The United States: A Christian Nation.

Brewer here is pointing out that in practical terms, Christianity is so woven into the practice of the daily life of the United States that the absence of any law establishing a religion is irrelevant. By simple fact of being American, one imbibes a certain amount of Christianity, and it will influence one, for or against, no matter what. Whether that is still true is, I think, open to question, and what the more politicised Christians of today's America are fretting about.

Britain, however, has a modern history of not being particularly religious in practice, despite the fact that the Churches of England and Scotland is a part of the state. Methodism and Ritualism were, in part, responses to an indifference to the Christian message among many. Despite the concerns of the Humanist Association, Britain has got along fairly well in incorporating non-Christians in society without anything like the the Gordon Riots. Indeed, it seems the United Kingdom's main problem in constructing an inclusive national identity has been intra-Christian, as opposed to anti-semitism or hostility towards the Hindu or the Moslem. The British government, despite an official religion, has been quite 'decent' in this matter, historically, and the British political class, with one or two exceptions, has generally eschewed making an issue of 'alien' religions, non-Papal varieties.

If you have read this far, I have to tell you that I am not going to offer an answer to the question of whether the UK is or is not a Christian nation. Without doubt, it has to be included among the states which are culturally Christian, in the way Tunisia or Palestine, once culturally Christian, are not. What this Eastertide debate is about is what meaning will that have for the future. How much does Justice Brewer's description of turn-of-the-twentieth-century America reflect twenty-first century Britain? Or anywhere else in Christendom for that matter?

[I have to apologise for the low rate of posts this month. My mother is unwell, and I have been sitting with her.]