04 April 2017

'Fake News', 1780s Quaker Style

'With respect to abolitionism, then, British newspapers and periodicals published from the summer of 1783 to the spring of 1787 need to be read with caution. Historians will never know how many of the antislavery statements that appear in the British press in this period resulted from Slave Association sponsorship. What sometimes looks like an upsurge of antislavery argument and commentary in the press occasionally represented little more than the initiative of  a clever Quaker propagandist. Friends not only attempted to generate antislavery opinion. They tried to create the emergence of an emerging public consensus on behalf of abolition more than two years before that support materialised in full.' 
From, Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: foundations of British abolitionism, (UNC Press, Chapel Hill, NC: 2006), pp 430-1.

29 March 2017

Article 50 Day: Bursting a Balloon

'Prince: I know my duty; you are all undutiful:/Lascivious Edward,--and thou, perjur'd George,--/And thou, misshapen Dick,--I tell ye all/I am your better, traitors as ye are:--/And thou usurp'st my father's right and mine.
King Edward: Take that, the likeness of this railer here [Stabs him]
Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III): Sprawl'st thou? take that, to end thy agony. [Stabs him]
Duke of Clarence: And there's for twitting me with perjury. [Stabs him]
-- King Henry VI, Part 3, Act V, Scene 5

- * - * - * -

Probably for some today's Shakespeare quote will be the one on the eve of Agincourt in Henry V, but I prefer to think of #Brexit as a civil war like the Wars of the Roses. This episodic affair arose out of the ending of a cross-Channel empire in France, and concluded with the victory of Henry Tudor, helped by France, over Richard III. Shakespeare here refers to the death of Henry VI's heir, Prince Edward, Watching the murder in this scene is Henry VI's wife Margaret, daughter of a French king. Edward can stand in today for the young people of Britain, who favoured a European future. I have sympathy for them, but for old codgers like me the cultural links with the Anglosphere were being loosened too much under the reign of the mad kings of Brussels. Kith and kin lay abroad across the oceans, not the Channel, for most of us until relatively recently.

Which brings me to a continent I visit too infrequently in this blog, Australasia. Some time ago, I set aside an alarmist article by a former Australian foreign minister, intending to comment on it. I was reminded of it by the recent appearance of a blog post by Ben Wellings of Monash University on the same theme. Now is a good time to deal with this 'Anglosphere Illusion'.

Let me start with former foreign minister Gareth Evans, who writes:
The basic problem for Anglosphere advocates is that none of the candidates for membership of this new club are likely to have the slightest interest – geostrategic, economic or political – in joining it.... the truth of the matter is that the UK has brought nothing of [geostrategic] significance to the region’s defense since the fall of Singapore in 1942....Anglosphere connections mattered a lot for Australians and others in the days before the UK joined the European Common Market. The severance of those ties was painful for our dairy and other industries, but for Britain hard-headed self-interest understandably prevailed....Probably the hardest truth that Britain’s Anglosphere dreamers must confront is that there is just no mood politically, in any of the candidate countries of which I’m aware, to build some new global association of the linguistically and culturally righteous.
 These are three very valid points: (1) Britain is a geostrategic Lilliput; (2) old economic links are gone, (3) Australians have moved away intellectually (and possibly spiritually) from the Mother Country. Now for a look at an earlier blog post on The Conversation:
The British Commonwealth of Nations achieved some economic coordination, but it was not a free-trade area. Members offered each other tariff “preferences” in which they lowered duties....Without central institutions it was hard to promote uniformity and resolve disputes. Between 1932 and 1936 Britain’s empire and Commonwealth trade did rise from 33% to 37% of imports and from 41% to 47% of exports...[After the war] Dollar shortages and exchange controls in the “Sterling Area” channelled trade towards Commonwealth members. In 1953, they accounted for  49% of UK imports and exports.... By 1972...Britain’s EEC trade had overtaken its Commonwealth trade despite the French president Charles De Gaulle twice vetoing UK applications to join the community....The experience of the 1930s illustrates that there are limits to supranational economic cooperation without some pooling of sovereignty.
 Again, the key points are (1) the Commonwealth does not have an economic role, (2) the broader economic situation trumps any 'cultural' unity. We can interpret these as variants of Mr Evans second point. Finally, we come to the post that was my springboard for writing this blog post of my own:
The disappointing UK trade mission to India, where Indian officials showed scant interest in a free-trade agreement and instead wanted fewer restrictions on the movement of Indians to the UK, showed the hard road ahead....The main risk for Australia is that Brexit comes at a moment when – after many years – Australia will soon start FTA negotiations with the EUFor Australia, Brexit is the diplomatic equivalent of moving into a shared house with a divorcing couple. In signalling with alacrity that “Australia will be there” when it comes to an FTA with the UK, Australia must not seem too keen – lest we become embroiled in a messy divorce between the UK and the EU.
 So here the key point is 'Britain can expect no favours' based on past connections, a variant of Mr Evans' third point. The question is, do all these objections leave any grounds for optimism? The answer seems to me to be a qualified 'yes'. I would focus on two aspects from the quotes I have provided here. Andrew Dilley of the University of Aberdeen, in the second citation, illustrates the problems with the Commonwealth as an economic institution. I would suggest that the first step is simply for a 'coalition of the willing' to start envisioning future arrangements that could solve disputes without imperilling sovereignty in the way the EU did. After all, we have the existing example of the EU, for one thing, to show what works and what doesn't.

Furthermore, though the 'Golden Age' of UK-Commonwealth trade grew out of some specific conditions, so did the British 'pivot to Europe' during 1957-72. To some extent, it was a reversion to a natural pattern. In 1913, UK trade with Continental Western Europe amounted to 38.5 per cent of its imports and 29.6 per cent of its exports. Canada, Australasia, Southern Africa and South Asia amounted to 22.6 per cent of imports and 31.6 per cent of exports. More importantly, in 2015 UK exports to Continental Western Europe excluding Switzerland amounted to 30.6 per cent of the total; imports from the same countries amounted to 41.4 per cent. Going by this historical pattern, leaving the EU may well have little impact on British exports, and something like 3 per cent of imports might shift to Commonwealth sources, or elsewhere. (BTW, this is roughly what those opposed to EU entry in the 1960s said, roughly -- our Commonwealth partners would lose a market for their exports.) Far from being of, as Mr Evans put it, 'the slightest interest', that's a lot of money. Surely the EU's difficulty is indeed Australia's (and the rest of the Commonwealth's) opportunity.  The lesson of China stands out here. Imports from Mainland China in 1913 amounted to a minuscule 0.3 per cent and in 1959 stood at 0.5 per cent. In 2015 they stood at 10.4 per cent. Who saw that coming in 1959, let alone 1913? (My 1913 statistics come from a draft UN report you can access here.)

 The second point is the Indian desire for 'fewer restrictions on the movement of Indians'. Leaving the EU will free the British government's hands somewhat on this, and also with regard to the 'white Commonwealth' countries that include many descendants of emigrants from Britain and Ireland. For India and South Asia more broadly, as well as the Forgotten Anglosphere in the West Indies, we have the reverse -- Britain has received people, and the family ties shared by all these countries potentially could help Britain with the immigration it will continue to need. Another 'coalition of the willing' could start thinking about how people could circulate around these countries, which might help with trade. This would strengthen previously existing links between families and other institutions that do share a common heritage. Mr Evans' sense that the ties will continue to weaken is a self-fulfilling prophecy unless people work to keep them up. The same is true of any family.

 This is not to say that some kind of future arrangement will 'replace' the EU on any level. Thinking that is even more 'pie in the sky' than anything I have written above. Britain has learned some hard lessons about 'the free movement of people' in an era of austerity, as any conversation with a teacher or social worker employed in one of the affected areas might highlight. And the economic dislocation is going to be severe, a self-inflicted recession on par with 1991-2, possibly. Welcome to the Brave Old World of post-war Conservative economic policy.

Nonetheless, the idea of an 'Anglosphere Illusion' is... overblown just as much as its proponents assert that some kind of Commonwealth Free Trade Area would be. The reality is going to lie somewhere between the two positions, and probably to the advantage of the Commonwealth countries.

28 March 2017

The Anglosphere on Television: Miami Vice

[A television channel available here in South Florida shows the classic 1980s television show Miami Vice in syndication every weeknight. I have been writing some commentary about the episodes I see for another audience, and I thought to provide some of those posts here, with a slightly different emphasis.]
Miami Vice was relatively popular in Britain when it ran there on the BBC. I know several of my friends in London at the time watched it, although I haven't been able to track down actual ratings yet. As I recall, the violence was at first somewhat controversial, and there was even discussion about how the BBC was editing out some footage of shootings. (One bullet would do where Americans got three.) 
Despite the obvious links between Latin American drug traders and the main thread of the show, the Anglosphere was a constant presence from the start. Tubbs, played by Philip Michael Thomas, frequently acted as a West Indian when undercover. And then, starting in Season 3, the relationship appeared to deepen. The first episode shown (although not the one planned) even featured an IRA-based plot and a young Liam Neeson. But I prefer to look start looking at these connections further into the season.  
Season 3, ‘Theresa’
The preceding episode, 'Duty and Honor,' featured a youthful Helena Bonham Carter in a cameo role as Crockett's girlfriend. 'Duty and Honor' itself focused on Lt Castillo's Southeast Asian past, and therefore the American experience in Vietnam. (The Vietnam Vet is another constant underlying presence in the show.) Bonham Carter, however, was given greatly expanded duty in 'Theresa', the title itself being the name of her character. Watching again after all these years, it is clear she was too young for the role. Contrast her efforts here with her much more self-assured performance a decade later in Fight Club, and you can see what I mean. That said, a baseball simile comes to mind: like a young pitcher’s sequencing, her work seemed callow in the earlier one, and she lacked the command that the veteran brought to bear in the later stint. But he talent was undeniable.
Nonetheless, the fact of her Britishness is entirely irrelevant to the role. There is brief mention of it, but the script could easily be re-written to make her character Canadian, Bajan or even a non-Anglosphere country like Argentina. But this is how the Anglosphere works in culture -- the subliminal impact is that we are somehow related in a way an Argentinian is not. This was perhaps more true in 1987 than it is today. It is somewhat ironic that if it is less true, Miami Vice the show probably contributed to that happening. Miami Beach went from the home of a chubby white comedian, to a multi-cultural, open-air, crime-infested gallery of the Art Deco

12 October 2016

Fun with Gellner... and TRUMP

At the outset, I have to say I wouldn't urge anyone to take this post too seriously. It's just a bit of scholarly fun that further research might confirm offers some insight -- or mean nothing at all.

In his 1964 book Thought and Change, Ernest Gellner talks about how some nationalism emerges when a linguistic-cultural (or ethnic) minority contained within a larger state that is dominated by a different linguistic-cultural group. What happens is that the minority elite, which participates in the regime, recognises it could do better being big fishes in a small pond, as opposed to swimming around the big pond competing with other big fishes at a disadvantage. They form an intelligentsia which tells the great mass of the ethnic minority the reality of their situation, and motivates them to demand independence.

Some twenty years later, in Nations and Nationalism, Gellner developed one of those sociological typologies that irritate scholars of history, because the categories depicted can result in exceptions that must be hand-waved away somehow but which are meat and drink to historians. I found a useful table of these typologies in an academic article by Brendan O'Leary, 'On the Nature of Nationalism', published in the British Journal of Political Science in 1997.

So how does this apply to the amazing presidential trajectory of Donald Trump? As is well known, college-educated people (the elite) are, with the exception of Republican party regulars, not really on his side. The power-holders class is also somewhat split and those most heavily invested in globalisation appear to be sceptical about Trump. Meanwhile, he does better among the less well-educated. Gellner's typologies have six factors -- power-holders vs powerless, educated vs uneducated and shared culture vs culture not shared. These typologies intersect to produce various outcomes related to what state will emerge when confronted by fundamental economic change.

Your typical educated urban elitist probably watches HBO series, is interested in tennis and drinks craft beer. Meanwhile, smaller-city service worker watches Two Broke Girls, is interested in NASCAR and drinks mass-produced lager. Not much of a shared culture there.

Plug those into Gellner's typologies, and you confront a Type 4 outcome 'Ethnic nationalism'.

Now, actually, based on Gellner's criteria, both groups would count as Educated. I cheated a little bit there. But if the degree of education required to function in what the Marxisants call 'late capitalism' has gone beyond the simple 3 'R's of Type 6 'Classical liberal Western Nationalism' -- well, then, I might be on to something here!

10 October 2016

A Short Note Inspired by Ernest Gellner

Over the last three or four months I have been doing some reading into the historiography of the concepts of 'the nation' and 'nationalism'. Thinking about Ernest Gellner's early essay into this topic, the chapter Nationalism in Thought and Change, I find an interesting intellectual point of departure within a globalising world.

Generally speaking, some historians, like the late Anthony Smith (both of us being originally a Classicists by academic training), perceived that kinship, the actual or imagined blood link between a group of people, was at the heart of what one might call proto-nationalism. We see this in the Latin word 'gens', which is 'a race or clan, embracing several families united together by a common name and by certain religious rites' according to Lewis and Short.

Gellner, in Thought and Change, talks of bureaucracies being 'the kinship of modern man'. It helps to understand 'bureaucracy' very broadly. It is not merely the civil servants and lower-level representatives of a state's administration one finds when applying for benefits or getting a driver's licence. Large corporations, banks, medium-sized businesses, universities, non-profits -- all of these are run by means of bureaucratic structures that persist beyond the actual life of people who work there. Quite a few workers, especially those who do well out of the globalised economy, network their way through these institutions into retirement. When they network across borders, they tend to remain within the cities that are themselves part of the global network in a way a city like Detroit or Liverpool is not -- San Francisco, London, Tokyo and their subaltern educational sites in Cambridge or Stanford.

In order to show this kinship, scholars should approach it through some kind of social-network analysis. If these global places are slowly becoming some kind of 'hypernational' entity, we should be able to see people not merely moving within a bureaucratic institution, like Barclays Bank, but also across it to Mizuho Financial. And it must be more than a handful of individuals, and these networks should persist over time, having heritability as mentors leave them to their proteges to continue across 'generations'.

I am working with these ideas in an historical context, but I present them here in the hope that some younger scholar might exploit them usefully. I am getting on, and I have enough research projects for the rest of my life.

28 June 2016

Four Points on the Brexit Compass

I found I had to write a very different post to the one I expected to write. While I dashed off a few paragraphs almost straightaway, I have also had to revise this post on an almost daily basis. 28 June was the first time in five mornings that there was not some kind of new fact to take into account when I looked at some of the British news web-sites. As the day wore on, however, some of what I had intended to say was overtaken by events, and I have tried to write around this still developing historic happening. I offer five points to help interpret, in an historical context, what is going on in the United Kingdom.

The first point is that the political map of England has ventured on new historical territory. Traditionally, London and the Southeast offer a solid bedrock of support for a ‘Court’ party, rooted in Westminster, to which supporters in other parts of England then attach themselves. By contrast, look for a map of the votes from 23 June, and you will see that London and its educational and ideological colonies in Oxford and Cambridge -- the ‘Court’ party -- stand out quite dramatically from the rest of England. The ‘Country’ party -- in the past the King’s party in the Civil War, the Tories in the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath, the Labour party from 1918 -- has won what is possibly its first lasting victory in English history.

The second, and crucial, point is that the United Kingdom's political class has blundered on a massive scale, calling into question the legitimacy of their right to rule. The whole process was structured in such a way as to make the transition to the consequences of a Leave victory as awkward as possible. This was not a general election, in which an alternative government stands ready. Thus, complaints by people that ‘there is no plan’ are somewhat unwarranted. Blame the people responsible for the way the referendum was posed, not the winners. One could single out David Cameron, but that would be unfair. The referendum was held under a parliamentary act that MPs debated and could have amended. As a consequence of that it is going to take several years for the new dispensation to emerge from the grind of daily politics, foreign and domestic. Leave’s victory constitutes a revolutionary moment. Both the French and Russian revolutions demonstrate that this opens up several possibly pathways for the UK state, and no-one knows with any certainty where they will lead. What is being fought over now is control of the opening gambit in this process. There is no guarantee that by the time the process ends, the same people will be in charge.

The third point is that Europe is a fault-line that has run through both Britain’s major parties since the 1960s. Labour suffered the most from it at first, leading to the split that created the Social Democratic Party. The Conservative split may have cost them a majority in February 1974, but they closed ranks and it was not until the Maastricht treaty in 1992 that they split again. Meanwhile, Labour retreated from its anti-EU position very rapidly, and gradually the anti-EU wing was reduced to a tiny group in the parliamentary party, assisted by a somewhat larger one outside. But now the original split is appearing again. The problem for the UK is that the organisational structures underpinning its political system largely try very hard to avoid accommodating this divide. This is the fundamental cause of the current instability in both political parties, and result in the abdication of the political elite from government.

The fourth point is that what we see on display in the result of the referendum is the fundamental trend governing world politics today -- the emergence of the city-state network. Certain cities have reached a stage where they can transcend national borders and exist as part of a network of communities that is almost, but not quite, self-sufficient. Imagine a global polity that consisted of London, New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other places. Might these cities have more in common with each other in the pursuit of economic and social policies than with their hinterland? I suspect so. That leaves Boston in Lincolnshire, Sunderland and other similar places in the awkward position of being ruled by this polity but having no effective political representation within it.

The life of the late Jo Cox is itself worth of a Greek tragedy on the theme of what is happening. She grew up in a community that has converted its old textile mills into shopping complexes. She educated herself, being the first in her family to go to university, and left to find more opportunities in London. There she did good work on behalf of an international charity. There, her connections to the Westminster ‘bubble’ enabled her to return home and win selection as a Labour candidate and, in due course, election as a member of parliament. Her assassination by a neo-Nazi who was left behind by the Global Polity illustrated how their share community experience a very real problem. The Global Polity draws away many of the best and brightest from places that desperately need leadership and investment to find some sort of peaceful accommodation with the future. If this is not done, the United Kingdom -- and the world -- may get a lot messier than they are today.

22 June 2016

Why I Am for #Brexit

Tomorrow will see the British people being given the same chance as they had in 1975 to vote on membership of the European project that began life as an attempt to co-ordinate economies in order to reduce the risk of yet another European-wide war and has been transformed over two-and-a-half generations into a superstate. The thing that they voted for in 1975 has changed dramatically over the subsequent forty years. It is a very different decision.

The campaign, on both sides, has been a disgusting display of fear-mongering and prejudice, punctuated by the assassination of a member of parliament by a neo-Nazi. We are all the poorer for what has happened.

The choice is whether the people of the UK want to be part of the EU under the terms negotiated by David Cameron, or whether to leave the EU altogether. Do not pretend that these new terms put the UK at the heart of Europe. Cameron has negotiated away much of the ability of the UK to influence the future direction of the European Union. There is no chance that this will change for the foreseeable future unless you believe that the Conservative Party will lose its majority in the next election, and a pro-European alternative emerge.

It gives me no pleasure to say that in my opinion the best choice for future generations of Britons is to vote for #Brexit. I am forced to associate with people whom I frequently regard as wrong. But in this case, whatever their reasons for agreeing with me in this binary choice, theirs is the correct position when the matter is viewed as a whole. I will briefly explain why.

The campaign to vote Leave has been a fearsome display of 'othering' that conceals the fact that the United Kingdom needs immigration. But the reality is that the UK can control that immigration more easily if it does not contend with the free movement of people throughout Europe. Having left, the UK will be in a position to improve access for people from Commonwealth countries.

Let us be realistic -- the people of the UK will tolerate a number of immigrants. But this number is an absolute one. If you want a whiter, more culturally Western population, vote for Remain. A victory for Leave will mean UK immigration will be browner and more likely to include those of non-Christian faiths. But in this the UK will look more like its kin in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

As a part of Europe, the UK government has allowed those connections to diminish, although the people of the UK have done a better job of keeping them going. This is exactly the point that was made at the beginning of the UK's long debate over the EU in the time of Harold Macmillan's government (1957-63). The postman arriving at the homes of Britons brought letters from family in those former settler colonies on a frequent basis, while the emerging economies of newly independent countries in Africa and Asia would suffer from joining a Common Market that would place tarrifs on their agricultural goods. We cannot exactly go back to those days, but these links are not extinct, merely atrophied because of the UK's membership of the EU.They can be reactivated, but it will take time. They will not replace the EU. It is a politico-cultural community, not an economic one.

Meanwhile, the campaign for Remain has created a horror story about the economic future for a UK outside the EU. Much of this is grossly exaggerated, and neglects the fact that the UK, by not being part of the single currency, is already not at the centre of European economic decision-making. Because the UK remains part of the World Trade Organisation, and because the UK is an important market for the EU, trade with the EU will continue under no worse trading conditions that the UK has with any other country that is part of the WTO, but not part of the EU.

The EU will do all in its power to make the UK suffer the worst possible terms of trade, because it is the EU that is afraid of its future should the UK leave. If the UK makes a successful transitions within the WTO but without the EU, then other countries will certainly follow. We only need to look at poor Greece, whose citizens attempted to defy the EU within the single currency, to see how frightened the EU leadership is of members trying to adjust the terms of their relationship with this ugly economic monolith.

We also hear about how workers will lose all their rights, and how the NHS will go unfunded. Well, these are political decisions, and asking a foreign authority to guarantee your rights or the funding of your health service seems to indicate that you don't deserve them. These are things I am in favour of -- the rights of workers to minimums standards and a well-funded national health service free at the point of access -- and I am willing to take the risk that the British people can be convinced these are valuable things in and of themselves, and not just because of a treaty with foreign powers. And, let's not forget, what the EU gives to workers in the social chapter, it can also take away when it adopts measures to protect the interests of big business.

The rest of the Remain argument can be boiled down to 'the EU is not that bad, really, in terms of democracy'. Oh, but it is. The one time the EU project was derailed was when the French and the Dutch voted against the proposed European Constitution in 2005. And all the EU leaders did was to negotiate a treaty at Lisbon to impose much of the constitutional arrangements anyway. The EU is not democratic in any meaningful way, but a conspiracy against the ordinary people of Europe by their own governments in order to facilitate a continental economic policy because it suits big business.

Let us not fool ourselves. There are people working to reform this appalling entity, but there is no mass movement to do so, and there hasn't been since the 'democratic deficit' became an issue a generation ago. Anyone who thinks the EU can be meaningfully reformed from within is ignoring the dynamic of history.

The one strong argument deployed by Remain is the constitutional one. There is a grave risk that a vote for Leave will cause Scotland to go its own way, in the hope of staying part of the European project, and a lesser one that Northern Ireland might follow suit. But the Union is already in doubt, and there is no guarantee that Scotland would vote to continue the Union in five or ten years. I will say this: if a vote for Remain would guarantee the Union would continue for another ten generations, then I would set aside all my doubts and vote Remain. I do not believe this is so.

The world is a very different place than it was in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union and the United States threatened to turn Europe into an atomic battlefield. The EU is having far more trouble with coping with this change than the UK could acting alone.

Voting Leave is to take a tremendous risk. But voting to Remain is to lock the UK away in a cage that will see it continue to lose touch with its historical relations, to risk seeing the economy trapped in the disaster that is the single currency's austerity regime, and to distort the relationship between UK Labour and UK Capital by placing a higher referee over them that is not subject to direct democratic accountability by the people of the UK. This is probably the last chance the UK will have to withdraw in my lifetime. I hope it takes it.