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 Å“sophagus 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.]

08 April 2014

Adam Smith, 'Marxist' (or Karl Marx, 'Smithist')

I was reading an article from The Atlantic that used some of the splendid tools that Google has made available to researchers to trace the beginnings of the word 'liberal', as a word conveying a political philosophy.

In it, I came across the following:

If all nations, Smith says, were to follow “the liberal system of free exportation and free importation,” then they would be like one great cosmopolitan empire, and famines would be prevented.
The Smith referred to is one of the founding figures of what might be called 'Anglosphere Ideology', Adam Smith.

What struck me, though, was the idea of internationalism expressed here. Marx argued that the working class must think globally if it was to carry out its inevitable task of supplanting the capitalism. Smith seems to be arguing the same for the capitalist class to accomplish his liberal agenda.

Think about this for a moment. In 1774, 'nations' and their borders were still somewhat protean concepts compared to what they would become in short order. Most people in Europe (and the Americas), in fact, were loyal to a structure under which nationality was represented by a specific individual. Borders simply marked the limits of this individual's authority, and the point where the authority of another individual reigned. Smith is envisioning a world where the ability of that individual (and the associated administrative structure) to reward and deny on the basis of preference will be severely restricted. 'All that is solid melts into air' indeed.

The capitalists in fact succeeded in subverting their contemporary structures of authority to establish their 'dictatorship' over the way societies are organised. I imagine Marx looking on the world today from the Valhalla of Political Economists rather grimly while at the other end of the banqueting table Adam Smith has a broad smirk of self-satisfaction.

20 March 2014

Rich Differences

The Guardian a few days ago had a news story that included a list of the five richest families in Britain. I knew the Duke of Westminster's family had long been the richest in the country, but the appearance of the Cadogan's got me thinking about what different sources of wealth between the richest five British and the richest five American families might tell us about the different historical trajectories followed by the two countries, especially their two economies. While I like to think of them as more alike than different, as an historian it is my job to look for evidence that challenges my view. Sports is a good one. Maybe rich people are, too.

The Cadogans are the oldest family in terms of being rich and influential. They have links to Cromwell's parliamentary army, the Duke of Marlborough (the Churchills) and the Glorious Revolution and service in the Napoleonic Wars. Their wealth rests on London property, inherited after marrying the Sloane heiress in 1717.

The Grosvenors are like the Cadogans in their fortune resting on ownership of parts of London. However, at the time the Cadogans were marrying into London property, the Grosvenors were based in Cheshire. It was the first marquess of Westminster whose development of Belgravia and Pimlico on the edges of Westminster who really founded the family fortune.

There is about a hundred-year gap between the Grosvenors and The Hindujas in terms of launching a family fortune. The Hindujas were originally from Sind, and the business began in Bombay, but they were active in the traditional trade across the Arabian Sea between Persia and Bombay. In 1919, the Hindujas set up in Tehran, and in the 1950s and 1960s Iran became central to their money-making. After the fall of the Shah in 1979, the Hindujas moved their base to London, although most of the business activities remained located in India and the Near East. One can think of the Hinduja wealth as a creation of the trading network shaped by the British Empire. In this sense, the Hindujas are very unlike the Cadogans and Grosvenors.

The Reubens are like the Hindujas, in that they are something of an Imperial legacy. They too started in Bombay, and then made their way to London. The difference is that they did that a lot earlier, with the family arriving in the early 1950s, not long after India's independence. They were traders, and benefited from London's rapid reassertion of its position as the most important global financial centre despite the tremendous debt left from the Second World War, the transformation of the US dollar into the world's reserve currency and the continued decline of Britain's economic position relative to other states. Rich by the 1980s, they did well out of the end of the Cold War, although they are said to have terminated their links with Russian businessmen in the early years of this century.

Mike Ashley is a post-Thatcher creation, and his achievement resembles that of Sainsbury of Victorian Britain (a dynamic period with a few fortunes built by those of humble origins), in that he transformed retail into a fortune. He made his money selling sportswear to Britons and buying up other businesses. His business interests really expanded during the long 1994-2008 economic boom that transformed Britain out of all recognition from the 'sick man of Europe' of the 1970s and 1980s. Ashley's family background is relatively humble, compared to the other four names on the British side of this list.

The Mars family name will be familiar to all Britons via the Mars bar, the British equivalent to America's Milky Way. The founder, Frank Mars, is a bit unusual in this list for having experienced a business failure with his first efforts in 1911. He tried again in the 1920s, and launched a British subsidiary in the depths of depression in 1932.

Fred C. Koch, founder of The Koch family fortune, like the Mars, has ties to Britain. In the 1920s he worked at an oil refinery in Kent, until in 1925 he moved to Wichita, Kansas, to found his oil refining business. Legal troubles in the US ensured that he found markets for his refining process outside the United States, which ended up shaping his political views. Koch Industries was founded in 1940, and later expanded from its core engineering business to become an oil and chemical conglomerate.

The Pritzker family is traditionally associated with the Hyatt hotel chain, although they were not the original owners of the original Hyatt. In fact, the family is from Chicago, and started their ascent to wealth as lawyers and investors. They also made quite a bit from traditional manufacturing through their ownership of what became the Marmon Group. Their accumulation began in earnest in the late 1950s and early 1960s, although the original Pritzker investments date back to the mid-1950s

The Waltons should need little introduction here, as their Wal-Marts are everywhere. The first Wal-Mart opened its doors in 1962.

The Duncans of Houston, Texas, offer the classic Texan story of wealth, based on oil and gas. However, they did not make their money from drilling oil wells, but by ownership of pipelines and storage facilities. They are also among the newer wealthy families. Dan Duncan spent some years working for another company before setting up for himself in 1968.

So can we draw any conclusions from this list of names? Not conclusions, perhaps, but there is one key observation. It is interesting that (with one exception) the American list reflects the post-1945 economic history of the United States, whereas the British list represents three very distinct phases of the kingdom's history. Put together, in the way I like to treat Anglo-America, though, and the really interesting point is that the British list is far more multi-cultural than the American one. And I would have expected that.

15 March 2014

Tony Benn's Anglo-American Dimension

Tony Benn has died. When I arrived in Blighty, back in the late 1970s, he was a key figure on the political scene. I was not a fan of his. But it was sort of a knee-jerk response. He wanted to remove the Queen's head from the postage stamp. This is a notion I still find repellent; but with the sale of the Royal Mail, I don't see it as so important any longer.

What the obituaries reminded us was that Benn married an American woman. Caroline Middleton DeCamp met Tony Benn at Worcester College, Oxford, in 1949. She had been Vassar '45 and Cincinnati '48 and went to London to do a Master's degree at UCL, itself a somewhat radical foundation. Mrs Benn had an enduring belief in the principle of 'comprehensive education', the idea that schools should not select their pupils on the basis of ability, but largely by where they reside in relation to the school's buildings. From the obituary I linked above, here is a memory from Clyde Chitty, her colleague in the war against selective schooling:

Caroline saw the British education system with a foreigner's eyes. She hated British divisiveness and elitism, and, when her own children were at Holland Park comprehensive, she wanted the best for them, and for the school - and for that best to be extended to all. Utterly informal, with that American vitality, she was classless. With her, there was none of that "presence", that sense of being with someone important. She could relate to anyone.
Of course, Britons loved to believe that American life was not divisive or elitist, and I hope they know better now.

The comprehensive educational system has certainly done nothing to overturn the divisive and elitist nature of British education. What happens now in Britain is that one selects more on the basis of family income. If one can, one pays a higher price for a house with good schools. Sometimes, it probably makes more sense to buy a cheaper house and spend the money saved on sending your child to some kind of private school. I know from experience that getting one's child into a decent secondary school in London is a highly competitive process, and that people will go to all kinds of lengths, either legitimate or not, to improve their child's chances. And, I'm afraid to say, the same has been true of Canada as well. At the primary level in London, it's a lot easier to find a good school, because they are smaller. The Law of Unintended Consequences works powerfully, and should make us less eager to attempt simple administrative reforms to correct injustice.

Perhaps with the help of his wife, whom Benn confessed to be a source of advice, Benn proved an 'early adopter' of television as a means for politicians to address the voters in a direct way that previously had not been possible. From the late 1970s onwards, he looked to extra-parliamentary politics to act as something of a counterweight to the whipped-in majorities of the House of Commons, and then the loss of legislative authority to external transnational organisations such as the European Commission. In this, Benn may have detected that the 'separation of powers' under a modern Westminster regime really relates to groups outside parliament. Months of pressure by organised campaigning are required, which is beyond the patience of most people. This mixture of technology and grassroots organisation is especially American, going back to the days of the Populists and the Progressives at the turn of the twentieth century. This circumvents the kind of elitist log-rolling that one tends to associate with Tammany-Hall type regimes, but which also captures the older Westminster model on display in Namier's analysis of the eighteenth-century epoch of parliamentary government.

As well as being married to an American, Benn apparently also found some support there during his campaign to renounce his peerage, according to this excellent memoir of him by the member of parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central, Tristram Hunt. This article is worth reading with some care, because one can see in Benn's career a kind of emblematic arc of the decline of national parliaments in a world where trading arrangements between countries has gradually taken authority away from legislators and put it into the hands of judiciaries or quasi-judicial organisations, often of a trans-national character. Benn's sharp shift leftwards in the 1970s can be seen in this light as the moment when he recognised that 'moderation in pursuit of national self-determination', to coin a phrase, was a vice, and it was natural for a man in his political position to shift towards the autarkic 'socialism in one country' of the Alternate Economic Strategy of the Labour left. The AES was to a great extent a throwback to the Labour recipe of the 1945-51 Atlee government, which was remarkably successful on its own terms. It was at this point that Benn found himself on what could be called 'the wrong side of history', at least for the rest of his lifetime. He ended up waging a steady guerrilla campaign against his vision of American foreign policy, ably summarised in The Guardian's obituary.

The Bennite worldview presented a well worked out analysis according to which the IMF, the World Bank and multinational corporations ran the global economy. The European commission and the establishment governed Britain. Spin doctors and pollsters dominated politics. "I did not enter the Labour party … to have our manifesto written by Dr Mori, Dr Gallup and Mr Harris," wrote Benn. The US was an imperial power that had pursued a policy of world domination since the second world war, and that policy was based on a doctrine: "A faith is something you die for, a doctrine is something you kill for. There is all the difference in the world."

Yet Benn's effective criticism of the Eden government during the 1956 Suez Crisis served American interests, and also that American world domination he has condemned since the 1970s. This fiftieth anniversary summary of the crisis' signficance in world affairs, from The Independent, captures how Britain's ability to act in its interests could be undone where it contradicted the interests of its closest ally. Quite possibly the Americans did the British a favour, in the long-term, in 1956. Probably Benn would have seen it that way at the time. This thirty-year-old article from the always-excellent History Today suggests that this view was wrong, and that the interests of both Britain and America might have been better served by a policy more supportive of Britain's anti-nationalisation stance. Remember, the current woes in Egypt stem from the actions of the descendants of that same clique of officers that have been in charge since Nasser led them there.

The irony of Benn's career is that the forces he supported at its beginning, those working towards the so-called democratisation/Americanisation of Britain, have been exactly the same forces he found destroying Britain's political and economic independence in its middle and at its end. We always think we can pick and choose from the menu, but history proves this is rarely the case. The framework that the United States has erected in the latter half of the twentieth century is remarkably similar to that put up by Victorian Britain, which occupied a near-identical role as global economic arbiter. We may swear allegiance to different things (the Queen, still on some postage stamps, on one hand; a flag on the other), but our cultural outlook — which includes the foundations of property law and its effect on the organisation of the economy and trade — remains identical.

UPDATE: One more thing: in doing the reading for this post, I came across a reference to the title that Mrs Benn suggested for Labour's 1964 election manifesto. She proposed 'The New Britain', which worked its way into the final title. Eight years earlier, Adlai Stevenson ran for president under the slogan 'The New America', possibly based on a memo of Arthur Schlesinger's. Of course, it's probably just coincidence.