11 October 2014

The War on Modernity

(This post was begun in August, but then put to one side as my attention turned to other things. I complete it out of an obligation to ride my favourite hobby-horse, as I feel it seems rather dated now.)

Peter Hitchens is not alone in regarding the First World War as a conflict that altered the course of civilisation for the worse. That article of his is as good a summary of the argument against the war — the tremendous human cost did not serve the material purpose of most of those who lost family, or came home mutilated either physically or mentally. Hitchens does see one winner from the war:

Those on the Left should defend it and rejoice over it. It was the fulfillment of their dreams. No single event has done more to advance the power of the state and of state socialism.
At least one historian, Arno Mayer, has argued that the First World War was rooted in an attempt to solve a crisis of domestic politics rather than a crisis of foreign affairs. While an earlier post of mine may seem to agree with this thesis on first sight, in fact it argues that Britain's party-political situation made her intervention in the general European war inevitable. The Liberal government did not go to war to avoid a civil war over Ireland or industrial unrest. It went to war out of fear of losing power to a coalition of pro-war politicians. (The latter may have been acting in line with the Mayer thesis, but I haven't done the research to say.) However, a close reading of Hitchens' article suggests that he, at least, is motivated by a Mayer-like idea, although one operating with the benefit of hindsight.

Hitchens' article laments a world lost.

Many of [the war's] worst consequences came during official periods of peace and are unknown or forgotten, or remain unconnected with it in the public mind. The loss cannot be measured in cash because it was paid in the more elusive coin of faith, morals, trust, hope, and civility. The war is the reason why Europe is no longer a Christian continent, because too many churches supported it. Pointing to the poverty and scientific backwardness of the pre-1914 world is a false comparison. Who is to say that we could not have grown just as rich as we are now, and made just as many technological and medical advances, had we not slain the flower of Europe’s young men before they could win Nobel Prizes, or even beget and raise children?
It appears that, at least in Germany, there was a view that the war would slow or halt the pace of some changes:
Some politicians and writers viewed war as a cure-all for what they perceived to be the evils of an age of bourgeois materialism...
(quoted from Decisions for War, 1914-1917, p. 74)

Hitchens cites a quote from Aldous Huxley to the effect that the war removed conservatives and replaced them with nationalistic radicals. We certainly seem to conceal from ourselves the fact that Nazis and Fascists were, in their own time, seen as 'modernisers', a mood captured in the song 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' from the musical Cabaret. Nationalist radicals, whether right or left, celebrated youth. They were essentially Modern. For the Mayer thesis, the war represents an attempt to manage the rushing flow of Modernity, re-channelling it so that it will support the traditional power structure. While Mayer sees the war in the context of a Marxist opposition between a capitalist bourgeoisie and the revolutionary proletariat, there is evidence that suggests that in Germany a war was seen as an attack on what might be called Anglo-Saxon attitudes, the bourgeois materialism essential to the capitalist system:

some politicians and writers viewed war as a cure-all for what they perceived to be the evils of an age of bourgeois materialism—lethargy, emasculation and moral rot.
[p 74, Hamilton and Herwig, Decisions for War] The great A.J.P. Taylor similarly saw cultural and political trends such as Futurism and Syndicalism presaging a mood of violence, but it might be better to think of them in terms of a cultural accommodation of the unsettling effects of technology and its byproduct Modernity. (See the quote by Taylor cited on page 40 of David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer.

Ironically, the war had the real impact of overthrowing the most traditional of European regimes, in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. For Britons, it did have the effect of expanding the role of the state far beyond what had previously been thought acceptable. The problem with the idea of a 'War on Modernity', though, is that it does not seem to operate in all the European countries, at least not noticeably. Decisions for War makes it clear that while it might be a factor in Germany, in the other major countries different assumptions were at work in guiding national leaders from the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the war. That Germany declared war on Modernity is an arguable proposition. For everyone else, the issue is best seen in terms of supporting or resisting German power. Subsequent conceptions of a 'war on modernity' simply turn history into a plaything of the political debate. Like 'The Sixties', the First World War becomes symptomatic of whatever ills one wishes to castigate in the politics of the day. History deserves better than that.

17 September 2014

Scots Should Vote 'No' and Remain Independent!

Tomorrow's referendum in Scotland on whether to vote to end... well, what exactly? This is a problem that has been nagging me these past few weeks — what is it that the Scots are being asked to vote for? Because as soon as one thinks about the process by which the United Kingdom came to be, it raises a qualm about voting 'Yes' to the question 'Should Scotland be an independent country?'. A 'Yes' undermines the foundation of a Scottish state's constitutional order. A Yes' potentially creates something that has never existed before.

Scotland in 1602 was an independent kingdom. The Scottish people, via the Church of Scotland, had imposed restrictions on what their monarch could do. The future James VI had been baptised in the Catholic faith, but when the Protestant nobility in Scotland forced his mother (Mary, the queen of Scots who was executed by England's Queen Elizabeth in 1587) to abdicate, James was raised in the Church of Scotland, and came under the influence of his preceptor, George Buchanan, who certainly believed in trammelling the power of the Scottish monarch.

All this changed in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, on the death of Queen Elizabeth. James traced his ancestry back to Henry VII of England, who was Elizabeth's grandfather. This is known as the Union of the Crowns. Scotland theoretically remained an independent monarchy, with a parliament and justice system distinct from the English one. However, what it did not have was an independent foreign policy. Ambassadors addressed the same person, whether they went to London or to Edinburgh. A 'British' foreign policy emerged straightaway, with the ending of the Anglo-Spanish War that had been going on for some twenty years, and which previously the Scots had stood apart from. He also secured the end of the Nine Years' War in Ireland which, however, had petered out without his direct involvement. He simply swept up the pieces. Given the nature of seventeenth-century monarchies (and even earlier ones) it could not be any other way. (Although, interestingly, colonisation in the Americas remained two distinct projects.) The monarch pursued the best advantage for all the realms under his or her rule. And this is at the root of the basic problem with a 'union of crowns'. Those Crowns can eventually fall onto separate heads, as would happen when Queen Victoria ascended the British throne, but that of Hanover was occupied by a man. The Hanoverians followed Salic Law, which did not permit a woman to be monarch.

And it was this that lay at the root of the next development. James had been quite keen to see the merger of England and Scotland, but some English and many Scots preferred otherwise. The two parliaments, the two churches and the two legal systems continued to go along their separate ways, which contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, itself preceded by the Bishops' Wars, in which the King of Scotland, James VI's son Charles I, used his English realm to try and enforce his opinions on Scotland. However, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a salient moment in English constitutional history, the Union of Crowns problem emerged. In theory, James VII could have remained king of Scotland and king of Ireland*. He didn't because he lost wars fought there on his behalf. In 1692, the daughter of James VI and I, Sophia of Hanover, was made the heir of Anne, the Protestant daughter of James VII and II as queen of England and Ireland. Scotland would have to make its own decision.

And, it did. In 1704 the Act of Security proposed a separate, Scottish monarchy that would remain Protestant, but could not be identical with that of the English line of succession, now vested in Sophia. This dispute in turn led to the Acts of Union of 1707, which united the Scottish and English parliaments and the two kingdoms. The Kingdom of Great Britain would now be governed by means of a parliament at Westminster. Scotland retained a separate church and a separate legal system. Foreign policy would go on as before, but economic policy would now be combined. Scotland remained an independent country, in one sense, in that it continued to exercise that independence through the Kingdom of Great Britain.

At its root, it is this which the referendum question is about. 'Should we undo the Act of Union of 1707?'. But I'm afraid it goes farther than that, based on what we have heard. Salmond has asserted that the Queen will remain head of state of an independent Scotland. But, in that case, she has to decide which realm will be her home, and which will require the appointment of a governor-general. Why? Because, fundamentally, the monarch no longer conducts a united foreign policy for all realms. In order to remain above politics, the monarch has to receive advice (which is basically a courtesy memo) from governments. In the case of, say, participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Queen of Canada, in the person of the governor-general, received different advice from the Queen of the United Kingdom. For Scotland, if the monarch should choose to reside in England, this would be something completely new. Scotland would have the same status as one of the Commonwealth Realms. So? Well, all those were formerly colonies of Scotland, through the Kingdom of Great Britain. In other words, Scotland would be in danger of demoting itself to ex-colonial status, in danger of asserting that in its previous existence it was not an independent country. This is constitutional nonsense. If Scotland is not an independent country now, than neither is England.

It seems to me that if Scotland wants to undo the 1707 Acts of Union, a 'No' vote is in order, to recognise that Scotland is already an independent country, through the United Kingdom. However, this must be followed by a demand from the Scottish Assembly to repeal or annul the acts. This, of course, could be the same process as after a 'Yes' vote, except that the 'Yes' vote as it stands inherently proposes that Scotland is a subjugated country, something that never happened. Subsequently, a new Act of Security could be passed, and Scotland could go its separate way without having undermined its previous status. It would, of course, remain a part of the Anglosphere.

Whatever the case, I'm clearly too historical to be an effective politician!


* I'm not going into Ireland's relationship to all this, which is an interesting story in itself.

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':

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.

11 March 2014

Seeger, Dylan, Summer — The Sixties Reconsidered

Ask someone 'when were the Sixties?', and you'll likely get a standard answer that begins with some relationship to the Kennedy administration (1961-3), and probably ends with the assassinations of 1968 or the Altamont Free Concert (1969) or possibly, for those of 'the Big Sixties' school, with some economic event from the early 1970s such as the ending of convertibility to gold of the US dollar in 1971 or the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. There is also a 'Short Sixties' school which runs from 1964 or 1965 up to either of those end points I mentioned. Of course, the fundamental problem with using decades to define eras is that it becomes difficult to fit some events in, as the annexation of several years of the 1970s of the 'Big Sixties' school shows above. (And the pre-Kennedy 1960s have to go somewhere, so they are absorbed by the 1950s.) Also, one could argue that 'the Sixties' take place at different times in different countries. Those with experience of British television of the 1980s may remember how, in the great puppet show that was Spitting Image, Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist administration in the Soviet Union during the 1980s was presented as the arrival of the Swinging 1960s to brighten the Kremlin. I have been pondering the recent passing of Pete Seeger, and what his career might tell us about how historians can structure a narrative of cultural history that preserves a formulation such as 'the Sixties'. While some of Seeger's personal beliefs found expression in the social changes that the United States and other countries underwent in the early 1960s, with the proverbial 20/20 hindsight it becomes harder to show this in the later 1960s. Originally, my dissertation was to be on 'the meaning of Disco'. I have some very clear-cut ideas about that 1970s fad that would be bound to be controversial, but in thinking about how to write on the subject, I concluded that the kind of narrow focus that a PhD dissertation takes wouldn't really help me express them at all. I did, however, conlcude that the personification of 'the meaning of Disco' was Donna Summer. So this blog post is going to outline a proposal of how we might do better to use the careers of celebrated individuals rather than momentous events to capture historical phases. Seeger, Bob Dylan and Summer represent a trio around which one could establish a better understanding of The Sixties. Furthermore, their careers demonstrate how trying to confine the term too tightly to 1961-70 distorts our understanding of exactly how our modern world, which is very mch a creation of The Sixties, came to be. A bullet point summary would go something like • Pete Seeger represents a cultural outlook shaped by a largely in the decade before the Second World War, and the anti-fascist struggle. Its emphasis on a collective struggle against injustice, on an anti-commercial cultural strategy and on making moral compromises with communism generally and the Soviet Union particularly, capture some of the strands that carry on well into the 1960s, especially in the context of the struggle for Civil Rights and against the American war in Vietnam. The folk-music revival that thrived between 1958 and 1965 was associated with a left-wing political outlook that seems a transitional phase between the Old Left of Seeger and the New Left that coalesced around the Port Huron Statement. • Bob Dylan captures a very different cultural mood, one shaped by Democrat party thinkers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who in a couple of privately circulated essays among the so-called 'Finletter Group'. Schlesinger believed that two trends were at work in the aftermath of the 1952 election. In one, people were more interested in the quality as opposed to the 'quantity' of life, as material wants were less immediate than they had been in the 1930s and during the war. 'Quality' issues emphasise spiritual fulfillment, a key theme of Dylan's songs. Schlesinger's other theme arose towards the end of the 1950s, when he called for more 'heroic' political leadership. Emphasising the potential contribution of individual in contrast to group action, Schlesinger's theme again finds an echo in some of Dylan's — but also in the Port Huron Statement. Dylan's career is interrupted by the 1966 motorcycle accident, which could be seen as a good career move. Music moved in a very different direction after the accident, and he was spared the risk of seeming 'out of touch'. • Donna Summer captures what really distinguishes the the 1970s from the 1960s, which is the increasing influence of the foreign on American society. The economic crises that followed from 1968 onwards, culminating in the first Oil Crisis of 1973, were largely driven by foreign interests that demanded some crucial adjustment to American domestic policy. Summer returned from Europe bringing a very European sensibility to American culture. Grand Funk Railroad's 'We're an American Band' becomes a key emblem of the mood of the early 1970s, and the fact that it does nothing to divert the coming flood of Disco is telling. Looked at like this, The Sixties almost vanish altogether. We are left with a very short core period, roughly 1964 through 1967 — basically the height of early Dylan. Alternatively, the 1960s embrace an overlap running into the 1970s, and it rather changes the emphases one should use offer in considering the socio-political content of the 1960s. It also drags into The Sixties the early 1970s 'Limits to Growth' themes. These offer a basis to both the neo-liberal economics of the Thatcher-Reagan era and the Green politics that emerged in the late 1980s. While these questions might seem a bit recondite to most people, they are crucial to what I call 'the Public Understanding of History'. A film like The Wild Angels might seem a world away from Silent Running or The Cowboys, but I'm not so sure, and I think I can prove it.

25 February 2014

Babb: "They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun"

The National Archives has been posting podcasts of its events (really lectures) it holds to its site for some time. The quality of these is mixed. In some cases, the lecturer relies too much on the PowerPoint-style display for what is effectively a radio broadcast. Others are just a description of the contents of various files that might be of interest to researchers. But some are genuinely excellent. In the latter category I place 'They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun', presented by Colin Babb.
Although this podcast focuses on West Indian cricket, it really is about the immigrant experience, as seen through the perspective of the sports fan. When I did my major field in Race, Imperialism, Slavery, one of the two topics that drew my greatest interest was the relationship between race and immigration. Sometimes immigration has nothing to do with race. Sometimes race has almost everything to do with immigration. Most usually they overlap in ways that it is the historian's job to explain. (The Irishman in the lower-left corner has rather simian features.) It is a fascinating subject, especially if one avoids bringing to it attitudes strongly influenced by today's debate over immigration and sticks closely to the the perspectives of immigrant and host.
Babb's lecture does a good job, for the sensitive listener, of seeing the dilemma confronting the immigrant. In my view, if people could avoid immigrating, they would. People try to identify with collectivities, and can find it hard to leave parental ones behind. Babb describes himself as a 'British-born Caribbean'. Indeed, the very concept of 'the West Indies' makes more sense from Britain than in the Americas. He points out that his parents were, in fact, from different countries, and that it was their presence in Britain that united them. According to Babb, people from Guyana are seen as 'South American' from the perspective of the islanders of the West Indies. When he went back to the Caribbean on childhood holidays, he was treated as somehow not quite West Indian, while in Britain he was certainly seen as a non-Briton, a 'West Indian'.
In fact, if one reads about the history of immigration, talks to immigrants, or actually does a bit of immigrating oneself, one finds such situations commonplace. The immigrant, and more particularly the child of immigrants, is regarded with a degree of 'suspicion' both in the source region and in their host region. It is an awkward role that one is forced into, and is most obviously expressed in those sporting events based on countries.
I don't want to spoil the lecture, because I think it would be worth your while to have a listen, so I won't give away any more of its content. Let's just say that I found the lecture really raised a great deal of sadness in my mind that the legacy of the British Empire may now finally be dying, reflecting the gentle aging into retirement of that 'post-imperial' generation which includes Babb and myself. Also, that it is interesting how the pattern of assimilation of 'West Indians' in Britain reflects Britain's particular history on race. In the 1960s, the 1970s, and into the Thatcher years, and even today, thinking about the British experience of race and racism often seems a sort of caricature of the American one. But Britain's history of race relations is different — pace the late Stuart Hall, less toxic — and the assimilation of the West Indians reflects that. NB — I cut my finger recently, rather badly, harming my abiity to type. Posts will be erratic for a bit.