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.