30 December 2015

Locating Gay Marriage

This map, courtesy of a tweet by the ever-fascinating @LindaRegber, brought home a point I had never really considered before.
Britain, the core country of the Anglosphere, allows it. It is joined by the settler colonies of Canada, New Zealand and South Africa and, as the caption on the map indicates, parts of the United States. By contrast, the Francophonie has little place for gay marriage outside the metropolitan area. Hispanohablantes are a little bit more enthusiastic. And, of course, in the Scandinavian world it appears to be almost universal.

Gay marriage at the moment is very clearly a marker for Anglospheric culture, which itself has roots drawn from a Scandinavian planting, as Norse and Danish influence on the British Isles was considerable, for a time. This will probably change sooner rather than later, but at the moment, tolerance for gay marriage sets English-speakers apart.

14 December 2015

You're welcome, high-school students

My high-school daughter asked me to help her revise for a history test, one question of which will ask her about the causes of the War Between the States. So I reproduce here the brief analysis we constructed.

The immediate cause of the War Between the States was the bombardment of Fort Sumter, in the harbour of Charleston, SC, in April 1861. As a result of this, President Abraham Lincoln of the United States called for volunteers to serve three months in the militia, in order to suppress the insurrection. A military conflict with the seceding states became inevitable at that point.

But why did Fort Sumter have to be bombarded?

Between December 1860 and February 1861, seven states seceded from the United States, as they saw it reclaiming their sovereign rights. However, the federal government controlled things like the naval, military and postal services. The question of to whom these belonged would obviously be controversial. In the case of military installations, the presence of a garrison meant that attempts by local or new authorities could be resisted, at least for a time. This is what happened at Fort Sumter.

But why did these states secede?

In November 1860, a split in the Democratic party between northern and southern wings assisted in the election of the Republican party's candidate for president, the aforementioned Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's party had a plank in its platform stating 'we deny the authority of congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States'. The question of whether slavery could be permitted in the parts of the United States that had not yet acquired statehood, much of which had been organised into territories, had been extremely controversial before the election/ In the case of Kansas, a mini-civil-war had raged for some years. All the parties took a position on this. The Democrats split over the question of slavery in the territories, with the Northern faction wanting to limit it on the basis of 'popular sovereignty': if the representatives elected to a territorial convention voted to abolish slavery in its territory, slaveholders would have to abide by that. By contrast, the Southern Democrats wanted the right of slaveholders to their human property to be respected in all territories, regardless of local sentiment. Lincoln's election, and even more significantly the election of Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, gave slaveholders little hope that in future their right to human property would be respected in the territories. Inevitably, as 'free soil' territories became states, Slaveholding power within the legislature as represented by members of Congress would dwindle. This would open the way for abolitionists to end slavery altogether in the United States.

Thus, the fundamental cause of the civil war was slavery. However, one can argue a secondary cause of state's rights, on the basis that the outcome of the civil war established, by main force, that states have no right to secede from the Union unilaterally. They can only secede if the federal government assents to their departure. But, in the absence of the controversy over slavery, it is hard to see why that right of state sovereignty would have been asserted. Given an opportunity to claim it over tariffs in 1832-3, no state considered that issue significant enough.

02 December 2015

Talk About the Past

(I don't normally blog such extensive commentary about a book, but I wrote it up somewhere else and decided that an edited version could continue the current Canadian theme on this blog.)

The Strange Demise of British Canada describes itself as a response to Igartura's The Other 'Quiet Revolution', a book I have not read, but which I have known about for many years. The issue both books grapple with, the loss of a 'British Canadian' identity during the 1950s and 1960s, applies as much to the United States, where the WASP Ascendancy began to crumble at about the same time. (Although it might also be said to have crumbled in the US in the aftermath of the Great Depression.) Where Igartura apparently sees a transition from 'British Canada' to Anglophonie, in Champion's analysis, the British Canadian identity persists, much less visibly, because it remains the default ideology of Canada.

Champion's interest is in a particular group of British Canadians who gathered around Lester Pearson, the Liberal party politician who is popularly credited with inventing peacekeeping, and who brought to an end the old red ensign flag, with the Union flag in the quarter. The red ensign was replaced by the wildly successful Maple Leaf Flag, one of the best flags currently flying for standing as a representative icon of a country. (It was not, significantly, Pearson's own choice of design.) Champion has come in for some criticism in focusing on an elite group, but I think such a complaint is unwarranted. The whole process he is describing is one of political leadership, and it was decisions at the top that did much to undermine the link between Britain and Canada's Britons.

Champion points out that many of these men had experience of Britain either through war service in the world wars or through study at Oxford or Cambridge university during the interwar period. Many of them were small-town Ontarians, who had grown up in a province dominated by Methodists and Presbyterians. Small towns and low churches possess a kind of basic democracy, despite the presence of a petit-bourgeois paternalism. In Oxford, or in the service, they encountered the British caste system in all its pomp. As rustic colonials, they would already have provided some amusement to the immature representatives of the Ruling Class. The discomfort rural Ontario felt in addition with the presence of deferential servants who expected to fetch and carry was fatal to encouraging close ties with the political elite of the Mother Country. (I focus on Ontario here because Champion points out that Atlantic Canadians seem to make the transition from middle-class dominion to caste-ridden Britain more comfortably.) The drunken academic sport familiarly depicted in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited must have seemed exceptionally alien to boot. Champion makes the point that these attitudes were not exclusively Canadian, but were shared by many Britons, about their own country. Indeed, the difference between modern British attitudes and modern Canadian attitudes concerning the legacy relationships of Crown, Altar and Lords are not very far apart.

But, Champion could have taken his analysis a little bit further. Consider: in 1957, John Diefenbaker led the Progressive Conservatives to a plurality of seats in the House of Commons, pledged to reduce Canada's dependence on the US economy and to foster closer ties with Britain. However, Britain was already beginning to look to a future as part of the Common Market, which took formal shape with an application for membership in 1961. Diefenbaker was outraged. But did it not prove that Canada needed to accommodate a future without formerly close political relationships with Britain? Tied into the restrictive trade arrangements of the Common Market, Canada's previous alternative to the US for exports and investment would no longer be effective. New relationships would have to be forged. A new flag becomes a symbolic gesture that costs little and, done in a particular way, conveys a lot about self-image.

Champion's saddest chapter is his last case study, about the unification of the Canadian Forces. Pearson and his government come across as no better than a bunch of Stalinists (or, to make an allusion more of their time, Maoists). They did away with the 'Royal' prefixes of the navy and air force, despite the fact that the country remained a monarchy. They imposed a new uniform common to all services, and Americanised the ranks of an air force that historically did not share the same institutional history as the US Army Air Force. The Royal Air Force ripped away its army roots, in very 'Pearsonian' fashion, and its rank structure, with Flying Officers, Squadron Leaders and Group Captains, among others, was very descriptive and modern compared to 'colonels' and 'majors'. It really was too sad for many words.

The book assumes more knowledge of twentieth-century Canadian history and politics than I imagine a typical non-Canadian would possess, and in particular the lack of information about the 1945-64 period might prove a handicap. I don't entirely agree with Champion's subtle perceptions, but he does make a broad point that the more dominant narrative, that of Igartura by all accounts, doesn't neglect so much as actively ignores. Champion raises some interesting questions about the kind of 'mythic history' that provides the basis to school curricula, the environment in which most people make their limited acquaintance with history. However, the 'one size to fit as many as possible' presentation to impressionable minors neglects the reality that history is a constant battleground of competing visions. The losers in the flag debate simply had a different view of Canada, one in which the British -- or more specifically English -- Canadians did not have to retreat into a hapless anonymity, while still underpinning so much of what passes for 'Canadian'.

30 November 2015

False Facts

I may have never before seen a statement quite so misleading in a quasi-official publication subsidised by a national government as the following from thecanadianencyclopedia.ca
Although officially neutral, Britain had supported the Confederate states in the American Civil War
The context of the statement is the cancellation in 1866 of a trade treaty between Britain and the United States signed in 1854 governing trade between British North America and the USA.

I wonder what Abraham Lincoln might have had to say about the efforts of Britons to oppose the Confederacy?

Mr Lincoln, in a letter dated 19 January 1863...replied with the words that are inscribed on his statue: 'I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. 'It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom...Whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.'
Lincoln in this passage refers to the workers in Lancashire cotton mills support for the war against slavery, despite the fact that they were undergoing terrible hardship because there was no work. The mills' cotton normally came from the states that had seceded, those states (and the Union blockade) had restricted the export of the cotton, so the mill workers had no work. You can read more about the affair in this BBC.com News post. You can also listen to an In Our Time episode about the Lancashire cotton famine. The Union was without doubt the favoured side of the British people in the war, although opinion among those whose job it is to worry about Britain's national security saw some advantage in a United States divided into two.

What thecanadianencylopedia.ca must refer to are the Alabama Claims. The basis for these claims were the raids of five ships that were built in British yards but sold to the Confederate States' Navy. These raids sank over 150 'Northern ships' in the course of their commerce raiding during the War Between the States. Given that Britain remained officially neutral throughout the war, the question of whether ships built by private British interests for foreign buyers that put to sea in an unarmed state raised technical legal questions far removed from the blatant Union abuse of British neutrality in the Trent affair. That the British government did not want to get mixed-up in a private transaction cpncerning the Alabama following such a presumption on the part of the American navy can at worst be regarded as a bit of tit-for-tat diplomacy. In the end, the British prime minister and foreign secretary both accepted that they should have stopped the Alabama putting to sea, in the same way that the President Lincoln disavowed the actions of the US naval officer in the Trent affair.

In fact, the Alabama claims led to an attempt by the United States to dismember Canada, suggesting that British Columbia, parts of western Canada between the Rockies and Manitoba and a portion of Nova Scotia might be appropriate return for the losses to the US merchant fleet. Of course, one won't find American territorial ambitions in Canada mentioned. Having lived there for several years there are moments when to my mind there seems to be an ideological war in Canada against Britain, which I neither understand the necessity for, nor believe all of its practitioners fully understand the potential consequences of it.

Of course, having worked in publishing for many decades I know what happened here. There was a word limit and a more nuanced description of the fraught state of Anglo-American relationships during 1861-72 was compressed to the point that it became wrong. Still, one would expect it to have been corrected in the last listed revision of the original article, last July.

25 November 2015

In hoc vexillo vinces

New Zealand has begun a process to decide whether to keep the old 'blue ensign' or to substitute another design. The voting will be a two-step exercise, first to select from a set of alternative designs, and then to have a run-off between the winner and the current flag. There has been some controversy over a consultation exercise about alternative designs that received many submissions opposed to the process generally, and specifically to the need for a different flag. The first round will conclude on 11 December.

Of the four Commonwealth settler colonies, two have already changed their flags. South Africa's current flag dates to 1994, after the old apartheid regime had been brought to an end. However, South Africa had more traditional British Empire flags in the shape of a red ensign, then a blue one, until in 1928 a flag that was less obviously related to the British one was adopted. The flag debate was tinged with controversy, as the change was seen as an attempt by descendants of the original Dutch settlers of the Cape, the Afrikaners, to reduce the visible significance of the Imperial tie, while raising that of the old Boer republics. The annoyance of the British-descended settlers was tempered by placing a smaller-sized Union flag in the central white stripe.

Canada, by contrast, replaced its old red ensign with a design that eliminated the symbolic representation of the British connection altogether. The Maple Leaf Flag was not the first choice of the prime minister who pushed for this change, but the parliamentary flag committee offered it as a compromise. The new flag was the product of a particular generation of Liberal party politicians who came to maturity between the world wars. It is important to remember that this period was marked by Canada moving from an autonomous domininion to a fully-fledged independent member of the international community following the Balfour Declaration of 1926. Besides this political transformation, Canada was also undergoing a significant economic change. Between 1922 and 1930 the US supplanted Britain as the largest holder of Canadian foreign debt. Yet the symbols of the old Imperial connection remained, despite being emptied of any practical authority. The challenge to the symbols began after 1945, with Britain burdened by the debt of the war against Nazi Germany and in retreat from the most prestigious parts of its empire in South Asia.* C P Champion's book on British Canada during the middle 1960s suggests that they symbolic recognition of the end of British authority over Canada allowed Liberal Canada to assemble a nationalistic narrative of a rise from mere colony to vibrant post-dominion. However, at the same time this narrative's climax coincided also with serious political questions about Britain's long-term commitment to any of the settler dominions. The crumbling facade of Imperial leadership was being torn down by the US assertion that Britain was strictly a European power, and one that should be in the Common Market, itself committed to 'an ever closer union'.

Despite the tremendous success of the Maple Leaf Flag as a national symbol, the retirement of the old red ensign in Canada does raise some questions about whether the accompanying narrative was genuinely appropriate to Canada. It is hard to divorce it from the Liberal party's older political agenda of trying to make Canada more like the United States than like Britain. As the power of the United States grew during the nineteenth century, Britain became wary of antagonising the country and arguably neglected Canadian interests in treaty negotiations with the administration in Washington. A commitment to ensuring the independence of Canada through military action grew inconvenient as the European balance of power was threatened by a Germany frightened of an encircling alliance, thus suggesting that the American analysis of Britain's true place in the world was far from unsound. The victory over Germany in 1918 can above all be presented as a victory of the Britain, its empire and the dominions. However, during the decade after that victorythe empire had unravelled, with the dominions asserting more independence and India achieving a national cohesion it perhaps did not possess in 1757. Canada did not need a national liberation struggle. Britain quite willingly handed over increased autonomy whenever asked by the Canadians, culminating in the repatriation of the constitution, when the Thatcher government ignored the link between provinces and the British Crown in order to privilege the demands of the federal government. What has been described as 'the other Quiet Revolution' was as much about creating an imagined community as any myth about Founding Fathers or the Norman Yoke. Reviewing Canadian history it can seem that the Past, in J H Plumb's formulation, is as much a tool of liberation as it is of oppression. In this Liberal narrative, throwing aside the maternalistic symbols of the Mother Country allowed Canada to be 'itself', and led to decades of fretting over Canada's national character, which has still not stopped.

Flags are vital national symbols, and it is not my place to comment on the New Zealand referendum more than to place it in context of comparable moments within the Anglosphere. However, I would say that changing the flags in South Africa and Canada raised very real issues that in the former case were only resolved in time for the current banner, and in the latter have not been solved in any practical way still, although the problem is gradually going away. And all that is a blog post for another day.

PS-In researching this post I was surprised to find out who the current largest foreign direct investor in New Zealand is Canada has almost as much as Australia and the US combined. Britain, by contrast, has less invested than Hong Kong.


* We should be wary of interpreting Indian independence as a sign that Britain was beginning a general retreat from empire. At this point some British politicians believed that the empire could persist in some form in other parts of the world, especially Africa.

18 November 2015

The (British) Face of God

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of my favourite comedy films. It conveys some sense of mediæval life. ('He's not covered in [muck] like the rest of us.' '...married to a girl whose father owns the biggest tracts of open land in Britain'.) And it also has the kind of surreal humour that I love. ('You've got two empty halves of coconut and you're bangin' 'em together.')

However, my interest today is in some of the work by Terry Gilliam, the genius of Monty Python's animation. Gilliam was born in Minnesota and grew up in California. Gilliam, however, had been living in Britain for about a decade by then. In one scene, God appears to King Arthur in the form of a Gilliam animation. What is interesting is the choice of face to represent God the Father.

Some of my readers might recognise that face, which is that of a major celebrity of his own day.

It is, of course, the great cricket W.G. Grace. Grace might be recognised by quite a few in the Anglosphere, but he would pass largely unrecognised to the audiences of Canada and the United States. I doubt very much that Gilliam had much interest in who the face of God would be. The face itself was what counted. But, honestly, if there was a God of Cricket, he might be W.G. Grace. But I did wonder what North American might have filled the role best. I might give it to the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant, although I couldn't find a photograph that really matched the head-on angle that Grace offers.

17 November 2015

Framing History

Kevin Gannon, who blogs under the pen-name 'The Tattooed Professor', recently wrote a post suggesting that, at least as far as the teaching of US history went, we should think about framing it in a 'continental approach'. He contrasted this with the traditional narrative describing the advance of the frontier from the east coast, which disregards such useful facts as the settlement of St Augustine in Florida by the Spaniards before the Pilgrims arrived, or even the apparently radical notion that the American Indians got here first, and went from northwest to south and east.

While it is an intriguing as opposed to a silly idea, I'm going to need more convincing that it is a good one.

Gannon's agenda becomes apparent when he characterises the traditional narrative teaching of the history of the United States in a rather negative light:

...it imprisons us in a nationalist framework of analysis without our even realizing it. If we approach US history as “the history of the United States as a distinct national entity,” we adopt all sorts of implicit assumptions about what is significant, what is historical–indeed, even what is human.... We may not see it, but we work from the same agenda that the most militant slaveholders, Indian-hunters, and xenophobes pursued. If we norm the “nation,” all else becomes abnormal.
The problem here is that Gannon is starting from the point of rejecting the traditional foundation of all historical study, not merely that of slaveholders and xenophobes. The Western tradition of historical scholarship is rooted in exactly the adoption of implicit assumptions about significance that will exclude people from the narrative, even if they had some relevance to it. I could go back to Herodotus or Thucydides to illustrate this point, but instead I'll stick with the English-speaking world and look to Bede.

Bede's preface to his his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, addressed to King Ceowulf (ruler of Northumbria, Bede's home in the northeast of England), refers to the monarch's 'eager desire to know of the doings and sayings of men of the past, and of famous men of your own nation in particular' [my italics]. Bede's understanding of 'nation', however, is rather different to ours. Bede's nation encompassed all those who spoke English, including people who lived in Essex, Sussex, Wessex and Mercia, distinct kingdoms each. Despite that quite explicit assumption that he is writing about his nation, Bede manages to race through about seven hundred years of history of his 'continent', in this case the island of Britain, in a few pages.

But it is only a few pages. Because he writes an ecclesiastical history, Bede is not much concerned with a pagan pre-literate history he cannot access, nor with the interaction of the Roman province of Britannia with the rest of the empire. He devotes more space to St Alban than to the emperors Claudius, Severus or Constantine, who in different ways all had claims on great significance in the history of Britain. Yet St Alban and St Germanus, important to a history of British Christianity, remain minor figures in Bede's narrative. He is writing about the English, and so his ecclesiastical history really begins with the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury, who sought to convert the pagan Angles and Saxons. Would Bede's account of the English people and their church been improved by integrating a longer narrative about British Christianity? Probably not, because Bede's interest was in how things came to be, not how they ought to be. He includes those interactions between the two he thinks are important to the history of English Christianity.

Gannon's proposal would be an excellent one for a course about the United States in North American history, but it defeats the objective of teaching US history. Indeed, I don't quite understand Gannon's resentment of a nationalist framework. It was exactly this pursuit of a nationalist framework that did much to advance the causes of African-American and American Indian history. In those cases, though, the nationalism was of those peoples and, at least in the case of the former, stopped short of embracing separatism. Gannon's course would undermine the very concept of the United States as a polity capable of addressing external forces because it reduces the polity to a hateful elite. Indeed, it would assist those forces that are creating our future world of networked global nodes overseen by a corporatised transnational elite. Polities like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and Guiana are the vehicles by which ordinary working people have some hope of influencing this global elite on their behalf. Besides slave-holders and Indian-hunters, that US history includes other aspects that should provide food for thought to progressives like Gannon. The United States is also a history of oppressed white workers, in the indentured servants from the British Isles who laboured in the fields beside Africans in mid-seventeenth-century Virginia. It is a history of religious liberty, whether of the Pennsylvania Dutch who found sanctuary outside of Europe but within the dominion of a Hanoverian monarchy or Mormons moving teleologically westwards. It is a history of resistance to a racist political structure. These people are just as much part of a nationalist framework as the villains listed by Gannon. History courses are the major means of constructing a coherent political identity from people who might care to look beyond red, white, black and brown.

Indeed, if we are going to pin labels on people, why can't we accuse the American Indians of being eco-terrorists for contributing to extinctions, of being anti-immigrant and being slave masters themselves. It just becomes an absurd game influenced by politics rather than scholarship. It is systems, not people, for historians to hold to account in this context. What we need to do is acknowledge our assumptions and understand why they are necessary, rather than throw out old assumptions for new ones.

Back to Bede, to whom I will give the last word. He goes on, after the quote I cited earlier, to give some good advice to all practitioners of history, although let us excuse this faithful religious his eighth-century assumptions about morality -- 'For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows is good and pleasing to God.'

[Quotes from the Penguin Classics edition of Bede, translated by Leo Sherley-Price.]

16 November 2015

Araby Calling

Ian Bremmer, a professor at New York University, posted a link to a graphic using Brookings Institution data, and graphically credited to The Independent (a British newspaper) and Statista, showing the top locations claimed byTwitter users supporting ISIL.

I thought it was interesting that the two leading Anglosphere countries stand out on a list of Near Eastern ones. I haven't done the exact maths, but as a proportion of population the United Kingdom Tweeters are about twice as many as a proportion of the population as the US ones. You can find the full report here. I'd hoped to find more data for other Anglosphere countries, but there was no table beyond the countries in the graphic. I do wonder how Canada, Australia and New Zealand fared in this ranking. Of course, this is self-reported data, so there are questions about how trustworthy it is.

Is this another small example of how Britain has more in common with its settler colonies than with its European neighbours? Six per cent of the Tweets were in French, the third-highest ranked language behind Arabic and English. So why doesn't France appear somewhere? Or maybe the rankings mean nothing at all. Just something to think about.

05 November 2015

The Future Is Nodal

A while ago I made a post at the end of which I suggested:
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.
This fell in line with an opinion I have expressed on other occasions that we should recognise that borders are going to be irrelevant in the globalised world. In keeping with the scheme of Immanuel Wallerstein's World-Systems Theory, the core is no longer going to be demarcated by national boundaries, but rather a network of Global Cities, better represented by a point-to-point map in which the lines can be seen as communication links or airline routes.

In keeping with this, we are increasingly confronted in historical scholarship with works that bypass old national boundaries. Kevin P. McDonald's recent book on the position of New York within an Indo-Atlantic network is a good example of this. As the reviewer puts it,

By studying the trade connections that ran via Madagascar between New York and the Indian Ocean, McDonald opens a world that defies modern categorization. It is a world that is not “Atlantic,” but can best be described as Indo-Atlantic. And although he does not make it explicit, the ventures he describes are not just British, but might well be described as Anglo-Dutch....an informal trading empire was created that directly connected colonies across imperial boundaries without passing through the metropolitan “core.” Goods and people, as McDonald shows, moved directly from the production centers in the Indian Ocean to the Anglo-American colonies.
I would reject the idea that this world defies modern characterisation at all. We have New York as a "node" in a network of commerce. We have a hybridised political identity that struggles to conform with nineteenth-century notions of Romantic naitonalism, but works perfectly well under a quaintly named "transnational" monarchy. We have a core that is located not within a nation, but in the tie between two trading and financial nodes on the Thames and the Hudson. I don't think the twenty-first-century graduate student would find those kinds of categorisations at all challenging.

I am going to wager that more and more we shall see historical and literary studies that supplant our traditional 'national' histories with these newfangled 'networked' histories until eventually they dominate future scholarship. Looking at the history of a now-peripheral node like Detroit or Sheffield in a national context will seem hopelessly backward, and not where the grant money is to be found.

18 September 2015

Before the Teds

The other day I caught Simon Heffer's televised essay on British war films of the 1950s. Although originally from 2013, it had been rebroadcast in August and showed up on the BBC's iPlayer for about a month. In the way of these televised essays about culture, it was a bit superficial in that Heffer would show us a clip from a film, followed by an interview with a personage associated with it, and then would lead us to his conclusion. There was no attempt to explore alternative interpretations. This is fair enough given an hour to play with, and a requirement to cover the whole of an era running from about 1951 until 1961. (I did think he could have made a bit more of Jack Hawkins and The League of Gentlemen.)

I would like to pick on one point Heffer made. He introduces the idea that from 1951 (perhaps not so coincidentally the year the Conservatives returned to power) to about 1955, the British war film reigned supreme over a country that was 'at ease with itself', as Sir John Major put it. Then came the scourge of American rock 'n' roll, which unleashed the barbarous Teds, who liked nothing better than to rip up cinema seats to a rock 'n' roll soundtrack of films like Blackboard Jungle The British war film reinvented itself somewhat in the face of this threat, but the great dams of British culture had been breached, and the hedonistic Sixties spoiled much that was good. (For some reason, partisan columnists like Heffer always overlook the hedonistic Eighties, made possible by their beloved Mrs Thatcher.)

The problem for this aspect of Heffer's thesis is that the pass may have already been sold to American culture before Bill Haley rocked around the blackboard jungle. When reading a book like Dominic Sandbrook's Never Had It So Good, one is regularly reminded that the guardians of British culture stood constant watch against the threat posed by America. (Another interesting book on this topic is Adrian Horn's Juke Box Britain, which starts the story of the American threat during the years of the Attlee government.)

The history of the influence of American pop before 1953 is the absence of 'pop chart' information. But have a listen to The Stargazer's 1953 #1 'Broken Wings'. I would suggest it isn't so far removed in character from American hits like Jo Stafford's 'You Belong to Me' or Les Paul's and Mary Ford's 'Vaya Con Dios'. One of the two founders of The Stargazers was Dick James, whose short American obituaries did not go far enough in explaining how he was a key figure in British music, with a performance lineage going back to Henry Hall. The Stargazers were founded in 1949 (or maybe 1950), a half-decade before Heffer's arrival of Americanisation.

And let's leave the trad jazz fad of the postwar period with just a mention, or this post will get far too long.

The sort of popular 'historiography' on display in Heffer's programme is simplistic, and arguably reflects more of a focus on a kind of 'living memory'. Heffer's parents will certainly have remembered the 1950s scaremongering about the Teds. He and I were born a matter of weeks apart, and Teds were still a bit of a 'thing' in the 1970s and 1980s. It might be more interesting to think about the fears of Americanism in 1950s Britain in the context of the American presence from 1942 until 1944. Are we seeing a fear of allies turning into occupiers? Or are people like Heffer and myself projecting into the past concerns about the way globalisation is destroying the local, at least how it is viewed through the kind of mass culture distributed by major corporations?

08 September 2015

A Last Call for a Bit of Old Soho

You have about a week left to catch a radio dramatisation of Keith Waterhouse's famous play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. It has an amusing moment or two, but more in the nature of tragi-comedy than side-splitting slapstick. I strongly recommend giving it a listen if you want gain an idea of an eccentric corner of London Life during the postwar era. It could be considered a sort of parody of the Algonquin Round Table, a place where civilly vicious quips were replaced by out-and-out drunken insults and so will pass largely unmemorialised.

Bernard is the sort of person who disproves my fundamental notion that the English-speaking world has a culture that transcends the national boundaries that divide it. He drifted from job to job within journalism, eventually fetching up in Alexander Chancellor's version of The Spectator, a magazine long associated with the Conservative Party in Britain. Bernard wrote a weekly column under the characterisation, 'Low Life'. In this, he described a life largely empty of middle-class achievement, but one full of the kind of incident that could amuse, such as the story of the racing cats featured in the play.

My recent hiatus was due in part to the necessity to leave Canada, and during the journey to my new location (Boca Raton, FL), I bumped into the Waterhouse play while lying in bed one morning in Lexington, SC. Wherever I had wifi and time, I would listen to it. I have heard parts of it multiple times during the past month, and it has sent my memory (and my internet searches) back in time to 1980s London. for some of that time I was working for a publishing company just off St Martin's Lane. I had also been, for some years already, a loyal Spectator reader, and would read Bernard's column on occasion. Of the men I met who knew Jeffrey Bernard, apart from his brother Bruce, they seemed an insecure lot ready to intimidate with shouts and words in order to establish some kind of pecking order. Bernard does not come across like that here, but I have to believe he could give as good as he got from the likes of Graham Mason.

So, I encourage you to have a listen to this play (or you can look for a filmed version on YouTube; there used to be a few) before its iPlayer time is up. Many people see Bernard as something of 'a man's man', for those of you interested in issues of gender. His Anglospheric connection is made through the Canadian author Elizabeth Smart (here presented with a cringe-worthy accent), who wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and worked for Queen magazine. That bohemian Soho of which Bernard was a part will surely, before long, become a popular subject for academic research (if it hasn't become so already). Because, apart from the drunkeness, metropolitan intellectuals kind of all live like that now.

05 September 2015

Michael Kazin's 1924 Nightmare

Michael Kazin provides a good illustration of one of my themes here about “history being politics by another means” in his discussion of Donald Trump’s deportation talk. He proposes that the 1924 Immigration Act (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act), created a backlash among the many southern and eastern Europeans (mainly Catholics), so they voted Democratic for years afterwards, starting with their support for Al Smith, the Democratic nominee in the 1928 presidential election.

Unfortunately, Kazin omits one key fact that completely undermines his idea, and omits a second fact that shows life is more complex than politicised history would permit. Let’s start with the latter.

Kazin proposes that

All this made white ethnic workers natural recruits for the new unions established, through sit-down strikes and other forms of pressure, in the steel, auto, longshore, aircraft, and electrical industries during the 1930s and 40s....Between 1933 and 1945, unions added nine million new members to their ranks. As it surged, organized labor had become a rainbow coalition—and a mainstay of the Democratic Party.
The omission in this paragraph is that Kazin refers to the unions that were part of the Congress of Industrial Organisations, a collection of unskilled workers who only were able to organise once New Deal policies backed them in their battles with their employers. The union organisation that existed in 1924, the American Federation of Labour (AFL), supported the exclusionary elements of the 1924 Immigration Act because immigrants were believed to suppress wages. This had been an AFL theme from its beginnings. (Al Smith, by the way, was an opponent of the New Deal.)

More recklessly, though, Kazin overlooks another provision of the 1924 act, which is that there were no quotas imposed on immigrants from Latin America whatsoever. In other words, the act restricted the flow of immigration from Europe (including countries favoured by the act, such as Britain), but allowed Mexicans, Central Americans and Colombians to journey north in search of new opportunities in just the same way as they had been able to do before the act.

Kazin is playing tricks here. I’ll leave it to you to decide whose interest is best served by this attack on Trump’s immigration rhetoric, by suggesting the Republican Party will lose elections for a generation. It might be that those losses had more to do with the mismanagement by the government and Federal Reserve of the economy from 1928 onwards, than any effect of imposing quotas and restricting immigration more generally.

15 February 2015

The Romantic is Dead

The day after St Valentine's is as good a moment to turn away from a current writing project for this blog and look at this book review which was linked by someone I follow on Twitter. I would propose this thesis: that the Romantic Movement, as an attempt to transform the Enlightentment, will be seen by future historians as effectively haveing expired during my lifetime. It seems likely that its last gasp involved various gestures made in politics and culture starting in 1956. (The abandonment of Communist parties by many on the Marist left after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the This Is Tomorrow exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts are two examples of inspirational moments for these last romantics. This romanticism is not just a feature of the culural left, as the career of Russell Kirk represents. All of these were transformed during the era of what might be called High Post-Modernism (roughtly the late 1970s unitl the early 1990s) into forms more appropriate for our New Enlightenment era.

Thomas Kohut's review of Rüdiger Safranski's book on Romanticism starts with describing what Romanticism is: The Enlightenment’s vision of a rationally functioning, lawful universe created by a deistic God seemed a “monstrous mill” or a “perpetual motion machine” to the Romantics, and they pushed back against the sterility of such a world. In response to the “disenchantment of the world” through secularization and the triumph of empiricism, the Romantics sought to satisfy the “appetite for mystery and wonder” that religion traditionally had satisfied.Romanticism also reacted against the emergence, in the 19th century, of the modern rationalistic society, with its efficiency, its specialization, its emphasis on economic utility—and its monotony.

The key here is 'specialisation'. In the Anglosphere we now live in a world that is thoroughly compartmentalised. It is the idea which we find at the root of those courses on Business Administration, of The Model as the basis for analysis and understanding. In other words, instead of treating human beings and their institutions as individuals with distinct personalities and problems, the most appropriate model is identified and applied. Arguments are more about which model to apply than questioning the suitability of the approach itself. Subsequently, through practice, adaptations will be made if the case seems especially intractable, but the expectation is that the institution will respond by conforming more closely to the model. We even find Safranski himself embracing this attitude, if the quote by Kohut does not omit any crucial context: If we fail to realize that the reason of politics and the passions of Romanticism are two separate spheres, which we must know how to keep separate...we risk the danger of looking to politics for an adventure that we would better find in the sphere of culture—or, vice versa, of demanding from the sphere of culture the same social utility we expect from politics.

One could argue that Romanticism itself was tainted by the Enlightenment from the very beginning. This would repressent its Achilles' Heel, which is what would be exploited in the conflict between the heirs of the Enlightenment and those of the Romantic Movement in the years after the mid 1950s. Safranski identifies the French Revolution as a point of intersection between the two, which created tensions among the Romantics: Beginning with the French Revolution, Romanticism and politics came together, as “questions of meaning that were formerly the precinct of religion are now aligned with politics. There is a secularizing impulse that transforms the so-called ultimate questions into sociopolitical ones.” Initially inspired by the French Revolution and then opposing it, especially during the period of the wars against Napoleon, Romanticism became politicized in Germany.

One might think one knows where this is going, but Safranski does not include the Nazis among the descendants of the early Romantics. Kohut disagrees. It is a question that makes an interesting academic exercise, but with the passing of time seems less and less relevant to an attempt to understand how the Third Reich could happen in a civilised country. The important thing is that Safranski apparently sees the student rebels of 1968, whom both agree were heirs to the Romantics, as an ephemeral phenomenon. In fact, their attempt to universalise the kind of highly personal, gnostic, movement that Romanticism represents is exactly that Achilles' Heel. Universal values are part of The Model, something the Enlightenment inherited from its Christian roots. Romanticism is about discovering what each person values, allowing each to neglect those values which seem less relevant to their personal situation.

Romanticism could not survive in a battle for intellectual supremacy with the Enlightenment because the religious impulse it sought to supplement or replace had a universalist dimension that it could not mobilise. What happens when my rights or my gnosis conflicts with yours? Christian religion asks us to draw on our charitable feelings at that point, and for both parties to understand each other and come to some compromise. People always fall short of that standard, but that does not invalidate the underlying principle. 'Try, try again', is at the heart of the Christian message. Indeed, on this day after St Valentine's, it seems appropriate for couples, too.

06 February 2015

Farewell Soho, Welcome 'Lone and Level Sands'

I am not especially fond of the Metropolitan Media Class lamenting the passing of some icon that they probably stabbed in the back only a few years earlier, but I found eulogy in The Guardian to Soho rather touching. I had the good fortune to encounter the dying embers of Swinging London's Soho by virtue of working nearby in the middle 1980s. People I knew were still lurking around the Colony Room or the Coach and Horses, and Kettner's still served a cheap hamburger with its cocktail piano. I was only on the very fringes of this scene, but it meant a lot to a boy whose journey from the white edges of Detroit's had brought him to the heart of the capital of his own cultural world.

However, I knew some time ago the game was up for my London. There was a sort of last sputtering of the fire during Tony Blair's first term, which clouded my judgement somewhat. Memory suggests that I came to the realisation that clinging to central London's Bohemian past was a hopeless effort in about 2005 or 2006, if not a year or two earlier. From that point on, I began thinking about how to make a dignified exit. But enough about me, let me briefly comment on two points raised by the article.

From the 1960s onwards, the legend of Swinging London, which still partly defines the way the city is seen, was traceable to the coming-together of working-class talent and loose-living bohemia – precisely the elements that are now in danger of being chased out of the centre of central London altogether. From the mods, through the punks and on to the New Romantics and creators of what was eventually called Cool Britannia, these people pioneered the subcultures that ensured so many of us were gripped by the London-obsessed mentality Julie Burchill memorably called capitalism.

This is not some romanticised image of the past. What made London a cultural magnet, and Britain from 1945 until 2005 possibly the best place to be in the world was the remaking of the realm into a more socially, economically and culturally mobile country that was denounced by a class of people who believed it to be anything but that. As things changed and got better, people could only grumble about how the class system was constricting British potential. Anyting but! @Thatchersrise is marking the ascent to a political office of a woman whose father kept a shop in a small English town. And she succeeded the son of a humble Broadstairs carpenter, at a time when the son of a factory chemist was prime minister. Meritocracy indeed.

Since November, a group called Save Soho.. want(s) its warren of streets declared a Special Policy Area, an instrument already used to protect the tailoring trade in Savile Row and the art business in St James’s. The group’s co-founder, a musician called Tim Arnold, tells me that he is in conversations with the Greater London Authority; he has raised the latter proposal, only to be told Soho is “too diverse”. His bafflement is obvious. “So they’re telling me that what should be protected amounts to the reason it can’t be protected,” he says.

Yes, Mr Hudson, it is a sad fact that our lives are now dominated by the concept of The Model. This is taught in business schools to MBAs, and their attitudes have seeped into the entirety of society. The Model pares things down to the essentials, The Core of the Project, and discards organic accretions that distract from an entity's Mission Statement. KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid — prevails. Conglomerates are a thing of the past. Old-timey Soho has no place in this world. There is no room for sentiment in The Model approach. It underlies consumer segmentation, YouTube subcultural channels and everything that is going to separate my world from that of my children's. It is, of course, ruthlessly scientific, characteristic of globalisation and rooted in industrial society.

The thing is, the Metropolitan Media Class find the Law of Unintended Consequences has undone all their good works. It was their relentless assault on the traditional institutional structures and attitudes that allowed this to happen. Their dislike of the Church, of smug suburbia, of out-of-touch judges and the House of Lords, removed the entire institutional framework that stood in the way of the The Model approach. If one removes all the social measures of value — an ephemerally absolute as opposed to a constant relative standard — all one is left with are the monetary ones. The Metropolitan Media Class always wanted Britain to be more like somewhere else, whether it was America's convenience and enterprise or Continental cafés and city-centre living. So, of course, everyplace becomes like everyplace else, and nothing beside remains.

03 February 2015

Maggie's Draws

In one small corner of the Internet, I am notorious for my opinion of 'the dreadful Mrs Thatcher'. Thanks to the magic of retweets, I find there is a Twitter account commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the election of Lady Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative party. Several of the tweets reproduce excerpts from the newspapers of the time. I have copied two of these below.
The first is from the Sunday Times, and the second is by the Sunday Telegraph's Peregrine Worsthorne, a particular favourite of mine.*

What is striking from both these excerpts is how Mrs Thatcher is seen as something different, someone who represents a break with the past. Events would prove both of these comments prescient, but I think Worsthorne does a better job of capturing that difference than the Sunday Times' writer. One wants to fall off one's chair reading that prior to Mrs Thatcher the Tories were not 'a class party'. Throughout their history, the Conservatives have been the very definition of a 'class party' — the class being the people who own the country. But the clue there as to Thatcher's real significance is in that comment 'to rebuild the...position of the middle classes'. The fact is, the mischievous 1970s in Britain had much to do with different sectors of British society demanding to maintain, in TradeUnionSpeak, 'differentials'. The skilled workers believed they deserved more than the unskilled. The accountants and sales directors believed they were entitled to more than the skilled workers. The idea that your 'value' in wages depended on the colour of your collar was at the root of Mrs Thatcher's appeal.

And that leads naturally on to Worsthorne's comment. He refers to Sir Keith Joseph, who was the first well-known politician to present the monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman to the British voters. Worsthorne uses those words that should have been fatal to any person running for the leadership of the Conservative party, that the party leader would be a 'liberal' in the old-fashioned sense of that word. The Conservative party was rooted in the idea of being the natural leader of the country as a whole, balancing the interests of the other classes while preserving an institutional structure that dated back at least as far as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its accompanying ideology of 'English liberty'. For Lady Thatcher, and her éminence grise, the equally dreadful Rupert Murdoch, the old establishment had lost the will to confront the enemies of those who own the country. People needed to be judged by their individual achievements in mobilising the resources of a market economy to become a good earner, not by their location in a social order that sought to control change. If the establishment's institutions got in the way of this battle between the market and its enemies, they must be put down from their seats. The previously humble, at least those who showed the gumption to get on in life under a free-market economy, would be exalted now.

For people like me, who admired that institutional structure that had seen Britain to victory in two world wars and had both started and accommodated a welfare state that indeed had reduced 'differentials', Lady Thatcher's years in government were to be a profound disappointment. But, even for those who hoped the unleashing of enterprise would lead to revitalised British economy and a classless meritocracy, Britain forty years on must seem to have failed the liberalising spirit that Lady Thatcher promised in 1975. I do hope @thatchersrise will continue the story at least up to 1979, so people can compare ambition with results, and join me in seeing in hindsight that Lady Thatcher's legacy of failure was present at her creation.


* I saw him in 1996 with some of his acquaintances at the Renoir cinema near Russell Square in London. For the second time in my life I found myself a few feet from a writer who had given me great pleasure over the years, and declined to go over and offer my compliments. I feel bad about these missed opportunities.

02 February 2015

A Note Prompted By the Passing of Gough Whitlam

[NB — The extended hiatus from last autumn was a result of my wife's cancer returning. It is a long story, and I prefer to keep it short. We finally got a firm diagnosis of the extent of her problem just before Christmas. We are hopeful that she will be with us for a few more years, but it was still disturbing news and only now is my life beginning to return to what could be called 'normal'.]

The death of Gough Whitlam three months ago reminded the world of Australia's 1975 political crisis. The crisis became fodder for those who see the secret hand of the CIA or the United States at work in so many curious incidents around the world. However, it also brought into question the relationship of the Commonwealth Realms to the British royal house. It is fair to say that the the question of the continued presence of the monarchy in Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada is going to become a significant over the coming decade. The Queen may yet reach 100, and defy such a prediction, but the probabilities suggest we will be hailing King Charles III before too long. Whether the 'white dominions' of Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be willing to continue with the link to the House of Windsor is a matter certain to be raised. Each of these will, I suspect, return answers that suit their own particular circumstances at that moment. So in this post I am going to consider two political crises that raise important questions about a change from dominion status to one of a republic.

Australasia is certainly where my knowledge and familiarity of Anglosphere history is weakest. Nonetheless, I am going to risk floating a comment because Whitlam was a very interesting political figure not just in his own country, but within the broader context of Anglospheric political trends. Whitlam in one sense was a 'Blairite avant la letter (or, better, Tony Blair was simply a Whitlam clone, part of Rupert Murdoch's Australianisation of Britain). Eric Hobsbawm famously in 1978 proposed that the historic role of the industrial proletariat as the decisive force in the revolution against the capitalists' power was coming to an end. While neither the British nor Australian labour party was in any way Marxist, it is fair to say that they both were organisations rooted in that industrial proletariat. This constituency had repeatedly failed to deliver parliamentary majorities for twenty-three years, and Whitlam looked to other sources of electoral power for the party. He found them in a variety of socially liberal causes, such as race, unfair pay for women and the urban and suburban constituencies poorly served by the welfare measures of the Australian state. While Labour parties were not "sound" on these issues, tending to put the interests of a largely male skilled and semi-skilled workers above all others.

Thus, when Whitlam came to power in the 1972 election, he put just as much weight on a policy agenda that appealed to middle-class liberals who wanted to ameliorate the hardships of disadvantaged groups at home and abroad. Whitlam's basic outlook was to promote welfare clientelism — a dole handed out to the unfortunate. Rather than focus on the hard task of attacking the foundations of international capitalists' power, Whitlam preferred the easier task of attacking the 'colonial' remnants in the Australian state, at a time when Britain's Establishment for over a decade had been eagerly shedding as much of these legacy responsibilities as it could without causing offense.

During 1974 and 1975, Whitlam found himself in an economic and political crisis of some severity. Confronted with an apparent political deadlock, the Governor-General appointed by Whitlam, Sir John Kerr, made use of reserve powers completely on his own initiative. These sorts of reserve powers are inherent in all constitutional arrangements where the head of state is intended to be a figurehead somewhat above politics.

Canada has in its history a similar confrontation between a prime minister and the reserve powers held by a head of state who represents a monarch resident overseas. The "King-Byng" affair is, I imagine, largely forgotten outside of Canada, and based on my own experience living there for six years seems largely forgotten within Canada, too. (Canadians are a people who prefer to forget their past, even to discard it altogether.) We see something similar happen here, except with a key difference. After the general election of October 1925, Governor-General the Viscount Byng of Vimy allowed the incumbent prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to have the first attempt at finding support in the House of Commons. Arguably Byng should have given the Conservative party, which had won the most seats, a go before King. However, Byng could be seen as accepting his prime minister's advice, which is how constitutional monarchies should work. After King had clearly lost his support in the Commons in June 1926, Byng declined to follow his prime minister's advice for a dissolution. The question that Byng had to answer was 'who spoke for the electorate?'. King's government was threatened with censure by the same house that had supported him nine months earlier, which saw King's party not even possessing the most seats. The October mandate had been inconclusive, and the largest party had not been given a chance to find a majority in the House of Commons. Whichever course of action Byng chose to adopt, he would have alienated a large number of Canadian voters. In fact, Byng handed the Conservative leader a poisoned chalice. The Conservatives could not secure a majority either, and a dissolution took place in a matter of days. King's party won a slim majority in the 1926 election.

In both cases, replacing the office of a vicegerent governor-general representing a monarch resident overseas would not have changed the dynamic of the crisis. In both cases the essential problem was between the government and the parliament. The head of state was required to arbitrate, and in both cases chose not to follow the advice of the prime minister. However, in both cases there were perfectly sound political reasons to take the course of action that was followed. Kerr needed to find a government that was capable of getting a budget sorted out in the midst of an economic crisis of the incumbent government's creation. I don't see how an elected Kerr could have failed to reach the same decision, nor is there any evidence that the relationship between Australia's monarchy and Britain's came into play here. Likewise, an elected Byng would have faced the same problem that an appointed Byng did.

In neither of these two crises did the 'colonial' position of the dominions come into play. Nor would a 'republican' polity have changed the crises in any way. Both are examples of how people in pursuit of power are prepared to kick at the foundations of their constitutional order, without really thinking about the long-term risk to the political system. In other words, image trumps reality when the stakes are highest.