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End of Empire

One of the lessons of history is that all empires come to an end. The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire (“neither holy nor Roman, nor an empire,” as Voltaire once quipped,) the Mongol Empire of the Golden Horde, the muslim Caliphates, the Spanish Empire, the Portuguese Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the French Empires (Napoleon’s and the later colonial empire,) the Empire of Brazil, the German Empire, the Russian Empire and the later Soviet one, the British Empire – whose last vestige apart from dribs and drabs of territory around the world surfaced in the “Empress of India” proclamation at the funeral of the late Queen Mother – all gone to dust along with so many others.

This Wikipedia list gives only the largest empires.

US President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, once said that Britain had lost an empire and not found a role. I wonder if part of the Brexit vote – not all, just part – was a reaction by older voters to that lack of a role as they can by and large remember when a political map of the world was liberally strewn with pink. I would venture that young people don’t have that feeling.

As for myself I long ago came to the conclusion that empire was a thing the UK was better off without, a delusion of grandeur no longer sustainable. After all, the British Isles constitute a relatively small mass of land off the northwest coast of Europe, not too significant in the grand scheme of things. That the British state should “punch above its weight” in international circles struck me as an increasing anachronism. And why should we be punching anybody anyway?

Membership of the European Union made perfect sense; a close collaboration with neighbours of a broadly similar outlook and goals.

But maybe this was actually a Scottish perspective as there seems to be a streak of belief in the southern parts of these islands – perhaps more prevalent the further south you go – in English exceptionalism coupled with a desire to have as little to do with foreigners as possible. As a newspaper headline supposedly once had it:- “Fog In Channel. Continent Cut Off.”

Scots do have the saying, “Wha’s like us?” (To which the answer is “Gey few and they’re a’ deid.”) But that was always more of a joke, a whistling in the wind, than an assertion of superiority.

That loss of empire (and of the sense that superiority can no longer be assumed) may well have been a factor in the Brexit vote. Clearly, for some in the southern portions of Britain at least, being part of a larger association in which you are neither the top nor the most numerous dog and therefore cannot condescendingly lord it over others (as they historically have done abroad and do still within the UK) is not a role in which they feel comfortable. Some of them still seem to think the UK can be (or even still is) a force on the world stage. Former (is there any other kind?) Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said sonorously on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, “This is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” in the context of what he called “bullying” by the EU as if that assertion still carried a degree of clout. (I note Marr made no attempt to disabuse him of his belief in innate worth. The fact that Raab had been made Brexit Secretary in the first place – and Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary – is an indicator of how impoverished the British political system has become in terms of elected representatives.) Sometimes I could wish that they would get over themselves.

Maybe a period of irrelevance as a North Atlantic offshoot of a more powerful trading block – a truer reflection of the UK’s standing – is just what they need in order to wake up to their reduced capacity to influence world affairs (consider: does anyone in Spain still hanker for the empire they once had?) – but perhaps even that would not jolt their certainties. Indeed, it may even inflame their resentments.

It may be that some of that losing a role sentiment, a sense of imminent decline, is an explanation of why US voters turned to T Ronald Dump two years ago. Decline has not come yet but will eventually – all empires fall in the end – but for now the US is still a preeminent superpower (though facing economic challenge from China in particular.) Quite how a real fall from that state will affect a polity which is used to strutting its stuff on the world stage is now being rehearsed in a compelling but worrying way, as a farce presaging a tragedy.

Dare to Call it Treason

There was an interesting article in Friday’s Guardian about the thought processes that led to some people – English people – seeing the EU as a domineering menace. Written by Fintan O’Toole, it was headlined The Paranoid Fantasy Behind Brexit with a subheading saying, “In the dark imaginations of English reactionaries, Britain is always a defeated nation – and the EU is the imaginary invader.” It’s well worth reading.

O’Toole argues the misguided logic of the Brexiteer mindset seems to be that Britain somehow actually lost the Second World War (or both World Wars if you will) as the European countries did much better than us economically after it. Thus it is that Brexiters come to make comparisons of the EU with Hitler as the EU is conjured to be a dark, disguised continuation of a project to subdue the UK, a delusion in which they revel. Invasion fantasies such as Len Deighton’s SS GB and Thomas Harris’s Fatherland (even though that was set in Germany) can also be seen as manifestations of the idea.

The piece reminded me of an article in The New European from January last year which states that the English aren’t team players; they just don’t like having to take other poeple’s views into account. Insouciant dismissals of the imminent Irish border problem on Brexit are only confirmation of that sort of attitude as is the Westminster Government’s lack of acknowledgement of the concerns of the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland.

The avid Brexiters like to characterise those who have views differing from theirs as traitors and enemies of the people.

They have it arse-backwards.* They are the real traitors, they who are the real personification of treason as their prescriptions and nostrums are neither in the interests nor the well-being of the country. They it is who have cultivated the seeds of dissension, stoked anger and proposed an entirely spurious remedy for the ills which beset the UK; a remedy which will only exacerbate those problems and, far from increasing Britain’s influence and standing in the world, will only lead to their diminution – a process which is now well under way. And their fantasy of a minimally regulated polity would be nothing but a complete disaster for those they claim to be championing.

(*Shouldn’t that phrase actually be arse-forwards? As in arse-about-face. Surely an arse already points backwards?)

The Threat to the British Constitution

Britrain doesn’t have a constitution.

Not a written one anyway.

The unwritten one contains the single provision that Parliament is sovereign.

Yet a former holder of high office in the UK government has pronounced that a “suicide vest” has been placed around it.

The language in which he articulated this – of a piece with a previous outburst about “letterboxes” – is clearly intended to speak to a certain kind of inhabitant of the UK – those who have been primed to believe that the British way of life is under attack by people with “un-British” belief systems.

If that way of life is indeed under attack it is not by people from foreign shores (or even by those from Britain who have been brainwashed by terrorists into believing their faith is persecuted here and worldwide) or with alternative belief systems. There is at present no direct threat to the fabric of Britain, either from foreign powers or from agents of inhumane ideologies inimical to independent thinking.

Possible threats to individual citizens from individual terrorist outrages (but that was also true of the IRA without them being demonised in the way we see of “Muslims” now) or actions tacitly approved by foreign governments, yes; systematic undermining, and takeover, of the institutions of the UK, no. Anyone who says there is is guilty of hyperbole and their motives for making such a claim ought to be questioned.

But if anyone did put a suicide vest around the British constitution it was not the present, but the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron – Mr Irresponsible striking again!

He it was who undermined Parliamentary sovereignty by calling a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU without the certainty of winning it.

That vest was detonated – along with his accomplices – by none other than the same man who makes the “suicide vest” claim against the present PM.

The EU referendum result implicitly placed the populace at large – or at least that minority of it whose votes prevailed – as being more sovereign than Parliament. There is nowhere to go after that.

Parliament – despite the present one being elected since the referendum and so technically, under the (admittedly non-existent) constitution, more sovereign than the referendum result as it is subsequent to it – cannot act in any way that ameliorates the consequences of that result. Too much anger would be stoked thereby – and there’s enough about as it is.

In the seventeenth century the English – and Scots and Irish – fought a war (several wars actually) over principals like this. The least we must demand of actors in the present constitutional crisis – becaue that’s what it is – is that they use language that does not stoke any fires.

America City by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2017, 365 p.

 America City cover

Twenty-second Century USA. The sea-level has risen, superstorms regularly batter the eastern seaboard, drought ravages the southwest. Resentment from within northern states towards those fleeing the environmental disasters is building. In the wider world polar bears, giraffes, blue whales, rhinoceroses and dolphins are extinct. Right-wing Senator Stephen Slaymaker, a former haulage contractor who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, worries that the country will fall apart under the strain of internal migration. Meanwhile a wall keeps out Mexicans and other possible migrants from the south.

Nevertheless some seem still to be welcome. Holly Peacock is an immigrant from Britain who has left-wing beliefs. She works in affecting public opinion via the whisperstream – a kind of updated internet accessed via devices known as cristals which contain AI personalities called jeenees. Think of her job as nudge politics and fake news taken to altogether different levels. She is attracted by Slaymaker’s desire to accommodate the internal refugees in the north. They meet and Slaymaker convinces her to work with him on his plan to bring about accommodation between the states, some of whom have begun arguing for border controls within the US.

Beckett tells his story mainly via the viewpoints of Holly and her husband Richard but occasionally intersperses their views with those of some of the people displaced by the storms or the drought. The Britain Holly has left seems a particularly dark place but isn’t much fleshed out as Beckett’s focus is on the happenings in the USA. He only alludes to British conditions via references to her family back home.

Air travel in this future is by machines called drigs (I assume a shortening of dirigible) but they seem no slower than jet aircraft. The political parties in the US are supposed to be different from our day – an (unelaborated) event called the Tyranny lies between now and then – but Slaymaker’s Freedom Party might as well be the Republicans and the Unity Party the Democrats. At the start of the novel the incumbent President is a woman from the Unity Party. (Is a woman US President perhaps the most Science-Fictional thing about this?)

Beckett’s scenario speaks to our time as Slaymaker was a climate change denier – he even argued against Williams’s ameliorative efforts to construct machines to remove carbon dioxide from the air as being pointless – and the topic of influencing voters in non-transparent ways acquired even more resonance during the novel’s writing during 2016. However, the time-scale appears a mite elongated. The problems Beckett describes may be upon us in far sooner than one hundred years.

Holly is instrumental in Slaymaker’s successful campaign, it is her idea that swings voters behind him. The unexpected consequences of its ramifications are less to her liking but it still (unlikely in my view) does not prevent her from continuing to work for the new President. Slaymaker is supposed to be charismatic and persuasive but more detachment might have been in order.

I note that Beckett seems to have adopted Connie Willis’s habit of narrative deferment. Here it is not so irritating as with Willis but the gaps before fulfillment of the teases are still too long for my taste. In addition I found most of the characters not to be as rounded as in Beckett’s Eden trilogy. But this is a different sort of book with more of a narrative drive. It might serve as a good introduction to Beckett’s work though and find him new readers.

Pedant’s corner:- the novel is written in USian (but this is a British edition, published in Britain,) “Slaymaker lay down his fork,” (laid, though I suppose most USians use lay for lie,) the president (President,) ditto presidency (Presidency,) “‘every times he gets the chance’” (time,) zeros (zeroes,) “an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it” (a web is,) “a squadron of bombers somewhere were attacking a flooded town” (a squadron was attacking.) “None of these were” (none was,) “a steady stream of these stories were put out” (a steady stream was,) Williams’ (Williams’s,) “feeling that suddenly been blowing toward them” (that’s,) “after been shown” (after being shown,) with men and woman (women,) “a coup[le of time” (times,) Mephistopholis’ (Mephistopholis’s,) “‘I need do stuff’” (to do stuff, ) Holly says ‘different than’ (I know she’s supposed to have been in the States for 20 years but would she really have stopped saying different from? And later, in the text, we have maths, not math,) “with the other forty-eight states in a vast bloc” (land-based states,) care about things about things” (only one “about things” required.)

Oh, Maggie, What Did We Do?

Anyone looking for a metaphor for the parlous state of the UK today doesn’t need to go very far. They only have to look at Theresa May’s speech at the Tory Party Conference yesterday. Just about everything that could go wrong did. The prankster illustrating the lack of authority the office of Prime Minister now holds. That letter falling off the slogan in the background which says it all about how austerity has hollowed away national cohesion and expertise. The slogan itself – a blatant example of truth reversal (they’re not building the country; they’re tearing it apart; they never do anything for everyone, they act for themselves, those who fund them and the extremely well-off.) A leader struggling to overcome the problems (albeit not entirely of her own making – though she didn’t do much to prevent their coming to pass and arguably contributed to their increase) in front of her.

And what on Earth was that about the British Dream?

There isn’t a British Dream*. We don’t do that sort of thing. We’re not USian.

But the phrase reminded me irresistibly of this song written by Roger Waters and taken from Pink Floyd’s album The Final Cut, from which I filched this post’s title. And the question it poses is a good one. I can trace all the ills that befall life in the UK today to that government from the 1980s. Kow-towing to the power of money, rampant exploitation of workers, poorly paid jobs, lack of social housing, high private rents – all have their roots in those times.

There are two unfortunate references in the song’s lyric, though. “Nips” (but that of course enables the rhyme) and “England”. She did damage to a hell of a lot more than England, Roger.

Pink Floyd: The Postwar Dream

*If there is it consists of getting the better of Johnny Foreigner and despising its own working class.

Counterproductive Tactics

What a spectacular misjudgement the Spanish government made in their response to the referendum in Catalonia.

Yes it did not have official sanction and therefore was illegal but to send in riot police and beat up citizens is not going to win over voters. It may have the diametrically opposite effect.

In a similar vein, if you wish to convince the citizens of a country with whose head of state you have a dispute to get rid of him themselves and that you are not a threat to those citizens in the way he claims then it isn’t perhaps the wisest pronouncement to say you will totally destroy said country.

Forgetting History

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian on how T Ronald Dump crossed a line when he failed to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville.

The worst thing was that the incumbent President of the United States – supposedly the leader of the free world – conveyed moral equivalence between Nazism/fascism and those who oppose it. That is breathtaking in its lack of awareness and abdication of responsibility for decency.

I have read an article which claimed that just because you opposed Nazism it didn’t mean your cause was necessarily good. What?

WHAT?

(The rationale was that Stalin fought fascism/Hitlerism, the implication, that since Stalin was bad then so, if you fight Nazism, are you.)

[I hesitated to post the link here as I didn’t want to encourage the writer in his false comparisons but finally decided to. (Here.)]

Quite apart from the outrageous insult his proposition is to those Allied soldiers who signed up to fight in the Second World War and even more so to those who gave their lives doing so, (it implies they were fellow travellers, duped) what a despicable piece of whataboutery that false equation represents. It gets the whole thing exactly the wrong way round.

The true state of affairs is that if you don’t fight Nazism/fascism then your cause is bad.

Apparently 9% of US citizens polled after Charlottesville believe that neo-Nazi or white supremacist views are acceptable. If the poll is representative that means 30 million people in the US share those beliefs. That is a forgetting of history right there.

How did it come to this? How did people come to forget those vile views (and the actions which resulted from them) were what their grandfathers had to fight against? How can a belief in the US as a bastion of freedom co-exist with an ideology whose aim is to extinguish freedom? (Even as that ideology is dressed up as a crusade for freedom of expression – or historical memory.)

A Professor Halford E Luccock of Yale University is quoted in the New York Times of 12/9/1938 as saying, “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled “Made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism”.”

Beware those who fly flags of whatever colour.

How Much Do Ant and Dec Get Paid?

The Tories came up with this wheeze to get the BBC to publish the salaries of its top earners as a way of kowtowing to the wishes of their masters’ at News Corp, Sky and elsewhere as part of their continuing project to undermine the BBC. The theory seems to be that people will object to TV Licence money being “wasted” on celebrities who (by definition) are not doing a “proper” job.

Agreed these are ludicrous sums, but no more so than top footballers’ pay (perhaps less) or the even more egregious amounts paid to heads of banks and CEOs/directors at large companies, who don’t do a proper job either.

And what’s appropriate for the BBC is surely good for its broadcasting rivals too.

After all, if I happen to buy a product that has been advertised on ITV, I still pay for Ant and Dec’s salaries even though I never watch them. Ditto for anyone that appears on Sky. Why should their payments be any more commercially confidential than those who appear on the BBC?

I look forward to the day when the salaries of those at ITV and Sky are made public instead of just being estimated.

I won’t be holding my breath though.

Bow Down. Know Your Place!

I have scarcely been disturbed so much by a British Prime Minister’s address than I was today by Theresa May.

The tone of her speech announcing her snap decision to have a General Election reminded me of nothing so much as President Erdoğan of Turkey who promised to ignore criticism by international observers of the recent referendum “result” in that country.

The way in which this has been greeted shows that the Fixed Parliament Act is not worth the paper it is written on. If a Prime Minister can just announce an election any time and everyone strings merrily along what was the point of it? Jeremy Corbyn’s acquiescence to the prospect merely gives him the opportunity to write his own long suicide note.

It makes a complete mockery of the electoral process – and to any objections Tories in Scotland may have to a second Scottish Independence Referendum on the grounds of weariness with ballots, or unripe time. The pretence that this is about anything other than embedding May’s own grip on the Prime Ministership is as breathtaking as it is mendacious.

And how can we believe anything she now says? This is something she emphasised she would not do and yet…. (OK she is a politician but this is brazen beyond belief.)

But none of that is my main concern. May’s line that “there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not,” is truly chilling. She is effectively saying that there should be no quibbling with her policies, that everyone should do as she says.

This is not any kind of democracy that I know.

Does she not believe in opposition? That those who do not agree with her have not just a right, but a duty, to speak out? (And to be represented in Parliament.)

It would seem, from her own words, that she does not.

This is the stance of a dictator.

So. “All hail Theresa Erdoğan, saviour of the nation.”

May Day

So. This is May’s day.

… — … … — … … — …
Dot, dot, dot; dash, dash, dash; dot, dot, dot. Dot, dot, dot; dash, dash, dash; dot, dot, dot. Dot, dot, dot; dash, dash, dash; dot, dot, dot.
Mayday! Mayday!

We in the UK have recently been sailing troubled waters but now we are coming out of a lea shore and are about to enter the full blast of the storm. Who knows what the political landscape of these islands will look like in three years’ time? A second Scottish Independence referendum has been made ever more probable by the UK goverment’s stance on a so-called hard Brexit and deaf ear to other voices.

Scottish independence might have been achieved on a relatively friendly basis in 2014 but I doubt that’s at all likely now.

The febrile English nationalists (for that is what they are) who have driven this headlong rush over a cliff have no thought of (or care for) Scotland – and still less for Northern Ireland for which this represents a double crisis, the “cash for ash” scandal having led to a breakdown of the power sharing arrangements. They will exact a heavy price for what they will no doubt see as a betrayal of “England, their England”.

I believe Theresa May is trying to look stern when she lectures all and sundry in the House of Commons and on television but to me she looks threatening – as in, don’t dare cross me, my revenge will be sweet – despite there being no substance behind her bluster. Scotland can look for no favours from her.

I never thought that another politician could achieve a position lower in my esteem than Margaret Thatcher did but Theresa May has managed it. (David Cameron, aka Mr Irresponsible, though he is entirely responsible for the mess the UK now finds itself in and amply demonstrated his irresponsibility by doing so and more so by running away from the consequences, is merely a buffoon by comparison.) May is potentially dangerous. Not so much in herself as in what may come after her.

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