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A Prescription for Cynicism

I recently had occasion to advise an old university friend to take up bird-watching as a matter of urgency. Now, I am no dabbler in...

Monday, 27 January 2020

Auschwitz-Birkenau, November 2018


There is no poetry in Auschwitz-Birkenau. When we arrived, it was cold. Standing outside the camp in winter clothing, there was a nervous anticipation in the group as we considered what lay before us: as if we would soon encounter a formidable enemy, or hear a stern but life-affirming lesson. Instead we met only stark and comfortless truths: boring, bare stone walls, grey watchtowers and the banal methodology of extinction. The guides related the details with clinical and ruthless clarity. The bricked-up isolation cells in which prisoners were left to stand until they suffocated or starved to death; the ‘selections’ where doctors made decisions about the fate of human beings according to their utility as slaves rather than their intrinsic worth as individuals; the cynical betrayal of Jewish families who were told to bring their most valuable possessions for a journey to a new life and were then robbed and murdered on arrival at the camp. We saw pictures of small children clutching at bags they would no longer need. As we stood at the end of the tracks at Birkenau, where some went left and some went right, we were reminded that this was only the culmination of a longer process, in which one group of people came to believe that, because of their innate superiority to those who were once neighbours and colleagues, the normal moral rules no longer applied. In the words of the camp guard who Primo Levi witnessed beating a prisoner on arrival at the camp: ‘there is no why here’. We did not learn lessons in Auschwitz-Birkenau; we trod in footsteps that we would not wish to walk in, and bore witness to those who had to walk that way nevertheless. 

When it got too cold, we left.



Saturday, 21 July 2018

History Lessons

"We need to be reiterating the benefits of Brexit. This is so important in the history of our country, it’s Magna Carta, it’s the burgesses coming at parliament, it’s the Great Reform Bill… It’s Waterloo! It’s Crécy! It’s Agincourt! We win all these things!"

Speech by Jacob Rees-Mogg at the Conservative Party conference, October 2017

"Very strange bridges are used to make the passage from one state of things to another; we may lose sight of them in our surveys of general history, but their discovery is the glory of historical research."

Herbert Butterfield, 'The Whig Interpretation of History', 1931

 
The Battle of Agincourt, 1415: one of the 'stopping places' in British history.

As Damian Le Bas has recently pointed out in his work on atchin tans in Traveller communities, the best journeys are all about ‘the stopping places’. Our love of the past is similarly rooted in particularly memorable events and turning points. These are the stopping places of history: battles and treaties, reforms and coronations. But these moments do not in themselves constitute historical analysis: we also need to understand the details of how the journey unfolded. Writing eighty years ago about the follies of ‘whig history’, Herbert Butterfield was scathing about the English tendency to pick and choose their history; alighting on moments synonymous with freedom, glory and heroism – and ignoring everything else.

In truth, whig history has never gone out of fashion, but its exponents rely on it now more ever. According to those who are enthusiastic about Britain leaving the European Union, the success of Brexit is guaranteed precisely because of Britain’s glorious past: our defiance of continental power at Agincourt, Waterloo, and Dunkirk, and our history of parliamentary reform. Heroes and pioneers exemplify the nation's entrepreneurial and independent spirit that will see us through any difficulties: as we are now almost continuously reminded by MPs who should know better: all we have to do is ‘believe’.

Belief requires some foundations – if you are basing your belief on English history, then you are best off squinting, rather than taking a clear-eyed look. For every Agincourt, there was a Castillon, for every Waterloo, a Balaklava. This kind of observation is anathema to amateur enthusiasts like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who revels in his reputation as the ‘MP for the Nineteenth Century’, but who actually can’t deploy an historical analogy without botching it. In truth, however, his supporters will forgive him. For many, the reference back to the glorious past is all that is needed to set hearts racing and passions aglow – in simplifying history for his credulous supporters, Rees-Mogg and his ilk provide them with essential vindication that cannot be found in the complexities of the present.
However, his recent claim that Theresa May’s White Paper on Brexit was ‘the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Philip II at Le Goulet in 1200’ was a real collector’s item in this burgeoning genre. Ostentatious display of historical learning – check. Reference to the evil colonising instincts of Europe – check.  Illiterate over-simplification, ignorance and misuse of history – check check check. The inaccuracy of the claim can be dealt with in a Tweet – John’s biographer Marc Morris did the honours – but the folly runs deeper than a lack of understanding of medieval diplomacy.
The bigger implication of Rees-Mogg's claim is that, in his conception of ‘our island story’, we have not endured any comparable setbacks in foreign policy in the previous eight hundred years. From 1215 onwards, English history is on its glorious journey – ‘we win all these things’. But this is the greatest falsehood of all, for we have suffered far worse, and most especially when we have lost our influence altogether in European affairs. The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis of 1559 does not feature in your Brexiteer’s whistle-stop of history. It was a devastating humiliation; while the new queen Elizabeth I raged in the background, the kings of France and Spain carved up Europe between them. As part of the horse-trading, England’s last continental possession, Calais, was handed back to France, with the pleas of the English diplomats disregarded. Elizabeth threatened to behead them, but she soon had to adapt herself to a new reality: thoughtless foreign policy had left England a second-class European power. Throughout her reign, Elizabeth would be dependent on precarious alliances with more powerful states for survival. Compromise was not shameful but necessary. The propaganda of the Armada portrait tells a different, and misleading story. Elizabeth knew that isolation from Europe left her kingdom at the mercy of external events; slowly, her careful diplomacy re-established England as an influential participant in European affairs.
Would you buy a used historical narrative from this man?
Travelling through the past with Jacob Rees-Mogg is like taking an extended voyage along England’s scenic country roads in a vintage car; the driver, all tweed, motoring gloves and joie de vivre, extols the merits of the scenery that you pass through – but you are left with the nagging suspicion that he isn’t in the least concerned about where you might end up. Nor, in fact, does the driver seem to notice any of the inconveniences of the journey: the vehicle itself splutters and shudders (it has not been well-maintained) and there are several miles of badly maintained roads, sections of which are almost impassable, and so narrow that the car frequently has to reverse to let others pass. The driver is not particularly interested in your observations (let alone your concerns), instead he continues to airily extol the wonders of the landscape of this green and pleasant land. Too late in the journey, as the scenery darkens, it becomes apparent to you (the unheeded passenger), that the driver’s narcisstic ramblings are a distraction from real dangers ahead. Better hope you arrive at an atchin tan, a stopping place, somewhere, anywhere, before you find yourself in very unfamiliar territory indeed.st vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200.Travelling through the past with Jacob Rees-Mogg is like taking an extended voyage along England’s scenic country roads in a vintage car; the driver, all tweed, motoring gloves and joie de vivre, extols the merits of the scenery that you pass through – but you are left with the nagging suspicion that he isn’t in the least concerned about where you might end up. Nor, in fact, does the driver seem to notice any of the inconveniences of the journey: the vehicle itself splutters and shudders (it has not been well-maintained) and there are several miles of badly maintained roads, sections of which are almost impassable, and so narrow that the car frequently has to reverse to let others pass. The driver is not particularly interested in your observations (let alone your concerns), instead he continues to airily extol the wanders of the landscape of this green and pleasant land. Too late in the journey, as the scenery darkens, it becomes apparent to you (the unheeded passenger), that the driver’s narcisstic ramblings are a distraction from real dangers ahead. Better hope you arrive at an ‘atchin’ tan’, a stopping place, somewhere, anywhere, before you find yourself in very unfamiliar territo

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Illusion of Consensus


"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." – Gramsci
For two decades, British politics seemed to be dominated by a simple and pragmatic political consensus: voters wanted freer markets, devolution of powers, social liberalism and a strong role for Britain on the world stage. In reality, the consensus never existed, and its fragility has been brutally exposed in the last twelve months. Support for market intervention, centralisation, social conservatism and isolationism have probably never been higher. It may be depressing for liberals like me, but since we have been very good at telling others that they need to adapt to the new world order – to sink or swim – maybe we need to start taking our own advice.

From the perspective of 2017, this consensus is already looking like a relic, but two years ago the trajectory of British politics seemed to be firmly established, and almost irrevocable: the major parties might squabble around the margins, but by and large they occupied the same political territory. Tony Blair’s three election victories provided the template, and his self-styled ‘heirs’ in the Conservative Party responded by modernising their party. Like Blair, David Cameron and George Osborne upheld socially and economically liberal values; they supported gay rights, free(ish) markets, private involvement in the provision of public services and, of course, they wanted Britain to remain a member of the European Union.

In retrospect, the strength of this consensus was also its weakness. Between 2005 and 2015, millions of ‘core’ voters shifted their political allegiance away from the main parties. The Tory right migrated angrily to Ukip, whilst voters to the left of the Labour Party grew frustrated with the triangulations of its leaders and sought out a more full-throated committed to the rhetoric, if not the practice, of socialism, which they found in the Green Party in England or in the nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales. Many socially conservative Labour voters, especially in the north, shifted to Ukip. The Liberal Democrat Party, once a safe haven for the ‘protest voter’, paid the price for entering a coalition with the Conservative Party and suffered a near-collapse in 2015.

They're not laughing now.
The voters’ flight from the consensus of the Blair years was heavily masked by the UK’s anachronistic voting system, which exaggerated support for the traditional parties to an almost embarrassing degree. In May 2015, Ukip and the Greens won nearly five million votes between them, but won only one seat apiece. Nevertheless, Cameron’s unexpected majority made the shifts in political gravity over the previous decade seem largely superficial: it appeared that most voters would still return to consensus politics when called upon to do so. But this ignored the fact that Cameron had failed to put forward any positive agenda in 2015. Instead, he focused on the threat of an unpatriotic Labour-SNP coalition that would ‘bankrupt Britain’ and the promise of a referendum on EU membership that he personally opposed. Lacking enthusiastic support from his own members, let alone the country, his victory was dependent on a toxic combination of weakness and fear. 

Neither was there much enthusiasm for the political alternative offered by Labour. Left-wing voters were appalled at Ed Miliband’s attempts to compromise with socially conservative voters by accepting the freeze on benefits and putting the promise to ‘control immigration’ on campaign mugs. There has probably never been an election in which the candidates had so little to offer their political activists or the wider electorate; both leaders campaigned on the basis of who they weren’t, and the result that there was little sorrow over their respective departures in 2015 (Miliband) and 2016 (Cameron).

And what has become of the ‘centre ground’ that both men were so diligently striving for? It has evaporated beneath their feet. Support for membership of the EU was, by 2016, the only part of the old consensus still standing, and it collapsed entirely once sufficient numbers of Remainers accepted that there was little hope of overturning the referendum result. This year, the Liberal Democrats have appealed directly to ‘Remain’ voters, and have found themselves struggling to stay relevant in an election campaign that has moved on.

In 2017, the two main parties have achieved what once seemed impossible: playing to its ‘core vote’ whilst also making electoral gains. Labour’s campaign has been an unheralded triumph. A manifesto that promises large spending increases and government intervention in the economy at almost every level will enable them to hoover up votes from Liberal Democrats and the Greens on June 8th. On the right, Theresa May’s programme offers Conservatives all they have dreamed of: hard Brexit, grammar schools, fox hunting and fiscal restraint. Her personal brand has been tarnished by wobbles over social care, but the wider message will still (probably) carry her to an increased majority.

Both platforms have done more than simply challenge the old political consensus: they have buried it. Labour may change its leader after this election, but they will certainly maintain the political course that he has set. Meanwhile, Cameronites in the Conservative Party are on the way to becoming as rare a breed as Labour’s ‘Blairites’: when Theresa May sacked George Osborne last year, she reportedly advised him to spend some time getting to know Conservative voters before returning to the political fray. Instead, he has become the editor of the largest newspaper in London, a city which remains a sturdy outpost of the old consensus, but is suddenly perplexed to find itself disregarded by the provinces: an enclave, rather than a hub.

As the process of leaving the European Union proves to be more intricate, more painful and more embarrassing than voters have calculated, the positions adopted now will harden further: scapegoats will be demanded, and unrealistic goals set. But this election may yet only mark the transformation, rather than the death, of Liberal Britain. If liberalism can move from orthodoxy to insurgency, then it can still revive the country’s prospects in the twenty-first century as surely as it did in the twentieth. Shorn of the constraints imposed by the need to maintain a non-existent consensus, liberalism can regain its self-confidence and assertiveness, and reclaim support from across the political spectrum. Macron points the way: en marche!





Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Manchester

'To think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.'

Orwell, Politics and the English Language

To discriminate is a moral necessity. It is the first duty of the twenty-first century liberal. It is our only hope. Yesterday, we learned again what a lack of discrimination looks like. The man at the concert lacked the courage, and the intellect, to distinguish between a mass of enemies, and individual human beings. His victims were determined by random chance. It was indiscriminate. It has always been the guiding principle of terrorists all over the world that there is no meaningful distinction to be made between citizens and governments, between systems and individuals, between bystanders and cheerleaders. A terrorist organisation thrives on the perception that their victims could include anyone, at any time: it could be you. Terror is, purely and simply, the failure to discriminate.

But, unlike the killer, the people of Manchester are capable of discrimination. They know the difference between a murderer, a maniac and a Muslim. There are, of course, people who will mock this distinction. They will laugh at attempts to strengthen communities and re-assert human ties in the face of inhuman violence. They will scoff that this is nothing more than a deliberate denial of reality in order to defend a liberal dogma. They will pour scorn on pious do-gooders who want to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, and they will instead urge that the time for discrimination is over. Lump the good in with the bad, they will say. We can’t take any more chances. We must get tough on the communities that have spawned sadistic, murderous fantasists: they are collectively guilty and must be collectively punished. In their hearts, of course, these old fraudsters know they are perpetuating the problem that they claim to strike at. They know that the planners of an attack such as this depend on those who use language indiscriminately to follow up the attack and do their work for them. They know it, but the temptation to pontificate is stronger than the challenge to engage. The ultimate result is that, slowly but surely, a liberal state loses the ability to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent, and Muslims are encouraged to believe that they have no obligation to discriminate in return.


Discrimination, in the aftermath of Manchester, is hard. We must practise discriminating between a killer and those who share his faith. We must practise discriminating between those who are seeking to solve the problem and those who merely say they are. We must learn to discriminate between the truth, which is hard and painful, and fantasy, which is easy, morally comforting and, eventually, psychotically violent. But if Manchester is still capable of discrimination today, so are we.