The world de-mystified

We, the people on this crazy planet, seek at one pole to identify, and work with, the world perceived as gaia, the mother of life, and at the other to command it: nature as enemy, to be tamed in what William James described more than a hundred years ago as ‘the moral equivalent of war’. The latter has indeed been the direction of travel for in the Western world for several hundred years, but we were, until even as late as the mid-20th century (if we exclude the USA and Europe), still getting no further than the edges.

Central Asia and Tibet were lands of mystics and Buddhists. There lay ancient paths to wisdom. Now those paths have been wiped by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Britain may have governed India but its impact on Hindu and Muslim culture was minimal. A piece is a recent Economist highlighted how Indian cinema, Bollywood, while as popular as ever is now accessed in rural communities not by showings at the traditional communal fairs known as mela but in the privacy of private homes, which may be no more than shacks, via mobile phone.

The Economist also recently ran pieces on the railways which had opened up the Middle East in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. East briefly met West in conditions of harmony, even if old attitudes to the Orient hardly budged. Tracks now run as far as borders, or have been torn up. Out of connection we brought division. And another piece describes and evokes the last kampong, or village, in Singapore, where the long-established Land Acquisition Act allows unrestricted development, the commercial maximisation of limited space.

The world has been thoroughly demystified.

Now we have Elon Musk seeking to re-make the world, and the solar system, in his own image. Tesla is green. He is scornful of climate change deniers. But he’s also loading the atmosphere with thousands of miniature satellites as part of his Starlink communication programme. From the distance in space where he or his satellites look back in the earth individual citizens are invisible.

Time Magazine made him their Man of the Year. ‘This is the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit: clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars.’

This is close to worship. You lose one deity, you create another…

Another aspirant deity out in California is libertarian Peter Thiel. Thiel, David Runciman writes in the London Review of Books, ‘rails against the use of public money for the betterment of people’s lives, especially the poor. Who are politicians to decide how we should live? The state only exists to protect the lives we build for ourselves, including the wealth we acquire along the way.’ Monopoly is the logical aim of any good capitalist.

A favourite book of Thiel’s is The Sovereign Individual (published 1997), co-authored by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father, William. The authors predict ‘the demise of the nation-state and the emergence of low or no tax libertarian communities in which the rich can finally emancipate themselves from ‘the exploitation of the capitalists by workers’.

Thiel ‘helped to bankroll the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create independent, ocean-based communities free from all government control.’ He was ‘an early vocal champion of Donald Trump’s presidential bid’. (All quotes are from David Runciman’s article.)

So where does that leave the still small voice of Zen, so optimistic in 2009. Where does the ordinary guy fit in? Likewise, run-of-the-mill limited-term democracy? And the big issues of migration, the armaments race, land use, species survival?

Thiel we can shunt off into one of his Seasteading communities. The state could build it for him.

And let’s have Musk focused literally down to earth, where he’s doing some real good, and could do so much more. But his mindset… he is a commander. He doesn’t do humility. We have messed up the environment and using the same machismo approach that landed in this mess he thinks he can put it right. I don’t share his premise. But we could use his ideas and energy. He could use our humility, but, well, let’s face it – that won’t happen!

Richard Dawkins comes to town

Saturday morning, 10am, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Richard Dawkins has been woven into our lives if not our rainbows for a few decades now. I can still remember reading The Selfish Gene. It’s somehow associated with a bus from up north heading down to London, sitting near the front, with big views either side of the motorway. Yes, it changed how I view the world.

Before last Saturday, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I’d not heard him speak in person. Interviewed by Matthew Stadlen, who he knows well, it seems, not least from previous interviews, he was as direct and blunt as I’d expected.

One cheerful discussion was around whether ‘altruistic’ rather than ‘selfish’ would have been a better title for that famous book. But it wouldn’t have had much of a zing to it, but there’s certainly a good case for arguing that genes are operating altruistically, since our survival, and progression up the evolutionary ladder, is tied intimately to our genes. Where they go we follow.

Genes have our interests at heart, though watching The Mating Game last night I was rivetted, as, accompanied by David Attenborough’s whispered, I-don’t-want-to-interfere’ voice, a male praying mantis manages to get its head bitten off by a larger female and yet, abdominally alive for several hours, still manages to mate. At the same time it provides the female with sustenance to feed the brood which will in due time follow. The male is allowed no time to rejoice in successful procreation.

Back from the jungle to Cheltenham. What I miss, and I’m more aware of this from a front-row seat, so not more than a few yards away, is the absence of a human dimension in his projection of himself as a scientist. Human beings of social, cultural, mixed-up, error-prone, imperfect beings. The human dimension doesn’t get a look in.

Take religion as the classic example – and Dawkins’ favoured territory. For my part, it’s so closely tied with ideas of love and compassion, and security, and re-assurance, and atheism does such a bad job of providing any substitute, that you’re throwing out a great chunk of human civilisation if you dismiss religion. The easy target of a personal god is only one manifestation. The instinct to believe or, if not to believe a such, then find re-assurance somewhere beyond ourselves, is innate to human beings.  Science, you could argue (and it would be interesting to do so!), is skeletal without it.

On climate change there was something similar. Dawkins didn’t mention the human dimension, and all the actions that will be required of us if the no-more-than 1.5% increase above pre-industrial levels is to be achieved. (‘What are your thoughts on Greta Thunberg’ would have been a good question.) He accepts Global Warming, and responded (I read) positively to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. If only, he once commented, Gore rather than Bush has won the presidential election in 2000. A few hanging or dimpled chads changed the world. But his focus last Saturday was only on the science.

We have the surveillance state that is China on the one hand, and the spectre, so appealing to one section of Republican opinion in the USA, of scary Peter-Thiel-style libertarianism on the other. We need to promote the human dimension across the board, at all times, in all things. The religion-versus-atheism debate is old hat. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, atheists – we’re all in this together. Science must be and remain the servant of humanity, and without that context it can become so easily, as China demonstrates, the instrument of an authoritarian state.

(I’d like to chip in here with comments on Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality. But I haven’t dipped into it yet. One comment from a Guardian interview from last month: ‘If only everyone were capable of reasoning properly, Pinker sometimes seems to imply, then our endless political arguments would not occupy so much of public life.’ There’s the rub, of course. We don’t reason ‘properly’, and the application of reason doesn’t always lead to the same conclusions.)

Dawkins signed off with his thoughts on the transgender debate. Men and women are defined by their chromosomes and whether or not they are born with a penis. That is the biological definition. How they define themselves to themselves and to others is up to them.  No questions from the audience, so no debate ensued. But Dawkins had been clear, as always – the science must prevail.  

Hassan Akkad – a Syrian refugee

The Cheltenham Literature Festival ended yesterday. The beauty, and the challenge, of a book festival is the range of voices you get to hear. In my case it’s included Michael Wood talking about China, both his TV series, and recent book; Hassan Akkad, Syrian refugee and author of a new book, Hope Not Fear; Richard Dawkins, single-minded in his advocacy of science; and Colm Toibin, talking in inimitable Irish style about a sometimes very taciturn novelist, Thomas Mann, the subject of his latest novel.

Hassan Akkad, speaking in one of the small, almost off-festival venues, was for me the stand-out event. I mentioned that events can challenge. This one did. How might we, how might I, in our comfortable lives, do better. It’s not enough to read, or write blogs.

‘Hope Not Fear’ is the title of his book. Both are primary emotions. They are basic to our lives, as near opposites as can be. Imprisoned after demonstrating and film-making in Damascus, tortured, invited to meet Assad, re-imprisoned after that bizarre meeting, tortured again, both arms broken. A refugee in this country since 2016, he filmed his journey from Syria, contributing to a film which won a BAFTA.

Discovering that there was a condition known as PTSD made a big difference for him: he realised the fear and anxiety he felt was something others experienced, and could be treated. Listening to him talk his hands moved nervously, and yet his smile was wide and infectious. So much better hope than fear.

He would want to bring his children up in the UK. And yet he wants to go back to Damascus. How might the future work out not just for him, but for the world, someone asked. He smiled. How do you answer a question like that. Talking to people, taking someone in need out for a coffee or a meal – that was the gist of his answer. If we talk, if we’re open, if we care.

He volunteered as a cleaner early in in the pandemic, working with a remarkably multi-ethnic group of volunteers. Appalled by a government decision to exclude cleaners and porters from the NHS bereavement scheme if they died from coronavirus he put a film addressed to Boris Johnson on Twitter which was instrumental in changing government policy.

As a country, as a people, we welcomed him. But our politics has puzzled and disappointed. After a society in Damascus where stability hinged on notions of shame and honour, he’d expected to find the openness and freedom he’d briefly found as a demonstrator in Damascus, only to find a Britain radically divided in its politics.

It helps to be reminded how others see us, and how far in recent years we’ve fallen short. In the Britain he’d read about, the ministers responsible for the egregious early failings of our response to the Covid crisis would have resigned. None have. What message do we take from that?

There’a vulnerability about Hassan Akkad. He’s been through more than most of us could ever imagine. We should listen.

Decline of an empire?

Almost three weeks on. The USA is out of Afghanistan. Recriminations continue, and pundits have their say. Tony Blair called it imbecilic, and argued the West should stay to protect its gains. Niall Ferguson looked to historical analogies, and specifically Britain’s experience after 1918, focusing on the idea of decline of empire. He quoted Winston Churchill bitterly recalling a ‘refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the state.’ He quotes this against Biden, when it could be quoted in his favour. Biden has always been consistent on Afghanistan – see my last blog.

Ferguson as always gets to the heart of the matter but I’m not convinced by analogies. My experience as an historian tells me to enter caveats at every stage. Ferguson raised the spectre of American economic weakness, and the size of American debt.  But with a strong internal economy in no way is its economic situation comparable to Britain’s in the 1920s.

And what are the ‘gains’ the West has achieved in Afghanistan? We established a thriving outpost, with less than friendly counties on all sides. Abandoning it is a calamity, and it was massively mismanaged, but it had an inevitability about it. The Afghan army without the all-important bond and commitment of a national (as opposed to tribal) identity was always an artificial construct, and unlikely to hold together under duress, as the Taliban proved.  

It sounds as if I’m writing with the advantage of hindsight – which I am, of course. But the military reality should have been perfectly clear to the Americans. To Biden it may only have been the sheer speed of the collapse that took him by surprise.

The Economist was forthright: ‘America’s power to deter its enemies and re-assure its friends has diminished.’  ‘Its withdrawal is likely to embolden jihadists everywhere.’

Is that right? The Taliban will have no truck with terrorists. To have their success seen as a rallying call for Al-Shabaab, or any branch of IS, is in no way in their interest.  They made that mistake back in 2001. Their leaders know a little of life in Qatar.

It’s in the West’s interests to engage with the Taliban, to release (subject to conditions) the World Bank funding that is currently suspended, and to allow food programmes, specifically the World Food Programme, to continue, without conditions.

The first condition must be to show that the Taliban can assert its authority over all the whole country, and hold it together where all previous attempts have failed. The second is humanitarian – above all women’s rights, with regard to education and employment.

The Taliban may go part way, testing Western resolve. Our approach has to be pragmatic.

Biden, and Trump, and Obama, were all right: the USA has to focus on the Pacific, and China, while Europe and NATO ups its game in Europe. The oil imperative is not what it was. The Middle East and by extension Islam and Afghanistan no longer need to be theatres of Western operation. And we now know that the wider world doesn’t look upon Western-style democracy as some universal panacea.

Impose values (however sure we may be that they are right) and resentment, and then outright opposition, are likely to follow. We need to remind ourselves that we lead best by example.

And that, turning the focus back on ourselves, is a hard hard road.

Why?

Kabul has fallen. What can I say that doesn’t sound trite. Listen to the ex-solder Tom Tugendhat, who served in Afghanistan, speaking in the House of Commons, and I’m minded to hold back.

But there is one question I keep on asking myself, the big question, the ‘why’ question. Why did Joe Biden allow it to happen?

I thought I’d check what Barack Obama has to say (in ‘A Promised Land’) about the discussions they had within his newly-elected administration in 2009. The USA, he writes, already had 30,000 troops there, plus 10,000 troops from other countries, and the military were pressing for the deployment of another 30,000. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates warned of unintended consequences that could follow from rash actions.

In Obama’s words: ‘Unless we established limited and realistic objectives, he [Gates] told me, “we set ourselves up for failure”.’

Obama continues, ‘Among the principals only Joe Biden expressed his misgivings. He had travelled to Afghanistan on my behalf during the transition and what he saw and heard on the trip – particularly a contentious meeting with Karzai – had convinced him that we need to rethink our whole approach to Afghanistan…he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire and urged me to delay deployment, suggesting it would be easier to put troops in once we had a clear strategy as opposed to pulling troops out after we’d made a mess with a bad one.’

Biden has been by his lights entirely consistent. American strategy over the twelve years since he became Obama’s vice-president has been focused on nation-building, and putting that new nation on a secure basis, and guaranteeing that security. That simply hasn’t happened. The Taliban never went away. Warlords guarded their patches. Bribery remained endemic. Kabul, with many of the trappings of a big Western city, was the exception. And why should we have ever supposed that an Afghan government army drawn largely (I’m assuming) from outside Kabul would ever stand and fight against a single-minded and often brutal Taliban insurgency?

China and the ex-Soviet republics lie to the north. Taliban-sympathising Pakistan to the east, Iran to the west. What chance was there of guaranteeing Kabul, let alone Afghanistan, a Western-style democratic future?

Only if the US retained a big military presence – and the American public, 70% in one poll I’ve seen, wanted out.

Jon Sopel on the BBC website suggests the Americans could have delayed their withdrawal to the winter season, when no-one fights in Afghanistan. But that wouldn’t have made much difference in the end. Kabul would have fallen.

But not in such a catastrophic fashion.

Did Biden really believe the Afghan army would put up strong resistance? Was he just badly advised? Is this just another, and terrible, example, of that American insensitivity, that lack of awareness, which has so bedevilled its foreign policy ventures since World War Two?

This one matters. Women in Afghanistan face an uncertain future. It may be a terrible future. Kabul is far more than another political catastrophe. It could be a humanitarian catastrophe of an extreme kind.

Big decisions need fallback positions. Halting the withdrawal, or maintaining full air cover for the Afghan army, at the very least. All or nothing is no strategy.

The new buccaneers

A curious piece, tongue-in-cheek, but neat, in a recent edition of The Economist.

‘Mr Johnson understood intuitively that the financial crisis had ended the neoliberal consensus…No mere Trumpian wrecking ball he is trying to reshape globalisation in the mould of Britain’s buccaneering maritime past, rather than in the European Union’s bureaucratic pettifoggery.’

Buccaneering. How do you ‘buccaneer’ these days?

Container ships could be the new buccaneers. Where once we had tea clippers and cargo ships. We’ll need a bit of the old aggression, against Chinese and indeed the Americans if we’re to capture markets, and of course against our old friends, the Europeans. Piracy would help. Conquest shouldn’t be ruled out.

Or if that’s beyond us, overseas markets will least welcome a bit of the old imperial chutzpah. It will be as if we’d never been away.

The EU’s ‘bureaucratic pettifoggery’. But isn’t it what successful free trade requires, a bit of pettifoggery? Small print. A few regulations, so we’re all on the same page. In olden times, we wrote our own. It was easier then. (Yes, regulations need to be reined it: it was always thus.)

You need the high seas and a big reach if you’re to buccaneer. But ‘big reach’, also known as globalisation, isn’t really that fashionable at the moment, beyond our shores. Buy American is the watchword over the pond. China is focusing more on its internal market, and on its Belt and Road for which there’s no equivalent here in the West. China on its doorstep bludgeons with overwhelming economic power. We negotiate as best we can.

We had our own strong internal market, just twenty miles away over the Channel, twenty-eight countries strong, but we gave it up, and put stop-gaps and confusion in its place. And hide our confusion with hyperbole.

Liz Truss’s article on the Politico website back in March is a fine example. A few quotes:

‘We will work together to reshape the rules of global trade to reflect our core values…The U.K.’s values-driven policy has already delivered successes in trade negotiations….Just as free trade made the U.K. great in the 19th century, we can be even greater still in the 21st by becoming a global hub for services and digital trade.’

We’re back to being … buccaneers. And nowadays the world’s awash with buccaneers. We could find ourselves with brief spells of comparative advantage, where we outperform our rivals, or corner a niche in the market, only to find we’re overtaken as other countries seek to build advantage for themselves in the same areas, which could be digital, medical or services. As a mature economy we specialise at the high end. As other economies mature, so will they.

Free trade in the highly fluid modern world can’t remotely be compared with the 19th century as a driver of community prosperity. That was built on certainty, and the confidence born of certainty, and it was even then a long, rocky, risky and highly uncertain road. Politics in the wrong hands deals in simplicities. History hits you hard with a reminder of just how extraordinarily complex is the reality.

Strong communities and long supply lines can be a poor mix, with little connection between businesses tucked away in business parks and nearby towns and villages. Community in its widest sense requires shorter, more guaranteed lines of supply, with industries which can sell strongly into local markets, or into UK-wide markets, or indeed into EU-wide markets. We need a different and wiser mindset, which focuses in developing our UK and European markets, and which, while promoting trade with China, Japan, India and the ASEAN countries, avoids obsession.

We’ve also had Johnson’s 15th July ‘levelling up’ speech.

‘We are turning this country into a science superpower, doubling public investment in R and D to £22 billion and we want to use that lead to trigger more private sector investment and to level up across the country so that we have hubs or research and innovation like the one we are in today which is actually driving battery technology.’

All this is admirable. But is this government competent to deliver? Have we any reason save their bluster to believe them? Our best hope lies in the local mayors of cities lie Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, also Teesside. Labour and Tory – they do have the competence.

We simply have the wrong people in power to get close to addressing, let alone solving, the issues of our time. We’ve over the last twenty years seen the disappearance of men and women of calibre from our politics. Johnson has ensured that the old high-calibre politicians won’t touch his party. On the other side, Corbyn didn’t help. The way back isn’t proving easy.

Let’s hear it for ideas and intellect

I note that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a new exhibition, opened last month, on the history of enslavement in the Netherlands and its former colonies. Shouldn’t we be doing the same? Wasn’t slavery an integral part of the socio-economic system out of which grew our own?

I’d thought until recent years that the genie was out of the bottle. There would be no going back. But that’s what our government, by attempting to repress debate, is trying to do. Ideas, intellect, social responsibility, compassion – they should be driving the modern world.

Compassion, at a government level, went missing in the years of (unrestored) welfare cuts in the Osborne era. Now after fifteen months of Covid it’s been rediscovered by the government, and commoditised. It has a value, it can be directed. ‘Penny Mordaunt, a minister responsible for social contingencies and co-author of “Greater: Britain after the storm”, wants the state to harness those who volunteered to battle coronavirus, directing them towards “national missions such as elderly care”.’ (The Economist)

These are the carers who battled away through the years of government austerity cuts. They have been there, all the time. Unrecognised. Now they have ‘utility’.

Intellect, ideas… we have a government scared of universities, scared of academic debate, scared of museums. And the mood is picked up by the dominant media (all right of centre, save for the Guardian and the Mirror).

David Aaronovitch had a considered piece on the subject of restitution in a recent edition of The Times. The Benin bronzes feature. So too the ardent decolonisers, who scorn museums as great colonial hangovers. We have the liberal leaders of the British Museum and the V&A, the likes of Tristan Hunt and Neil MacGregor, ‘with their talk of “universal” institutions.’

What he doesn’t address is the stonewall refusal of the right-wing to recognise there’s any kind of issue. But that refusal is there in the article’s headline, which I trust Aaronovitch didn’t approve, ‘We can’t allow radicals to strip our museums.’

The Times is sometimes in danger of being little more than alternative Telegraph. There is in this case nuance in the article – but the headline suggests a rant.  It’s white and black post-Brexit world where we must take sides.

Two pages back in the same issue we’d an article by a young guy called James Marriott headed ‘Academic intelligence is absurdly overvalued’. As an example: ‘I spent most of a term studying 17th century sermons.’ I did something similar in my time reading history at Oxford. But I also studied the Crusades, the American Civil War, the Renaissance, the medieval world, and I damned well thought about them – and had to get my ideas down in essays. I applied my critical faculties to history, and that’s what I still try to do.

Marriott waffles about ‘practical intelligence which is to do with the “tacit knowledge”’ of how things work and how  do get things done’. History would appear to have been a wasted education in his case.

We’d also a Times leader arguing against ‘taking the knee’. A posh white-man’s newspaper – is that really how The Times sees itself these days? It’s for the players black, white, African, Asian… it’s for them to decide. They are close to discrimination. They live with it. Not the editors of national newspapers.

John Witherow, as editor of The Times, and an employee of Rupert Murdoch, has a difficult tight-rope to walk. I can see that. The country needs a paper like The Times. I will continue to read it (and other papers as well of course!), and read between the lines.   

Museums – first steps toward censorship

A quick note this sunny bank holiday morning. Get the serious stuff off my mind before enjoying the day.

My last blog took in Empire and trade and how we handle our colonial legacy. I mentioned that Oxford’s Oriel College had decided not to ‘begin the process of removing’ the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Instead they’ve outlined a series of initiatives which will take the controversy as a starting point – a strategic plan for improving equality, diversity and inclusion, a tutor to cover the same, scholarships, an annual lecture, student prize…

This has to be the right way forward. The focus on context. By understanding context the college and by extension the university and indeed anyone who will listen can move forward.

The following report from the Independent has a very different story. It speaks for itself:

A trustee who backed the ‘decolonising’ of the curriculum has been purged from the board of a prestigious museum group, triggering the resignation of its chair in protest. The refusal to reappoint Aminul Hoque – a leading Bangladeshi-British academic – at the Royal Museums Greenwich is being seen as the latest example of the government’s ‘culture war’.

Likewise this item from the Museums Journal, highlighting a letter sent to national museums by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden which stated that ‘publicly-funded bodies should align with the government’s stance on contested heritage’.

‘The government did not “support the removal of statues or other similar objects” and told recipients (of a letter sent to national museums) that he “would expect arm’s lengths bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position”’.

This is simply sinister. The issue here is not the removal or otherwise of statues. It is the wider agenda implied. It represents an attempt to influence research into and the presentation of our cultural heritage which is simply unprecedented. That heritage, the impact of colonisation on the world, is what it is. And it needs to be centre-stage if we’re to understand the world we live in, and change it for the better.

Dowden insists that museums ‘continue to act impartially’ and by so doing interferes in an unprecedented and highly partial and dangerous way.

It is consistent with attempts to stir up a wider opposition to the BBC as a licence-funded operation, using its news coverage, which is to an impartial observer (check out opinions from other country’s on this!) remarkably impartial in an ever-more divided world, as an excuse for turning it into just another subscription channel, and thereby losing its identity as a national channel – leaving British TV open to market forces, which has of course been Rupert Murdoch’s aim all along.

The Diana/Martin Bashir story is almost twenty-five years old but is being treated as if it’s current news. By the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press. Murdoch is of course about to launch Times Radio to compete with BBC Radio.

We live in dangerous times, with the Americanisation of our media, and the serious consequences that could result, a real possibility. The tabloids and Telegraph and Times won’t help us. Their owners ensure their readers are unaware of the hard realities. Journalists and writers to get published need to toe the line. The BBC likewise must toe the line: it cannot make a case for itself. Social media is a deeply divided and contentious space.

Those of us who can must make our case as best we can. The wider public, most certainly in the case of the BBC, is on our side. Open minds and impartiality have become part of our DNA. We must not give them up lightly.

And so the Empire lives on….

I visited Daylesford in the Cotswolds yesterday, famous for its farm shop, and explored its vast and well-tended (woodland and pasture and water meadow) estate. How many I wonder connect the estate to Warren Hastings, famous, or infamous, as the 18th century governor-general of India, and subject of remarkable impeachment proceedings (beginning in 1788) when he was labelled by Edmund Burke among other epithets as ‘shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious’.

The East India Company in the 18th century was the forerunner of the Raj. But it was back then in essence a trading company, militarised under Robert Clive, not least to combat French influence on the sub-continent. Trade brooked no rivals. The moral conscience of the nation was stirred, but trade had its own momentum. In Burke’s words, ‘(the Company appears) more like an army going to pillage the people under the pretence of commerce than anything else’.

Ten years later (1799) victory over Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, ensured control of southern India. ‘Scarcely a house in the town [Seringapatam] was left unplundered,’ Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, wrote to his mother. The loot was extraordinary. It overwhelms our museums.

How, I wondered, does trade morph into empire, when the exigencies of trading relationships are replaced by the subjugation of whole populations? Local agreements with Indian merchants required local representation, which in turn required residence, and defence of person and property, and of commercial privileges – which extended so easily into a pretence, and then a reality, of empire.

William Dalrymple’s monumental history of the East India Company (‘The Anarchy’) is marvellous on the subject. Also worth reading is Sathnam Sanghera. He’s the Wolverhampton-born son of Sikh immigrants, and a journalist on The Times. His new book, Empireland, pulls together in one short volume many of the elements of our imperial legacy – loot, immigration (‘we are here because you were there’), identity, legacy, amnesia, trade and slavery.

Trade is to the forefront today. Literally today. The commission appointed by Oxford’s Oriel College to review the college’s decision to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has decided against its removal, and the college has concurred in that decision. The protest group ‘Rhodes must go’ is up in arms. But the ground has shifted even in the last year. The government’s proposed legislation would have had all plans to remove statues called in, and probably overturned.

The growth of Empire was linked to specific products. Rhodes is associated with southern Africa and diamond mining. He founded De Beers. The slave trade and the sugar plantations of the West Indies were synonymous. Cotton textiles were one of the mainstays of 18th century East India Company trade.  The Calico Acts of 1700 and 1721 prohibited their importation, but not raw cotton, opening up later in the century to the import of raw cotton from slave plantations in the southern USA, and creating the conditions for the rapid development of the cotton industry in late 18th and 19th century Lancashire. India became a major market for Lancashire cotton. Indians had no choice in the matter. The connection between slavery, trade, and the industrial revolution is direct.

I speak as a Manchester man, proud of his city. Do I feel guilt? No, that’s not a helpful emotion. And if we apologise – who would do the apologising? And who to? Look over the Channel and see the quandary the French have over North Africa. Macron described the Algerian War as a crime against humanity. But no apology as such has been – or I guess will be – forthcoming. You could argue that those who should be apologising are those of us who still maintain some kind of ‘imperial mindset’. Who still have some notion of British exceptionalism. Look across the pond to America, where ‘exceptionalism’ is also rife.

Brexit evoked comparisons with 19th century free trade and revoking the Corn Laws. But back then we controlled our markets, controlled the seas, and enforced tariff-free trade, always to our advantage. We crushed domestic production in India to create a vast market there for our own goods. I’m researching my great-grandfather’s business in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire – cotton country despite being over the boundary from Lancashire. Did his business, as a merchant tailor with a wide reach, extend beyond Manchester to overseas markets?

There is a curious reverse colonial mentality among some well-known supporters of Brexit. The EU is turned into a surrogate empire, and the only way we can reassert our status is by turning back the clock. And so the British Empire lives on….

The subject, as Sanghera found, is vast, and I’ll limit myself here to one further comment, on the subject of religion, and muscular Christianity, and the role of the missionary. I recently read Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. It’s a short, and remarkable novel, drawing on Achebe’s own family’s direct experience, which, despite having sold twenty million copies worldwide, had passed me by. Missionaries find their way to a Nigerian village, and the old customs of generations are undermined. The old gods don’t stand a chance. One missionary employs a softly softly approach, another brings in the might of the district commissioner, and you realise how imperial power married to a religious conviction re-casts a proud people as inferiors.

Nigeria was still a colony in my early childhood, and we collected for the work, as a teacher, of a local lady who’d been a missionary in Nigeria all her life. I claim to be a Christian. Can I apportion right and wrong here? Can I have any sympathy for a tribal society in which superstition and shamans called the tune? One God better than multiple gods? Of course. But hand in hand with mission work went subjugation. Subjugation dehumanises.  That is a terrible consequence of empire. It also took root, after more open-minded beginnings, in 19th century India.

We were by that time, in the UK, moving beyond the slave trade. The campaign for its abolition was led by William Wilberforce. But Wilberforce was deeply religious and Indian religions were for him no more than superstition. Conversion was a Christian duty, and implicit is the sense of superiority which characterises the missionary. ‘They’ lack something that ‘you’ have. An attitude in the Raj that had terrible consequences, not least the Indian Mutiny, and more than sixty years later the Amritsar massacre.

I’m a child of empire, and I’d love to think that my children’s generation could see the last of them. But old attitudes live on, and America and China are sharpening up their spheres of influence. How empires of the future might differ, are already differing, from the empires of the past, is another story.

April, and no politics

It’s 26th April. We had snow three days three weeks back, and we’ve had sunshine since then, often brilliant sunshine, days on end, and the sky’s been a Siberian blue. But it’s not been enough. Not enough to tempt the blossom to really get going. True, the blackthorn which so brilliantly belies its name has been bursting white for several weeks. Only now is the green peeking through on the lilac and the rowan and the laburnum in the garden. The early beech leaves are that so-perfect lighter shade of green. Oak is poking, reluctant, slow.

And the ash is nowhere to be seen. It’s always late of course. Some branches have a few desultory flowers. But how much will they leaf this spring?

And yet…

Yes, it’s chill. But I’m enjoying ‘slow’. I want to lock in this April, its blue skies, and long-drawn out sense of promise.

I’m even listening to the news. At 8am and 1pm. And Channel 4 at 7pm. It’s not winding me up as it has through these torrid and foolish Brexit years. April has worked wonders.

Ted Hughes maybe overstates it, but I’ll go with

A soft animal of peace/Has come a million years/With shoulders of pre-dawn and shaggy belly

Has got up from under the glacier/And now lies openly sunning/Huge bones and space-weathered hide.

We’re up on the moors, grazing sheep, lambs maybe, above Calderdale where Yorkshire meets Lancashire. Ted Hughes country. Also my grandfather’s.

Imagine, also, if we could hear as once we did the cocks crowing across the morning:

I stood on a dark summit, among dark summits –/Tidal dawn splitting heaven from earth,/The oyster opening to taste gold.

And I heard the cockcrows kindling in the valley/Under the mist –/They were sleepy,/Bubbling deep in the valley cauldron.

Then one or two tossed clear, like soft rockets/And sank back again dimming.

(Others join in, ‘challenge against challenge’)

Till the whole valley brimmed with cockcrows,/A magical soft mixture boiling over,/Spilling and sparkling into other valleys….

Sadly, not into my valley. But we can imagine…