To London, and back (to normal)

The wild garlic is about to flower, acres of it, covering woodland slopes. The first cowslips are opening, the skylarks are ascending, the long tailed tit echoes itself. But yesterday it was London and the long lines of destination-driven travellers always keeping left in corridors below Paddington station. Occasional mask wearers on the underground, otherwise near normal. Normal would be delays and hold-ups, but now we flow smoothly.

My destination – meeting an old friend at the Royal Academy to view an exhibition of the paintings of the Japanese artist, Kawanabe Kyosai. His was a time (he was active c1850 to his death in 1889) of extraordinary change, the overthrow of the Shogunate, and the Meiji Restoration. There’s a saké-influenced crazy irreverence about Kyosai, his emblematic black crow in stark contrast with armies of frogs battling with bullrushes. I learnt about shogakai, parties where professional painters and calligraphers ‘produced spontaneous creations’. They were not known for ‘their seriousness or sobriety’.

Contrast the major Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, where I headed later in the day. Everything is measured and controlled, carefully worked through in drawings, and the effects precisely and wondrously calculated. Raphael’s workshop was legendary in its time and I can’t imagine alcohol featured. I’m assuming Kyosai sold his work on the open market. Raphael in contrast would be working within the constraints of patronage, not least the church in the form of Popes Julius II and Leo X.  Contrast the endless virgins in different poses with a naked child, studies in affection and reverence, with Kyosai’s long scroll which features a much-more-than-lifesize profile of the Buddha’s face with on its upper lip a tiny Zen Buddhist monk working his way up, an extended parasol in his right hand. ‘Today, once more, saké after saké,’ he captions a painting of a ‘shojo’, a mythical red-haired saké-loving creature out of Japanese folklore.

Later in the day I’m standing in front of an almost full-scale reproduction of Raphael’s extraordinary School of Athens, identifying Euclid and Pythagoras, and joining Plato and Aristotle’s discourse on the nature of reality…

Was Kyosai, in truth, no more than an illustrator? Ephemeral, a commentator in the style of Rowlandson or Gillray? A man of the people. Great art on the other hand belongs in cathedrals, churches, great houses…

Museums and galleries have opened Raphael’s world to ordinary folk, and he’s become part of our wider cultural heritage. Kyosai belongs to his time, his imagination is in your face, he’s a crazy acquaintance, not, maybe, a companion for the long term. If Raphael is for quiet and private contemplation, Kyosai is for sharing – ‘hey, look at this, check it out!’ Not that Kyosai is all comedy, all parody. There’s a sinuous grace to ‘Egret over Lotus Pond in the Rain’. But a minute or two later you’re looking at ‘Fart Battle’, which is just that.

The day ends with coffee in the café in the crypt in St Martin in the Fields. No-one pitching you out 5.30 or 6. Graves beneath your feet, brick-vaulted ceiling above. Then the tube and Paddington. Back to open spaces, commons and hidden valleys, where I can run or walk without seeing a soul.

Only the rumble of a distant train, heading to … London.

Trespass – good or bad?

A few thoughts on The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes. Published in autumn 2020 it was released in paperback last autumn.

Hayes has written a remarkable book. He trespasses on some of England’s biggest estates, climbing walls or crossing rivers as necessary. But all his trespasses would be allowable under Scottish law.

His focus is on property, and on how attitudes to property have evolved to accord with (or, put another way, dictated) the status quo in each generation. He’s not advocating revolution or confiscation. The world is as it is. His argument is for open access, and he makes it with learning and skill, and of course the necessary irreverence.

Vast acres of our landscape are the results of enclosures going back to the 16th century. And earlier. He’s good at that break-out into early modernity which followed the Reformation. Captain Pouch, and the brutality that followed rebellion in response to hunger, in the 17th century, is just one example. Hayes’s is an outsider’s view of history, and you learn new things – see them in a different way. All the while he’s gently trespassing and lighting fires and camping out.

One hero is Roger Deakin, another natural outsider. But Hayes for his part has a more  political message. There are so many examples one could quote. The 1824 Vagrancy Act as a response to soldier returning from the Napoleonic Wars without employment and hungry. He homes in on the Drax family and fortune (the head of the family is an MP) and its origins in slavery. They see no reason to feel any guilt.  William Beckford’s fortune was also based on slavery, his reputation muddled up with his status as a gay hero. Basildon Park and India, and the cornering of trade and disempowering of India and Indians, on which its fortunes were based.   

Early on Hayes brings in then foundational tome of English law, Blackstone’s Commentary, to show how the law was on the side of the men of property. Thomas Hobbes has property as a man-made construct, ‘designed to lift us out of our state of nature’. Grotius considers property as an institution invented by man but once invented it became a ‘law of nature’. For John Locke Locke if you mixed labour, ‘something this is his own’, with land he ‘thereby makes it his property’.  Blackstone asserted that ‘occupancy gave also the original right to the permanent property in the substance if the earth itself’.

We haven’t moved on much from Gainsborough’s gentleman’s idea of the English countryside. We don’t challenge the origins of the great estates. Or at least we didn’t. Which side are we on in that great debate? The National Trust is doing its best to steer a course.  There’s Croome Park in Worcestershire, half an hour from where I live, where the Trust is restoring the park to its Capability Brown glory, with some farming added in. It’s what the public wants and there lies the great irony.

We love the landscapes we’re allowed into, but don’t worry too much about being excluded. Or most of us don’t. We’re urbanised. Open up the country and most of us wouldn’t go there anyway. Hayes’s will never become a great national cause. Landowners needn’t worry. Wilderness, the festival, is safe (less so the real thing, but that’s not Hayes’s subject), despite Hayes’s attempt to fray the edges.

‘Sealing of one part of the world from another’ is Orwell specifically on nationalism. Immigrants as cockroaches. Legitimised superiority by virtue of inherited property, birth and land, blood and earth. Fascist ideas of Blut und Boden. Now we have Putin: like the rest of us Hayes didn’t see him coming.  

Hayes is the forever outsider. At Heathrow or Basildon Park or Windsor Park, he captures the landscape and the mood and the story. If they weren’t there and we were all insiders… but that can never be. (Each generation generates its own breed of powerful men, and maybe women, and they marry into the old money and land. Socialist experiments have got nowhere. Private enterprise allies with land and as liberalism is shoved aside, the boundaries shift a little or as in China radically change but boundaries remain. What do William the Conqueror and modern China have in common?)

Hayes the outsider. But I want to go with him where I can. To the hills above Hebden Bridge, bought as a shooting estate, where the moors are ‘systematically burned each year to increase the yield of new green shoots…’ I can’t see why I shouldn’t kayak on wide stretches of river. Apart from the fact I’m maybe too old. The USA seems to have got river access right early on. I’d like to see multiple footpaths opened up through great estates. And scrap this crazy world of breeding birds and then letting them out on the land for a few months in managed woodlands before shooting them.

Hayes begins with the 1932 Kinder Trespass – that’s my part of the world. Setting in train the idea that ultimately we’ll follow Scotland and open up access. Is he right that once you’ve seen the importance of land rights you can’t unsee them? Once seen, you can’t unsee the cat, as Henry George put it.

I love the ideas of heterotopia, spaces for outsiders forged deep inside society, and ‘third spaces, ‘where real life occurs’. Check them out. My daughter used to work for an organisation called ‘Free Space’, which found temporarily unoccupied spaces in London where arts projects (as I recall) could base themselves.

We need more wildernesses. (But that isn’t really Hayes’s subject. He’s not a romantic, a Muir or a Hopkins, espousing wildness for its own sake.) And charging for Stonehenge – maybe we have to. That means we exclude ‘whole sections of the population’. But is there anyone out there, other than midsummer Druids, who actually feel themselves excluded?  

So I’m with him all the way… only I’m not. And maybe he isn’t either. Turning the world upside down with some utopia at the end of the rainbow is a mug’s game. Anarchy will get us nowhere. Hayes would be lost. He’s happy with his tent and campfires. But a Robert Tombs-style history, upbeat about England and everything English, won’t get us anywhere either – unless it’s deeper into Brexit and petty nationalism. And we’d continue to walk as landowners dictate, and we may find as I have local field paths barbed-wired into the sides of fields, and rights of way diverted at a landowner’s behest, so that he can, as in one case I know, keep the best view for himself.

Apart from anything else it’s beautifully written and illustrated. In its own way it is a wonderfully wise book.

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!

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.

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.

Thoughts for the day

I posted this five minutes before I heard that Prince Philip had died. I’d have delayed a day had I known. He’s been around all my life: my first memory is the excitement when it was realised his car would be passing the end of our road on a visit to Cheshire. I must have been 6 years old. He was, in modern parlance, a bit of a legend. I’ll miss not having him around.

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My aim is to stay within the three minutes or less allocated to Thought for the Day on the Today programme on Radio 4.

Thoughts, not thought – misunderstanding the Astra-Zeneca risk; ‘truth’ and Boris Johnson; and Anthony Blunt and Karl Marx on the one hand and Tory ideologues and Ayn Rand on the other – the dangers of early student allegiance being carried over into real life.

The Astra-Zeneca vaccine: there should be only one way to present the data. How many cases, how many deaths, the total number of people vaccinated, so, for example, 79 cases and 19 deaths out of 20 million people vaccinated. A one-in-a-million risk of death. We need upfront and absolute clarity on this, Also, what the instance of this kind of blood-clotting is in the non-vaccinated population, so we can compare, and appreciate how marginal is the increased risk, if it exists at all, over and above the existing risk we run of this kind of blood-clotting.

Cognitive bias, which is so little appreciated, comes into play in a big way.  We hear there are nineteen deaths out of twenty million. We can as readily visualise a million, or maybe something more like ten thousand, than we can twenty million. Lower numbers are easier to grasp, and the lower the number the higher the perceived risk…  Just let that word ‘risk’ out if the bag, and you’re in trouble. (Comparisons to the likelihood of deaths on the road really do not help at all.)

Moving on, there’s a well-known quote, which goes as follows:

‘There will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI and NI to GB because we are going to come out of the EU whole and entire. That was the objective we secured.’

Peter Oborne has documented in his new book, The Assault on Truth, all the instances of Boris Johnson lying in public statements and to parliament. We are so used it we assume it doesn’t matter. The ‘real’ truth will somehow out in the end. But the story once out is out there, and even if we discount the amiable jocular manner the damage is done. When is the prime minister serious? Is he ever? Should we trust him on vaccination data, and how they’re interpreted?Thank God we have chief scientific advisers alongside. Watching Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s rival for the leadership, on TV talking about the vaccine crisis two nights ago: how refreshing to see a politician on top of his brief.

Watching the Channel 4 programme, Queen Elizabeth and the Spy in the Palace, a documentary as clumsy as its title (at its worst implying that appeasement and Nazi sympathies were natural bedfellows – with newsreel footage edited to promote that impression). I puzzled over what is, for me, the real story. Why a 1930s Cambridge undergraduate from a super-privileged background should support a regime which would put the proletariat in charge and consign the likes of him, Blunt himself, and Guy Burgess to an early and likely unpleasant death. And ‘support’ to the extent of betrayal. What came after the war is best seen as one almighty covering of tracks, rather than continuing Soviet allegiance. (How much did Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother know? That is a good story. And his fate had the cover-up failed?)

University is a time when you crystallise your view of the world. What you might have half-sensed at  school becomes full-bodied. William Hague speaking to the Conservative Party Conference aged 14 was worryingly early. No-one should be so sure so young. Students experiencing eureka moments reading Ayn Rand, and holding to that allegiance until at least some sense in knocked into them in later life. Marxist students evolving into Militant, but remaining resolutely distant from the ordinary working man. Hippies … outsiders, who stay outside, and remain resolutely harmless. And today we have woke and anti-woke and no-platforming. I’m not saying we should deny our early allegiances. But we should allow life experience to temper them with sharp doses of reality.

More ‘thoughts for the day’ to follow….

Flying the flag

In yesterday’s news we had government minister Robert Jenrick ‘flying the flag’ on UK public buildings (the government will be making it a regulation), and displaying the flag prominently behind him in a BBC interview – and gentle comments from BBC journalists about the prominence of that flag being turned against the BBC. All staged in the cause of the new hard-right Tory jingoism.

Cass Sunstein’s new book This Is Not Normal is just out. Timely: it’s what Jenrick and other revanchist (meaning ‘recovering lost territory’) Tories are about. Trying to change the ‘normal’. Taking us back. Politics as a battleground. He won’t change the younger generation, so why polarise other than for electoral advantage – unless he really believes that we can turn back history by endless harping on about the past.

I’ll give no ground to anyone when it comes to pride in country – and that means patriotism. I’m English, and I’m British.  But I’m not lost in past glories, nor do I believe that we as a nation are better than other nations. What I want our focus to be on what we can offer other nations – and what they can offer us. Bringing the world closer together, while retaining our identities.

We polarise at our peril. We desperately need shared conversations and shared conclusions.

Zen is about being comfortable in the moment, and that means not grasping on to something – ‘grasping’ is a good word here. Not craving something you can’t have – in this context, the past. Or trying to define the future in terms of the past.

You can’t go back there. You can prop up all the ancient statues, send demonstrators down for ten years according to new draft legislation – but you can’t go back to the past.

Statues commemorate ‘heroes’ who died a natural death. Let their statues do the same. They occupy some important public spaces. Maybe a 50-year year max lifespan before they’re taken down – a hundred years for a big hero?

I’m being fanciful, but life is so much more fun that way. I came upon the following from a Buddhist commentary yesterday:  

‘But, if you have genuine insight and see clearly this bundle [life in all its aspects], constantly changing, now laughing, now crying, now being afraid, now having the silliest notions, now being quite sincere, now being very willing, now being compassionate: and you will see this bundle constantly changing through life; well, that is how it will go on.’*

I also read about a monk who would  ‘without breaking stride … gently close a gate that had blown open, and carefully pick up things that had blown down’. ‘Without breaking stride.’ Not easy I appreciate, but there’s a message here. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.

A quote from Sam Harris (see his app, ‘Waking Up’), an ardent secularist who learnt much from his stay in a Buddhist monastery, also caught my eye: ‘It’s in the nature of everything to fall apart… everything from our bodies, our relationships, our institutions, our understanding of the world … everything requires continuous maintenance…’

What struck me was that phrase, ‘everything requires continuous maintenance’. That’s what parliamentary democracy, deliberative democracy, open democracy, or whatever you call it – that’s what it’s all about. We’re in the here and now, and there’s much work to do here, not in some distant dream world.  

*from a commentary by the Venerable Myokyo-ni on ‘The Record of Rinzai’