In these coming days…: a few tentative predictions

Summary: The 2020s will see – Scotland become independent; a border poll in Ireland; the future of the planet hinging on the next US general election and decisive EU action; and England getting blue passports

New decades are as good an excuse as any for a time of reflection and rumination on what the coming years may bring. Unfortunately, even after what was for many a disastrous 2019, the signs of hope are few on the ground.

Australia is on fire. This is a mere portent of what global warming will bring, particularly now that Donald Trump has sought to tear up the already insufficient Paris Agreement on climate change.

Elsewhere, the pestilence that is Trump continues to spread death: To distract from his pending impeachment for criminal acts, he began this new decade with a criminal act of war on Iran. He followed this up with threats of further war crimes, which, he claimed, were meant to prevent war. Idiot that he is, he may even have believed that. But the consequences are likely to be renewed conflagration in a region which was already looking dangerous following Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds and his trashing of the Iran nuclear deal.

The legendary war correspondent Martha Gelhorn once asserted that stupidity can be criminal. Trump is a human embodiment of that insight. Trump understands the Middle East in the way that he understands climate change and that is about equivalent to a chimp’s understanding of astrophysics.

Nevertheless lack of understanding has never been regarded by the morbidly stupid as a barrier to action. We are likely to be treated to new displays of that truth as English fantasies of Empire 2.0 collide with the realities of contemporary politics, not least the nature of trade negotiations with the world’s most powerful markets, specifically the EU, the US, India and China.

Many far-Right British politicians speak of a post-Brexit US trade deal as if it will be some massive favour done to the UK by their ideological cousins currently occupying the White House. They overlook the role of Congress in ratification of trade deals, and indeed the fact that US national interest will inevitably play a role in the terms of any deal agreed.

Thus has it always been. Even at moments of existential crisis, such as during the Second World War when, as Max Hastings points out in his biography of Churchill, “American policy throughout the war emphasised the importance of strengthening its trading position vis-à-vis Britain…The embattled British began to receive direct aid, through Lend-Lease, only when the last of their gold and foreign assets had been surrendered… Lend-Lease came with ruthless conditions constraining British overseas trade, so stringent that London had to plead with Washington for minimal concession enabling them to pay for Argentine meat, vital to feeding Britain’s people.”

The UK will be an abject supplicant in all future trade talks. Neither its national interest nor its ideological alignment will matter much to their opposing trade negotiators who will be operating on mandates to maximise the benefits for their own countries.

This is a likely price of Brexit. But Brexit has never been about British prosperity. Rather it represents a decisive turning away from liberal democracy in the UK to something altogether more authoritarian.

This has always been implicit in Brexit, which is, after all, the repudiation of the body of international law that represents EU membership. But that is just the beginning. Brexit opens the gateway not just to deregulation in relation to human and employment rights and environmental standards, but also to the possibility of removing the constraints of liberalism on government, including the basic principles of democracy and rule of law that are prerequisites for EU membership.

So where does that leave us? What logical progression is likely to follow from the upsurge of the far-Right across the North Atlantic?

One of the most likely upshots is a renewed push for Scottish independence. Remember that a decisive argument against Scottish independence in 2014 was continued membership of the EU. Such is the contempt with which Scotland has been treated in the Brexit process that the prospect of Scotland as an independent nation with its own seat at the EU Council of Minsters is likely to prove irresistible when the next referendum is called. Whether that happens peacefully or whether Johnson tries to violently repress the demand for an independence referendum remains to be seen.

In the aftermath of Scottish independence the call for a border poll in Ireland is likely to also become irresistible. The outcome of such a poll is unpredictable. But it is possible that with a sufficiently generous constitutional offer, including Irish re-entry to the Commonwealth, sufficient Unionists could be persuaded that their future is brighter being welcomed into a reunited Ireland in the EU, rather continue to be regarded as an embarrassment to the rump UK, already a vassal to the US.

For the rest of the world, it seems likely the Vladimir Putin’s assault on liberal democracy will continue. Donald Trump is clearly counting on that delivering him the 2020 election. After that Trump would probably lose interest in the Middle East again, at least for a while. However the consequences of his 2020 actions will reverberate in bloodshed across the region, and that will inevitably spill onto European streets.

But there is some hope: whether Bernie Sanders wins the US presidency or not he has introduced into the Democratic primaries ideas for peace in the Middle East based not just on the need for security but also on the ideals of justice, not least for Palestinians. Democrats’ proposals for a Green New Deal could also lead to a transformation to the world’s largest economy into something that is ecologically sustainable. In short the outcome of the next US general election will be decisive for the future of the planet.

And the EU still matters. It brings with it the potential for considerable collective action on the environment, social justice, and human rights standards in international trade. It still represents the most successful peace project in human history, one that has made war between the member states “not just unthinkable but materially impossible.” Perhaps someday this will become a model for the Middle East?

The role of England in this coming decade remains to be seen. I would not suggest that Boris Johnson, in spite of his suspicious suppression of a parliamentary report into Russian interference in British politics, is a Russian asset. But Johnson certainly fits comfortably into the role of a useful idiot.

That may not matter much longer. Outside the UK nobody really noticed when Johnson refused to interrupt his Caribbean holidays to lead the UK’s response following the assassination of Suleimani. The UK is no longer very relevant in international affairs. Following Brexit and the breakup of the UK, England is likely to become increasingly irrelevant.

But there will be blue passports.

Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert Caro

Summary: the extraordinary first volume of Caro’s planned five volume biography of LBJ

The Path to Power is volume one of Robert Caro’s celebrated, multi-volume biography of

Lyndon Johnson – four volumes have already been published with a fifth planned. This one covers Johnson’s career from birth to the outbreak of the Second World War, including his election to Congress and his first, failed, Senate run.

Nevertheless in spite of its mammoth size this is not a book that I would ever describe as “sprawling”. For all its numerous, fascinating, digressions – into Texas social history or politics, for example, or concise biographies of Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, or Sam Rayburn, the powerful Speaker of the US House of Representatives and sometime patron of Lyndon – Caro never once loses sight of the central purpose of his work, which is to try to explain Lyndon Johnson. Hence any digressions that he makes are provided to establish a context from which better understanding can be derived.

Johnson was not a very nice man. But he was a fascinating one with an extraordinary impulse for power, an awesome appetite for hard work, and a fundamental grasp of political campaigning, both for himself and, as described in this book, as a leader of Democratic national election campaigning. (It’s a pity that some of the clowns leading Labour’s disastrous December 2019 election campaign did not spend some time studying this book to learn some of the basics of winning elections.)

In the course of his career he did much good and some extraordinary evil. But he never for a moment seems to have been motivated by anything other than a desire for self promotion. Despite coming from a Texas Liberal tradition – both his father and Rayburn were unequivocal men of the Left, Johnson was not by any means wedded to these ideals. Over the course of his career he shifted from Left to Right and back again depending on the prevailing political winds and which alliances he felt would most probably advance his self interest.

Such calculation was not restricted to his professional life. His marriage to Lady Bird seemed to have been wholly functional, its purpose to obtain for him a rich wife whose family might help bankroll his political campaigns. All of his relationships, with one exception, seem to have been developed with the sole consideration of how they would advance his political career.

The sole exception was his affair with Alice Glass, the wife of one of his most important political backers. Johnson simply could not resist Alice in spite of the damage that it would have caused him had Alice’s husband discovered the true nature of their relationship. Lady Bird had, of course, to live with the humiliating knowledge of the affair, conducted with no concern whatsoever for her feelings.

Alice, in fact, seems to have been the only woman Johnson ever loved. So there is a sort of Karmic justice that towards the end of her life Alice had wanted to destroy all her correspondence with Johnson. She was afraid that her children would discover not that she had an affair, but that she had one with the man most responsible for the US’s murderous involvement in Vietnam.

The Path to Power is a gripping book, elegantly written and displaying an extraordinary depth of research. It is a matter of unspeakable pleasure to know that I have at least three more volumes of this work to read.

The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

Summary: myth as a prophesy of war

In the Greek Myths, Robert Graves provides a sprawling and comprehensive survey of these stories from creation to the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. The approach is mostly “chronological” though some portions, such as Agamemnon’s return and the vengeance of Orestes, are placed in the narrative before temporally subsequent ones, such as the sack of Troy.

Many of these stories are now perhaps best known from classical literature such as Homer, Virgil, Aeschylus or Sophocles. But here Graves tries to be true to their oral origins, acknowledging that there are a variety of versions of the stories, including differences in some of the reported names of the characters and indeed in some of the stories’ conclusions: Some say that Theseus felt bad about abandoning Ariadne, for example; or some say that Iphigenia was rescued by the goddess Artemis, not trussed up and slaughtered like a goat by her own father.

These stories have been cleaned up over the years, often for children, by the likes of Charles Kingsley or Roger Lancelyn Green. But here the “heroes” are as they were – an array of bloody men, and a few bloody women, from an era when the only balm from trauma was the facade of martial glory.

Hence it is difficult to see the story of Theseus as anything other than the story of an idealistic young man descending into increased horror and cruelty as a result of a career of killing that he enters in the hope of fame and glory. Heracles comes across as little more than a psychopath: extraordinary that someone should decide to make a Disney cartoon out of that one. Odysseus is clever and brave, but also venial, untrustworthy and brutal, breaking his word to those Trojans to whom he promised protection, and personally murdering Hector’s infant son, amongst other vile and treacherous deeds in his career of war and wandering,

Perhaps this volume makes better sense as a work of reference than an a work of narrative. But, taken in total, these stories give a shockingly stark portrayal of the effects of violence and warfare on both the victims and the perpetrators. Perhaps this was part of their appeal to Graves, himself a veteran of the carnage of the First World War.

Neither the Trojan War nor the wars of the Twentieth Century seem to have done much to dispel the attraction to war for a certain class of human. So in telling these stories, as well as his own war experiences elsewhere, Graves may have realised that he was also heir to Cassandra, the princess of Troy, gifted with the power of perfect prophesy and cursed with the knowledge that even her most desperate warnings would never to be heeded no matter how menacing the approaching “smell of blood”.

UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concerned by Irish business involvement in rights violations

Business & Human Rights in Ireland

Ireland appeared before the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in early December in Geneva. The Committee was considering the consolidated fifth to ninth reports submitted by Ireland. As previously mentioned on the blog, several civil society submissions to the Committee had raised the issue of the potential involvement of Irish businesses in violations of human rights, including those entailing racial discrimination.

During the session, members of the Committee asked the Irish government delegation about measures being taken to address business and human rights issues, including most prominently the connections between Irish companies and the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia:

The Irish delegation was given the opportunity to respond to the Committee on this issue, as live-tweeted by my colleagues at the Irish Centre for Human Rights:

The Concluding Observations of the Committee have now been published (in advance form). They include strong recommendations on a range…

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To Kill the Truth, by Sam Bourne

Summary: a twisty Washington thriller for our troubled times

Maggie Costello, Sam Bourne’s recurrent trouble-shooting hero, is taking some time out as a student following the events of her previous outing in To Kill The President. But she is called back into political service by a friend – the new governor of Virginia, concerned now about the murder of a Civil War historian coinciding with a trial initiated by a charlatan intent on denying that slavery ever actually existed in the United States.

It quickly transpires that these events are just the tip of a conspiratorial iceberg as a shadowy Right-Wing organisation begins attacking the great libraries of the world, intent on destroying the pesky facts that tend to undermine their Brexit-level crazy views of the world.

Bourne, otherwise known as the Guardian’s former Washington correspondent Jonathan Freedland, is highly adept at crafting a satisfying, twisty thriller. But To Kill the Truth is more than that. It is an engaging meditation on the uses and abuses of history, the tension in conflicted societies between justice and peace, and how facts no longer “mark out the public square for honest debate” but are themselves the subject of partisan dispute. These are timely topics given how buffoons like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump wear their contempt for the truth as a badge of pride.

With Maggie Costello, Bourne has created an engaging hero for these troubled times – not just a woman of action, but a woman of principle too and an intellectual who thinks her way through problems when others are in thrall to emotion. She’s a reminder of what the world could be, if passions were more often tamed by reason, and humanity prized more than prejudice.

The History of Money, by Jack Weatherford

The History of Money covers similiar territory to David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years. But it is a much less sprawling volume and hence, perhaps, a better introduction to this most vital and elusive of things.

Weatherford focuses in particular on four paradigm shifts in the history of money: From the development of coinage in Lydia around 600 BCE to the establishment of banking in the Middle Ages, to the development of paper money, notably in the American revolution, to the evolution of money into what it principally is today – electronic information.

If this sounds dull it is not. The History of Money is essentially the story of the development of human society and a roll call of some of the blackest episodes arising from our perverse relationship with money.

Weatherford argues convincingly that it was the shift to coinages of precious metal away from local credit systems or commodity money, such as cattle or slave girls, that allowed international trade to develop. From this societies evolved from “honour” or ritual based societies such as Homeric Greece, into market-oriented ones.

Furthermore in assigning coinage values to everything from a goat to a sexual act with a goat, the development of coinage forced humans to develop our capacities for abstract thought. The international trade enabled by coinage prompted the adoption of a common lingua Franca – Greek – across the Mediterranean basin. This in turn allowed for the exchange of new ideas – from those of Socrates to those of Jesus – that the evolution of abstract thought facilitated.

But, as well as identifying how money catalysed these positive evolutions of human society, Weatherford also charts how the love of money is a particularly tenacious root of human evil. He argues that it was a financial crisis in the Roman state in the Third Century, rather than any profound intolerance of beliefs, that prompted first Diocletian’s bloody persecution of the Christians, and then Constantine’s persecution of the pagans: Declaring whole sections of society treasonous allowed the emperors to expropriate their property and replenish the coffers that had grown bare once the Romans had run out of foreign peoples to plunder.

It was avariciousness also that led to the brutal suppression of the Knights Templar: Their often vicious international crusading operations had led to the development of Europe’s first international banking system and an amassing of vast quantities of cash. King Philip of France decided that this money would be better in his hands than that of the Templars. Hence to justify his looting of their loot he concocted a spectacularly lurid set of allegations against them, from Satanism to necrophilia, that continue to fascinate and inspire salacious conspiracy theorists to this day.

Love of silver and gold inspired the Conquistadors to visit genocide and slavery upon the entire indigenous population of South America, and England’s murderous and shameful pillaging of South Asia. It inspires still the global “bad boys” who to this day plunder the planet and devastate the lives of ordinary people to further enhance their personal wealth.

The evolution of paper money brought with it new problems, or perhaps simply old problems in new guises: The debasement of the coinage that Roman emperors undertook in the Third Century, has been replicated in more recent times in the recurrent practice of financially incompetent rulers simply printing more money to pay their bills. From that spiralling inflation results, which disproportionately impoverishes the poor. The continued growth of electronic money is likely to bring new challenges.

In the end of the day money is trust. And, as always, when trust is broken or abused it can wreak devastation.

SPQR, by Mary Beard

Summary: history that the victors would not want you to read

It is axiomatic that history is written by the winners. But, as far as Mary Beard is concerned, that’s no reason to take every tale they spin at face value.

SPQR is, perhaps, more of a histiography of the Roman Empire than a traditional narrative history. Each story of Empire she presents, from Romulus and Remus to Cicero and Caesar, she interrogates with great rigour, testing both it’s internal logic and it’s consistency with other available evidence, particularly the available archeological findings.

Hence it is a sustained lesson in critical thinking as well as classical history. Consequently Beard is no respecter of received wisdoms or conventional understandings. She thinks anew about this subject and demands her readers do too.

Sometimes this iconoclasm can go a bit far. For example, she dismisses Hannibal’s sanguinary victory at Cannae, one that has inspired generations of commanders, with the conclusion that all he really did was sneak around behind the Romans… which is true. But this does seem rather to underestimate all that this involved when outnumbered by thousands of armed and angry Italians.

Elsewhere she notes with approval the comment of a Roman writer that the real skill required to be a general is that of being able to organise a good dinner party. Again perhaps not wholly fair, but an eminently healthy attitude in any society, like Rome, like much of the contemporary world, which lionises the military – or the paramilitary – and turns a blind eye to their atrocities.

For all Beard’s remarkable communication skills SPQR is perhaps not a book that I would recommend as an introduction to ancient Roman history. But it is a vital one for anyone who wishes to get beyond the more simplistic narratives of that empire and to learn how to think more carefully about our own times and the false narratives and propaganda our own leaders still try to force down our throats.