Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India, by Shashi Tharoor

 

World’s Best Taoiseach

Summary: a scathing reminder that treating people with racism and brutality does not generally make a country many friends

A while ago I had a conversation with a South Asian friend about Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister. “It’s noticeable”, my friend said, “how Leo is being much tougher with the British than his predecessor. Do you know why that is?”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s because Leo is also Indian,” which indeed he is – his father is from Mumbai. “So when he talks about famine, he is not just thinking of the Irish Famine but also of the British manufactured famines though the history of the Raj, including the appalling one in East Bengal in 1943. When he talks about partition, he is not just thinking of Irish partition, but the much, much, much bloodier British engineered division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan.”

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Refugees during the Partition of India

Whether or not Leo is thinking about these things as he tries to negotiate with an increasingly disfunctional British government unfettered by reality, Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and intellectual certainly is. He details all these atrocities, and more, in his book Inglorious Empire, based upon a celebrated speech to the Oxford Union that he gave in 2015, in which he exposed some of the fundamental truths of Empire that the British conspire so aggressively to forget.

At the time at which the British first began their invasion, India represented over one-quarter of the global economy, dwarfing the UK. Over the subsequent centuries Britain reversed this through systematic transfer of India’s wealth to Britain through an undisguised looting of the sub-continent (“loot” being an Indian word). Violent theft and punitive taxation were the order of the day. Britain also employed an aggressive policy of deindustrialisation, destroying the competition from, among others, India’s shipping, textile and metallurgy industries which, at the beginning of the 18th Century were the most advanced in the world.

Tharoor does acknowledge certain benefits of British colonialism: “tea, cricket, and the English language.” But otherwise his book is a forthright repudiation of the deceitful arguments of hard-Right ideologues such as Niall Fergusson who seeks to recast the brutal, racist project of colonialism as some sort of philanthropic endeavour.

This book must also be a warning to the fantasists of the Brexit movement whose warm fuzzy beliefs about the British Empire are unconstrained by facts or any imaginative understanding of what it meant to those subjugated by its depredations. In the years to come, as Britain becomes the sort of third-rate power that its exit from the European Union entails, ordinary Britons can only hope that, now the boot is on the other foot, India will act towards Britain in future trade and others dealings with a measure of justice that Britain never showed India.

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Bengal famine, 1943

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Brexit, Trump and Vladimir Putin’s assault on European and US democracy: The Road to Unfreedom, by Timothy Snyder

img_1459Summary: A terrifying and convincing account of the assault of Russian fascists and their useful idiots upon Western democracy 

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, like Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, is a book that makes you fundamentally rethink your understanding of history. With The Road to Unfreedom Snyder makes us fundamentally rethink our understanding of the present.

The recent political success of far Right elements in the UK, Poland, Hungary and the US are not mere fluctuations in normal politics, Snyder argues. Nor are they solely a product of domestic political turmoil. They are also a consequence of a deliberate and aggressive foreign policy pursued by Vladimir Putin in order to undermine the systems of rule of law that underpin the democracies of the US and the European Union.

Synder argues that since 2010 Vladimir Putin has embraced a particularly Russian brand of fascism, with its pronounced homophobia, as a way in which to entrench in Russian society the kleptocracy over which he presides. Richard Evans, the distinguished British historian takes some issue with this, noting that Putin’s favorite thinker, Ivan Illyin, was a conservative ultra-nationalist rather than a fascist.  However the authoritarianism that Putin has established, like fascist regimes of the past, defines itself by its enemies, and for enemies Putin has chosen the European Union and the United States. Snyder notes that this is not because of anything that these have done, but rather because of what they are. The EU in particular stands as a telling contrast to the Russian Federation. Russia’s thieving oligarchs have made it the most unequal country on earth. On the other hand the EU has provided a better standard of living for its people within the frameworks of human rights and the rule of law, ideas anathema to Russian fascism.

Authoritarianism arrives, Synder notes, “not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” Hence much of Putin’s assault has been in the realm of cyber-space: weaponising systems like Facebook to direct focused, usually fictional, racist, homophobic and anti-democratic propaganda to the users in a way that distorts their perceptions and bolsters their prejudices; or surreptitiously hacking vital information systems, such as those underpinning the US and Ukrainian electoral systems. These cyber-warfare processes are assisted by an array of corrupt “assets” and “useful idiots” who publicly advocate Russia’s desired outcomes even while Putin is attacking their own countries. These include former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Czech President Milos Zeman, former Polish Defence minister Antonio Macierewicz, Marin le Pen, the French Far Right leader, Nigel Farage, the disgusting former leader of the UKIP, Seumus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s current communications and strategy director, and, of course, Donald Trump and many of his inner circle.

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Putin and his boy

The success of Russian disinformation can be seen in the pages of even the Guardian, which has published puff-pieces for Putin by supposedly Left-wing journalists such as Milne and John Pilger, whose opinions have been untroubled by actual reporting. It is enabled further by the refusal of British and US Republican political leaders to acknowledge the effectiveness of Putin’s undermining of their democracy.

Carol Cadwalladr’s investigations for the Guardian have turned up probable corrupt links between, in particular, the Brexit establishment and Russia. Robert Mueller‘ s investigation in the US hints at exposing further, perhaps treasonous, criminality. But, Synder notes, much of the information about Putin’s web of influence, and his destructive intent is publicly available. Putin has not made his embrace of fascism a secret, frequently citing Ilyin in his speeches, passing aggressive homophobic laws, trampling roughshod over rule of international law with this invasion of Ukraine, and his sneering attitude toward the corruption of the US election.

The invasion of Ukraine is something of a pivotal event in this book. The Russian processes of disinformation and cyber warfare that corrupted both the Brexit vote and the 2016 US elections, bringing the neo-fascist Trump to power in spite of the popular vote against him, may have come into sharp focus with Mueller’s and Cadwalladr’s investigations. But the warning signs were there to be seen with the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a warning that most of Europe and the US failed to heed.

That so much of this has been missed and mis-reported must arise from a lack of proper journalism commissioned by editors with sufficient international awareness to understand emergent trends and geo-politics, and conducted on the ground by investigative journalists fluent in the languages of the countries they are reporting on. Synder dedicates this book to reporters, and it is the investigative journalists of Russia, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere who have provided much of the raw material upon which Synder constructs this vital history of our times.

The Shortest History of Germany, by James Hawes

img_1450Summary: A spectre is haunting Europe and it is the spectre of Prussia

In this book James Hawes argues there are two Germanys. One is in the West, orientated towards Paris, Brussels and the rest of Western Europe. This part of Germany conforms to the part that was Romanised, and subsequently formed part of Charlemagne’s empire. This part is substantially Catholic and was notably resistant to Nazism in the past and the far Right and far Left in the present.

On the other hand there is Prussia: Protestant and Russian-orientated, it formed in territory that was conquered and colonised, and which, under Bismarck, conquered Western Germany to establish the German Empire. The rump of this state, which the Allies tried to bury beneath modern Poland at the end of the Second World War, still persists in the East.

To this day, Hawes argues, many of the inhabitants of Prussia continue to bear the racist attitudes of colonisers, regarding themselves as somehow “special” compared to the ordinary mass of human beings. Prussia more than any other part of Germany facilitated the rise of militarism and Nazism in the late 19th and 20th Centuries, and provides fertile ground for extremists to this day.

The reunification of Germany in the 1990s brought together again these two quite different countries to restore the borders of Bismarck’s Empire. This reunification, Hawes argues, was not undertaken for any carefully considered reasons regarding how these two German states should best grow and develop. Rather Helmut Kohl saw that Christian Democrat support in the East would guarantee him a further term as Chancellor so he went full steam ahead for that with little thought of anything else.

The consequence has been something of a return to the pre-war arrangements between West and East: Since reunification the West subvents the impoverished East to the tune of trillions of Euros with little sign of obtaining any change in those repellent aspects of Prussian culture that have caused so many problems for Germany and the rest of Europe over the past 200 years.

Hawes notes that “what makes people vulnerable to wild scares and promises isn’t just income but culture.” And it is the culture of the peoples of the old colonial and imperial powers of Europe, such as Prussia, such as Britain, clinging to their notions of superiority and exceptionalism, that prove most susceptible to the promises of political snake-oil salesmen. Recognising this, and confronting such prejudices in Britain, Germany and elsewhere offers a more promising prospect of eroding them than the pusillanimous approach of pandering to them and insisting they must be respected when presented as “the will of the people”.

The Shortest History of Germany is a fine, lucidly written and thought-provoking account of German history covering over 2,000 years from Caesar to the present day. It packs a startling amount into a very short text, and is essential reading for all Europeans

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, by James Comey

934BEFDC-77C1-44A6-9EC2-6397DDDBEBF8Summary: a meditation on ethical leadership illustrated with war stories from Comey’s life as a prosecutor and his interactions with President Obama, and the moral and intellectual void that is Donald Trump. 

In the heyday of The Two Ronnies one regular, celebrated, segment involved Ronnie Corbett sitting in an armchair and telling a joke. This was never a straightforward affair. It involved Corbett taking every available digression and tangent upon the way before getting to the punchline, which he always landed neatly on at the end of the monologue.

Parts of James Comey’s book are a bit like that. There is a broad chronological structure to the book, particularly in the final chapters dealing with his time as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under President Obama, and Trump. But there is a strong thematic element to the earlier chapters, drawing on diverse parts of his life – from working in a grocery store, to his experiences with bullying, to the tragic death of his son – from which he draws what he believes are crucial aspects of ethical leadership.

It is the last chapters that will sell the book – and Comey does, rather satisfyingly, land a few punches on the bloated, bullying, pathetic Donald Trump, who Comey likens to some of the Mafia bosses he helped put in prison. But there is also a more serious purpose to the work – his meditation on ethical leadership – and it is this that may give the book a more enduring appeal long after Trump has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Comey writes on the second page of this book, “Doubt… is wisdom” and his discussion of some major ethical choices that he has had to deal with over his career in government go some way to illustrating this truth. These include various hard cases of obstruction of justice, confrontations with Dick Cheney over torture, and, of course how he dealt with the notorious case of Hilary Clinton’s emails, something that, when added to the systematic Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, probably cost Clinton the presidency.

Across the course of the book Comey shows how even with matters of enormous moment, perhaps particularly with them, leaders often have to act under pressure with limited information, and frequently their choices boil down to trying to discern the lesser of two evils. This reality will probably resonate with anyone who has ever led anything.

Comey notes that given the stress involved in leadership that humour and laughter are essential, not only for a release of tension but because they are indicative of self-awareness and humility. Hence he is rightly unsettled that Trump appears a completely humourless creature. For himself he makes a few wry remarks and self-depreciating jokes, but he is no Ronnie Corbett. However he is a lucid, and sometimes compelling writer, frequently highly insightful on the subject of ethical leadership, unfailingly gracious in his treatment of those he has worked with, and with some exceptionally interesting stories to tell.

Comey is a highly experienced prosecutor and he presents a strong case in defence of his choices in the course of 2016. Still, while he continues to believe the choices he made were the best he could have managed given the circumstances, he describes feeling sick at the thought that they may have contributed to the election of Trump.

Still, by way of compensation, he suggests that it was his release of a memo of a private meeting with Trump, in which Trump appears to have attempted to obstruct justice, that led to the appointment of a Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, his FBI predecessor, to investigate the allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. So, while Comey may have played an unfortunate role in bringing Trump to the presidency, he may yet also have played a decisive role in removing him from it.

Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima 1944, by Fergal Keane

Summary: War is cruelty, and so is reading about it sometimes

In 1989 Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle made a short film for the BBC called Elephant. There was little dialogue, and little narrative. What there was instead was a reenactment of a series of 18 killings based on real incidents from the Troubles in the North of Ireland. The film did not seek to explain the causes of the conflict, which still had almost 10 years left to run when the film was broadcast. Nor did it endeavour to posit what political processes may be needed to end it. Instead it sought only to provide a visceral account of some killings. The cumulative effect of this relentless depiction of deliberate butchery of was one of horror.

I was reminded of that film about half way through this book, which has, as its centrepiece, an account of the siege of Kohima, a bloody portion of a wider battle on the borders of India and Myanmar in 1944. At Kohima the Japanese sought to break through Allied defences and cut loose into North Eastern India. Meanwhile a combined forced of British and South Asian troops, with limited supplies of ammunition and water attempted to thwart these plans from hastily constructed defences.

It’s tough reading: pieced together from diverse accounts of both Allied and Japanese soldiers these central chapters are essentially an anthology of killings. As with the film Elephant the effect, I found, was ultimately one of numbed horror.

I am not sure if this was the intent of Keane with this portion of the book. I found it difficult to make sense from the account of any grand, or even basic, tactical vision of either the defenders or attackers. Certainly the account he presents here reflects the experiences of the soldiers fighting for their own lives and those of their comrades. But the officers who also left accounts were tasked with managing the battle and must have had a broader perspective.

In contrast with the organised chaos of the account of the bloody fighting at Kohima Keane does go to some lengths to place the role of this siege in the wider strategic considerations of Slim, the commander to the British 14th Army, and Mountbatten, the Allied Supreme Commander in South East Asia. He also does a fine job of explaining the British efforts in South East Asia in the context of the geopolitics of the time, including Churchill’s grubby imperialist pretensions.

There is much else admirable about the book, not least Keane’s efforts to bear witness to the story of the Naga allies of the British, a tribal people who stood with the British in their darkest hour at Kohima only to be betrayed by them shortly after when they were no longer needed. Admirably Keane also gives voice to the humanity and experiences of the Japanese who fought in the battle, while never overlooking their brutality and atrocities. The passages describing how the starving Japanese fared in retreat are some of the most powerful of the book.

Ultimately, perhaps as one would expect of Fergal Keane, a veteran correspondent of some of the nastiest conflicts of the past 30 years, he writes of the pity of war and the humanity of those compelled to fight. It is a book that bears witness to Sherman’s blunt observation, “War is cruelty,” and, consequently perhaps, it is at times a gruelling reading experience.

Not British Enough: the DUP and the (next) great betrayal

There is the story of Sam the stockbroker, who made so much money that he was able to buy himself a 100 foot yacht and have it moored in New York Harbour.

He then invited his parents to dinner on board the yacht and dressed specially in a captain’s uniform that he bought to go with the boat.

After dinner he said to his parents, “Well, I bet you never thought you would see this: your own son the captain of such a vessel.”

His mother smiled at him. “Son”, she said, “to me you are a captain. To your father you are a captain. But to a real captain, you’re not a captain.”

Junior

That story came back to me recently listening to Ian Paisley Junior ranting off again about Brexit, and what the British Government should do to put “Brussels” in their place. Junior, never the sharpest of spoons in the knife drawer, hasn’t realised yet that to his voters he and his may be British. To some of his political opponents in Ireland they may even be British. But to the real British, the ultras who are busily trying to craft their little Engländer Brexit, they are not British.

That will matter when the crunch-time comes between the British government and the EU. When it comes to the choice between a deal that will satisfy those, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, seeking Brexit to avoid EU tax regulations for themselves and their clients, those, like Micheal Gove, using Brexit as an executive power grab, and those, like Theresa May, slavering over the anti-migrant ethnic cleansing that they dream of after Brexit, the interests of embarrassing “Irish” types like the DUP are not going to count for much. Instead they will be ignominiously dumped just as every British vassal has been as soon as it becomes convenient or necessary to advance the interests of the “real” British.

The outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the UK over the Irish border is already settled. It was settled in December 2017 when the UK agreed in effect that the north of Ireland would remain, de facto, in the Single Market and Customs Union. Hence the border will be in the Irish Sea. This, the “back-stop option”, is something that the DUP will regard as the most abject and treasonous of betrayals. It does have a certain ironic, comic value however: it is the inevitable outcome of the DUP’s successful, if dubiously ethical, campaigning for the UK to leave the EU.

The current pantomime that the UK is indulging, repeatedly proposing to EU 27 the same fantastically unworkable ideas for dealing with the border, is not a serious negotiating effort. There is no expectation on the part of the British that these proposals will provide any basis for a mutually agreed solution let alone that they may be accepted unamended. Their purpose is merely as a subterfuge to attempt to delude the DUP into believing that the British government is still fighting their corner so that continued DUP support for the UK government will be maintained. Of course eventually denial of the intended “betrayal” becomes impossible and the Tories will have to either come clean or accept the economic devastation that a no-deal Brexit would bring.

The loyalty to the British Crown of the Unionist community in the North of Ireland is an incredible thing. Tens of thousands have displayed awesome courage in its service and bled for it over the centuries in every war and imperial adventure that the British have undertaken. But this loyalty has never been reciprocated by the British Establishment. The DUP are about to find that out as they are abandoned like the cheap stooges to power that they are.

The Problem of Jefferson: political inaction and the continuation of slavery in the world

My remarks to the Slavery Panel during the Women’s Forum in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

It’s highly appropriate that slavery is on the agenda of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week. Because while London is sometimes thought of as the cradle of the anti-slavery movement, the anti-slavery movement truly started years before the meeting in 1787 that set up the Committee to Abolish the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It started the first time west African men and women rose up to fight with their bare hands for their freedom from the slave ships, and whose actions disrupted the slave trade to such an extent as to save hundreds of thousands of others from such trafficking.

That is a tradition that has continued across the centuries and across what is now the Commonwealth. From Caribbean leaders such as Mary Prince, to African leaders like Equiano and Cugano, to Asian leaders such as Dr Ambedkar, to contemporary organisations like Piler in Pakistan, OKUP in Bangladesh, Centre for Education and Communication in India, and the Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women. All these have asserted and continue to assert the principles of human rights in opposition to the way the world dehumanises and enslaves others.

So after these centuries of struggle why are we still discussing how to end slavery. Well it is because we, as a human society, still permit slavery to exist.

While I have rarely met anyone who is in favour of slavery in principle, I have met many people who are in favour of slavery in practice. Slavery provides benefits to the powerful, in terms of cheap commodities, cheap construction workers, vulnerable domestic workers, advantages in terms of trade, opportunities to sexually abuse women and children, or simply to indulge prejudice.

So while we all bear a moral responsibility for this continued existence of slavery, the greatest responsibilities must be borne by those with the greatest power to end the power.

A recurrent problem through history is what I have come to think of as the problem of Jefferson. Jefferson was possibly the most brilliant man to hold the US presidency and a vocal opponent of slavery. But all he used that brilliance for was developing excuses why he couldn’t do anything about slavery.

Today politicians and business leaders across the world, including within the Commonwealth, find, in the name of convenience and prejudice, all sorts of reasons not to stand up for the children of their nations and citizens everywhere to end slavery and its causes. Migrants are vilified and exploited in the countries where they live and work and are too often ignored by the governments of the countries from which they originate. Governments make inadequate provision for education, particularly of girls, and both women and girls are denied their most basic rights. Civil society activists and trade unionists who lead the struggle against slavery and for decent work are isolated and persecuted. Police corruption is tolerated. Rule of law is undermined.

The struggle to end slavery is a political one. And yet it is not a coherent political priority for any of the governments of the Commonwealth, even those most voluble in their antipathy towards slavery. So long as this remains the case, it is ordinary Commonwealth citizens who will pay the price with their lives and liberty.