Contemporary British Politics on the Right: The Unbearable Weight of Sh*t

Summary: things are going to get worse

In the Milan Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the character Sabina, an artist, has a particular repugnance for kitsch. This is, she says, art with the shit removed. It’s the sort of thing exemplified by the socialist realist art of the communist era which would show heroic soldiers and smiling happy people basking in the sun of their Dear Leader. Never would these images ever hint at food shortages, Nazi collaboration, gulags, or the torture chambers where political prisoners would get their fingernails pulled out.

There is still, on the Left, some childish nostalgia for communism which, in the great tradition of kitsch, asserts that its dreadful absurdities and ghastly atrocities were aberrations from “true” communism, rather than its essence.

But, in a sort of bizarre historical symmetry, the Right in the U.K. seems increasingly dominated by an indulgence in the shit that the Left has jettisoned. Ignorance is always the soundest basis for prejudice. So, for some years the British Right has been wallowing in that like pigs as they have stoked the xenophobia and racism that is at the heart of their entire Brexit project.

But bad as things are, and they are dreadful, things are likely to get even worse before they get better. How do I know? Well, it’s there for everyone to see in pounds, shillings and inches.

Even thinking, as Boris Johnson has, of reintroducing the Imperial system of measurement to a nation that has not taught or used this system in the past 50 years is the epitome of a shit idea. But it is apposite that this idea should come from Johnson, a man fixated on bridges but infamous for being incapable of getting any built anywhere, something that today fundamentally depends on usage of the metric system.

If this was ancient Rome, Boris Johnson might try circuses to distract his subjects from their increasing poverty as he extends his brand of blundering authoritarianism. But the British Right has only shit to play with so it throws the masses shit.

It is beyond weird that a country that has produced Shakespeare and the Beatles, Mary Wollstonecraft and Benjamin Zephaniah should think that its culture depends fundamentally on an impractical system of measurement. But if you don’t know one end of a measuring tape from a theodolite, then that is the sort of shit you might believe.

As Sabina knew in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, shit is essential to life. But you shouldn’t play with it, let alone try to turn it into public policy.

The Afghanistan Papers, by Craig Whitlock; and Freedom, by Sebastian Junger

Summary: Why, long ago, the West lost again in Afghanistan.

On 18 August 2021, as the Taliban retook Kabul and the US prepared for full withdrawal from Afghanistan, Conservative MP and Afghanistan veteran Tom Tugendhat made a powerful and moving speech condemning the US “abandonment” of that country. Tugendhat suggested that the West had not shown sufficient patience to prevail in the conflict.

Tugendhat’s words, spoken in the context of the emerging vista of the Taliban’s renewed misogynistic rule in Afghanistan, struck a deep chord and drew considerable praise. Revisiting it in the context of The Afghanistan Papers, Craig Whitlock’s book based on the Washington Post’s reporting of successive US governments’ assessment of the war, suggests that Tugendhat’s speech was deeply mistaken.

The US went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. Before this had been achieved it had also invaded Iraq. Whitlock details how this distracted military thinking and resources from the primary mission of killing or capturing bin Laden who was able to escape into Pakistan.

However, the hubris gained from the relatively quick overthrow of the Taliban led to the US deciding to set itself the goal of creating a liberal democracy in that country. That they decided on this goal was a testament not only to a remarkable arrogance, but also to the depth of their ignorance of Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld was not alone in plaintively asking the question “Who are the bad guys?”

In many American minds the Taliban were fellow travellers with Al Qaeda and so “the enemy”. However, while they had given Al Qaeda sanctuary and shared an Islamist outlook with them, the Taliban were a particularly Afghan phenomenon, a product of the diverse ethnic and tribal rivalries that have plagued this part of central Asia for centuries. They were disinterested in world revolution and so could have been co-opted by the US if the US had bothered to learn.

Instead, the US allied with a different bunch of murderous warlords and corrupt local politicians and started shovelling cash at them, and lead and high explosives at ordinary Afghan people. Three presidents, Junior Bush, Obama and Trump, kept this up, all effectively lying to the American people that things were going well while blundering from one misconceived approach to another.

For example, at one point under Bush, the US decided that the Taliban were being funded by the opium trade and decided to eradicate it by paying farmers to stop growing opium. This of course boosted opium production as farmers rushed to ensure they could claim the available cash. The US also got into bulldozing the poppy fields, but their Afghan allies made sure that this policy only applied to their rivals consequently ensuring little actual effect on opium production. However, those who were disadvantaged by the crop destruction were thereafter predisposed to allying with the Taliban who had actually banned the opium trade as un-Islamic when in power.

The Afghanistan Papers describes an ineffectual war fought for an institutionally corrupt and ineffectual government. The messy nature of the fighting which often sowed support for the Taliban by the “collateral damage” of horrendous civilian casualties, was described in memorable detail by Sebastian Junger in his book, War, an account of a period he spent embedded with one US army outpost in Afghanistan. Freedom is something of a sequel to that book. Ostensibly it is an account of a trek with some unnamed friends, some of them Afghanistan veterans, along the railway lines of the east coast of the United States. But really the book is a mediation on why the US was doomed to lose in Afghanistan. Drawing on sources as varied as the 1916 Irish rebellion, the Pacquiao-Mayweather title fight in 2015, and the Apache’s campaign in the US South-West, Junger explains why poor, weak opponents can so consistently defeat wealthier, more powerful foes.

Whitlock quotes a source saying, “Foreigners read The Kite Runner on the plane and think they are experts on Afghanistan.” I have never thought myself an expert on Afghanistan and left the place perhaps more confused about it than when I first arrived. But then I was only engineering water supplies, not trying to construct a new society. But the awful ignorance of Nato soldiers and policy makers described in the Afghanistan Papers seems one of the few constants in the past 20 years of war.

Perhaps Tom Tugendhat has read more stuff and is the man with the strategic genius to articulate the winning formula that has evaded every other military and political leader in Nato for the past 20 years.

The evidence instead suggests that defeat in Afghanistan was inevitable once the US embarked upon its hubristic goal of nation-building. So, while the final withdrawal of US forces could perhaps have been handled better, Joe Biden deserves respect for the moral courage he has shown in facing up to this stark truth.

The sunlit uplands in historical context

Summary: It’s going to get worse.

In 1974, on the eve of the collapse of first power sharing government in the North of Ireland as a result of a coup d’etat against it by loyalist paramilitaries who had taken control of public utilities, including electricity, John Hume mused that the executive should refuse to surrender. “I’ll sit here,” he said in his ministerial office, “until there is shit flowing up Royal Avenue [in central Belfast] and then the people will realise what these [paramilitaries] are about and then we will see who wins”. Hume’s biographer, Barry White, noted that he believed it was useful to show who were the builders and who were the destroyers.

The collapse of that Northern Ireland executive led to decades more bloodshed until a comparable deal was finally reached, for the “slow learners” of Northern Ireland politics in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The spiritual heirs to the paramilitaries who destroyed that prospect of peace in the North of Ireland are now in power in the UK. The Brexit mob smashed the political economy created by the UK’s membership of the EU simply because they could. As Dominic Cummings rambling interview with Laura Kuenssberg showed, neither he nor anyone else in the Brexit elite had any sense of what they should build instead. But neither were they bothered about that. Like the Loyalist paramilitaries of 1974 their political philosophy is not much more evolved than that of the teenage vandal.

Johnson and his repellent coterie did discern however that Brexit offered them a path to political power. This, in turn would provide opportunities aplenty for pillage. In addition they could undermine democratic norms and erode rule of law to lessen the risk that they would ever be held accountable for their greed and incompetence.

Today, as in 1974, the British Labour party is proving useless in opposing the wreckers. They seem more terrified of upsetting the xenophobes than explicitly calling out the Big Lie that provides the animating philosophy of the country’s far-Right.

How this will win them power is not clear. The Tory policy of Brexit has put a sword of Damocles over the fishing and farming industries. Supermarket shelves are already emptying as Brexit buckles British supply chains. By the time the shit begins to flow in the streets, those who once voted for the whole show will wonder why Labour stayed silent rather than tell them the hard truth.

Lots of Brexit benefits for sale at my local supermarket

For centuries, the British Establishment plundered half the world with its empire, using racism to justify its many depredations. Now that same racism and xenophobia has given it a chance to convince enough of their subjects to slip the bonds that have, until now, restrained them from barefaced plunder of their own country. It is almost karmic.

In the end the English will have to rejoin Europe. The political and economic logic of the world already makes that plain to anyone who has ever taken the time to locate Calais in a school atlas. The sooner the slow learners of British politics realise that, the fewer young lives will be blighted by the pusillanimous surrender of government to the wrecking fools currently cosplaying the role of Fascist Italy from their Whitehall offices.

Fragments of Afghanistan


Summary: old memories of a war, with no useful conclusion beyond despair

Afghanistan was in chaos when I worked there towards the end of 1994. The warlords were still squabbling over the spoils following the Soviet withdrawal. So, as usual in war, the civilian population were caught in the middle. 

MSF Holland, who I was working for at the time, had a base in Peshawar in Pakistan from which we operated into Jalalabad in Afghanistan. 

Peshawar was a strange city. A garrison town under the British it fulfilled a similar function for the Pakistani government. Beyond the city limits lay the North-West Frontier province, that lawless area which the British could never control. Neither could the Pakistani government. So it was declared “self-governing”. That meant no government in reality. 

The North-West Frontier province began in the Peshwar suburbs, beyond the official city limits. After this point, marked by an arch across the road, the nature of the roadside shops changed from ones selling food and clothes, to ones selling hand grenades and Kalashnikovs. 

As the road twisted up through the foothills of the Hindu Kush towards the Khyber Pass it passed a palace, believed locally to contain the residence and laboratory of one of the wealthiest heroin processors in the world. Efforts by Pakistan to close down this enterprise were, it was said, always frustrated by the armed tribesmen of the North-West Frontier who valued the revenue this man brought into the region, being a ready market for their poppies and those of their counterparts in Afghanistan.

The relative order of the Pakistan side of the Khyber gates, maintained by the club-armed Pakistani police and soldiers, was wholly absent on the Afghan side, where crowds of migrants, desperate to get across the border seethed awaiting for an opening when the occasional authorised vehicle passed. When this happened they would try to surge through only to be beaten back by the Pakistani border guards. 

I worked designing a piped water scheme for a camp of people who had fled Kabul as a result of the fighting. In the arid countryside between Jalalabad and the border with Pakistan a new city of tents and mud had grown up for a quarter of a million people, scorching hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter. 

It was a land sown with dragons’ teeth. The countryside had been a battlefield for so long that occasionally kids trying to scavenge scrap metal would have lumps blown off them when they picked up some unexploded ordnance or discarded anti-personnel mine. 

In the evening there was little to do in Jalalabad other than play chess. One of the drivers was particularly good. In years gone by he had been good enough to be selected to play the Russian grand master Anatoly Karpov in an exhibition match when he visited Afghanistan.

One night our warehouse in Jalalabad was robbed. We contacted the local authorities and the governor himself showed up to take charge of the investigation. This amounted to him ordering the warehouse guards arrested and beaten until they told the truth of who was responsible. The governor just naturally assumed that these young guards were involved somehow. Still, I don’t think the culprits were ever caught.

Once, in the Jalalabad bazaar to buy some fruit juice, I remember a young Afghan man, sporting bandoliers and carrying an AK 47 slung over his shoulder, screaming at me for reasons that I could not discern. Discretion always being the better part of valour, I tried to make myself scarce. But I noticed his green eyes dilated with drugs as I fled.

There was a shop in the bazaar we called the antique shop. It sold all manner of bric-a-brac. This included buttons cut from the uniforms of British and Soviet soldiers who had died at the hands of Afghan guerrillas during 19th and 20th Century imperial adventures, and whose graves lay still in the mountains around us. I imagined that if you went deep enough into that bazaar there might be a shop where the lamps burned darkness and, for the price of your soul, even a flying carpet could be yours to possess. 

Around this time we first heard the stirrings of the Taliban. I don’t know where I first heard the suggestion, whether it was in Afghanistan or Pakistan, that this might be a good thing. At least they were a national movement, it was said, who might finally end the years of factional and ethnic conflict in the country. Certainly uniting in the face of a common enemy would be one way of obtaining national unity. Unfortunately women and girls seemed to be the ones who would obtain that unfortunate designation of “common enemy”. 

Not that it was a feminist halcyon up to that. One Afghan engineer I worked with was nervously hoping that his pregnant wife would give birth to a son. If she didn’t his mother and sisters were already pressuring him to take another wife who would produce a boy.

***

Years later, on a beach outside the port of Massawa in Eritrea, I fell into a fragmented conversation with a small group of Russian sailors in port for a couple of days. One of them, the one who spoke the most English pointed to the eldest of the group. “He is an Afghanski”, I was told, a veteran of the Afghan war.

“What parts of Afghanistan did he serve in?” I asked. 

From the litany he repeated one name stuck out: Jalalabad. “What did you do there?” I asked.

“You know the power plant in Jalalabad?” he asked, via our translator. 

“There was no power plant.” I said. “It had been blown up.”

“Yes,” the Afghanski said. “I blew it up.”

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Summary: a spectacularly absorbing story of the collision between dreams and realities

Since its publication in 2000 Chabon’s Pulitzer prize-winning Kavalier and Clay has come to be regarded as a modern American classic. It is the story of two cousins, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Prague, and Sammy Clayman, who when then meet in New York in the late 1930s discover that they have just the complementary talents necessary to produce successful comic books. This includes one storyline featuring a Nazi-fighting superhero known as ‘The Escapist”.

The book skips back and forward in time, from Joe’s escape from Prague, up to the early 1950s taking leisurely excursions along the way into Jewish folklore, the legends of escapology, and the birth of the American superhero genre. 

It is a wildly entertaining piece of work, often funny, occasionally horrific, with central characters Joe, Rosa and Sam who you properly care about, aware that the brutal realities of the time may also consume them as they have so many others. 

Exquisite.

A Moment of War, by Laurie Lee

Summary: a haunting account of a fragment of the Spanish Civil War

A Moment of War is Laurie Lee’s memoir of his experiences of the Spanish Civil War.

His account is determinedly anti-heroic. Much of it deals with the bureaucracy of the Communist dominated forces that he is assigned to once it is accepted finally, after periods of incarceration, that he is not a spy and they did not have to shoot him after all. Ironically, he tells how he was subsequently assigned to what in the North of Ireland would have been called a “nutting squad” – a unit responsible for identifying and liquidating perceived threats, from deserters and saboteurs to little old men with lingering allegiance to the Catholic Church.

Apparently in sympathy with the anti-religious temperament of the Republican forces Lee relishes the sexual promiscuity he believes that this has bred. He describes an episodic affair with a young Spanish girl, Eulalia, who seems to represent to him a new spirit of sexual liberation in revolutionary Spain. Eulalia despite being at least five years younger than Lee calls him “very young” – perhaps what she has already lived though, like millions of women and girls before her and since, has aged her. So maybe what seemed like romantic abandon to someone as naive as Lee may have been a survival strategy for Eulalia. Lee’s English lover, presumably Lorna Wishart, a married woman with whom he was having an affair during this period, is also a recurrent, though mostly unseen, presence in the book, representing memories of humanity and normalcy away from the bleakness of war.

Towards the end of the book Lee states, almost in passing that he killed someone, blotting out the life of another young man in a confused skirmish during a hopeless battle that could have no bearing on victory or defeat in the war. Some have suggested that this is a fabricated incident, and that Lee was never actually a part of the International Brigades – assertions that Lee’s widow vehemently disputed. 

Both George Orwell and Tim O’Brien crafted elements of their experiences of war to sharpen literary effect. In The Things They Carried O’Brien is explicit about this, questioning whether a story describing how he killed a young man is a more honest accounting of his role in Vietnam than a description of his experiences in which he never personally pulls the pin on a fatal grenade.

Whatever the literal truth of Lee’s involvement in the International Brigades, A Moment of War is an atmospheric and haunting book, exquisitely written and deserved of its reputation as a modern classic.

The Shortest History of War, by Gwynne Dyer; and The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret Macmillan

Summary: War – good for nothing and may still be the thing that kills you

In The Shortest History of War, Gwynne Dyer, quotes, of course, Clauswitz’s maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means. He does, however, conspicuously ignore that war has often been a continuation of racism by other means.

This considerable lacuna is most apparent when Dyer traces back only as far as the American Civil War the modern conception of “total war”- the making of war on the civilian populations of belligerent nations. It is true that Grant and Sherman practiced a version of this on the Confederacy. But total war has a more ancient pedigree. The sack of Troy, for example, is a story of how it was routinely practiced in ancient times.

Both Caesar and Genghis Khan also practiced versions of total war. And, while this may have gone out of fashion for a bit amongst the white nations of Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it was always the way in which “Great Powers” made war on those they regarded as inferior or subject peoples: Cromwell halved the population of Ireland in his campaign in the mid-17th century. Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt and Palestine was ferocious in its violence towards civilians. The US campaign against Native Americans was genocidal as was the British campaign against Australian Aboriginals. The British conquest of India was another racist exemplar of total war.

But it is not Paddies and brown people that Dyer is interested in here. Rather he is interested in the “Great Power” version of politics and how this has been manifested in organised violence since ancient times. Within this narrower scope it is still a fascinating book, packed full of interesting detail and disturbing conclusions. Dyer argues that only three countries fulfil the criteria to be “Great Powers” in the 21st Century: the US, India and China. Russia he argues lacks the population to contend. So it may be unsettling to learn how it will cope with its inevitable decline. Dyer doesn’t consider the possibility that the European Union may represent an alternative political model for a 21st Century “Great Power”.

More disturbingly he notes that between them Indian and Pakistan have enough weapons to unleash a “nuclear winter” upon the Earth should they ever blunder into a nuclear exchange. In other words, in the space of a few days, while the rest of the world could be preoccupied with other things, events could unfold in South Asia that would spell the end of all human civilisation .

If anyone thinks such a thing is unlikely, they would do well to consider Margaret Macmillan’s The War that Ended Peace, her painstaking survey of European “Great Power” politics at the start of the 20th Century. The complex array of alliances and egos that she describes shows how at critical moments inadequate and posturing leaders can lose control of situations that spiral out of control in the most appalling ways possible.

That some of the contemporary systems of planetary security are currently in the hands of Johnson, Modi, Khan and Putin should be of concern to all of us who like the thought of the next generation, and the one after that, living into peaceful old age with improving standards of human rights and a restored environment.

Towards that end perhaps someone could prevail upon Presidents Biden, van der Leyen and Xi to take steps not just to limit global warming, but also to promote détente leading to mutual nuclear disarmament between India and Pakistan.

Justice’s scales: Civil Liberties and the Covid

Summary: In a pandemic some rights are more equal than others

John Rawls, in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, argued that a key principle for a fair society is that “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberties for all.”

In other words, no one is an island. The rights that each of us have can impinge on those of others. So rights need to be calibrated accordingly. Priti Patel may not grasp this most basic fact of social living and instead feel that freedom means that racists should be allowed to abuse anti-racist protesters if their prejudices so incline them. But then she is a complete moron desperate to be accepted by the Blackshirted establishment she seeks to serve.

So, as all but the most deliberately obtuse understand, the inter-relationships of people in society means that we have not only rights but responsibilities towards each other.

Which brings us to the questions of measures to control the Covid. It’s not wrong to conduct this debate in the context of civil liberties. But it is nonsensical to proceed as if all rights are equal and absolute. No one has an absolute right to do as they please irrespective of how passionately they feel about their particular hobby horse. The sociopath may feel he should be allowed to drink and drive at whatever speed he likes, ignoring traffic lights if they inconvenience him. But the rest of us whose lives he would threaten would likely object. The right to life supersedes other rights after all.

So, in the context of the Covid the proper debate should relate to which liberties may of necessity be temporarily restricted in order to protect that paramount right to life.

The requirement to wear masks in restricted spaces is so trivial an inconvenience that it beggars belief that it should become a matter of dispute. But it has been allowed to become so. The question of vaccine “passports” seems set to follow a similar path.

As anyone who has ever travelled in the Tropics will know vaccine “passports” are already a fact of life: there are many places you simply cannot go without your Yellow Fever certificate. Proof of Covid vaccination is now a fact of travel within Europe. In parts of mainland Europe health inspectors will check that diners in indoor venues have proof of Covid vaccination. Democratic norms are still much healthier there than in the UK which seems to have gotten into a ridiculous debate that such measures would impinge on the most basic of rights of Little England and its Brexiters.

As anyone who has ever led in a public health emergency will know, such a task requires hard choices and pragmatism.The decisions that may be necessary do not represent unalterable precedents. But they do represent fundamental responsibilities to preserve life where possible and ensure that others live another day.

As British politics becomes increasingly infantile, losing sight of this principle in a welter of doctrinal disputation relating to some nirvana of individual liberties will lead to the country becoming an even greater international laughing stock than it already is. But whatever grim mirth may be prompted by a UK refusal in the name of “civil liberties” to apply essential public health measures to stem a pandemic, this will never salve the grieving of those who have had to bury the needlessly dead.

What a Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division, by Kevin Meagher

Summary: a fine and concise history of the bloody consequences of a failed state

With this book Kevin Meagher seems to have two principle objectives: to provide a concise history of the conflict in the North of Ireland, and to identify British Government culpabilities in this conflict.

He fulfils both of these things admirably. While never excusing the routine atrocities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, or the intrinsic bigotry of wider unionism, he identifies successive points where political courage on the part of the British Government may have staunched at least some of the bloodshed.

It was the British government which deliberately created a sectarian Orange state in the North of Ireland. This led to, until recently, a parallel illiberal state in the South as the ideal of a plural Ireland, uniting “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irish”, was shattered by British policy. 

The British excuse for Partition was to avoid civil war. But that came anyway, both in the South until 1923, and, off and on, in the North for the next 80 years. 

Meagher identifies 1914 as the last year in which this protracted conflict might have been avoided, had the newly passed Home Rule Act been implemented. It is not unreasonable to imagine that this may have allowed Ireland to have had a bumpy evolution into modern statehood akin to that experienced by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

But that didn’t happen. Instead from 1921 onwards the British government was content to acquiesce in the establishment of a state which institutionalised a type of caste-based discrimination within the borders of the United Kingdom. Meagher shows how the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system was foundational to the gerrymandering of Northern Ireland in favour of bigoted unionism, just as FPTP is today foundational to corrupt Tory power in Britain.

Successive British governments, even under Irish-heritage Labour politicians such as Jim Callaghan and Dennis Healey, were content to let this apartheid-style system fester so long as it didn’t bother them. They were not even stirred to do something when the Catholic community in the North of Ireland, inspired by Martin King and the black civil rights movement in the United States, took to the streets to peacefully demand their most basic civil rights. 

The British government only reacted when their puppets in the Northern Ireland government embarrassed them internationally by turning civil rights protests on the streets of Derry into a re-enactment of the sort of nakedly bigoted police brutality seen earlier on the streets of Selma and across the US South. By sending in the troops the British government blundered into escalating civil unrest into civil war.

Thereafter, as the death toll mounted, British Labour and Conservative governments alike missed opportunity after opportunity to deescalate. But eventually, starting with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, a peace process began to be pieced together following John Hume’s blueprint of dealing with the “totality of relationships” – within Northern Ireland, North-South and between Britain and Ireland – within the context of common membership of the European Union. 

It was this painstaking and still fragile process that Boris Johnson – and I choose these words carefully – decided to shite over in his fevered scramble for the British premiership.

Meagher identifies a number of British politicians who made, on balance, constructive contributions to Irish peace – Whitelaw, Prior, Brooke, Mayhew, Mowlam, Major, Blair, even Thatcher, in spite of her inept handling of the 1981 hunger strikes which made her, in effect, the fairy godmother at Sinn Fein’s political rebirth. However, it is difficult to think of a politician since Lord John Russell who has been more damaging to Anglo-Irish relations than Boris Johnson. 

As Unionists try to celebrate 100 years of Northern Ireland, Meagher has commemorated this anniversary with this important book that shows why Northern Ireland has been such a disastrous political project.

And yet there are still those forlorn souls who bleat about the possibilities of a new “progressive” unionism for Northern Ireland’s second century. But, as Meagher shows, this is hardly a new idea. Terrance O’Neill as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland tried it in the 1960s and was destroyed for it. Every unionist leader since who has made even the slightest move towards equality has been dispatched. Most recently Arlene Foster was removed because she wasn’t homophobic enough, and Edwin Poots brief leadership was ended when he acquiesced in a British government move to give effect to his own party’s commitments regarding parity of esteem for the Irish language.

“Liberal unionist” is a relative term in a political ideology that is inherently reactionary. That is why unionism eats progressives raw, and always will. True progressives must instead turn their eyes to the prize of another of John Hume’s ideas: that of unity in the diversity of a New Ireland. 

As the ugly spectre of Johnson’s Blackshirt-hued politics continues to assert itself in England the prospect of a New Ireland will become ever more attractive to people of all traditions in the North of Ireland. For now, Kevin Meagher’s fine book shows why it’s time to put Northern Ireland out of our collective misery.

The Spy Who Loved, by Clare Mulley

Summary: An exceptionally fine biography of Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville) and her incredible exploits as a resistant to totalitarianism during World War 2

The Spy Who Loved is Clare Mulley’s exceptionally fine biography of Krystyna Skarbek or Christine Granville as she later styled herself. Like all great biographies it does two things: it not only gives the reader a strong sense of what their subject was like, but it also provides an powerful introduction to their times. Neither of these are trivial matters, but the former is immensely complicated by the fact that Skarbek lived so much of her life clandestinely at one point taking the opportunity to shave 7 years off her age when obtaining an official identification.

Determined to resist the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which consumed her own country, Poland, Skarbek led a remarkably dramatic life, first as a British liaison to the Polish resistance, and later as a Special Operations Executive agent in France. There she was a witness to the desperate French insurrection on the Vercors, and she played a central role in the Resistance preparations for the Allied landings in southern France. Her exploits included securing the defection of an entire German garrison on a strategic pass in the Alps, and, armed with little more than her courage and quick wits, saving a group of her colleagues from almost certain death following their capture by collaborationist police.

The title of the book, The Spy who Loved, is a deliberate reference to James Bond and the, unfortunately unlikely, story that Skarbek was the model for Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. It also is a reference to the fact that Skarbek’s expansive sexual history was also Bondesque.

Judith Matloff, in her very fine account of the Angolan Civil War, notes how booze and promiscuity are common reactions to the experience of trauma. But, at moments, Skarbek’s choices put me in mind not of Bond, but of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s extraordinary creation “Fleabag”, a character deeply damaged by grief and guilt, and seeking fleeting respite from the pain through sex.

Nevertheless, Skarbek’s lovers, for the most part, were lucky in her choice of them. Several had her to thank for their lives. They remained devoted to her memory and some even tried, abortively, to write her biography together.

Skarbek had a difficult time readjusting after the war. She was almost certainly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But, because she was Polish and a woman, she got little support from officialdom. Unable to settle she got a job as a steward on an ocean liner where she was subject to bullying and petty harassment by others in the crew who disliked her being “foreign”, One of the few who befriended her on the liner was a man called Dennis Muldowney, who became obsessed with her and, eventually, murdered her.

It was an appallingly sad end to such a spectacular life. Clare Mulley has done Skarbek some measure of justice with this superb biography.