The Churchill Factor, by Boris Johnson

Summary: I read it so you don’t have to

It would be unfair to say this book is not entertaining. But then it would be hard to write a dull book about Churchill so packed with incident was his life. However it’s hardly a book that offers any profound, or even shallow, insights on its subject or his times.

Typically each chapter begins with an anecdote upon which Johnson will reflect on its meaning to him and what he thinks it says about Churchill. Johnson has a simple thesis: that Churchill was the greatest human ever and it would have been catastrophic to British and European history if he had not existed. Johnson strains every ounce of lard in his being to convince the reader of what he clearly regards as a self-evident truth.

But the reason for reading this book now, if one must, is not to find out about Churchill – there are much better books for that. It is to find out about Johnson as he stands poised on acceding to the British premiership. On the basis of this book one can say that Johnson is an even more peculiar character than one might discern from his public persona of lazy buffoon and lying charlatan.

Certainly the laziness is here to see: I don’t think Johnson had much more knowledge of Churchill than I did – gleaned from Roy Jenkins’ and Max Hastings‘ biographies – when he sat down to write this book. Johnson also makes tiresome use of straw-man arguments – establishing positions that nobody really holds in order to knock them down. It’s a lazy approach to argumentation which I have found seems to be a bad habit particularly inculcated in the privileged students of parts of Oxbridge.

Superficially there are similarities between Johnson and Churchill. Both are portly. Both journalists turned politicians. Like Johnson, Churchill was, mostly, a Tory. Like Johnson he was a racist. Johnson also strains to emulate Churchill with witty turns of phrase, but on this front he could have done with a firm editor clearing out screeds of what one would presume passes for humour in the Bullingdon Club.

But, on almost every other aspect of his character that Johnson chooses to discuss, Churchill was the polar opposite of Johnson. Churchill was a, mostly, faithful husband. Churchill was a ferociously hard worker, managing in parallel with his hugely effective political career a literary output that won him a Nobel Prize. Churchill was a master of policy detail, the sort of politician who would have known what was said in Article 25, paragraph C before staking the entire credibility of his policy upon it. Churchill was beloved by colleagues and subordinates who worked with him. Churchill spoke truth to power rather than, by and large, pandering to the mob.

Perhaps most fundamentally of all, Churchill defined much of the latter part of his career as a ferocious opponent of the policy of appeasing the far-Right. In contrast Johnson has courted such extremists to the extent of subverting his own nation’s interests and pandered to a neo-fascist leader in the US in the hope of mitigating the damage brought by his signature cause, Brexit.

In other words Johnson utterly hero-worships a historical figure who represents the opposite of much that he espouses politically, and everything that he is personally. This is cognitive dissonance of almost mythic proportions.

At the outset of the book Johnson states he agrees with the ancient Greeks who said “Character is destiny.” If this book is anything to go by then the destiny of the United Kingdom is going to be a deeply troubled one.

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Churchill, by Roy Jenkins

Summary: Churchill – both a hero and a villain

321F9220-5CD0-49CB-9EC9-689E793FD92FIn Brexit Britain one’s attitude towards Churchill is something of a faux-patriotic touchstone. Recently shadow chancellor John McDonnell caused frothing indignation amongst the perpetually offended right-wing of British society when in response to a silly question, “Churchill: hero or villain?” he responded, “Villain,” citing Churchill’s behaviour, when Home Secretary, towards striking miners in Tonypandy.

Of course, one of the reasons that Churchill attracts so much biographical attention is that he is a complex figure.

Considerable portions of Churchill’s career, most notably his resistance to Nazism, are the epitome of heroism. At a human level he was also very funny and impressively magnanimous. For example, he formed a close friendship with Smuts, who he had fought against, and been imprisoned by, in South Africa. Jenkins also suggests, probably correctly, that Michael Collins would have become an enduring friend if he had lived, and one can only regret the consequences to Anglo-Irish relations that he did not.

But other aspects of Churchill’s character and leadership are markedly less attractive. For example his deep grained racism and his unreconstructed imperialism are manifestations of the very worst aspects of British history and society.

That these positive and negative elements resided in Churchill simultaneously, for example catastrophically worsening the Bengal Famine in 1943 while playing a central role in formulating strategy against Hitler, makes him an altogether more interesting and problematic personality than either his acolytes or his detractors might prefer.

Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill goes a considerable way towards exploring this complexity across the course of Churchill’s career from youthful imperial war-junkie, to young Conservative MP, to Leftish Liberal cabinet minister, to rancidly bigotted opponent of Indian independence, to prophetic voice against the rise of Hitlerism, to heroic war leader and after. Jenkins also details Churchill’s parallel career as a voluminous writer, a career that ultimately brought him a, somewhat controversial, Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are omissions – there is no discussion of the Bengal Famine – the gravest stain on Churchill’s record, dwarfing even his civilian bombing policy against Germany, his startlingly naïve fawning towards Stalin, and his complicity in the betrayal of Poland to Soviet tyranny, all issues which Jenkins discusses in some detail,

It is very much a political biography focusing on Westminster and Whitehall machinations, and the deliberations of high summitry amongst the “Great Powers.” So it would probably benefit a reader to have some extant knowledge of events in the wider world as they affected ordinary human beings, particularly the struggle for Indian independence, the course of the Second World War, and the Suez crisis.

The book is enriched by Jenkins’ insider knowledge: his early parliamentary career overlapped with that of Churchill; and before rising to the presidency of the European Commission Jenkins was also British Chancellor and Home Secretary, two posts Churchill also held.

Nicholas Soames, currently a Tory MP, tells the story of how, as an eight year old he once intruded on Churchill with the question, “Grandpapa, is it true you are the greatest man in the world?”

“Yes,” said Churchill. “Now bugger off.”

Ultimately Jenkins shares this conclusion, that Churchill was the greatest human being ever to hold the office of British Prime Minister. It is perhaps an easier assertion for a Briton to make than for any citizen of a nation that suffered the bloody consequences of his racism to accept. But Jenkins certainly provides a rich portrait of this compelling personality, one who did so much to shape the Twentieth Century, particularly in relation to the triumph of European democracy.

The Border: the legacy of a century of Anglo-Irish politics, by Diarmaid Ferriter

Summary: an elegantly written but blunt introduction to the politics of the British border in Ireland, and the threats to peace that British blundering poses

C66EED07-C7FF-4BF8-9689-5C51CD075777This is a very short book. Doubtless a historian of the calibre of Diarmaid Ferriter could have written a considerably longer one. But with a short book there is the hope, however forlorn, that at least some English people might deign to read it.

Because as this book elegantly demonstrates, it is English ignorance of Ireland that has, in the aftermath of Brexit, done so much to threaten Ireland’s fragile peace.

Margaret Thatcher once infamously stated that Northern Ireland was as British as her own constituency, Finchley. This was, of course, nonsense, as this book shows, and, as Ferriter also shows, something she herself did not even believe. It was only when its particularities and differences within the UK were finally publicly recognised by the British government, that a constitutional settlement could be hammered out, within the context of Ireland and the UK’s common membership fo the European Union, which effectively removed the contentious border in Ireland. This new settlement encompassed, in John Hume’s words, the “totality of the relationships” – within Northern Ireland, between north and south, and between Britain and Ireland. This was then enshrined in an international treaty: the Good Friday Agreement.

With Brexit, and Theresa May’s reliance on the far Right to maintain her premiership, the imperial nostalgists in the Conservative Party and the Protestant Supremacists of the Democratic Unionist Party, who always opposed the Good Friday Agreement, have seized upon this as an opportunity to wreck it. Theresa May herself, never a fan of the rule of international law, has been happy to be steered by their atavistic will into the frontiers of unlawful behaviour, threatening to renege on the UK’s commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, as she seeks to satisfy their fantastical demands.

I’m writing this the morning after the senseless murder of a young journalist, Lyra McKee, on the streets of Derry. Dangerous passions have already been stirred up by British incompetence. But we can be confident this tragedy will not encroach on the consciences of Boris or Stanley Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Davis, self-styled “Brexit hardman” Steve Baker, disgraced former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, or neo-fascist leader Nigel Farage. For them the lives and hopes of the Irish are of no consequence. They will never be bothered to read even this short book.

But any English person who dreams of their country being something more than an intolerant vassal of the United States, should read this. Those who are ignorant of history are already blundering into its bloody repetition.

The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben McIntyre

2E971371-2167-4B7D-AD62-DA061BC69D1ASummary: gripping account of a small portion of the Cold War that gives considerable insight into some of the wider issues

Sub-titled, “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War” McIntyre’s account of the career of Oleg Gordievsky does make for fascinating reading. 

Gordievsky came from a KGB family – both his father and brother had been officers. But Gordievsky lost the faith. Disgust at the Soviet system, particularly the crushing of the Prague Spring, led to a momentous decision: in 1972, while posted in Copenhagen, he became a double-agent for MI6.

He described his choice as an act of dissidence, in the spirit of great Russian dissidents like Solzhenitsyn. But where Solzhenitsyn could protest through art Gordievsky could only protest with the information and secrets that were his stock in trade.

McIntyre credits Gordievsky with a number of decisive interventions in the Cold War. Most importantly, he argues that warnings from Gordievsky led to Nato changing military exercises that the Soviet leadership had come to believe were cover for an actual nuclear assault on the Warsaw Pact, thus averting the most dangerous moment in world history since the Cuban Missiles Crisis. Gordievsky also played a key role in the developing of good working relationships between Thatcher and Gorbachev, and the US decision to escalate military spending in the belief that this would eventually bankrupt the Soviet Union and lead to its collapse,

Eventually, in spite of MI6’s best efforts to guard Gordievsky’s identity, he was betrayed by a traitor in the CIA, recalled to Moscow and investigated by Soviet counter-intelligence. Convinced that his days were numbered if he did nothing he triggered an MI6 plan to exfiltrate him. The unfolding of this operation, led by future Liberal Democrat peer, Ray Asquith – called Roy Ascot in this book – at the time head of the MI6 station in Moscow, provides a gripping climax to this wholly satisfying account of Cold War combatants.

Oh – and Donald Trump is almost certainly a KGB agent since the 1980s.

The Future of the SDLP

img_1542The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) of the North of Ireland has always been a coalition. There are folk in the SDLP who, if they were living in Dublin or Cork or Galway, would be in Fianna Fáil, or Fine Gael, or Labour. But, faced with an existential challenge around the issues of civil rights and peace, they coalesced into a movement that sought to advance the ideals of social and liberal democracy in the face of horrific violence and sectarianism. Such coalitions are significant in history: Both the African National Congress in South Africa, and Congress in India drew together similar diverse elements in the common cause of liberation.

For myself, if I was living in the south of Ireland I would be Labour. But that does not mean I have any less respect for comrades and compatriots from different political traditions who have, with empty hands, faced down the authoritarianism of both the Provos and the British Government to create a peace process out of the nothingness of thought and compassion. It is they, more than anyone, who have, on the streets of Belfast and Derry and Newry and every other town and village in between, brought about the peace process when so many others turned their faces away from the fratricidal bloodshed.

Many southern leaders have also made extraordinary contributions to this struggle for peace and civil rights in the North of Ireland. Sean Lemass, Justin Keating, Garret Fitzgerald, Peter Barry, Dick Spring, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Aherne, Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar, and Simon Coveney are amongst the most prominent of these leaders and I believe and hope they will be properly honoured by history.

But all of these apart, perhaps, from Sean Lemass, have been guided by the collective wisdom and experience of the SDLP. The SDLP, while consciously standing aside from the political disputes of the 26 counties, have forced the ideal of a new Ireland – one uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter within the framework of an united Europe – back onto the political agenda of the whole island even in the bloodiest and most sectarian moments of our recent history.

This remains a vital and unfulfilled ideal.

There may be a time in the future when the SDLP should break up into the different Irish traditions of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, or, preferably, contribute to a fundamental realignment of these elements into clearer conservative and progressive formations.

But today, with Brexit and the disfunction of the British state again threatening war in Ireland, is not the day for that reckoning.

The SDLP is a vital independent voice for social democracy in the islands of Ireland and Britain. It must remain so.

Brexit: just when you think things can’t get any worse, they can

Common sense does not always prevail. Situations and circumstances can take on their own momentum leading to disastrous outcomes.

Take the case of the First World War. Nobody in the chancelleries of the Great Powers wanted or foresaw war when news of Gavrilo Princip’s bloody action in Sarajevo was first heard. Very quickly however imperial bellicosity, diplomatic ineptitude,  and the demands that railway timetables imposed on the movement of German troops led to a conflagration that engulfed all of Europe.

For those who think such things couldn’t happen again it is worth looking at Bob Woodward’s exploration of the decision-making leading up to George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. This describes how an initial request for a contingency plan quickly ballooned, as part of the planning process, into troops and armour in the desert and with that a overwhelming pressure for invasion and war. The consequences of the resultant chaos is with us still.

“Events, dear boy, events” still, as they have always, drive decision makers to places they do not necessarily want to go. And, as certain as that, is that whenever there is a Big Red Button that should never be pushed there is always a Father Dougal there to push it no matter how catastrophic the consequences.

I suspect that is where we are with Brexit now. Every – EVERY – credible report and study shows it will be a disaster. Logic alone suggests that cutting your country from its closest allies at the behest of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin is a poor idea. The consequence may be a relatively small disaster, as in the case of Theresa May’s vile, xenophobic deal. Or it may be a disaster comparable to a small war, as in the case of a “no-deal” Brexit. But whatever shape Brexit ultimately takes there will be one commonality – it will be a disaster.

There are assurances from parliamentarians that parliament will not countenance a “no-deal” situation. But to avoid such an outcome requires rational thought and moral courage. That is in spectacularly limited supply amongst the current membership of the House of Commons. From the sinister, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kate Hoey, to the cravenly self-serving, such as Boris Johnson and Theresa May, to the simply stupid, such as David Davis, Andrea Leadsom, Priti Patel, Steve Baker, Nadine Dories, to the Lexit fantasists like Jeremy Corbyn, there is a such a plethora of clowns and charlatans lining up to press that Big Red Button, that it is a brave person who will bet that sanity will triumph.

That so much of the media is still treating this gallery of eejits and gobshites as credible and serious-minded leaders foretells a future reckoning for the Fourth Estate. Truly this has not been their finest hour.

In the course of its long and blood-stained history England, aside from a few brief episodes, has managed to avoid the deprivations it has inflicted on so much of the rest of the world. This has led to a considerable sense of exceptionalism that still pertains: “What has happened to others cannot happen to us.” Why? “Because we’re English, that’s why.”

But the English are as human as the rest of us and cursed with the same flaws and fears that have driven disasters in so many other parts of the world. Having placed their trust in the array of shysters that now infests the Palace of Westminster, it may simply now be their turn, and Brexit their reckoning.

However it may be some small consolation for those who will suffer Brexit’s bitterest consequences that those who have led them to this juncture will not share in their suffering. Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Davis et al will remain ensconced in wealth and privilege no matter how deep the economic downturn, and those who can least afford to pay will bear the brunt. In the century since the lions were first led by the donkeys to the slaughter of the First World War the donkeys will finally be unequivocally in charge again. And God help us all when that happens.

 

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