Towards a new Ireland: reflections on The Treaty, by Colin Murphy, and Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin

Summary: Unity in diversity requires accommodation not triumphalism

Towards the end of Colin Murphy’s gripping play, The Treaty, there is a scene in which Griffith and Collins present to the Irish cabinet the text securing partial independence that they have managed to negotiate. The minister of defence, Cathal Brugha, berates them brutally for the compromises they have been forced to accept and for failing to meet every detail of his impossible ideal of an Irish republic. As far as Brugha is concerned Griffith and Collins are traitors bought off by the British.

As discussions regarding the constitutional arrangements for a new Ireland are developed over the next few years this scene will be played out again and again across Ireland in households and communities, on social media and in elected forums. The heirs of Cathal Brugha, the self-appointed guardians of sacred flame of Irish republicanism, will denounce all those who propose any sort of accommodation with unionism as a means to secure Irish unity. Indeed, it’s happening already.

I recently commented on social media that, much as I like the Irish tricolour, a new Ireland might need a new flag. And, really, the only folk who should maybe be singing the Soldier’s Song these days are the national Defence Forces.

That was met with not inconsiderable fury from some folk. John Hume may have taught us that you can’t eat a flag, but Twitter teaches us that flag-shaggers are not just Brexity gammons. There are plenty in Ireland too whose communion with the patriot dead allows for no iota of compromise with their ideals of an Irish republic.

The questions of the compromises needed to obtain peace and unity led me to reread Playing the Enemy, John Carlin’s superb account of the end of apartheid. Many will be familiar with part of the story: the book, particularly its final third, provided the basis of the Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus.

Carlin’s outstanding book is much more detailed in its account of how the peaceful transition of power was achieved. It starts well before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. There, he had decided not just to endure, but to continue to struggle. And part of this struggle involved understanding his captors. Starting first with his jailers, then with the increasingly senior officials and ministers who came to negotiate with him, then with the far Right who he engaged with to stave off the risk of civil war, Mandela sought to build trust and demonstrate to them that they had nothing to fear from a democratic future in South Africa.

Part of this process involved understanding the power of symbols. He learned Afrikaans so that he could show his oppressors respect as human beings by speaking to them in their own language. He came to appreciate the importance of rugby to the Afrikaners and the passion they felt for their anthem and the green and gold Springbok jersey.

As negotiations progressed he made sure that these symbols, which for decades had represented oppression to the black majority of the population, were retained in the new South Africa. In the course of the 1995 rugby world cup he led his whole country to embrace and share them.

Mandela understood that peace in South Africa depended not on victory for one side over another but through accommodation of all. It was his country’s incredible good fortune that they had in Mandela a person with the moral and the intellectual grandeur necessary to lead his people away from more retributive ideals to a place to where they came to share his vision of unity in diversity.

Ireland does not have a Mandela. So, achieving a new Ireland will depend on much more contentious leaders, and other ordinary people making accommodations with each other and with unpalatable symbols of the past to create a new rainbow nation in the Northern hemisphere.

It is an achievable goal. But it is something that will be threatened not just by the Protestant Supremacists of the North. It will also be put in jeopardy by the absolutist heirs of Cathal Brugha, the hard-faced men and women unreconciled to the variety of the Irish nation, and disgusted by any mention of compromises that may be necessary to achieve a unity of this diversity.

Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro

Summary: some Johnsons know how to wield power

Master of the Senate is the third volume of Robert Carol’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. Like the previous volumes, it is something of a history of his times as well as being a biography of Johnson.

So, Johnson is absent for large chunks of this biography as it introduces us to crusading economist Leland Olds, Hubert Humphrey, doyen of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Richard Russell, the leader of the Senate’s virulently racist Southern caucus, and, of course, Martin King.

Among other things this book is a study in power. It is fascinating to learn how Johnson transformed the hitherto irrelevant role of Senate majority leader into an office of incredible power.

There was little personally attractive about Lyndon Johnson. He was a bully, a serial adulterer, and a racist. But he understood power and he wanted to be president. So to obtain a viable presidential candidacy, Johnson destroyed Olds to keep his financial backers in the oil industry happy, and cosied up to Russell and his determined efforts to maintain state sanctioned terrorism against the black citizens of the United States across the South.

Caro observes in the course of this book, as he has in previous volumes, that Johnson’s life is composed of light and dark threads. However where Johnson’s instinct for compassion conflicted with his personal advancement, then his selfish interests won out.

But, in 1956 as he made his first attempt at the Democratic nomination, Johnson discovered that the support of corrupt oil interests and racist bigots was not enough. He needed support in the North as well. And Johnson revolted Liberal Democrats. So he had to do something to appeal to them. This led him to championing what became the 1957 Civil Rights Act, after first gutting it of all the substantive portions that Russell and his ghouls objected to. The negotiations and manoeuvring towards even this modest achievement provide a gripping climax to this volume, as compelling as anything in The West Wing or The Wire.

Caro argues that ultimately Johnson was by far the most important civil rights president since Lincoln. It is a remarkable aspect of his story how such an extraordinary narcissist was led towards this end from a beginning of overweening and selfish hunger for power.

William Wilberforce, by William Hague

Summary: an exceptionally fine and engrossing biography of a great humanitarian

In the sublimely brilliant film, The Ladykillers, the exquisite Katie Johnson’s character is called Mrs Wilberforce. In giving her that name the producers wanted to signal immediately to the audience that this little old lady represented the epitome of English decency and moral courage.

Her character’s namesake, William, is a rarity in British history: a hero who is celebrated not for their participation in conflict or colonialism, but for their role in a humanitarian campaign – the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the worst crimes against humanity in history. Over the centuries the slave-trading European powers stoked wars in Africa and trafficked over 10 million human beings into brutal enslavement in the Americas, killing millions more along the way.

William Hague’s biography of this key parliamentary figure in the struggle against the slave trade is a richly detailed and elegantly written account of the man’s life. Along the way he makes some fascinating excursions into the wider history of the time, including 18th century parliamentary machinations, evangelical religious revivalism, and the dubious electoral politics of that era.

Hague is generous in his assessment of Thomas Clarkson, the towering anti-slavery campaigner, without whom Wilberforce’s parliamentary efforts would have come to nothing. Of course, Hague argues, without Wilberforce Clarkson’s campaigning would also likely have been fruitless. Instead he asserts the critical complementarity that these two brought as the cutting edge of a national movement brought into being by, more than anyone else, the Quakers.

Similar to Jenkin’s biography of Churchill, this book is enriched by Hague’s understanding of parliament and government gained over the course of his own senior political career. It is an exceptionally fine work of history and reminds the reader why the name Wilberforce remains such a resonant one.

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 sunlit uplands in historical context

Summary: It’s going to get worse.

In 1974 the first power sharing government in the North of Ireland collapsed as a result of a coup d’etat against it by loyalist paramilitaries who had taken control of public utilities, including electricity. On the eve of its resignation, John Hume, a minister at the time, mused that the executive should refuse to surrender. “I’ll sit here,” he said in his government 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.

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.

“Embracing Brexit”, and other nonsense from UK Labour’s leadership

Summary: The UK Labour Party should look to the moral courage of Hume and Mallon to effectively oppose Johnson’s debased government

At the start of the play King Lear, the villainous Edmund contemplates how he plans to ruin the life of his decent brother Edgar. It won’t be too hard, he reckons, because Edgar is a “brother noble, whose nature is so far from doing harms that he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty my practices ride easy.” In other words, Edgar is so innocent he will never be able to believe that someone could be so shameless with the shenanigans that Edmund plans to unleash in his bid for power.  

This line struck me again after seeing a report of Ed Miliband of all people, following in the footsteps of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, advising the British people to “embrace Brexit.” This wholesale purchase of Boris Johnson’s shameless Big Lie by the British Labour leadership must have Johnson rubbing his hands in glee. Just as the disaster of Brexit in terms of reduced revenues and collapsing businesses begins to become apparent, Labour, without Johnson even having to ask, has surrendered to him the most favourable political terrain upon which the next election could be fought. And just like that, like innocents, they blunder into his trap.

Few con-men in history can have been so gifted with luck as Johnson. His practices run easy on Labour’s foolish honesty. Starmer and his team may wish to be statesmen and stateswomen endeavouring to do what is best for their country. But what is needed from them first is that they be an opposition, because Johnson has no such patriotic inclination. Johnson remains only interested in Johnson. So Labour must bide their dreams of good government until they actually win an election over the exposed lies of Johnson’s cabal. But that is a possibility that is forever diminished by their acquiescence in Johnson’s most fundamental grift.

I did not grow up politically in the British Labour party. I grew up during the Troubles in the North of Ireland. I learned politics from John Hume and Seamus Mallon. They were men who had their disagreements and differences in approach. But there were more important things that united them and made them such a formidable political partnership.

One of these things was that they repudiated the Big Lie. They did not accept that a polity gerrymandered through the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system was worthy to be considered a democracy. They did not accept that violence could ever heal a divided society. They accepted neither the mealy-mouthed justifications of the British state nor of the Irish paramilitaries for the carnage they wrought. Over 30 brutal years they helped turn their commitments to those truths into a workable peace process, in the face of odds which to many seemed insurmountable. Too many English politicians now seem to take this peace so easily for granted that they dismiss the importance of its roots in Ireland’s and the UK’s common membership of the European Union.

People often made jokes about Hume’s “single transferrable speech”: the one he delivered year in, year out from Derry to Dublin to London to Washington and Brussels. In it he unfailingly demanded peace, power-sharing and respect for each other’s traditions and identities.

But whatever the jokers thought, Hume knew something important that he learned as a teacher. Repetition works. Eventually the basic facts – of French grammar, or Irish history, or the fundamental elements of a peace process – could with patience be drummed into even the most obdurate of brains.

Mallon spoke a similar truth. Sometimes observers would be amazed to see him telling constituents to keep their potential votes rather than pander to their prejudices, and be dishonest about his most deeply held principles.

Mallon showed a class of moral courage which is rare in general. It is even rarer in the current British Labour party which ties itself in knots in its efforts to pander to the perceived prejudices of the Tory voters in its former “Red Wall” seats. Unfortunately it seems they have come to believe that this demands they give Johnson a free pass on his most outrageous lie: that there are benefits to Brexit.

Labour’s leadership may be decent people, but their nature is such that they do not properly conceive of the harms that Johnson so casually wreaks upon them. History is happening to them, and they lack the steel of a Hume or a Mallon to bend its arc back towards justice. 

The Power of Geography: 10 maps that reveal the future of our world, by Tim Marshall

Summary: a further compelling lesson on geopolitics from Tim Marshall who highlights some of the challenges – and opportunities – that humanity will face in the coming decades

The Power of Geography is a follow up to Marshall’s magisterial introduction to geopolitics, Prisoners of Geography.

In this volume he focuses on some emerging issues, including how we as human beings will explore space. He also discerns potential for conflict arising in important parts of the world, such as the Sahel and Ethiopia. These places are often little understood to outsiders. But issues arising there are likely to have a huge bearing on the course of human events in the coming years as ancient national aspirations, global warming and competition for water forces political choices that will ripple out across the planet.

I regretted that Prisoners of Geography had no discussion of Britain and Ireland. This book does have a discussion of the UK, currently a leading contender for the title of most bizarrely deluded country in the world.

It has earned this unenviable accolade by deciding to make policy for itself with almost no discernible consideration of geography. Brexit, the fevered wet dream of a few disaster capitalists and frothing xenophobes, has now become the guiding principle of UK policy. Marshall pays little attention to the disastrous impact of this policy on Irish peace, which was built on the foundations of the UK’s and Ireland’s common European Union membership. But he does note how it has added impetus to the Scottish desire for independence. This consequence of Brexit would, Marshall observes, likely cause greater damage to the UK’s international standing than Brexit itself.

If that happens it would be a deserved fate. Over the past half decade the UK seems to have embraced a vision in which international rule of law should not apply to it. Hence its legal commitments are today hardly worth the paper they are written on. Such rogue states are not deserving of respect.

Of course, Marshall has a much broader perspective in this book than the repercussions of Brexit. His discussions also encompass Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain, Greece and even Australia. Each chapter is filled with fascinating historical and geographic detail and a clear perspective on their geopolitical implications. It is an outstanding companion to Prisoners of Geography and an essential book for anyone interested in current affairs and the issues that may confront us in the coming years.

Warriors: Life and death among the Somalis, by Gerald Hanley

Summary: An exquisite book about an unusual aspect of the Second World War in a part of the world that is still little known and understood

Warriors is Gerald Hanley’s account of his experiences during the Second World War when he was posted to Somalia as an officer with the King’s African Rifles. Somali friends have described it to me as the best book about Somalia written by a foreigner.

Hanley was not a typical British officer. An Irish Catholic from Liverpool, he was politically anti-colonialist, and so had an instinctive sympathy for those on the receiving end of the British Imperial project. He seems also to have had a particular fascination with Somalia and the Somalis. He appreciated their fierce individualism, and perhaps had some sense of kinship with them: the stories he tells, of their raiding, their magic and their poetry, has, for me, echoes of the Ulster cycle of legends from Iron Age Ireland.

Later Hanley led Somalis in battle in Burma. He remembered how the Somalis appreciated the Japanese there. They were a rarity: an enemy that the Somalis could go hand to hand with who would not run away. 

The troops of the King’s African Rifles were from many parts of Africa and many different cultures and communities. But they were united by the common usage of “army Swahili” as their medium of communication.

Hanley reflects at one point that this common language and the experience of common purpose and mutual dependence that war brought gave him a glimpse of a community that the British Empire could have been. But of course, he was also aware that the very moment he discerned this possibility it was already too late. Such a vision was already fatally undermined by the British Empire’s original sins of theft, racism and subjugation.

But it’s a reflection that I was reminded of this week when the Scottish elections delivered a decisive mandate for a new independence referendum. In response English politicians and commentators again made assertions that Britain is “better together”. But it is far too late for this hollow argument after half a decade of concerted campaigning and government intent on proving that the UK is a singularly English project in which the hopes and fears of subordinate nations simply don’t matter. English contempt for Irish peace, for the Scots, and indeed for the rest of Europe, apart from Putin’s Russia, is hardly any foundation for a community of equals.

So, fifty years after the first publication of Warriors, the UK looks as doomed as the British Empire. That’s also probably a good thing.