In these coming days…: a few tentative predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there will be blue passports.

Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert Caro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shall always overcome: speech to Rally For Our Rights, London, 12 Oct 2019

A couple of weeks ago I was back in Ireland visiting my family in the very place that Boris Johnson wants to reimpose a hard border.

It was a time for remembering and we remembered the dead: the dozens of people, British and Irish, who had died violently mere hundreds of metres from where we met.

There is peace now. It’s a peace that was forged by peaceful protest, by force of argument, by the spilling of sweat not blood. It’s a peace that has European foundations. Britain and Ireland’s common EU membership allowed different identities to be accommodated and old quarrels to be recast. From that new alliances and friendships have formed: before the 2016 referendum Ireland and Britain were the closest allies in the EU.

How things have changed. Now the uppity Irish are the bogey men and women of Brexit, disgracing ourselves in Brexiter eyes by our insistence that our peace is more important than their fantasies of reclaimed imperial glory.

But Boris Johnson and the imbecilic charlatans that form his government have forgotten something. They have forgotten that Britain is not just a land of Empire nostalgists and currency speculators. Like every country it may have a few racists and Blackshirts.

But Britain is also the land of the anti-slavery movement and the first trades unions. It is the land of the suffragettes and campaigns to make poverty history. In other words, this is a country filled with uppity citizens, people who believe in justice and fair play no matter what they are told by those who seek to profit from lies.

Following the corrupted referendum of 2016 the political leaderships of this country, Left and Right, wanted us to go quietly into the darkness. They wanted us to surrender to a far-Right clique the progress that had been made in peace, democracy, human rights, and environmental protections as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU. And they gave us comforting myths to help us on our way: garbage about a “jobs first” Brexit from the Left; nonsense about the Dunkirk spirit from the Right.

But we have not gone quietly. Instead a movement was born of ordinary people showing what Bobby Kennedy called numberless diverse acts of courage and belief and so reshaping the history of these times.

This movement is an expression of that collective sense of outrage that drove the anti-slavery movement and the suffragettes, and that drives still the demands for justice for Grenfell, the Windrush generation and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is the same sense of outrage that drives every struggle for social justice and human rights across the world.

Each of us here today is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to silently accept the stripping away of the rights of young people to live and study and work and love across Europe.

Each of us is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to silently allow the denial of the rights of our friends and neighbours to contribute to the flourishing of this society simply because they come from a different part of Europe.

Each of us is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to allow the peace forged at great effort in Ireland to be jeopardised through the racist blundering of the buffoons who currently occupy Downing Street: people who for all their crass talk of world wars have never seen the effect of a bullet or a bomb on a human body, or the devastation that a battle can inflict upon a community or a war upon a society.

The spirit of British decency is alive on these streets today. It has forced the political leadership of this country to accept that Brexit is not a done deal. We have shown them all, from Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn, something they should never have forgotten. That when citizens are outraged, united by our common humanity and repudiating the hatred and racism of the bigots around us, then no matter what injustice we may be confronted with, we will always overcome.

Cummings is not getting his Johnson out any time soon: on the decline of British democracy

Johnson

There’s a lot of things Boris Johnson doesn’t like: monogamy; consistency; telling the truth; Paddies… particularly smart Paddies; “picaninnies with watermelon smiles“. But since he became Prime Minister it has become clear that more than anything else Johnson detests scrutiny. Foghorn Leghorn is less chicken than Johnson faced with evidence of his lies, duplicities and stupidities.

Of course this would be fine in a totalitarian society. You know: one that does not have a parliamentary system like the one Johnson has just decided to shut down. There Johnson would make a passable Mussolini, or a Ceausescu at a pinch.

But it is a terrible problem in a society that is meant to be democratic: in such societies the executive are meant to be accountable to the citizenry through parliament, and citizens can only fulfil our responsibilities in the system if parliament is functioning and we know what is going on.

This is what Edmund Burke was getting at in 1787 during a parliamentary debate on opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons. Then he refered to the press as the “fourth estate, thereby alluding to the vital role they had in ensuring that the people of a nation knew what was afoot with their government.

Cummings

So one can at least see consistency when, in addition to shutting down parliament, Johnson and his minion Dominic Cummings establish a policy of refusing Channel 4 News and BBC Newsnight requests for interviews. Just like House of Commons select committees, these are the few remaining places in the UK where Johnson and his spectacularly dim ministers might get asked hard questions. Like: It’s just that you really don’t care if bloodshed returns to the British border in Ireland, isn’t it? Or: How many ruined lives would you deem as too many for a proper British Brexit?

You might think that voters have a right to know Johnson’s answers to such questions. But understand it from his point of view. Honest answers would make him look bad. And, as Eddie Mair showed, he really isn’t a good enough liar to blag his way when faced by a competent interviewer.

No! It’s better for Johnson if he just bunkers in and avoids the nasty hard questions that make him look like the callous eejit that he really is.

Johnson’s hero Churchill may have eschewed the safety of the bunker during crises, but there’s no reason why Johnson should. After all, its not like Herman Goering gave interviews to to the Manchester Guardian when he was also trying to trash British democracy.

Given this, it would probably not cut much ice with Johnson or Cummings to remind them of what that smart Paddy President Jack Kennedy once said:

“there is a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even though we never like it, and… even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.

Such ideals are not to be allowed in Johnson’s Airstrip One. Here “ignorance is strength”, and that is how the tinpot have always liked it.

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.

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.