Monday, December 30, 2013

What if Germany had won the Great War?

"What on earth made Stauffenberg and the rest of those behind the 1944 plot to kill Hitler think the Allies would be interested in a negotiated surrender?", asks Antony Beevor in his book about the Normandy invasion. It's a good question. The plotters were undoubtedly brave but astonishingly naive in that they imagined a postwar settlement that allowed the Anschluss to stand, the Sudetenland to remain part of Germany and Alsace-Lorraine to become a de-militarised zone. These enemies of the Third Reich only became so when they realised the criminal nature of the regime they served, not because they were opposed to imperialism. I was reminded of this when reading Martin Kettle's musings on what would have happened if Germany had won the Great War. A lot of us who have an interest in history would agree with EP Thomson, quoted by Kettle in his article, that counter-factual speculation is "ahistorical shit" - but we do it anyway. Martin Kettle has imagined a rather benign future had the Second Reich been victorious:
"But one can say that a victorious Germany, imposing peace on the defeated allies at the treaty of Potsdam, would not have had the reparations and grievances that were actually inflicted upon it by France at Versailles. As a consequence, the rise of Hitler would have been much less likely."
It is probably a lack of imagination on my part but whenever I ask myself these kinds of questions, more often than not I come to the conclusion that perhaps things wouldn't have turned out so differently. There's lots of possibilities raised by Kettle's argument which he doesn't address but two or three stand out:

1) It is implausible to suggest that a ruling class which had effectively worshipped military power since Bismarck would let its territorial ambitions rest at Alsace-Lorraine.

2) It is also naive to imagine that the internal stability of Germany would be secure, what with the combination of a vigorous labour movement, which Kettle alludes to, enduring under an elite with no interest in parliamentary democracy.

3) Had Germany been victorious, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk would have remained in place. Russia was to pay six billion German marks in reparations and surrender her interests in Eastern Europe. Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania would have become German vassals - something those who imagine East European expansion was Hitler's idea might like to remember. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were looking forward to a world-wide revolution that would eliminate these concerns but we already know that this did not materialise. Lenin would have died anyway and the more realistic Stalin would have looked for a way to regain what had been lost. Perhaps Russia would have defaulted on reparations and it would have been German troops that crossed the border into Russia instead of French troops into Germany. Or maybe something else but at the risk of striking a deterministic note, confrontation between Russia and Germany was nigh on inevitable, as would have been Germany's eventual defeat.

I might be misreading it but there's too much of Germany as a victim of Versailles in Kettle's piece.  Germans felt as if the treaty was a continuation of the war by economic means.  This had some justification but it doesn't do to imagine that it went beyond anything Germany would have done had the outcome of the Great War been different and no 'counter-factual' speculation is worth anything without acknowledging that the origins of German militaristic expansion pre-date 1918.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

For Norman Geras

I'm late - again.  Like so many who followed his blog and corresponded with him, I was not surprised, yet shocked nevertheless, to hear that Norman Geras had passed away after a long illness.  Having read a number of the touching tributes to him, I'm struck by how little I could say that is in anyway original.  Not that originality is what is required at such times.  Many have talked about his writing, what it meant to them, and what they did and didn't agree with.  I recognise much in what has been said but would want to stress the way in which I found, as many others obviously did, normblog to be an invitation to have a conversation, whether you agreed with him or not.  This could, and did, take the form of reciprocal posts across the blogosphere - which were then carried on to the email circuit.

That my experience was nothing unusual is testimony to how generous Norm was with his time towards his readers.  For my own part,  I have reason to be particularly appreciative since what disagreements we had were largely a consequence of my own belligerence.  This commitment to conversation was reflected in his work and regarding this there's a point worth stressing: "It's still out there", as Max Dunbar says, and what a substantial archive the weblog of Norman Geras actually is.  Until recently, it was updated most days - often more than once.  I can't think of any columnist who could have held my attention for so long.  I don't want to do the, 'I agreed with this, but not with this', too much but I will say that his writing on contemporary antisemitism was nearer the mark than just about anyone writing today.  But I love the fact that the last post by this man of letters was not about politics but books.

I have been reflecting on the question of whether and to what extent you know someone with whom you've communicated electronically but never met?  I came to the conclusion that you don't really know them at all.  One face-to-face meeting is worth a thousand emails, which is why when Norm asked me a few years back if I "ever came down this way", I regret that it was at a time when I was too confused and disorientated even to leave the house for too long.  Then, after the trouble had gone, so much time had elapsed that I was too embarrassed to take him up on the offer.  I didn't know Norm - but I wish I had and I miss him anyway.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Revolution and the cult of youth

Is the Secretary for Education Michael Gove leading a revolution in English education?  I don't live and work there so I can't be sure but from what one can gather, the answer might be yes.  Some acquaintances of mine who I like and respect think this is a good thing.  I'm not so sure and can think of at least two reasons why they might want to be careful of what they wish for:

a) Monotheism has the theodicy problem and in the same way all political dispositions have fundamental questions that they find difficult to answer. I've always thought for conservatism it is this: "What do you do if your enemies come to power?"  In the Occident, the answer seems to have been neo-conservatism.  This is the political stream in which Michael Gove and his ilk stand.  I have to say, I find it extraordinary that anyone can believe that someone who berates the recipients of aid from food banks for their lack of budgetary prudence is motivated in his education reforms by a concern for the poor.  Or maybe he is, but it's a kind of liberalism (because whatever Gove is, he certainly isn't a conservative) that pre-dates the 'New Liberalism' that could be found at the end of the 19th century.  This is another way of saying that revolutions can be from the right as well as the left - and from what one can gather, Gove's tenure as Education Secretary belongs firmly in the former category.

b) Revolutions are about the annihilation of the present order.  There's more than a whiff of this mentality evident in the following extraordinary story.  A young lady, only twenty-seven years old, was appointed as head of a primary school in Pimlico, London.  Free-school guru and professional loud-mouth Toby Young denounced critics of this appointment - in a revealing phrase - as 'dinosaurs'.  Because to expect a headteacher to have either experience or qualifications is so, like, 1970s.  Oh ye unions!  The zeitgeist has dispensed with your services.  Only unions could insist on such antediluvian credentials.  I'd like to think Mr Young would re-think his attitude in light of the news that the headteacher in question has abandoned her post after only a few months into the job.  But of course he won't.  People like that never learn - they 'move on' instead.

I'm left thinking - not for the first time - where are the proper conservatives?  That she didn't have a PGCE is an issue but a bigger one for me is she was only twenty-seven!  Once was a time when no-one would have disagreed that this is far too young.  I envy her in some ways.  I would have never imagined I could have ran anything, never mind a school, when I was that age and I doubt I could even run a department now.  The fault lies not with her but with those who appointed her.  It is characteristic of those who imagine they're in the vanguard of revolutionary change; if you are all about the destruction of the present, it is inevitable that you fetishise youth and the presumption and confidence that (sometimes) goes with it.  The problems only emerge when once you've killed off (figuratively in this case) all the old guard who know how to do stuff, you find you're left only with the zealous.  Then you find zeal is only a small part - and perhaps one that isn't even necessary - of what you need to do any job properly.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

On Appeasement

James Bloodworth rightly takes issue with those who would make the Cold War a simplistic 'goodies vs baddies' narrative.  His is not an argument of moral equivalence - merely a reminder that those he agrees were on the right side made some pretty unpleasant allies along the way.  For those of us of a certain political political background, most of the familiar cases are cited: Vietnam, the secret bombing of Indo-China, the Chilean coup and support for apartheid South Africa.  One could have added the support for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan and, of course, the Ba'athist regime in Iraq.

A couple of observations: he's right to say that conservatives could do with being reminded of it but I'd add that the left has never forgotten it.  While there's obviously nothing wrong with that in itself, perhaps it should be admitted that this has not always been for the right reasons?  As the history of the Soviet Union unfolded, it became increasingly absurd to suggest that there was some kind of moral equivalence between the capitalist West and the Communist bloc with regards to how people living under these systems were treated. However, when it came to foreign policy, where the capitalist West was more explicitly allied with the enemies of freedom in various parts of the world, making the moral equation between the West and the USSR was not absurd.  It's perhaps controversial but I would suggest that this is why there remains on the left such a fixation with the politics of Latin America and particularly the Middle East.  I'm not making a moral point - just the suggestion that some of the self-styled 'anti-totalitarian' lefties may have unwittingly inherited a preoccupation from the 'Stalinists' they profess to abhor.  Witness the way anathemas are dispensed to those who fail to take the 'correct' view in relation to whatever regime is the latest to receive the 'Hitler of the Middle East' epithet.

One is reluctant to mention Appeasement because discussion of this in the MSM, never mind the blogosphere, is invariably infantile but James Bloodworth's plea for history not to be re-written needs to be taken a little further back because it touches on the ambivalence to dictatorship on the right that he mentions.  One of the aspects of the rise of Hitler that needs to be honestly confronted is that both the right and the left were initially divided.  Those who are fond of using their pulpits in national newspapers to accuse contemporary politicians of being Neville Chamberlain demonstrate that their interest in the period is limited to mining it for easy moral lessons.  You certainly don't get any sense of why they think the policy was ended.  Every school pupil knows that after the sacrifice of the Czech nation, it was understood by Chamberlain, Halifax and the rest that Hitler could not be trusted.  Less often noted in relation to the abandonment of Appeasement was that the Hitler-Stalin Pact had destroyed the argument - used more frequently than some on the right might care to remember - that as unpleasant as National Socialism was, it served as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

This is not to suggest that the international left was pristine in its opposition to fascism.  Apart from people like Lord Rothermore, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ended an ambivalence on much of the right towards fascism - but it marked the beginning of a similar attitude in some quarters of the left that did not end until 1941.  It is indeed right, as a number of historians have noted, that Communists were always and everywhere the most prominent among the resistance movements that grew up under the shadow of the swastika in occupied Europe - but it should be noted that this was only the case after Barbarossa.

But this ends as it has begun - a reiteration of Mr Bloodworth's central point: imagine yourself to have been on the right side in the historic struggle against totalitarianism if you will - but it is the talk of children to suggest this was managed without moral compromise, as it is to think there was noone who did not belong to your ideological stable who was on the same side.  Like Ralph Miliband - veteran of  Operation Overlord, opponent of Stalinism - for example.

With enemies like these...

Ever had a disagreement with someone and then remembered too late something you could have said that would have been a witty and winning line? One of the fun things about teaching is you get to go back and do it over and over again: a comment that seems sharp and spontaneous has actually been honed with practice. Medhi Hasan's 'smack down' of the Daily Mail on Question Time so obviously belongs in that category. It's this that makes the subsequent revelations about some of his - how to put it? - job-search history seem not merely embarrassing but positively bizarre. When he was rehearsing his lines for Question Time in his head, can he really have forgotten about this?
"Dear Mr Dacre, 
You might find it odd that the political editor of the News Statesman is asking you for a job. That's understandable but I've been comparing the long lists of people we don't like and I've found there's more of an overlap than you might think..."
People taking the piss is the least Mr Hasan can expect but although what he's done is pretty funny, it's annoying too because no doubt the Mail and its supporters will feel it undermines the - in my view, completely justified - outrage about their disgraceful piece on Ralph Miliband. First Alistair Campbell and now Medhi Hasan; they must be thinking, "With enemies like this, who needs friends?"  And people with better things to do with their time than to follow this in any detail will now be more inclined, if they're aware of it at all, to think that all papers and the hacks that write for them are just as nasty as each other.  Which can't possibly be true.  All the ones that agree with me about stuff are largely decent, honest and nice.  But just in case...

Maybe someone other than a journalist could have been invited onto the telly to criticise the conduct of journalists?  Like a politician, for example.  How about Nick Clegg?  All this has also had the unfortunate effect - or fortunate, depending on your point of view - of making him look good by comparison. He said what Medhi said but it was better for a couple of reasons:

a) The charge of hypocrisy doesn't - at least on this issue - stick, since he hasn't, as far as I know, ever asked the paper he's criticising for a goddamn job.

b) He has a better claim to tolerance credentials than Mr Hasan on account of the fact that he doesn't - again, as far as I know - go around describing people who don't share his world-view as 'cattle'.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cheap love

Our Prime Minister has announced his support for the institution of marriage - and he intends to put our money where his mouth is.  He draws on his own experience in the most touching way:
"I believe in marriage. Alongside the birth of my children, my wedding was the happiest day of my life. Since then, Samantha and I have been a team. Nothing I've done since - becoming a Member of Parliament, leader of my party or prime minister - would have been possible without her."
I'm not sure this counts as a selling point for most people, but we'll park that one for now. What annoys me about conservatives these days is that they aren't proper conservatives - and even when they're these neo-liberal types that deal in the economistic reduction of social issues masquerading as conservatives, they can't even do that properly.

 There is already a considerable financial incentive to marriage, once you've got over the cost of the wedding itself. Where you had two houses, you only need one - and you sit in a room with one TV when in the past you needed two - this room being warm at half the cost you experienced when you were single. Your council tax is only 25% more than it was before you got hitched, not double... 

I could go on, but you get the point. And then when you get divorced, the whole cost-saving joy of matrimony is thrown into reverse. You're talking thousands of pounds here. You go from "I will love you until the mountains fall into the sea" to "must you breathe like that?" in a few short years. How to avoid this tragic waste of human suffering? Give them a couple of hundred quid of their own money back. For shame. Perhaps if you eliminated income tax altogether for married people and put all single people on an emergency tax band it might have some kind of impact on people's behaviour. Would this be desirable? Only to those who put too low a price on institutions that can't always be justified with such narrow utilitarian cosiderations.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A (short) reply to Simon Heffer

Simon 'born wearing a bad suit' Heffer has written a piece that follows a tiresome pattern in right-wing journalism.  He writes stuff that is deliberately objectionable.  People object.  He and his fans complain that this is 'political correctness gone mad' and he can't say what he thinks is true whilst simultaneously ignoring the fact that said right-wing blowhard actually makes a living from saying what he thinks is true.  So far, so predictable.  I think it's a little sad that Nationalists imagine that his latest in the Daily Shriek, which favours Scottish independence for all the wrong prejudicial reasons, is anything unusual.  He would spew the same kind of bile if he was talking about single-mothers, immigrants, welfare claimants or anyone else his readers don't like, which would be most people.

It is, therefore, a waste of human energy to engage with what he's written in the itemised fashion you find here.  I'm surprised that no Nationalist has made what I would have thought was the obvious riposte to this nonsense...
"In a true democracy we, too, would be allowed our say, with a vote of our own next September, since there are two of us in this particular marriage."
...which would be this: we need not ask Simon Heffer and his ilk what they think about Scottish independence because while I would agree it would affect them, they don't have, and shouldn't have, any say in the matter. As is the case with the very analogy he uses. Can he really think a divorce can only be granted if both parties agree?  I think he's just being deliberately silly.  It is, after all, what he gets paid for.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Against pro-war moralism

I had a number of possible titles for this post but this one will do because it gets to the crux.  Another had to do with 'the shadow of Iraq', which is an essential prelude.  Did the participation of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the invasion of Iraq 'raise the bar', as someone put it, to subsequent British military engagement overseas?  Yes, of course.  Is it right that this should be the case?  I would say so.  The late Christopher Hitchens, on being asked whether he still stood by his fulsome support for the US-UK led invasion of Iraq in 2003 said that it would be 'abnormally unreflective' not to have considered the possibility that this had been a terrible mistake.  He went on to say that despite everything, he hadn't changed his mind but acknowledged in subsequent articles - found in Slate and elsewhere - that the 'near criminal lack of post-war planning' was among the factors that had led to the outcome of regime-change in Iraq not being quite as benign as predicted.

I'd probably go further than that myself but I don't want this to turn into some tiresome mea culpa.  Instead, let's go with the 'right idea, poorly-planned' theme, which I think would probably be the bare minimum of self-criticism that any reasonable person would expect.  It's another way of saying those of us who supported the invasion of Iraq just weren't practical enough.  Long on moral outrage and zeal to overthrow tyranny but short on the practicalities of what would happen after the regime had been 'decapitated'.  The laissez-faire 'shit happens' attitude looked murderously incompetent when, for example, the occupying forces took the lunatic step of dissolving the army.  Lots of angry unemployed youths with guns; what could possibly go wrong?

Ten years on with the situation in Syria you shouldn't ask: what has been learned?  Because the melancholy truth is, absolutely nothing.  What do Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, John Pilger and George Galloway have in common?  At least two things: all of them identify themselves as being the true standard bearers of the left and none of them are the least bit interested in questions of military capability or strategy.  With Pilger and Galloway, their disinterest has its origins in the conviction that it doesn't matter because it shouldn't be done under any circumstances.  Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch have no such excuse.  Both of them have an obligation to spell out what practical steps they would support that would effect the sort of change they want to see in Syria that would avoid the bloodshed we've witnessed in postwar Iraq.  I haven't read what Aarononvitch has to say but I did see this from Nick Cohen.  I have to say that I'm more than a little shocked at the ahistorical vitriol on display here; so much so, I don't care to engage with the detail.  Denouncing those who decline to support an ill-defined and inchoate militarily action as morally disgraceful is in itself morally disgraceful.  It's a good line but it isn't what I really think.  I just think it's stupid.

Instead, they would do better to try and persuade people why they think Western military intervention would do any good.  Waving pictures of dead Syrian babies is all very well but why does anyone think the exemplary displays of military violence being suggested will offer any help to the Syrian people?  If you want to make war, do it properly.  'No boots on the ground' indeed!  You need proper air-cover and the real threat of foot-soldiers.  I read somewhere that Iran has 50,000 proxy fighters either in Syria already or ready to go.  If you're prepared to match this with overwhelming force - perhaps a quarter of a million would do - then put it to your legislatures.  If not, prepare to repeat the mistakes of Iraq.  And spare us your moralising.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Beef-eating surrender monkeys

With the prospect of the touted 'pin-prick' strikes morphing into another regime-change, some of the usual suspects have fallen into their conventional positions - while some have adopted stances that are a little different from what one had become accustomed to expect.  As with previous conflicts, the moralising ad hominem rhetoric doesn't justify head-space, never mind a response.  Rather, I was hoping (in vain, no doubt) that regardless of what position anyone takes on this - people might agree that the historical analogies being mobilised (from the Second World War, of course) in the debate are as helpful as ever.  Which is to say, not at all.

It relates to the 'special relationship'. We're told that there has been irreparable damage done to it on account of the Parliamentary refusal to sanction military action. Our prestige in the world is diminished and our trade imperiled.  We should all hang our heads in shame?  No.  This from the Washington Post illustrates the point.  I imagine Cameron, Osborne and Gove nodding in agreement to it:
"But Britons of another stripe awoke in a daze. How had the Churchillian spirit of a nation suddenly turned into a Chamberlain moment, appeasing a tyrant? At great risk, they argued, was Britain’s outsize role in the world, a role it has earned since World War II by playing global deputy to America’s sheriff."
Paddy Pantsdown Ashdown was another who mentioned Chamberlain - in an interview that left one feeling a little queasy.  With anyone who's mentioned Appeasement, I've yet to hear an interviewer make the obvious historical point.  'Global deputy to America's sheriff?' The flaming cheek of it!  The United States was a little late to that particular shooting match, if one recalls  - and only joined it after being attacked herself.  Yet to listen to some Tory MPs and the usual 'being on the right is the new left' pundits, we're all supposed to commit suicide or something because we're not on the starting block with the US army?  You don't have to be Max Hastings to find this 'special relationship' obsequiousness a little nauseating.  The piece was entitled 'soul-searching stirs Britain'.  You search your soul if you want to.  I'll carry on looking for people who trade in something other than personal insults and stupid historical analogies.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A small example of Twitter tyranny

Edinburgh teacher Clare Kelly was bitching about her job one day.  While I've never been known to do this myself, I have heard rumours that this is not as uncommon as one might suppose.  The only problem with Ms Kelly was she chose to do this on Twitter.  Her tweets were picked up by a rapper who calls himself 'Professor Green'. He has strong opinions on 'why schools are failing'.  While this obviously doesn't distinguish him from anyone else with an internet connection, the problem for Ms Kelly was that as well as the usual pub-bore views, he also has by virtue of his status as a 'hot property on the British urban music scene' nearly two million followers.  Cue unwanted publicity, the need to confess, the disciplinary action and the inevitable deletion of the offending Twitter account.

The case highlights a thing or three about modern British culture I absolutely hate:

1) The cult of celebrity.  Certainly the teacher in question was unwise to ventilate on social media but it is unlikely that it would have come to anyone's attention had it not been for the fact that some 'celeb' had retweeted it.  The subsequent commentary had to do with what form the public repentance of Ms Kelly should take, rather than asking what qualifies this tattooed 'urban artist' who was educated in Tottenham to comment on how someone working in Edinburgh is doing her job in a school he is completely unacquainted with.

2) To paraphrase Orwell, these days it is not enough to do your job, you must love it.  One would have thought the notion that there's even a correlation between enjoyment and being good at something is self-evidently absurd.  This relates to the previous point.  Dreadful though it may be, does the X-Factor not teach us something about this?  All these enthusiasts full of self-belief who just love to sing because they were born to sing.  It is their destiny.  Unfortunately many are also completely tone-deaf and suffer from a tragic lack of self-awareness.  

Contrast with Andre Agassi who confessed to taking crystal meth, not to enhance his sporting performance but because he was going through a personal meltdown.  I don't know why I remembered this story but I was struck by the way his loathing of what he did was driven by the way absolutely everything in his life - how long he slept, what he ate, how he moved - always related back to tennis.  Yet he was rather good at it, if memory serves.

The notion that it is not enough to do your job, that you have to be the very incarnation of it, is perhaps the inevitable consequence of a culture that finds the notion of duty, of playing a role, uncomfortable.  But in any event, we don't even know if Ms Kelly feels like this all the time or was merely having an off-day, which brings me to the final point:

3) Excepting the truly outrageous, scandalous or disgraceful - can we take it as a broad rule of thumb that making an off-hand remark on social meeja once shouldn't necessarily invite professional ruin?  Because otherwise, it's a rather precarious and intolerant world we're living in.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

On the Egyptian putsch

Following the ouster of Mohammed Morsi on Thursday there have been quite a few people who, without necessarily supporting the putsch, have helpfully pointed out that it takes more than 'mere elections' to make a democracy.  A list of features required to stop an elected politician dismantling democracy from within is often added to this uncontroversial observation, which include institutions that protect minority rights, an independent judiciary, a free media and so on.

There's nothing to disagree with there but in all the lists I've seen so far, there's a rather glaring omission: one characteristic of a country's government that hitherto has generally been considered essential for the proper functioning of anything that deserves the name 'democracy' is civilian control of the military.  That Egypt does not have this anymore is a point so obvious that one would not have thought it needed making, but apparently it does.  The constitution has been suspended, the elected president has been overthrown and put under arrest, as have the leadership of the party he represents.  Now some of those who have taken to the streets to protest about this have been shot dead.  It is naive in the extreme to claim that this does not constitute a coup simply because it was preceded by really big demonstrations.

The ambivalence that some are clearly feeling with regards to Morsi's ouster obviously has to do with hostility to the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is a feeling I share but if one rejects the claims of 'democratic uniqueness' being made for this coup d'etat, there does not seem to be any reason to think this one will not end up like all the rest.

The observation that military governments have a tendency to degenerate into oppression and violence is a point that has been well-made in various places but another which could do with more emphasis is that, even if one can overlook the illegal and violent way they come to power, military regimes rarely achieve what they set out to do.  Try telling them in Pakistan that military government brings about stability - and try telling people just about anywhere that it is likely to deal with their Islamist problem.  In the case of Egypt it is unlikely to do so, not least because of the nature of Morsi's departure.  Elections alone don't make a democracy - but on the other hand, it doesn't do to understate their importance.  After all, the final test of whether elected politicians have succeeded in dismantling democracy from within is if it becomes clear that future competitive elections are impossible.  Egypt may have ended up like this but I don't think it is reasonable to suggest that it was far enough down that road to justify this 'intervention'.

As it is, Muslim Brotherhood supporters have seen their elected president ejected at gunpoint after only a year in office and in the future it is going to be rather more difficult to persuade them that democratic participation rather than violence is the best way to pursue their interests.  I wish opponents of political Islamism who have made vaguely supportive noises about this coup would realise something very important has been lost, which was the prospect of a religious government collapsing under the weight of its own incompetence and being rejected at the ballot box by the people they claimed to represent.  Instead, what has happened seems likely only to preserve and strengthen the narrative that it is external enemies and not their own internal problems that are behind the failure of political Islamism.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

On the Syrian civil war

That civil wars, understood as those which take place within the borders of a single country, never remain like that for long is a point well made by the criminally under-read Peter Ryley.  With Syria, as with any number you care to mention, it's not so much a question of whether but rather which countries will intervene.  It goes without saying that another way that a civil war can never be considered solely a matter for the country hosting it is the inevitable displacement of refugees, which in the case of this one is of appalling proportions.

This civil war like others before it has brought insistent demands that one should take sides.  I decline to do so on the grounds that I am insufficiently familiar with the situation - but I would say that making the observation 'non-intervention has costs', while perfectly valid, is one that only those who are perhaps pacifists or the kind that see any Western military action on foreign soil as 'imperialist' need persuading of.  For those of us that are neither, who witnessed the incarnation of this in Rwanda and Bosnia, it is accepted but it is not enough in itself to convince that intervention in this case is the 'no-brainer' that some apparently think.

During the bloodiest years of post-Saddam Iraq, some of us were dismissive of those leftist factionalists who gave their support for the insurgency, seeming to have at its base the weird notion that the 'Al-Qaeda in Iraq' fundamentalist head-choppers bore some kind of resemblance to the French Resistance during the Second World War.  What those favouring intervention have conspicuously failed to do is to explain why this situation is so different?  We have Hezbollah on one side, and some extremely unsavoury Sunni fanatics on the other.  Quoting the appalling civilian casualties is all very well - what the pro-intervention side has failed to do is to persuade that arming the latter would do anything to reduce these.  Put plainly, one arms the side you want to win.  Even if we could assume such an action would not merely extend the duration of this conflict but hand the rebels a decisive advantage, is there any reason to think this would be desirable, that it would reduce the death toll in Syria?  There may well be one, in which case it would be nice of those calling for intervention could take a rest from being certain about everything and share it with us.

Monday, June 10, 2013

On the genealogy of conspiracy theories

"The conspiracy theory of society", Karl Popper said, "comes from not believing in God and then asking: what it in His place?"  I prefer a Manichean modification where God is replaced with the devil because at their heart conspiracy theories always and everywhere claim to have identified a malevolent force that is manipulating world events.

Like most people who are generally dismissive of the conspiracy theory of history, I am sceptical of the competence of human beings that said theories impute to them.  Simple arithmetic seems to rule it out: the bigger the conspiracy, the more people need to be involved, which by definition increases the probability that it will be discovered.  Or as Gore Vidal put it in relation to the JFK assassination (I paraphrase):  "I dare say there was a conspiracy - but on the other hand, how come the shooter on the grassy knoll hasn't appeared on Oprah yet?"

There's also the genealogy of conspiracy theories, which is decidedly sinister.  Again, like many I see the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as the prototype, having as it does most of the ingredients of those which have followed.  At its core it has the idea that a small, malevolent, clandestine cabal is controlling world events in such a manner that the human race is heading for slavery and catastrophe.  It emerged in Tsarist Russia, was picked up by the Nazis and, such is the depressing longevity of this piece of Jew-baiting, has re-appeared in recent years in the Middle East.

In this history there are reasons to be dismissive of conspiracy theories while at the same time acknowledging that lower-order misdeeds of subterfuge by secretive organisations are a factor in human affairs.  After all, it is part of the paradox of the historical trajectory of the 'Protocols' that they were a forgery distributed by the Tsarist secret police.  I was reminded of this while reading about the revelations in the Guardian from former NSA operative Edward Snowden  What struck me was the way in which the story is already being filtered through preconceived interpretations, which probably do not bode well for this young man.  The story seems significant to me but I'm getting the impression that already a majority of people from both sides of the political divide are shrugging their shoulders.  For the paranoid Chomskyite left, who already seem to imagine we're living in the equivalent of occupied Poland circa 1940, these revelations form part of an eye-rolling narrative that finds any dismay at governmental misdeeds so painfully naive.  There's no point in trying to reason people out of a position they did not arrive at though reason in the first place - but there's a fair bit of that on the other side as well.  Dan Hodges seems fairly representative of this "Oh you limp-wristed liberals just aren't up for the fight, are you?", strand, as far as one can tell at this early stage:
"On September 11, 2001, 3,000 innocent people were killed in the worst terrorist massacre in history. [...] Then Guantánamo was opened. And that was of course opposed."
Yeah, and here's why: without meaning any disrespect to the victims of this atrocity, during WWII the Blitz on British cities was the equivalent of a 9/11 very month for a year. I know it wasn't always respected but we got through this experience while generally holding to the principle that a captured enemy combatant would be incarcerated without being subjected to torture and only being obliged to surrender his name, rank and serial number. Surrendering this convention seems of no account to some, so what chance has the right to privacy have among those who would have found the qualms expressed by bleeding heart liberals like Winston Churchill and Baroness Thatcher over matters of liberty and law so painfully antiquarian?  This is why I feel so very sorry for Edward Snowden; I think he's about to fall into the chasm between his conception of liberty and that shared by the people whom he imagines he's defending.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013


Four out of five of the Wehrmacht troops killed during the Second World War perished on the Eastern Front in Hitler's 'war of annihilation'.  But the average losses per division on both sides in an equivalent period were to exceed that during the Normandy landings. Like most people, I admire bravery because I lack this quality myself.  I have no doubt that had I taken part in something like the Omaha invasion, I would be numbered with those who were quite useless, immobilised with fear.

Others showed extraordinary bravery.  In the British landing at Sword, which fortunately did not enter legend for all of the wrong reasons that the American landing at Omaha did, young French women risked their lives to help the wounded:

"Purely by chance, a student nurse who had left her bathing dress in a beach hut the day before had arrived on a bicycle to retrieve it.  She ignored the wolf whistles of the amazed squaddies and set to work bandaging wounds.  Her work lasted two days and during the course of it she met her future husband, a young English officer." - (from D-Day, Anthony Beevor.)   

Tomorrow, or by the time you read it, this day in 1944.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Knowledge vs skills

I don't want to say too much about the debate currently going on in England about education, partly because it doesn't apply to me and also because I'm increasingly of the view that one would be more likely to get a balanced and reasoned discussion if you were to raise some of the thornier issues relating to the Middle East, such is the apparent English disposition to identify enemies over this matter.  Just one narrow point, which has to do with the suggestion that history should be taught in chronological order.

This relates to the broader issue raised by the title of this post.  I can't see why anyone would think arranging the curriculum like this would be a good idea.  Gove likes to cite the support of various 'eminent historians', by which he means famous ones.  Some of them I like, others less so - but I'm wondering why their opinion is being sought in the first place?  What do any of them know about teaching history to children?  Why does David Starkey give his approval to a mode of teaching that would mean his pet subject would never be taught to senior pupils?  Do Beevor and Ferguson really think it is better to teach the causes of the Great War before those behind WWII to younger pupils for the sole reason they happened first?  Because surely no-one could disagree about which was more complicated?

It doesn't make any sense.  The distinction that is currently being made between 'skills' and 'knowledge' is entirely phoney, so I really wish people would stop this.  Putting historical events in their correct chronological order is, to use that word which causes traditionalists to recoil in horror, a skill.  It is not particularly difficult but nevertheless one that is impossible to manage unless you have knowledge, specifically knowledge about when stuff happened.  If there is evidence that students are unable to do this which has not been gathered from unrepresentative surveys from hotel chains, I would agree that this is a cause for concern - but I would take issue with the notion that it is any kind of remedy that they should have this done for them.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Berlin, 1945

On the 20th of April, 1945 the Red Army sent the Fuhrer a birthday present in the form of an artillery barrage, the tonnage of which equalled that dropped by the RAF and the USAAF combined.  The shelling did not stop until Berlin had fallen.  Ordinary Germans prayed that the Americans and the British would arrive first but this was not to be the case.  The Soviet Union sacrificed over 70 000 of her soldiers to be the first to reach the German capital.

It is well-known that the higher echelons of the Third Reich committed suicide in anticipation of the Red Army's invasion, less so that it formed part of a larger wave of suicides across the whole city.  Some were in despair over a world that had quite literally collapsed around them, but even more perhaps in anticipation of what was about to befall them.  This for good  reason, the conduct of the occupying army being as it was largely a disgrace.

But while it may defy the imagination, the regime that had been defeated was even more venal, vicious, brutal and bestial than Stalin's Russia - an unexampled tyranny in the history of the human race.  While the modern adherents to the 'totalitarian thesis' may not agree, this was the position taken by Britain and her allies, which is why without ignoring the darkness and depravity that was the Second World War, it is indeed right to acknowledge the 8th of May as a victory for civilisation over the forces of barbarism.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On Thatcher's funeral

I didn't find anything to disagree with what Norm wrote on the subject and in the same vein I have two thesis, for neither of which would I claim any originality:

1) My maternal grandfather, who was as old as the century, had in peacetime been an opponent of Winston Churchill, on account of the latter's penchant for using the army to break strikes.  But with the outbreak of war, he - like many other British socialists - backed Churchill in the war against the Axis powers.  If I tell you my grandfather was a miner, you'll understand the point I am making.  It's not original but I do think it is important to stress that this has nothing to do with assessments of legacy or the 'verdict of history' and everything to do with what we already know.  What we already know is that while Churchill was personally a Conservative, in wartime he led a National Coalition; in peacetime, Margaret Thatcher did not.  It is entirely inappropriate, therefore, for Her Majesty's armed forces - and for the Queen herself - to be so closely-associated with such a partisan political figure.  Elizabeth did not attend the funerals of any other of the peacetime Prime Ministers and she should not be attending this one either.

2) There are ways of expressing one's disapproval of this, and her legacy more generally, but staging protests at a funeral should not be something anyone with any sense of decorum should even consider.  While it could conceivably be argued that there exists a right to do so - to imagine this is also a duty would be a perversion.  Are there people planning such events and if so, do they really want to become some kind of secular left version of the Westboro Baptist Church?  One would hope not.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Thatcher's unintended legacy

Around the time of the miners' strike, I was convinced Thatcher was a fascist and Britain was turning into a police state.  It was about the time that I was thought that sitting in Kelvingrove park listening to bands whilst smoking hand-rolled cigarettes was going to help rid the world of nuclear weapons.  I trust I take a rather more grown-up view of these matters now.  Whilst I'm still not a fan, in keeping with the convention that one shouldn't speak ill of the dead, I'll restrict myself to a couple of the consequences of Thatcher's term in office that were unintended and which she herself wouldn't have welcomed.

One is that Scotland is now a graveyard for the Conservative and Unionist Party.  The last winter I spent in Edinburgh was the Winter of Discontent.  In the run-up to the 1979 election, our house was the only one in the street that had a Labour poster in the window, whereas those supporting the Conservatives were more ubiquitous than younger readers would imagine possible.  Then when we moved West, Glasgow still had a Conservative Member of Parliament, something inconceivable today.

You want a rational debate about Thatcher's legacy in Scotland?  You'd have a better chance having a cordial conversation about the Israel-Palestine question, such is the strength of collective loathing there is for Thatcher and her legacy north of the border.  As Torquil Crichton points out, some of this has fallen out of history and has entered the realm of myth.  It was the Scottish Conservatives themselves who pressed for the early introduction of the poll tax, wrongly believing it would be more popular than the rates system.  And some of the most dramatic episodes of de-industrialisation like the closure of Ravenscraig happened after she fell from power.

Nevertheless, while she was in power, places like Ayrshire and Lanarkshire became post-industrial wastelands.  Without discussing whether and to what extent any of this was inevitable I think it would be fair to say that at the very least the British Conservative Party did too little to avoid the impression that they were at best indifferent to the fate of families and entire communities who had been ruined by the demise of those traditional industries that had dominated the central belt of Scotland.  This is why were are where we are: as noted in the piece linked above, Scotland is further down the road to self-determination than it would have otherwise been without Margaret Thatcher - and if the nationalists win in 2014, I trust the more historically literate among them will acknowledge their debt to the Iron Lady.

The other point is related to this: the British Conservative Party is now a regional party that cannot command support across the British Isles and I am wondering whether Thatcher might not be remembered as the Prime Minister who oversaw the demise of the Tories as an election-winning force in British politics.  It seems counter-intuitive, given that her election in 1979 was the beginning of 18 years of Tory rule.  But since then?  It's easy to forget that the Conservatives, Western Europe's most efficient election-winning machine in the 20th century, have not won a Parliamentary majority for over 20 years.  It has been suggested that it was her injection of ideology into the famously pragmatic party that is responsible for this.  Thatcher was supposed to have swooped into a meeting of the Cabinet, dropped Freddie Hayek's the Constitution of Liberty on the table and announced, "This is what we believe!", to a bemused audience who were rather unaccustomed to the idea that they were supposed to believe anything in particular.

Now we have a generation of politicians who have bought into this.  The public sector always 'crowds out', unions are always the enemies of progress, and the way to efficiency is to give the rich more and the poor less.   But the difficulty for the Conservatives is that this kind of thinking is no longer confined to the Tories because if it was, they would not be in coalition today.  Perhaps the legacy that Thatcher has left the Conservatives is to be a victim of her success?


Wednesday, March 06, 2013

People losing their damn minds #29

From the Hootsmon:
"Excessive hierarchy must become a thing of the past. Upward communication must be encouraged and constructive criticism should be positively received."
The remedy for this is, apparently, to give those at the top of the hierarchy more power:
"Headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous organisations..."
Kier Bloomer being desperately stupid in a way that only intelligent people can be. I'll make this my last post on education for some time because this stuff makes me so depressed I can't stand it.

Monday, March 04, 2013

On teaching history

Historians attack Gove.  Oh, hang on - they back Gove.  Actually they seem a little divided on Gove's plan to eliminate the Victorians as a topic by recreating it in 21st century English classrooms.  There's even one veteran journalist who embodies this split - finding something a bit Soviet about all this centralism one day and deciding it's a good thing after all the next.  

There has been some rather predictable commentary about the political disposition of Gove's friends and critics - and pretty much all of it, I think, misses a couple of important points.  One is that it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to ask: what do any of these people - regardless of their political leanings - actually know about teaching children history?  From the names I'm familiar with on the list, I can't identify a single one who has had any experience of this.

Leading from this is the other question: why then are their opinions being sought?  Anyone who answers, "Because they are 'leading historians'", needs to ask themselves on what planet is David Starkey a 'leading historian'?  The answer is, of course, on planet television - and if that doesn't give people pause for thought, it really should.  Those conservatives who are fond of denouncing a degraded culture might want to ask themselves what kind of culture this is that they are implicitly supporting?  It looks like one that lends rather more weight than can be considered healthy to what are, after all, basically just celebrity endorsements for a centrally-planned curriculum.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Education & partisan centralism

Via the power of Facebook, I came across this post arguing that there's something about Gove that makes otherwise sensible people lose their goddamn minds:
"What is it about Gove that bends even sensible minds out of joint; that drives intelligent people absolutely batty with rage?"
Well, there's some fairly obvious aesthetic reasons - and for my part there's a certain amount of hostility borne from the fact that Gove and his fans persist on labelling those of us who do this job and have the temerity to join trades unions as the enemies of progress, whereas government ministers and departments are entirely altruistic, motivated by a concern for the Common Weal. (People who believe that are capable of believing anything - but that doesn't mean it isn't annoying.)  But beyond that, it's difficult to say. The feeling of extreme hostility isn't one I share, and neither do most of my colleagues. We're watching with interest what is happening south of the border. Some of what Gove proposes is entirely uncontroversial from a Scottish perspective, such as having a single exam board and a core set of subjects. Most of us have at least some sympathy for the idea that it is the purpose of the teacher to impart knowledge, rather than this emphasis on skills.

However, other aspects - if they've been reported accurately, and I appreciate this is a big 'if' - strike one as antediluvian and absurd, like the idea that primary children should be learning ancient Greek or force-fed Dickens. As for this notion that 'faith schools' produce better results? I often think there's very few arguments about education that couldn't be settled by a visit to the east end of Glasgow by some of these people who bring to their keyboards a wealth of opinion combined with a poverty of experience.

But my plea is this: if I wanted to learn more about what is going on in the education system in England, where should I look? Because I am clearly wasting my time reading the sort of posts and articles that I come across on a daily basis. Take the one above. I dare say anti-Gove comment isn't entirely rational but that coming from his supporters strikes me as being the flip-side of a coin that has very little acquaintance with what's actually going on in education in England. Or if it does, they're keeping it a secret. Gove is 'getting things done', we're told - without any analysis of what, exactly, he's doing, or why the author thinks this is a good idea. Without immersing myself in the details, the obvious characteristic of Gove's tenure as Education Secretary is what I've decided to call 'partisan centralism'. Would anyone argue with this description? It's certainly partisan, as his recent comments show - and it's centralised nature can be clearly seen in the way Gove and others have an opinion, and give direction, about every aspect of education: the content of the curriculum - subject by subject, what pupils wear, how teachers arrange the furniture in their rooms, the method by which those of primary age learn to read and so on.

Rather, the question is, why does anyone think this is a good way of running anything? The author of the post above dismisses as absurd the notion that there's something 'Bolshevik' about this - but it strikes the outside observer as a tad Soviet. Try a thought experiment: let's assume Gove is absolutely right about everything. (Bear with me...) In trying to implement a series of education reforms that were the very incarnation of this rightness, one is sure to encounter problems in the execution, given the scale and complexity of the project undertaken. To overcome these, one might want to seek the advice of those acquainted with these predictable difficulties. Now who among these is Gove or anyone at the Department of Education inclined to listen to? Teachers, civil servants, local government? Already dismissed as irrelevant - but here's where everyone, critics and fans, are missing the crucial point: irrelevant because all that matters now is the survival of these reforms as a political project, such is the nature of partisan centralism.  It is for this reason I'll predict that in ten or twenty years from now, you'll get the same complaints about education going to hell on a hand-cart.

Update: Gove making my point for me more perfectly than I could have imagined.  'Gove is getting things done', except by adopting the 'let's lose friends and alienate absolutely everyone we might depend on to implement our favoured reforms to prove how macho we are', it turns out that in fact he isn't getting things done at all.  The irony is the idea of having a core curriculum is a good one, IMHO.  Shame about the belligerent ideologues who have been 'tasked' with its implementation.

Saturday, February 02, 2013


On June 22nd, 1941 Germany launched the largest land invasion in the history of warfare.  Around three million Wehrmacht troops, along with a further million from the other Axis powers, crossed the border into the Soviet Union.  Few invading armies in history have enjoyed the advantages they did.  Stalin initially refused to believe it was happening - then once the reality was unavoidable he acted, according to the contemporary sources, like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights.  Among the consequences of this initial inaction was the destruction of large swathes of the Soviet air force before they had even got off the ground.

Anthony Beevor's description of the initial stages of the campaign has an eerie quality to it - the way the soldiers of the invading army oscillated between euphoria and fear.  The Wehrmacht had made astonishing territorial gains, yet the landscape seemed limitless like the ocean.  They had killed two million Red army soldier in the first few months of Barbarossa yet still they came.  And they came with a ferocity that the Germans were not quite prepared for.  Two things struck the invaders: the indifference the Soviet commanders showed to casualties among their own forces and the extent to which the Red Army soldiers were prepared to fight long past the point at which the Americans or the British would have surrendered.  One should not imagine this was solely on account of the brutality of the Soviet military command, although this was undoubtedly a factor.  Greater was the urge to defend the Motherland along with expectation of the likely outcome  in the event of surrender.  The latter was entirely rational: over five and a half million Russians were taken prisoner of war in the Second World War; only two million of them survived this experience.

'Barbarossa relauched' centred around the city of Stalingrad.  Hitler became obsessed with its downfall, having convinced himself it was key to his Eastern campaign.  It would give him access to the oil-fields in the Caucuses and the downfall of the city that had taken its name from the Russian dictator would deal the forces of Bolshevism a psychological blow from which they would be unable to recover.

As it turned out, in its hubris it was the ambition of the Third Reich that never recovered from their defeat at Stalingrad.  In just about every detail of the campaign, the grotesque vainglory of the Nazi regime was exposed.  Troops lacked the necessary winter kit they needed for the cruel Russian winter because it was assumed that it would be over before any such thing was required.  On hearing that the Russians were out-matching the Germans in the production of tanks, Hitler banged his fists on the table in disbelief.  The 6th army could have broken out of their encirclement in Operation Uranus had it not been for Hitler's insistence that they hold their position whatever the cost.  Goering had claimed the Luftwaffe could air-drop the necessary provisions but in reality the troops were now receiving a third of the rations they required.

By January, half-starved, having already killed all the horses, the 6th army was at the point of surrender.  It would almost be possible to feel sorry for them - had it not been for the fact that they had unleashed barbarism across an entire continent.  

Hitler rejected Paulus's request to capitulate, believing that as a matter of honour the commander of the 6th army  should die fighting or take his own life, since no German Field Marshall had ever been taken prisoner.  Instead he surrendered and the German 6th army was formally defeated on the 2nd of February,  1943.  

Stalingrad was won at enormous human cost and was witness to acts of unbelievable barbarity but also to extraordinary feats of endurance and bravery.  One can only hope those proponents of a peculiarly vulgar species of the totalitarian thesis do not really mean what they say when they claim there was nothing to choose between Stalinism and National Socialism; in order to be consistent, they would have to say plainly that the outcome of this battle was of little consequence in world history.  For the rest of us it was on this day seventy years ago that marks the beginning of the end of the most brutal and degraded regime in human history.  The duty the living owe to the fallen is to remember them.

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