Over the past few months we have become accustomed to Donald Trump using the tactic of making wild, often unsubstantiated accusations about his political opponents, the judiciary and the media. Such tactics are also familiar to us in the UK by the actions of a virulent corporate owned media.
Without doubt there have been times in the past when the Prime Minister of the day has joined in such activity, but political expediency, advisors or civil servants have eventually stepped in to provide wiser council. Now, however, it appears that Theresa May has decided (assuming it is a conscious activity) that this behaviour is the new norm, implying that everyone from the European Union to Parliamentarians to the Trade Unions and beyond are conspiring to undermine her and thereby subvert the nation.
Along with the accusations come demagogic attacks on her opponents, attempting to stain their character as a dangerous saboteur or unpatriotic. So what are the outcomes of such an approach? Importantly, in keeping with the neo-Conservative mantra of a strong (and stable!!) leader driving through dramatic, damaging and possibly irreversible change to the fabric of society she can present herself as some sort of modern day Boudicca figure, holding back the hoards of hostile forces.
Whether by design or an unconscious feeling of powerlessness in the face of an unimaginably complex Brexit strategy, May is recasting disagreement as deviance, opposition as disruption, debate as subversion. Although more complex in its manifestation (at least until now) the phenomenon of McCarthyism in 1950s America shares many of these characteristics, with the original UnAmerican Activiities becoming UnBritish Activities; likewise, Senator McCarthy’s Soviet Bloc is replaced in May’s world by the European Union. During the ’50s the main effect was to close down debate and usher in a climate of fear and suspicion of your neighbour. The effects were felt way beyond politics in art, science and culture.
The rules of a democratic open society is disagreement in a dialogic manner. May is trying to substitute new rules of Government by fiat and authoritarianism. The consequences are unpredictable, terrifying and the likely loss of treasured liberties
If there is one thing everyone knows about Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington it is that he won the 1815 Battle of Waterloo bringing the era of Napoleon to a close. Debates over whether his victory (albeit facilitated out by the Prussian General Blucher) was a benefit or a curse are fun but gain little. Good or bad are less relevant than the historical fact. But here are some other things less well known about Wellington.
From 1797 Wellesley served in India rising to the rank of Major-General. He returned to Britain in 1804 having amassed a fortune of £42,000 the time, consisting mainly of prize money from his campaign. Prize money was mainly a naval matter, but existed in the British and other armies as the proceeds of plunder especially when a town or city had been sacked. So in effect it was theft from the local population, but in reality Wellesley was only playing a part in the systematic ransacking of India during the less than glorious British Empire.
Move forward ro 1819 and Arthur Wellesley was Duke of Wellington, part of the Government led by Lord Liverpool. On August 19th a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn.
The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial. Wellington fully supported the brutal repression and consequently the incident became known as ‘Peterloo’ as a mocking play on his victory four years earlier. As a result he was despised in many places (especially Manchester!) being spat at and physically attacked on the streets.
He was unrelenting and when the first Great Reform Bill was presented to the House of Commons in 1831 Wellington and the Tories worked to prevent its passage. As a reprisal his residence at Apsley House was targeted by a mob of demonstrators on 27 April 1831 and again on 12 October, leaving his windows smashed. Iron shutters were installed (hence Iron Duke!) in June 1832 to prevent further damage. His attitude was unsustainable and being removed from office shortly after the Bill was passed in 1832 by Earl Grey’s administration.
There is, however, a somewhat ironic twist. One positive act which Wellington carried out was Cathiolic Empancipation in 1829, giving catholics full rights in Britain and Ireland. But as the establishment was (and still largely is) protestant in nature that too is less well publicised!
God save the queen
She ain’t no human being
And there’s no future
In England’s dreaming.
God Save The Queen – The Sex Pistols.
On Thursday evening I was reminded that sleep and dreaming has been a recurring theme when describing England, more specifically Southern England. The trigger was Republic Birmingham’s second poetry evening. This event contained a twist as it started with a debut standup comedy routine from Pete, a new member of our group. Sadly, due to traffic congestion I missed the first part but the ease with which he took the interruption of my late arrival completely in his stride belied his inexperience. A unique and valuable comedy talent in the making. Then on to the main event, Spike the Poet making a return visit to our evening. Once again he did not disappoint with an intelligent mix of humour, passion and biting comment on the farce of monarchy. Some wonderful anecdotes by way of background to a few of the poems reflected the depth and complexity of human relationships in the modern world. Find out more about Spike on his Facebook page.
My contribution was next and eschewing my beloved Shelley I read a poem (abridged for length) by Chartist Gerald Massey. My choice, Tradition and Progress, written in the mid 19th century, intertwines republicanism and anti-war protest with rage at the poverty experienced by many working people. You can read more about Massey in an earlier post.
So what about the dreaming? The last item was a prose reading by Alex Simpson. He chose the last paragraph of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia which recounts Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. In my Orwell readings I had not got around to this book so the tract was fresh and had impact. Having returned to England Orwell despairs of the complacency he perceives, concluding:
Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen–all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
From Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Orwell and the Sex Pistols are simply two of many, poet Philip Larkin a notable example, who have used sleep and dreaming imagery to describe the state of England. With a ramshackle constitution, increasing intolerance, and a seeming acceptance of ever more authoritarian inclined politicians talking of Empire 2.0 we are still sleeping and dreaming – and jeopardising our future!
Give a wrong time, stop a traffic line
Your future dream has sure been seen through.
Anarchy in the UK – The Sex Pistols
All right minded people were shocked by the events at Westminster last month (22nd March) where 6 people were killed. Despite the fact that for for much of the rest of that day only the bare facts were known, journalists and some politicians were willing to make extravagant assumption regarding the nature and motive of the attack. As more details emerged, however it became increasingly clear that terrorism was indeed the motive.
A few hours after the attack Prime Minister Theresa May appeared outside Number 10 to claim, as all leaders do, that the terrorists cannot win and nothing will change our way of life. She was not telling the truth and, moreover, I believe she was willfully lying. Here are my reasons for this assumption and the dangers such lies conceal.
Firstly, look at what Theresa May wants to achieve, namely a removal of Human Rights. Fear of terrorism plays into a public sense of insecurity, an environment in which they are more susceptible to having their rights infringed in the guise of enhanced safety. The Investigatory Powers Act (known informally as the Snooper’s Charter) was passed into law last November giving the Government as much power as any authoritarian state. The reason? Counter-terrorism. But the technology could be used for any purpose as leaks from the US CIA clearly illustrate.
In a previous blog I pointed to a strong tendancy of modern authoritarian programmes to isolationism, termed the Retreat to the Citadel. Fear of the ‘outsider’ feeds directly into this narrative which is already heightened by the acrimonious debates surrounding Brexit, fuellung resentment and hatred toward immigrants. As a consequence, if a British Bill of Rights ever does see the light of day it must be pored over for any dilution of overall citizen rights along with any attempt to remove the rights of minorities. Moreover we must not accept the removal of rights from people who are labelled as being ‘not like us’.
What about out in the real world? Just before Christmas it was reported that the City of London was planning on creating a ‘ring of steel’. Note that included in the plans were:
Manned checkpoints, rising street bollards and crash-proof barricades…
Manned checkpoints? To enter the City of London (note not Westminster, this is protecting the bankers)? Would £5m be spent on a dystopian series of emplacements defacing the city if it were not for the possibility of terrorism? Though just maybe terrorism is a convenient excuse, of course.
So let us see Theresa May’s words for what they are, empty platitudes. Let us be honest, society has been changed by terrorism and that has happened since the start of time. But the more long lasting and least tangible effect is what it is doing to our perception of ourselves as a society. The questions we ask ourselves are legitimate and profound, but we must not let politicians and the wealthy distort the answer for their own ends.
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again has been enthusiastically adopted in a British context by UKIP and deployed in a modified form by Conservatives. But why should we be wary of this seemingly uplifting phrase?
Calls for National Greatness are Nothing New
Last week I blogged about the origins of the autocratic libertarian ideology of Donald Trump and Theresa May. In many respects their political kinship reflects the Thatcher/Reagan consensus of the 1980s but in a much more dangerous form. In fact the phrase Make Britain Great Again has a long history, one which coincidentally involves Britain’s first female Prime Minister. It was used prominently by the Conservative Party in the 1950 General Election, notable for the first time Margaret Roberts stood for election as MP. They lost, though Roberts was to make her name famous as Margaret Thatcher.
Similarly, in the United States the idea that one person or family could ‘Make America Great Again’ long predates Trump. In fact neoconservatives such as David Brooks had been calling for it since the 1990s. Here is what he wrote in the Weekly Standard an outright neoconservative mouthpiece in 1997:
The national mission can be carried out only by individuals and families — not by collectives, as in socialism and communism. Instead, individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness.
It is important to note that Brooks also mistrusted democracy, believing that it would destroy a sense of grand ambition and noble purpose unless accompanied by an aggressive imperialist foreign policy. He disdained what he called a concern with ‘radical egalitarianism’ with its concern for compassion and caring. Surprisingly, it did not actually matter how this greatness was to be achieved, (provided that it was not advancement of the individual):
It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.
National Greatness at the Expense of Rights and Compassion
Whether consciously or not, Theresa May has adopted the assertion of Brooks that it does not matter what comprises the ‘great task’. This is what allows May, who opposed Brexit to enthusiastically embrace a Hard Brexit in pursuit of this shot at ‘greatness’. Likewise this great national crusade comes at the expense of private concerns, of the promotion of a caring and compassionate society or fuzzy, woolly things such as rights!
In his rise to power Donald Trump articulated the grievances of much of middle America and harnessed those grievances by successfully persuading voters that he alone understood the causes and so possessed the remedies. Meanwhile, in the UK a successful Brexit campaign has greatly strengthened the power of authoritarianism and promoted isolationist tendencies.
Messiahs and Avarice
Historically, a vital factor in the rise of demagogic leaders has been the ability to convince large numbers of people that they, and they alone, knew what was best for them. In some cases they presented a solution to an injustice or oppression which was not perceived by the mass of the people. On attaining power, the execution of a resulting ‘liberation’ plan has been the cause of some of the greatest human tragedies. The holocaust, the liquidation of the Russian Kulaks and the Chinese Cultural Revolution are but three of the best known examples.
This form of populism stems from two main sources. The first is a messianic attempt to extend liberty. A despot may genuinely believe that they are ‘freeing’ the people; that it is his or her unique destiny to enlighten them and lead the way out of oppression. If this is successful, enormous power is available to the despot to pursue that goal, eliminating dissenting ‘erroneous’ views along the way, while executing the ‘will of the people’. The great thinker Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 Two Concepts of Liberty stated it this way:
One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals -justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted goodman, there is a final solution.
The second source, which may be related to the first, is a naked attempt to grab status and wealth with no underlying ideological drive. It remains to be seen to which of the two Donald Trump actually conforms, but it is likely that viewing his governing team as a whole, all possibilities are represented.