Gullible Britain

For the five years since the EU referendum result, there has ben an ever-increasing drum-beat of good news emanating from Downing Street and its environs in the shape of interviews, press releases, statements to the House and articles in loyal publications from the Telegraph to the Spectator.  The invariable theme is how much better Britain is now doing—whether in trade opportunities, diplomatic standing, or generally “punching above our weight” as a country.

All this was achieved while fighting the Covid virus by rolling out a ‘world-beating” vaccine programme, at the same time the “levelling up” agenda blew great gaps in the “Red Wall” of Labour seats across Northern England. Such success was binding Scotland ever closer in the union, in contrast to Wales and Ulster, neither of whom were showing the least inclination towards leaving.

To Tory faithful—amd a goodly number who had never voted Tory before—this was soothing reassurance in difficult times. Brexit had bred much uncertainty, adding to the strain and constraints of life under lockdown. But Boris Johnson’s blonde mop top bounced with irrepressible vision of Churchillian sunlit uplands we would all inhabit.

Unfortunately, too many of these rosy projections—from “pandemic over by Christmas” to “oven-ready” solutions to social care turned out to be founded on groundless optimism. Only a weak parliamentary opposition allowed the UK government to posit a stream of spurious assertions to reassure business and punters alike through a pliant media.

This was exacerbated by a virtual blackout of any comparisons with abroad—either in dealing with Covid or sustaining the economy. The mantra was:

Brexit is finally letting Britain stand tall, without bureaucratic interference from Brussels. It would only be a matter of time before the UK regained its rightful leading place in the world, basking in the special relationship we always had with the USA.”

While visiting the UN in New York, Boris took credit for America easing 18 months of travel restrictions for Britons the country and asserted his government were clearly ahead in creating jobs and prosperity because “the OECD have projected that Britain now has the fastest GDP growth rate for this year in the G7”.

This correct but, like most Johnsonian pronouncements, misleading.

How so, if this is factually correct? Well, during the worst of the pandemic, government statements, via a pliant media, carried the story that the UK was dealing with Covid better than anyone. That Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and many other places suffered few cases and far fewer deaths, was under-reported. The UK did hear of Italy’s terrible outbreak at the start and how slow vaccine roll-out was in the EU. But when the EU performance overtook the UK, reporting went dark.

Now, in the run-up to COP-26, the focus has moved to economic recovery. To hear the UK government tell it, nobody is recovering better than Britain. Looking at OECD projections for this year only appears to validate this (Table 1).

Table 1—Relative ranking of G7 Countries by 2021 Growth

That might look conclusive. But haud oan jist a wee mnnit: isn’t this view rather narrow, taking in just one year? And where are China, Russia and India, not to mention a host of dynamic Asian tigers? Looking at full OECD stats might not change relative order, but it does put world ranking in perspective, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2—World Ranking of G7 Countries by 2021 Growth

Britain is doing fairly well in fifth place. China and Spain both have higher projected growth than the UK. But neither are G7 members. More importantly, this is just a one year snapshot; taken out of context. Looking back to the Brexit decision, when Britain started to plan its unimpeded future should show the growth potential beginning, Even with recession in economies caused by Covid, if Britain truly achieved a better response than elsewhere, this should show up as less of a ‘hit’ to UK prosperity. Comparisons over the five years to date should show how well economies had been managed through these difficult times. OECD data, ranged by change over that time are shown in Table 3.

Table 3—Ranking of G7 Countries by GDP Growth 2016-21

That paints a poorer picture of UK economic achievement by this present Conservative government. But it gets worse. Their insistence that Britain would prosper if freed from the shackles of the EU does not apply to parts of the UK. Indeed they are at pains to stress benefits to Scotland staying in a union with England and painted a picture of dire economic consequences, were it to leave. Scotland often compares itself to nearby countries of similar size enjoying close ties to Europe and comes to a much different conclusion. Who is right?.

Table 4 replaces other G7 members with such nearby countries, again ranking by GDP growth over the same five years as above in Table 3.

Table 4—Ranking of Nearby Small Countries with UK by GDP Growth 2016-21

Here, the UK clearly comes of worst of all, for three reasons:

  1. Sluggish growth for three years after the Brexit decision—UK economy was not at the races even before Covid hit.
  2. Larger-than-anyone-expected drop in UK GDP, due to poorer and more erratic manner of Covid lockdowns
  3. Rebound growth this year comparable to others, but due to having lost so much ground in the first place.

By making a more expansive discussion of OECD statistics, as illustrated above, it is clear to see why the present UK government would do all it can to suppress detailed comparisons with other countries—whether G7 members or even small neighbours. Gullible Britain is buying false goods from a government keener on offering obfuscation than serious progress reports

But the day of reckoning cannot be far off. Exports and imports are both down, due to much increased red tape. The only trade deals struck replace those we had as part of the EU. Far from being dynamic, UK post-Brexit performance has been sluggish, making us the worst in the developed world.

Which perhaps explains why Boris Johnson has been “economic with the veracity”.

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Droning On

Standing less than 2m tall, Boeing’s ScanEagle looks more like something you would find at the local model aero club than anything threatening. But this unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—also known as a drone—has become a front-line weapon in the War on Terror. And, increasingly, the weapon of choice for the US military. Originally developed in the early 21st century for reconnaissance purposes, its armed variant represents the bulk of those in existence.

George W. Bush first used them experimentally in 2004. Since then, US presidents and their military have placed increasing reliance on these unmanned weapons that spared lives in executing strikes on elusive and hidden targets, such as terrorists and their camps. 

When he took office, Barack Obama followed the trend toward drone strikes, dramatically increasing their use in the war on terror. Some 1,878 drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia during Obama’s tenure included 154 strikes in Yemen alone.

That said, Obama did limit the use of drones. Strikes were to be permitted only:

  • Against terrorist targets that posed a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.”
  • Absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action against an identified high-value terrorist be taken only when there is near certainty that the individual being targeted is in fact the lawful target
  • If the lawful target is known to be located at the place where the action will occur
  • Absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action will be taken only if there is near certainty that the action can be taken without injuring or killing non-combatants.

When Trump took office, all such niceties went out the window. His administration wrote new rules to allow strikes where there was scant or no threat. These could be made against anyone regarded as a terrorist, even by a local military commander. The use of drones and reporting the number of civilians killed by drone strikes ceased. Trump launched 2,243 drone strikes in he first two years alone.

The most notorious Trump strike was in 2020 against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, killing him and nine others. This violated international law because the U.S. had not provided evidence that Soleimani presented an imminent threat to justify the attack. Trump’s response? “That’s giving a pass to terrorists.

Biden suspended Trump’s rules immediately, and began to review how the policies of both Obama and Trump had worked. In its plan to end “forever wars,” the Biden administration brought drone use to an all-time low.  Unfortunately, an August 29 drone strike on a supposed Al Qaeda cell only killed 10 civilians. 

Even if Biden does curtail usage, this does not auger well. For the last century, America has shown an increasing tendency to act in its own interests globally. And ‘act’ has increasingly come to equate to military intervention. (See “The Two Trillion Dollar Tragedy”). Despite repeated setbacks, it is the US military that has repeatedly intervened in execution of foreign policy—and this is likely to continue into future

But because Americans are particularly squeamish about their “boys” coming home in body bags, the use of drones to attack terrorists and other awkward targets without risking any number of soldiers as “boots on the ground” that ground operations require. Despite the appeal to US politicians and military alike, there are significant disadvantages to this approach:

  1. Drones are not cheap. At $800,000 each, they are a bargain, as compared to an F-35, but they require significant technical support and carry expensive stand-off munitions
  2. They have a very limited payload—ideal for surgical strikes against human targets in a very small area, but trivial compared to artillery bombardment.
  3. They lower the bar for military engagement, enabling the US to insert itself into other countries at a much lower cost than in the past.
  4. Like other munitions, drones are indiscriminate who they kill. The ratio of military to civilian deaths is not known, but dozens of civilians at an Afghan wedding were killed by a drone strike in 2008.

This penchant for using force and reluctance to risk American lives to do so does not auger well for discontinuing the use of drones as (in von Clausewitz’s phrase) “diplomacy by other means”. As America continues to lose economic ground to the Chinese, it will be interesting to see whether, in global dominance, the ”Belt and Road” turns out to be mightier than the drone.

(Research material derived from Heather Cox Richardson’s Letter from America)

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An Unspoken Reason Behind 9/11—Part IV

Inshallah

 “And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to your destruction; but do good; for Allah loves those who do good.”

—Qur’an, 2:195

But the spider that sits at the centre—politically; geographically; morally—of this Middle Eastern web that is a vortex of enmity and warfare—is the Saud family, their on-going absolute control of Arabia and the severe Wahabi branch of Islam they espouse. The fact that Wahabis are still a minority is ignored. The fact that the religious extremism of their clerics has spawned extremist terrorists is denied. The denial that the ruling Crown Prince Muhammad bin Saud (a.k.a. MBS) had anything to do with the virtual kidnapping of Lebanese premier Harare, or condoned killing and dismembering journalist Khashoggi by a 15-man hit squad inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey fails all standards of  credibility.

It is undoubtedly true that the Saudis would like nothing better than their domination of a peaceful Middle East. But, despite all their money and unquestioned backing of the USA, they have made a pig’s ear of it so far. They are running a cold war with most of their neighbours, especially Iran and even with tiny Qatar, whose free-speech Al Jazeera broadcast network drives than crazy.

This on-going instability helps no-one, except insurgents, like Al Quaeda. But neither the regime, nor its US backers seem ready to admit the extent to which insurgents derive from Saudi Arabia and its fearsome Wahabi cleric-driven religion.  Almost all of the plotters behind 9/11 turned out to be Saudi. By far the largest contingent of foreign fighters captured by NATO forces in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo for questioning, were Saudi. The immature autocracy practiced by MBS is alienating many in the ruling family. The 40% of the population who are Shia are tired of neglect. The 8 million foreign workers resent being treated like slaves. The Saudis rely on them and almost a million Western technicians to run the country’s infrastructure. But unrest may drive enough away to curtail cheap petrol, water and other ways to keep those outside the blessed 15,000 quiet.

Though they may wish for peace and stability, the Saudi royal family are riding the Wahabi tiger. Its strict Islam may not directly preach unrest, let alone terrorism. But that has been the growing effect, one that neither the kingdom, nor its US patrons admit to. This wilful blindness means more than overlooking MBS’ clumsy actions and blaming Iran for all Arab terrorism. It means admitting that 9/11 and similar  random acts of terrorism can be laid indirectly at the door of the Saudi royal family who have unwittingly spawned a generation of jihadists by the manner in which they have led their country since its inception.

I want a better Saudi Arabia. I don’t see myself as an opposition. I’m not calling for the overthrow of the regime, because I know it’s not possible and is too risky, and there is no one to overthrow the regime. I’m just calling for reform of the regime.”

—Jamal Khashoggi.

(514 words)

(end of 4-part article)

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An Unspoken Reason Behind 9/11—Part III

Diplomacy by Other Means

“You may fight in the cause of Allah against those who attack you, but do not aggress. Allah does not love the aggressors.”

—Qur’an, 2:190

That complacency changed in September 11th 2001 when in a well prepared and coordinated effort, four commercial airliners were hijacked in the North-East of the USA. One was flown to crash into the Pentagon; a second heading for Washington crashed short, apparently because passengers had tried to take back control; the two others deliberately crashed into upper floors of both towers of New York’s World Trade Centre, killing 3,000 people.

Understandably, outraged America wanted to find and bring the culprits to justice. As soon as it was established that the Taliban government in Afghanistan had provided shelter for those who had planned, a massive military operation swept them from power, to be replaced by a more western-democratic government, and the search for the leader Bin Laden continued.

Poor though relations between the West and the muslim world at this point, antipathy escalated. Suspicion that the “unfinished business” of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had resulted in them also harbouring terrorists, as well as ill-defined “weapons of mass destruction” being developed, the Second Gulf War in 2003. Although the main action was soon ended with the fall of Baghdad and the death of Hussein, unrest and guerrilla action continued over the next decade, despite massive investment into both Iraq and Afghanistan and the presence of Western, mostly American, troops.

Many, again mostly American, companies profited from the trillions of dollars spent, but little understanding of the fragmented tribal nature of both countries, let alone the sensitivities of strict muslims meant what were effectively alien occupations, resented by the bulk of a population resentful of their continued poverty, which contrasted with the relative wealth of collaborators, especially the corruption, from which many of them profited.

None of these interventions brought peace. The continued presence of major US forces, practicing their western ways in Saudi Arabia duelled resentment among extremists. This fuelled the short-lived Islamic State straddling Iraq and Syria, eventually overrun with help from the Kurds. Meanwhile, revolution had broken out against the Assad regime broke out in Syria in 2011. Because the Saudis had driven the Hashemites like Assad, the Saudis supported the rebels, only to be countered by support for Assad from Iran and Russia, following the old adage that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Not content with this mess, the Saudis also supported the Yemeni government on their southern border against Houthi rebels, because they were Shia “unbelievers” and also because the Saudis had annexed some of their provinces during their rush to dominate Arabia.

Gentle reader, if you are tiring of the relentless complexity, not to mention brutality, of all this, the real dilemma is that there is no simple cure, nor any single villain. We could blame the clumsiness of the US in seeing the world in terms of enemies and those who want to live like Americans. We could blame young muslim extremists for using brutal methods to display their contempt for Western culture. Both are true—to an extent.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.”

—US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002

(574 words)

(to be continued)

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An Unspoken Reason Behind 9/11—Part II

Accommodating the Infidel

“Feed the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of Allah, saying: We feed you, for the sake of Allah only, for we wish for no reward nor thanks from you.”

—Qur’an, 76:8

Clashes with infidels has long been part of Arab history since the 6th century. Relations were not improved by El Cid, several brutal crusades and the fall of Constantinople to Seljuk Turks in 1454. But only in the latter part of the 20th century had substantial numbers of muslims made their homes in the West—Turks moving to Germany; Algerians to France, Pakistanis to Britain, and so on. Here, opposing cultures were seldom separated as in Arabia. Most integrated peacefully, but a minority resented domination by infidel. Saudi Arabia, true to its origins, supported Wahabi missions outside Arabia. They were religious centres, not terrorist cells. But they were catalysts in bringing younger, more radical muslims together.

While the Saudis stood aloof from efforts towards pan-Arab unions (such as Nasser’s UAR with Syria in the 1950’s), young Saudis, not needing to focus on making a living, looked for places to express their passion for their religion in a world they saw as increasingly dominated by infidels.

This came to a head when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and were soon embroiled in dealing with a fierce and unconventional resistance to the puppet republic they had set up. The Mujahideen proved to be doughty and creative guerrillas, adept at using terrain to raid and harass conventional forces, whom modern weaponry proved ineffectual.

The Pentagon crowed how the Russians had “found their Vietnam” but clearly took no lessons from it, as they made the same mistakes themselves twenty years later. Among those doughty Mujahadeen were a number of volunteers from other muslim countries, like neighbouring Pakistan. But the largest contingent came from Saudi Arabia, one of whose leaders came from the Saudi royal family: Osama Bin Laden.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russians withdrew in 1989, they left thousands of fighters experienced in unconventional warfare with their tails up. Almost immediately, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and looked like he was poised to take the Saudi oilfields next. Bin Laden offered King Fahd the services of his trained, tough fighters, but was rejected in favour of George Bush’s intervention of Operation Desert Shield. For over six months, a massive build-up of US and  allied forces flooded Saudi Arabia with Western soldiers and technicians, may of them female and none sensitive to how they were treading on the cultural toes of orthodox muslims.

While this temporary inundation was bad enough, 1991’s successful execution of the subsequent Desert Storm only cleared Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Substantial US forces remained as security during the 1990s. This was with Saudi approval but sat badly with Wahabi clerics, the young men who followed them and the tough guerrillas who had cut their teeth in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Several bloody attacks on training camps and US military facilities resulted. These were largely swept under the carpet by both the US and Saudis as isolated incidents.

“The Taliban are good fighters and great negotiators.”

—President Donald J. Trump, April 2020

(528 words)

(to be continued)

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An Unspoken Reason Behind 9/11—Part I

Boiling Out of Arabia

“By the brightness of the noonday sun, and in the night when all is still, your Lord has not forsaken you, nor is He displeased. Soon your Lord will be bountiful to you and you be satisfied.”

—Qur’an 93:1

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it is less than a month since the West’s resulting long military involvement in Afghanistan ended abruptly as a car crash. There is a school of thought that, as the original goal of preventing the country being used as a base for terrorism had been achieved by 2002, troops could all have been withdrawn This would have avoided two decades of casualties on all sides as well as a failed “nation-building” programme.

What was never properly discussed—certainly not in public—was the background to that conflict, nor the likely consequences in a region that holds 55% of the world’s oil reserves and supplies one in three litres of its daily consumption. By far the bulk of this is supplied by Saudi Arabia, whose history, development and politics are never brought under scrutiny. This underlies the deeper story of 9/11.

From being essentially a British protectorate a century ago, this new country passed under American influence as Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) began wholesale exploitation of its riches. It being in no-one’s interest to rock the rich boat of wealth that ensued, the serious culture clash between the materialistic West in a country that officially adheres to the strict Wahabi strain of Islam was studiously ignored by all concerned.

The origins of this unusual and unusually influential country lie two centuries ago in a small tribe led by Ibn Saud, who set up a successful trading post deep in the Nefud. The tribe developed a strong religious bent when it adopted the Wahabi faith of Sunni Islam, which granted successive Saud rulers with absolute authority, in exchange for adhere to Wahabi tenets and to spread them abroad. After a chequered century or so fighting the Ottoman Empire, the Saudis, by siding with the Allies, emerged victorious after WW1 and proceeded to extend their power across Arabia during the 1920s. This was accelerated by the expedient method of King Ibn Saud marrying daughters of rival tribal leaders and so securing control over most of the peninsula. Today’s extensive Saudi royal family numbers some 15,000 members, around 1,500 of whom are regarded as “senior”, and therefore influential.

The extent of the kingdom now meant that they controlled the holiest shrines of their religion in Mecca and Medina, The Saudis were therefore seen as curators of the heart of the muslim religion. For decades, the disruptive intrusion of Western culture in the shape of oil engineers and technicians was accommodated by strict segregation, especially socially. The import of unskilled labour from other muslim countries released Saudis from menial tasks. To date, a swollen population of 34 million includes 2 million Bangladeshis, 1.5 million Filipinos, 1 million Pakistanis, 250,000 Lebanese and large contingents from many other muslim countries.

Several events, such as the storming of the holy mosque by dissidents in 1979 resulted in ever stricter practice of Islam, reinforced by recruitment of clerics into the education system. Strict interpretation of the Qur’an and application of Sharia law sat increasingly badly with Western ideas of democracy, personal freedoms and emancipation. But because business was so profitable to both cultures, Western workers obeyed the rules as required, yet younger Saudis grew resentful of their presence and their status.

“Ibn al-Wahhab was not the godfather of contemporary terrorist movements. Rather, he was a voice of reform, reflecting mainstream eighteenth-century Islamic thought. His vision of Islamic society was based upon monotheism in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews were to enjoy peaceful co-existence and cooperative commercial treaty relations.”

— Natana Delong-Bas, Wahabi Islam

(to be continued)

(629 woeds)

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The Entropy of England—IV

The Centre Cannot Hold

A haughty British indifference to the world outside the Empire applied as much to Lancashire mill workers as to victims of the Irish potato famine in Connemara. As long as mastery of global wealth and of a rigid social hierarchy applied, Britain could continue to be run by the same, small, English elite through their aura of permanent, unruffled sang froid.  The institutions that underpinned this—the Etons & Harrows; Oxbridge Bullingdon-esque and St James gentlemen’s clubs; the shooting estates—continue to the present day. One needed neither masonic handshake, nor membership for identification by fellow nomenklatura: your accent and your attitude were passport enough.

Though still extant, effortless superiority suffered erosion from financial earthquakes of both world wars and voter emancipation giving political powers to workers. Stripped of an accepted social certainty, they found themselves forced to operate out of the tabloid reach of the public eye, to whom they appeared a shadow of their former selves—much like Great Britain itself.

Formerly reserved careers were whittled away—RAF pilots were swamped by massed bomber crews in WW2; cavalry regiments degraded by rude mechanicals; pin-stripe management by business school upstarts. Even the douce “Something in the City” patrons of the Waterloo & City line found themselves jostled by loud Loadsamoneys in bright braces after 1987’s “Big Bang”. Post-Thatcher society in the South (meaning south of the Cambridge and East of the Cotswolds) modernised, finding affluence and social flexibility still exploited by the few, but now in a less obvious, if no less important, way.

But outside the South, elsewhere in England was drifting. Devon and Cornwall were growing ever more resentful of depopulation by holiday home. Eastern village farm worker cottages filled with retirees and commuters. The once-industrial Midlands and North drifted through denial that their great cities had lost their purpose and drive.

What areas of England did share was a wistfulness at their triple loss: empire; industry; influence. Since the 1970s, Britain had been chided as “The Sick Man of Europe”. So, it is unsurprising what came from UKIP—that greatness could be had if we only repelled an invasion of foreigners and threw off shackles forged by the bureaucrats of Brussels. This cheap slogan is as old as politics: garner support by creating a foreign enemy you will deal with. This ploy scared the bejasus out of the Conservatives, whose base in the South was especially vulnerable to such positioning.

So the Tories saw no choice but to out-xenophobe the UKIP xenophobes. It mattered not that the rest of Britain did not share the panic. Not only did Brexit become the obvious counter to outflank UKIP before being outflanked, but the money salted away behind front companies in various tax havens were about to be revealed through EU legislation against such convenient anonymity. An added bonus of northern job losses stirring up resentment to “blame the foreigners” carried Brexit over the line. In turn, this led to the 2019 crumbling of the Red Wall, with Boris Johnson trying to look like  John Bull glaring defiantly out over the beetling cliffs of Dover.

It might have looked like unity, but not as we know it. Outside a mile radius from London’s Pall Mall and a few outliers in places like Farnham, Cheltenham and Great Walsingham, it would be hard to gather significant numbers of English people who agreed on what their country wanted to do upon leaving the EU, much less a clear future ambition for itself, or what role in the world. Purposeful Victorian clarity of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” it is not.

Though many couch it in terms of “Britain”, it is, in fact, an English dilemma.  What’s more regional cultures that make up England don’t share the same dilemma, ever since ever since the Nazis disintegrated and the Empire went the same way.  Though far from achieving the relaxed sense of identity found in Denmark or Norway, the Scots, Welsh and (aside from a dying anachronism called unionism in Ulster) the Irish are all growing comfortable in their own skins. None of them have much interest in this on-going elite-driven Southern English throwback delusion of global greatness. Nor are they likely to hang around to see what happens when realpolitik presents the truth to their benighted English cousins who share these pleasant, but (let’s face it) geographically marginal islands.

Until the elite stop thinking it self-evident that they are and the South stops encouraging them, the decline of the last century will continue, the Celts will adopt the more modest, socially cohesive Scandinavian model. Outlying English regions may get lucky and—for once—London will leave them to forge their own future.

—END—

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The Entropy of England—III

The English in British Clothing

The Georgian cultural package was British, not English. The gentry, lairds and clan chiefs of “North Britain” were no longer dragooned by Cromwellian English populism, but invited to partake in a multilingual, classically branded culture which, being natural to nobody, could be adopted without loss of pride by anybody. This found a common outlet in the growing British Empire. An aggressive stance and scant respect towards the rest of the globe had been established by Drake, Hawkins and the other English privateers. This led to growing affluence from trade and a leading role in the industrial revolution that drive it. Once parliaments were conjoined and rebellions in the Celtic fringe faded into history, even the lowliest strata of society across the British Isles derived a pride in its global dominance and could improve their lot in burgeoning cities and factories or seek far-flung adventure in the colonies, navy or army.

This artificial construct of “Great Britain” served brilliantly—so long as nobody asked the common peoples. At the general election of 1885, they were given their say, and promptly voted along lines established for centuries:  Southern England as a douce Conservative tribal fortress; Northern England with the bolshier Celts. As long as there was a world out there to conquer and plunder, nobody worried whether John Bull suffered schizophrenia, as long as he brought home the bacon. Matelots from Portsmouth to Portsoy, squaddies from Sligo to Slough happily shouldered the white man’s burden and shared pride in a pink-painted globe.

This appeared to simplify politics for the modern age. From 1885 until 2015, it was dominated by a polarised conflict: the Party of Southern England (aka the Conservative Party, with an outlier in unionist Ulster) versus a ever-changing federation of Outer England and Celtic Britain (embodied variously in the Liberal Party, Parnell’s IPP, the Labour Party and the SNP).

By the 21st century, this Tweedledum and Tweedledee arrangement, while suiting  politicians and the media reporting on them, had long lost its way. Wile there was a case for social and cultural cohesion in the Celtic fringe because of their modest populations, the 50 million English were fragmenting on even more complex dimensions than in the Middle Ages.  On top of existing cultural distance between north and south or town and country evolved blue-collar vs. white-collar; new-money industrialists vs. old-money aristocrats; music hall vs. opera; artisan vs. artiste.

Though all this caused social strain, throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the multilingual, classically branded culture mentioned above dominated society through a self-regenerating elite, based on public schools, Oxbridge and shrewd exploitation of the many financial opportunities available to that inner circle. They were none too precious about how their power was maintained over the less docile fringes of the home islands. In 1886, Randolph Churchill first played what he called “the Orange card,” happily countenancing violence in Ireland. Conservative leader Bonar Law all but openly succoured armed sedition in Ireland in 1913-14. Not to be outdone by him or his own father, Winston Churchill growled back at him in March 1914 that “there are worse things than bloodshed, even on an extended scale.”

To that elite, “England” wasn’t any real nation but a vision of Imperial HQ. Yet, after 1885, their power depended on the loyalty of southern English voters and a nationalism that they had to keep safely contained. Hence the deliberate confusion between the flags of “England” and of “the UK/Empire.” The English—above all, the southern English—had to understand themselves, implicitly, as the most-favoured nation.

(to be continued)

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The Entropy of England—II

Is it English to Be Nationalist?

 “Welsh, Irish and Scots nationalisms could all be catered for, but English nationalism, however, cannot”.

—Winston Churchill, Westminster Gazette 1912

           For the last millennium, English nationalism appears to have suffered from a kind of political Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—the more you try to establish its geographic scope, the less in defined its policies and attributes become. In England, post Norman Conquest—and apparently uniquely in Western Europe—the grand process of High Medieval nation-building was run by a colonial elite with an entirely different language from the peasantry they ruled. They were also distracted from connecting with them by the need to keep half an eye on their swollen French possessions of the Angevin Empire.

They needed foot soldiers for each stage of their colonial ambitions in both France and the archipelago, so they created an English nationalism in its earliest form to make the conquered natives feel like the most-favoured subject people, having been over-run by the very best. As an example, the anti-Welsh and anti-Scots vituperation that opens the official record of Edward I’s 1294 campaign against them:

“May Wales be cursed by God and Saint Simon! For it has always been full of treason. May Scotland be cursed by the mother of God!”

Not the broadest, not most inclusive foundation upon which to build a union. However, the French-speaking elite were kept busy plastering over cracks in England itself, until their own cultural unity began to fray. In deposing Richard II in 1399, Henry IV secured populist covering fire for this act by becoming the first king since Harold to accept the crown by taking the coronation oath in English.

But almost immediately, English unity was again in question. In 1405, the Percys, mighty in the North, and the Mortimers, who considered themselves Richard II’s rightful heirs, agreed the “Tripartite Indenture” with Owain Glyndwr. This proposed splitting England into northern and southern realms, with Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire being incorporated into a revived Wales. Fifty years later, the Percy and Mortimer families were at it again as pivotal powers in the Wars of the Roses—in practice, another series of north/south fights. English histories decorously avoid referring to these serial fracas as “civil wars” to avoid the impression that England was as partial to internecine brutality as their continental counterparts.

This fratricidal slaughter only ended when a part-Welsh dynasty, the Tudors, took charge. They brought a cultural, if not dynastic, stability. For the next 400 years, anybody who was anyone in England was expected to master Greek, Latin and French. So the former Medieval French-speaking elite culture was thus replaced by a classically-educated elite culture.

Key powerbases of this new Tudor elite—the courtiers, parliament, Oxbridge, the Inns of Court, the Church of England—were all in the South. The real driver of the Reformation was a determination of state-builders to brook no regional or supra-national loyalties. National unity was forced by external threats, especially from Catholic Spain. But for all the unity at home and exploration abroad under Elizabeth just a year after her death, the pronouncement was made::

“wherefore We have thought good to discontinue the divided names of England and Scotland… and do intend and resolve to take and assume unto Us… the Name and Style of King of Great Brittaine.”

—King James I and VI

This is what one of his courtiers, perhaps channelling the much later Sir Humphrey, might have called “a courageous decision”.  James may have seen the union as one happy arrangement between equals, but the English were having none of it. Their Parliament would have nothing to do with “Great Brittaine”. Arrogant monarchs, religious schisms and puritan intransigence destabilised society that, by 1688 one faction could think of no way to avoid further civil war, except asking the Dutch to invade and loan them a king.

Having stared into the abyss, the elite of the early 18th century tried to abolish England and replace it with Great Britain. Though technically becoming the Parliament of the United Kingdom, it was in all aspects continuation of the English Parliament, with only 45 of 558 members coming from Scotland. This was the birth of our modern politics. For the next 85 years, this parliament fought to impose itself on a peripheral cultural patchwork of northern English, Scots, Gaels, Cornish, Welsh and Irish.

This did not go smoothly.

(to be continued)

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The Entropy of England—I

Fragmentary Foundations

 “What do they know of England who only England know?” Rudyard Kipling

Brexit and its aftermath have brought a renewed focus on what it means to be British. Cabinet Ministers giving endless Covid briefings in front of union flags; devolved governments being reminded of Westminster largess; the stubborn refusal re entertain work permits for foreigners to ease staffing crises in haulage and hospitality. But, unlike Victoria’s jubilee or post-Dunkirk, it is not being embraced to the same extent or with as much enthusiasm.

Certainly, there are those who unreservedly apply the description to themselves, among them ex-servicemen, Ulster Unionists; Gibraltarians; Lanarkshire Orangemen; Scottish and Welsh mainly-Conservative unionists. But there, it starts to thin. It is now no longer news that the majority of people in the United Kingdom outside England no longer regard themselves as primarily British. The surprising development is: neither do the English.

It’s true that the English are happy to be described as “British on their passports and other official documents. They do not rankle at this the way many Scots now do. But deeper investigation reveals a preponderance of using “English” to describe their culture, interest, etc. Ever since the Scots 300 years ago and the Irish 200 years ago were folded into a union with the more populous England, there has been a casual conflation in that country of the terms “British” and “English” as, effectively, equivalent. Foreign powers, having dealt with the more dominant England, seldom adjusted to the new arrangement and the terms “Angleterre”, “Inglaterra”, etc. continued in common use.

While the Empire was mighty and the Scots, Irish and Welsh happy to shelter un der and exploit that might, nothing worse than the occasional ruffling of provincial feathers occurred. Joining the EU hot on the heels of the dismantling of that empire gave smaller members of the UK union the sense that a newer, wider family of nations was showing them horizons beyond those dominated by England.

It was at this point that the construct that was England started to fragment. The clearly dominant element of the UK that interposed “English” and “British” as it pleased, found itself not even primus inter pares but just one of four big economies, often outvoted by a swarm of small economies. Understandably, this did not sit well with the pride of a “top dog” nation, even if its bark and bite had both become muted.

The English are not used to thinking of themselves as fragmented and troublesome. Such things were repressed while the minor nations of the UK were supine and holding sway over a quarter of humanity boosted the collective ego. But even partial subservience to the EU brought this to the fore.

(to be continued)

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