The Death of an Australian


The death of Phillip Hughes has found a decent nerve in this nation. It has hit and moved Australians where they live. He was a fresh faced kid from the sticks with the eye of a native, a technique that got up the nose of the Establishment, and loads of what sportsmen treasure – drive and guts. One tick of the meter on technique, and he might have been up there with the Babe; another tick of the meter on Monday, and he would still be with us.

But none of us can work that meter. That is part of the deal that sees us here. The savage end, in front of his mum, came not from some flaw in the hero, as in a tragedy of Shakespeare, but with a cosmic glitch straight out of the more stern and ancient Homer.

Phillip Hughes was just coming into his flowering time as an Australian cricketer. His loss hurts babyboomers so much that grown men are crying with no shame. This kid was a throwback to a different age, one that we oldies cannot help but see as golden. It was a time when sport was sport, and we were spoiled for kids from the bush busting to take on the world. Ken Rosewall, Richie Benaud, Rod Laver, and Peter Thompson made us glad to be what we were. All that has gone, and Phillip Hughes has now gone too.

It was unnervingly hard to watch a distraught Australian Captain thank the country from the Hughes family; it was uplifting to hear the Australian team doctor tell us plainly that Phillip had been like a little brother to the Captain, and that he did not know how the family would have held up without the help of the Captain. We saw some goodness there.

God knows that this place can let you down, but God also knows that I would not want to live or die anywhere else. Australia can at least throw up a gem like Phillip Hughes. We mourn his leaving us because part of us went with him. Phillip Hughes felt what it meant to be an Australian, and he leaves us better than he found us.

Political Choice and the Decline and Fall of the Party System



This note looks at how parties cannot now coalesce sensibly around the three philosophical issues facing western democracy; the failure of any historical function for the Liberal Party or the Labor Party in Australia; the shameful disservice to the nation by all parties on the two most important tasks for government here; the failings of our press; a brief glance at the comedic antics of the present alarming motley; and a very unsettling prognosis.


Parliamentary democracy in the West is based on political parties, and that system is declining in the U S, the U K, and Australia. Public faith in government is also declining. This is happening now right across the western world, and the decline does not look like stopping. Why is this so?

We in Australia got our political system from England as did the US. The English developed their system over a thousand years, and their major problem now comes from federating with Europe. The US Constitution was developed out of a distrust for government and the prevailing political philosophy that century produced a system that made change difficult. It is now reaching its apotheosis in a distrust-fuelled gridlock that is demeaning and disabling a once great and potent republic.

The Australian Constitution was prepared by middle aged, middle class, Protestant and Catholic, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic, men under the aegis of a benign, sedate, and aging English queen, and we may now gaze in silent wonder upon its current model – a government by middle aged, middle class Protestant and Catholic, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic, men under the aegis of a benign, sedate, and aging English queen. (The Queen was or is in each case of course definitively Anglo-Saxon and Protestant by constitutional imperative – a communicant Anglican as a matter of hard law.) Our governments excel at one thing – doing Sweet Fanny Adams, except for playing pass the parcel. They do this with a grace and facility that touches the sublime in a state of almost comatose colonial contentment. We marvel at the ease with which they have made the transition from one colonial Dreamtime to another, and all the while preserving the same bourgeois bliss. Indeed, there is every reason to suspect that we are defying the gravity of history by going backwards.


Three things are common ground in most countries in the West. First, if people want to live together they cannot all just do what they like – they must submit to at least some rules that will reduce their freedom. Secondly, we agree that we must make some provision to educate people and for people who are not able to get along without us, such as the sick or the aged. An obligation to provide some welfare is a given for us, at least here now in Australia. Thirdly, since we all require food, shelter, and protection, and those needs require wealth for us to meet them, and since providing for welfare also requires the creation of wealth, we have a common interest in seeing that the rules made to enable us to live together and provide some welfare also enable us to create enough wealth for those purposes. You cannot afford to spend money that you do not make.

At voter level, the first question is one of personal choice. We might call this the ‘interference’ issue. Some people want the law and government to have as little to do with them as possible. Others want to be more involved in the lives of others and are content to allow more government in their lives. Government may have an economic interest in drawing the line – as with seat-belts in cars or helmets on bicycle riders, or gun control – but the interference issue mostly turns on the personal choice of each voter.

The second question is also basically one of personal choice, and at government level, it represents an attempt to assess the result if you aggregate those personal choices. We might call this the ‘subscription’ issue. It comes down to what might be called a moral issue, but which does sound like a political issue: what do you think is a fair thing for you to do for those who are less well off or to ask from those who are better off? Put differently, what is the least amount that I can decently put aside for those who are not so well off? Or, what is the most that I can decently ask from those who are well off? People in the first category are more comfortable with that process in every way, just because they are better off. The better off remain better off – even when equality beckons.

The third question really has to be answered at government level by taking the views of the community and by applying such learning and experience as there is to try to get the best results. We might call this the ‘management’ issue. Until recently, we might have added that in addition to creating wealth, another major issue was the protection of those who did the work at the bottom, but for many reasons, the old division between capital and labour does not loom large now as a political issue. Protecting those who supply labour is not as important politically now as ensuring the creation of wealth. That historical fact bears upon the relevance of a political party that was born to look after those who supplied the labour.

It is here on the management issue that you get issues that may require expert opinion or professional advice. That is not so much the case with the interference and subscription issues. There may obviously be some overlap. For example, if government has to raise higher taxes to maintain its retirement and health benefits, so that people choose to do their business elsewhere, then the three issues will be alive together. Or the wish of some people to be free from laws relating to gun control, seat-belts, or helmets, might lead to significantly greater health and policing costs and therefore higher taxes. But there is no reason a priori why a person making a personal choice on the interference or subscription issues should be overridden by the application of professional learning on the third. In other words, I should usually be able to say that I want more or less interference from government or should contribute more or less to government without being ruled out on the grounds of economic or management policy.

But of course we do not think in logical boxes – if we did, we might be utterly predictable, and we might be able to justify the prophecies of people like Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes – and we know that we cannot do that. People who want the maximum freedom on the interference issue also commonly want the minimum contribution under the subscription issue, and they commonly invoke arguments on the management issue to support their position. . That is to say, they want to argue that their position on the interference and subscription issues is supported by management issues. This sort of management argument is most frequently invoked by those who want both less interference and fewer subscriptions – they say that that helps the system go better.

Now, if you look across those three issues or questions, it is not easy to imagine two parties rising up that will sensibly represent the interests of voters who take different positions on them. You might think that those who want to subscribe less to welfare would also want less interference from government, and that those who want more from the system will put up with or actively seek more intervention from the system, but there is no logical reason for such a conjunction. Nor is there any reason in logic to suggest that those who favour less interference and subscription will be better able to manage the process of creating wealth.

It is therefore hard in theory to envisage two parties representing a rational political division across our basic issues. That theoretical difficulty matches the Australian experience. The trade unions in this country are no longer seen as either a threat or as a source of strength, and the Labor party no longer represents labour in any industrial sense. Not many people now own up to being ‘labour’, and even fewer to being working class, a form of social death in the most determinedly middle class nation ever born. It may be no bad thing for a nation to lose any use for a party that started with the shearers’ strike in the nineteenth century, when the working man was hopelessly repressed by moneyed interests, and which now looks to be a curious relic of a class war that a new nation like Australia would be hardly wishing to encourage.

It is hard to see anything that ever distinguished or identified the Liberal Party, except for its firm embrace of the English connection and the monarchy, an even firmer opposition to organized labour, and a bit of a soft spot for God and the Creation. They do like to convey the impression that they are safe hands for business, but almost none of them has ever had a real job or the faintest idea of how to run a business, and the babyboomers had to wait for a Labor government under Hawke and Keating to see what we now know as the structural reforms that broke up the protectionism drably garnered for decades by the tepid so-called conservative parties. We had to escape those conservatives to get lower taxes, and a floated dollar, not to mention tariff reduction and competition and consumer laws.

A conservative party by definition is not one that favours change. It just reacts to suggestions of change. It likes things as they are. The present lot, both here and in the US, have made reaction – reactionaryism – into both an art form and a life-style. It is easy just to say no to everything when in opposition, but when you have to govern, you have to do something, at least in Australia, a nation that was born in and thrives on government intervention. Our modern conservative parties are incapable of making the transition, and you wind up with an enshrinement of nothingness trying to masquerade as doing something. The parties wind up standing for precisely nothing.

It follows that neither the Liberal Party nor the Labor Party has anything of substance historically to stand for, the one against the other. What is it the one stands for that the other is opposed to? If you look at major issues like health or education, there is rarely anything between them – at least there is hardly any difference that may be defined by criteria espoused by either the Liberal Party or the Labor Party. Is there anything about either party that means that their policy on health or education must be different to that of the other?

It gets worse in this country because the three tiers of government make a paradise for buck-passers and back-sliders, and those who are most happy when nothing happens, and because the closest that most get to a real job is to be finished off as lawyers before they go into public service and get on the gravy grain for life. There are far too many lawyers in politics – because we cannot get better people from elsewhere. We have become a land of conservative do-nothings and know-nothings by default.

If you think that managing the economy is what matters, you must first believe that government can make a difference – any government. That of itself is an act of faith. To make it, you have to believe that people that we call economists know what they are doing. They obviously do not. Just look at their crashing silence or complicity before 1929 or 2008. But if you believe in theory that one party might be better able to manage the economy than another, only a very small residue of the faithful on either side would pick their party. It is impossible for the rest of us to hold any such faith.

In fairness to our conservatives, the people of this country have had a far, far greater reliance on government than has ever been the case with the U S – starting from the time that each nation was first settled by white people, and proceeding through waves of migration and constitutional change, to our embrace of the welfare state in a manner that is foreign to most Americans and anathema to a lot of them. Australians are in truth conservative only in their fear of standing on their own two feet or doing something novel – they are very, very dependent on government by instinct. That helps to explain our timidity and our acceptance of mediocrity, but for any politician to say that Australians should give up any of their many entitlements makes as much sense as asking them to stop breathing. The fact that one politician did say that, and then seek to impose a budget accordingly, shows how our politicians have succumbed to mindless slogans, and have lost touch with both the people and rational thought.

The experience has been different in the US and UK, but the resulting disenchantment and sense of decay is similar. In the US, it has been the Republicans that tend to seek less interference and subscription, and they claim that the two are linked. They also claim to be better able to manage the economy. But their aversion to government interference at home was matched by their need to indulge in interference with governments outside, and the consequent lost wars nearly bankrupted the nation. Their resentment of big government does not extend to big armaments, and if they had channelled into industry and education in the US the vast amounts that they channelled into misgoverning the Middle East, the whole world would be immeasurably better off.

In the UK, Mr Blair’s Napoleonic ego and inability to apologise for a wrong war means that he is utterly unloved on all sides. Nor does it help that he is filthy rich and a class traitor. While the Republican failure has led to the Tea Party and a split in the Republicans, the English Labor Party now looks to be as mediocre as it is irrelevant. They deserted what Mrs Thatcher had left them of their base. Workers were not welcome to Tony’s party, my dear. Both the UK and Australia have seen minority parties arise who can and do promise everything because they are assured of the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages, namely, power without responsibility. Their ugliness is the price of the unloveliness of the old parties, and it looks like the Tories, who govern in coalition, will split over what we call federalism in Europe. England is having to make a transition from two-party government to coalitions, and the fault lines are ugly, and the future is uncertain.

So, one reason that the two main political parties in Australia are failing is not so much that they do not stand for anything, or that they do not have any answers, as that they do not even ask any relevant questions. They do not articulate any rational difference of opinion. They do not provide a platform for democracy through political parties. They scrabble after the middle ground at the call of their political minders and the very word ‘principle’ is foreign to them. The small residue left for each party reminds us of sad suburban churches. They carry on more by parented aversion than by warranted loyalty. They just become daily less relevant to the rest of us, or the nation at large, that is left to wonder at their almost spiteful littleness.

These observations are obvious enough, but they do show not only how useless are the tags Liberal or Labor for political parties, but how silly are the terms Left and Right. They are only used now by tired old sectarian cold war academics and warriors and pathological haters of the ABC. They may now be just mild terms of abuse, but their only function is to reveal that those who use them have passed beyond the reach of rational thought or contemporary use. Have you noticed how grumpy these loopy old timers get if they call some someone Left or Right wing and you ask them if they are happy to own up to membership of the opposition? The people who use these epithets are fighting wars that ended generations ago, and warranting their own irrelevance to generations brought up on the internet. They just cling to their old tribal loyalties in the sad old way that Micks and Prots used to when they were still a force in the land. You know that you have passed your use-by date when even your enmities no longer matter.


The other major reason for the fall of our political parties is that they have done so badly in governing the country. Australia is a vibrant wealthy migrant nation that has possibly the most broken down and unequal education system in the western world. There is a wounding and retarding division between private and public schooling that we inherited from the Mother Country, the nation that gives us our queen, that has been maintained for generations by both parties at state and federal levels. To blight the education of our young as we have done is disgraceful, and it has come down to us from both sides of politics. We have consistently failed to give our children equality of education. And you will never see anything resembling an apology, even though we have reached a level where we discriminate against our own majority. Opinions might differ, but I think that this is the second worse thing that an elected government can do to its people.

The worst thing that such a government can do is to take its people into a war on a false premise, lose the war, and leave its security and anyone else that it fought for worse off. We have now done that twice. The first time – in Vietnam – we magnified our criminality on two separate counts. We conscripted young men by a ballot and then sent them to their death in a bad war and then, in what is the lowest point of the white man’s occupation of this country, we reviled those young men who were lucky enough to come back home. We reviled them because they had lost a war that our dirty, rotten politicians had got us into. It was in fact the same born to rule crowd on each occasion that betrayed us, but the Labor Party has since done its best to make up for lost ground on the second occasion by giving their conservative opponents close support over Afghanistan and Iraq – and now another armed intervention on the other side of the world.

The one time that there was a clear majority of Australians on a moral and political issue, our politicians determined to ignore us, almost with one voice. The reason for that is that our politicians are never frank with us about why we join these wars. It is not because we want to hold up some candle of freedom to the world, or because we are at risk of being overrun. It is to secure the American alliance. We want to lock in our Godfather and protector. We have to pay our union dues. That is a legitimate objective, but not apparently a good enough reason for our politicians to give for us to go to war. And we might sympathize with them. ‘I have no right or reason to be here mate, but I am trying to kill you now in case someone else tries to kill me in future, in which case I will seek help from the people who have asked me to come and kill you now. Capisci?’ That does not sound too good, and hence our government has to find pretexts. Sadly, the pretexts were false. We now traditionally go to war on false pretences – we began to condition ourselves to heroic failure in foreign wars in 1915. We seem to be attracted to failure in this nation.


So, they are the main reasons our parties and our system of government are so badly on the nose. They do not stand for anything, and they have failed disastrously to honour our trust in the most important parts of government. What we are left with is a group of very mediocre people that hardly anyone that I know admires, trusts, or even likes. When did you last hear a person say ‘I think that the leader of this or that party is a good bloke doing a good job for the country’? It is a sign of our condition that one name that many would want to mention is that of an Independent, Tony Windsor.

The decline of parties and government has come with and at least in part because of the failure of part of our constitutional structure. An essential part of that structure was a professional and impartial civil service. They were the continuing soul of government, and the trustees of traditions and conventions. And they were not political. Before 1972, these people effectively ran this country, but since then we have abolished them, and with that destruction of what used to be called the Westminster system, we have got in their place party hacks, place seekers, pollsters, shock shocks, racecourse touts, bludgers, urgers, and downright thieves. These people do not advise impartially on government for the benefit of the people. On the contrary they are there to advise their bosses or their mates how to keep their jobs, and to keep themselves in a job. They have a vested interest in bending the system to suit their own self-interest, and, my, how well their interests suit and run with the currents of our times.

This just adds to the decay of convention and decency. Just look at the moral carnage of the Liberal Party in New South Wales – we are into double figures for those who have been knocked off for being on the take. That makes the grossness of some of the stand-over tactics of some unions look very small beer indeed, but by now we are used to soi disant conservatives being the first to put their snouts in the trough and risk a holiday at our expense. They are, sadly, often the first to tear up the rule book.

And the press has to wear its share of the blame. They are obsessed with personalities, polls and plots, and they like to play an active part in the latter. Two politicians who showed some disturbing symptoms of leadership, Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard, were fired as leaders by their own parties with active involvement from press conspirators some of whom were mates of their opponents, and to the horror of the voting public who were not consulted. Too many in the press are failed party hacks or are too cosy with their old sectarian schoolmates and book-launchers in that ghastly suburban fastness of Canberra, locked in a collusive, corrosive embrace to sanctify and secure their own mediocrity. Clubbiness and chumminess is everything, even if it is addled by a faded schism, and by Stalinist paranoid delusions about a statutory corporation that happens to have a bigger and more respected part in their field. Fancy poor old Rupert, old, alone and forlorn in New York, being left behind by a drab bunch of pink colonials in the God-forsaken land that he abandoned!

It does not occur to many in our press that they look at best silly in purporting to comment independently on their mates, or just those who patronise them and do favours for them. It is like reading a rave review for a fly rod, and then finding a full page ad for the same rod on the facing page. How reliable is the review? Is it independent? Was the editor or reviewer got at or just bought? How many bad reviews of Australian wine have you ever seen in an Australian wine magazine? Are they not, for better or for worse, all in the same boat and possessed of the same disinclination to rock it?

It is as if members of the colonial press were intent on provoking nausea to match that inspired when Mr Tony Blair, at one time the Prime Minister of a great nation, became a godfather to a daughter of Rupert and Wendi, on a ceremony held by the waters of the River Jordan. Too many members of the fourth estate are far too close to those in the other estates. They might usefully recall the famous resolution carried against the English king who lost the American colonies, that ‘the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.’

Our Prime Minister and senior ministers have in truth trumped Mr Blair in his shameless vulgarity. They regularly hang out with demagogues that are at the bottom of the barrel, people that no decent person would be seen with. It is unthinkable that their predecessors as leaders of what was supposed to be a conservative party would have consorted with people of such low repute, and it is just to get the vote that populists cater for, those who respond to a dog whistle on anything to do with caste or the ultimate cop-out of the ratbag, patriotism. Can you think of a better way for them to show their awful urge to scrabble after every vote and to flaunt in our faces their want of principle? Or even just their want of decency?


So, our political parties have outlived their use. We have scrapped the independent civil service that saw that this country was at least run decently. The press have simply failed in their obligation to keep the bastards in check or to cultivate informed discussion on issues of principle. The politicians and our press both look to be the logical outcome of our failure to educate our young. We are left with a residue of mediocrities that few people have any faith in and who deter decent people from even thinking of going there. If politicians and their mates in the press could assassinate Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard in the manner that they did, what decent Australian would want to go anywhere near Canberra?

Our politicians are now the sad result of their own irrelevance, and the awful company that they keep explains their populist and unprincipled positions on issues like the environment and refugees. From time to time one or either of these parties has the gall to claim the moral high ground, but each has forfeited that right on the ground of our foreign wars alone. And the lesser parties have about them the air of bikes for hire, or ticket-of-leave types. They look like they might be let out for the weekend. We then end up with an apparently slow PM who acts like a neatly turned-out schoolboy who is visibly way out of his depth dealing with foreign powers – visibly, that is, to all except the closed coterie of his media cheer squad.

At his best our PM is superb – as Donald Duck lecturing at a blackboard at Sunday school. And our Tony is blessed with things in common with Donald – he too gets flustered when he forgets or fluffs his lines and he says awkward things, and his Creator always sends him out in the same tie, the endearing comfy rug of the eternal adolescent, who longs for the life of a simpler past, when before the footy or the flicks all good Britons everywhere stood and harmoniously implored Almighty God to save our gracious and noble Queen, and send her victorious – even if she is an Anglican. And just when you thought that you had him Pat, so to speak, what does he do?   Our dear Tony goes out and hugs a koala with a Russian bear that he had threatened to shirtfront. Here indeed was a true classic of Aussie grace – we have forgiven those bastards for what they did to our Light Brigade during the last Crimean War. (The shooting of the Romanovs is very different – those Communist bastards shot the Queen’s cousins, and any socialist party since has been put under an infallible interdict, and its supporters exposed to the eternal bonfire, where all clan and tribal debts are finally settled.)

What is the response of the failed politicians to these grievances, which are well known? They just drop the needle in the slot of the old microgroove LP, and wheel out some pre-programmed platitude that has been drilled into them by stern superiors since school. They are forbidden ever to be candid, or to answer a question directly, or to enter into anything resembling a discussion of principle or intellectual debate.

So, there are some reasons why our system is sick and it does not look like getting any better. In the end, it should not be too hard to balance our wish to be free and keep what we have while looking after those who are not doing so well, but we just strike poses and utter slogans, and sigh with relief that we are not being tested.


To go back to the three sorts of issues, it is quite possible for one person to want to have as little as possible to do with government, but to be relaxed about how much is spent on welfare, and just fall about laughing when one party claims to be a better financial manager than the other. That happens to be about my position. I have had a charmed life, as have most Australians, and certainly all those who are called baby-boomers, and I feel obliged to put something back and at least do something for those who are not so fortunate. I am not aware of any political party that claims a preeminent capacity to suit my personal wishes, or that I might place my faith in. That is one reason why I wonder if those who are so vocal on the other side are just lousy, and offer up ideological and managerial nostrums as a smokescreen. Some people say that they see as big a divide in the US, but I suspect that politics is like litigation – it usually comes down to money, and most of the talk about principle is just bullshit. If you take greed out, there is not much left.

What might be most disturbing is that some people that we put in power, however reluctantly, actually think that they are superior to the other side and are doing a good job, while we look in vain for people who have vision or courage and are capable of being leaders. They do not accept that the third and fourth-raters now entering our parliaments are the direct result of the failure of our second-raters. In areas where we the people might look for political leadership, like the environment or refugees, we just get poll and populist press driven slogans and inanity and a moral or intellectual embarrassment. Their fall-back is that they are at least the best on offer. That is about as much comfort to the rest of us as a discussion between dog owners about the relative quality of the fleas on their pets.

And all that is before you get to what might be the worst of it. We seem to be witnessing, both here in the US, a slow erosion of that tissue of tolerance and restraint on which ultimately the whole system rests. Ultimately all legal systems must stand on a shared faith and trust, and, for want of a better term, a state of mind that enables the system to work. We seem to be seeing people who are not sufficiently imbued with that faith and trust who are willing to depart from long sanctioned conventions for short-term political gain. The Australian parliament is a C grade circus posturing as a B grade farce. At its best, it is downright embarrassing. There is no real need to point fingers if people just accept that sand is being thrown into the cogs of the machine and that if that keeps going, the machine will seize up, or just be rejected or replaced. This might be the most worrying trend of all, and you might wonder if it is related to or just mirrored by the apparent collapse of all sense, reason, or decency in the escalating chasm between the rich and the poor.


More than a hundred years ago, a Welsh firebrand, who was brought up by his uncle who was a cobbler, told the English parliament: ‘These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal.’ Lloyd George was joined in the battle by the grandson of a duke and the son of a lord who was a life-long aristocrat named Winston Churchill. They went into a political war on principle – they were determined to tax the aristocracy and the rich in order to deal with the problems of the sick and the infirm. In declaring that it was the business of the State to deal with those social problems, they founded the Welfare State, and they created a political and some would say moral gulf between the UK and the US that is deeper than the Atlantic.

In the last twenty-five years, two broken parts of a nation have been successfully fused into the economic power-house of Europe with the best and most balanced education system in the world, one that would take us at least two generations to catch up to. For about ten years that process in Germany has been led in coalition governments by Angela Merkel, who was brought up in the Communist DDR.

There is simply no prospect of our seeing anything like the leadership of any of those three people in Australia.

We here do now look like a land of wasted opportunities learning to accept the risk that those opportunities have been permanently lost. It is not easy to think of a happy resolution, but it is not hard to say why our politicians have lost our trust. People appointed to public office in truth if not in black letter law hold that office on trust. They are to there to look after us, and not themselves. So, if directors of a public company get a takeover offer, they have to act in the best interests of the shareholders and the company as a whole. They breach that trust if they are more interested just in hanging on to their directors’ seats than looking after the long term interests of the company as a whole. This is precisely what our politicians do to us, day in and day out. It is their way of life, and trust once lost is not easily won back.

It is all enough to make you philosophical. Governments throughout the west have been intent on turning our universities into glitzy shopping malls for rich foreigners and richer locals, so politicians have no friends in those places. It is perhaps therefore not too surprising that in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Professor Simon Blackburn, then of Cambridge University, allowed himself a philosophical observation of a droll nature under the heading of ‘trust’: ‘The attitude of expecting good performance from another party, whether in terms of loyalty, goodwill, truth, or promises. The importance of trust as a kind of invisible glue that binds society together is most visible when it is lost….It is a general ambition of democratic politicians to be trusted whether or not they are trustworthy.’

This Is Where I Leave You

If you look up the word kitsch, you will see references to material that is low-brow and mass-produced, gaudily decorated with icons of the mob, and given to sentimentality and melodrama – something like a shock jock that appeals to those with no taste at all, and little sense of decency. The film This is Where I Leave You sets new levels of vulgarity in this genre that may never be surpassed.  It redefines my notion of a nightmare – spending one hundred minutes with the people in who inflicted this on us to see whether they could increase their insult to my brain and our humanity in person.  Like The Judge, it is a generational tale about a yuppie with a cheating wife who goes back to middle America after a death in the family and confronts his demons and his childhood sweetheart and some intellectually challenged people.  It could have been shot in the same town with the same cast. but the latter film had a theme and two distinguished actors.  This one just keeps getting worse.   It is like the Titanic such a bad film that it holds you enthralled to see whether it can sustain bullshit of such elegant and inevitable refinement.  Good art puts us at home with our humanity.  Kitsch makes us think that the apes are better off.  There is only one redeeming feature.  You get the same feeling with Der Rosenkavalier.  There is not much air between fascism and kitsch – if they can sell this rubbish, selling Hitler would be a breeze.

Terror and the Police State – Second Extract

This is the second extract from the book Terror and the Police State.  It is part of the first chapter, and gives a short account of each of the French, Russian, and Nazi revolutions.  It is a bit of a mouthful, but it is needed if we are to follow the reigns of terror and the police states that came with them.  These events are fundamental to all our modern history.  No one can understand Europe or Russia without at least this level of history.



The rule of the House of Bourbon, the last line of French Kings, was put on its last pedestal by one of the most formidable intellects and administrators of Europe, Cardinal Richelieu, in the 17th century. Louis XIV, the Sun King, then moved the court away from Paris to Versailles. His reign would be looked back on as a time of splendour, but he did not leave his successors with a sure or fair way of raising money, and that would be their downfall. The long reign of Louise XV would be characterised by the kind of corruption and debauchery that we associate with the decline and fall of Rome. The names of two of the mistresses live on – the Marquise de Pompadour and Madame du Barry. The latter was a commoner given in marriage to a count so that she could qualify as la maîtresse déclarée. The French monarchy was ‘absolute’ at least in the sense that the French constitution did not create or allow any substantive checks or balances on the exercise of royal power. The French notion of the rule of law was very different to the English.

The French nobility was not in good standing. Its members saw themselves as almost racially distinct from commoners. Their usefulness as defenders of the realm had passed. An antiquated system of privilege left them immune from most taxes. They expected to be kept in the manner to which they were accustomed and not to have to do anything in return. They were the ultimate passengers and they were about to be shown the door of the bus. Unfortunately for them, they would lose their status – derogate – if they accepted a lesser position when engaged in commerce. The English aristocracy was able to diversify and, if you like, trade out of trouble – and marry down into money and out of trouble.

The clergy was no better off. It was an order, not a class – it included both nobles and commoners. They were loved by neither. Catholics had the majority in France, but the Huguenots had caused stress, until they were in substance banished overseas. The obviousness of church wealth made its priests unpopular with all parts of the people and the priests were distrusted as an arm of government.

The bourgeoisie consisted of people who could live off their own means and, with some condescension and reservation, included two ‘labouring’ groups – the civil service and financiers, and the directors of the economy. The peasant laboured to feed himself and he sold only enough to acquire such cash as might be demanded by his king, the church, or his lord. He was free but was regarded by the bourgeois as uncouth and made by nature and position to support those above him and to contribute most to the royal treasury. The rural community was united against landlords and tithe collectors, taxes and towns, but there were deep divisions between rural workers. The bourgeoisie and labourers and peasants were united in their hatred of the aristocracy.

The hangover of feudalism was mainly seen in the antiquated tax system. There were varying duties and burdens owed by different peasants to different lords. Worse, the collection of taxes was often ‘farmed out’ to people whose reputation had not improved since the days of the Gospels, and this inevitably led to corruption and repression. The problem then was that too many people had a vested interest in the venality going on for the tax system ever to be reformed – and government could not be carried on with an unreformed tax system. In hindsight, it looks obvious now that if the monarchy collapsed, there would be a lot of tension between the aristocracy, the middle class, and those at the bottom about distributing the prizes.

Two things stand out about the French tax system. It was actually corrupt, arbitrary, oppressive and cruel. And as a general rule, the more wealth you had, the less tax that you paid. The whole system could have been designed to induce revulsion and rebellion.

That which we now call the French nation was a kingdom where the powers of the king varied between domains and provinces. There was no common law throughout France. We must therefore banish from our minds the notion of the modern state. There was hardly any sense of a supreme law-making power as we know it and little or no police to enforce such laws as may have been discernible. The security of the king rested ultimately on the army. If enough people were against the king, could the soldiers be trusted to train their guns on the people, or might they turn them on the king? This would be question that recent observers of Egypt would get used to, but the bigger question there was whether the army would turn against the people – and the answer to that question was another – which people?

In his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Sir Winston Churchill has a chapter on the French Revolution. It includes the following observations.

She was rich and many of her people prospered. Why then did revolution break out? Volumes have been written on this subject, but one fact is clear. French political machinery in no way expressed the people’s will. It did not match the times and could not move with them….The Government of France had long been bankrupt…Yet it has been well said that revolutions are not made by starving people. The peasants were no worse off and probably slightly more comfortable than a century before. Most of them were uninterested in politics. The revolutionary impulse came from elsewhere. The nobles had lost their energy and their faith in themselves….The clergy were divided. The Army was unreliable…The King and his Court lacked both the will and the ability to govern. Only the bourgeois possessed the appetite for power and the determination and self-confidence to seize it.The bourgeois were not democratic as we understand that word today. They distrusted the masses, the crowd, the mob, and with some reason, but they were nevertheless prepared to incite and use it against the ‘privileged’ nobility, and, if necessary, in the assertion of their own status, against the monarchy itself. Rousseau in his famous Social Contract and other essays had preached the theme of equality.

Churchill was a good friend of France and he knew a lot about politics. Those observations may be put against the following summary of the main events that constitute what we know as the French Revolution.

The French king ran out of money and credit, largely as the result of helping the Americans in their War of Independence. Like Spain or Greece today, the French had to find new ways to make themselves financial. In an attempt to find a constitutional solution, if not settlement, the king called for a meeting of the Estates-General, a convention of representatives of the nobility, the church, and the common people (the Third Estate). The shortage of funds for the crown occurred at the same time as a shortage of food for the workers and peasants. Expectations were aroused, but the three Estates could not agree, and the king was indecisive. The Third Estate called itself the National Assembly. It was joined by the clergy.

On 14 July 1789 the price of bread reached its highest point that year. The king had dismissed a finance minister who was trusted by the people in Paris. The people feared that the army would be used against them. They took up arms and for that purpose went to the old fortress that was a prison called the Bastille. When the mob was refused entry they besieged it. The Bastille surrendered that afternoon and its officers were hanged from lamp posts and their heads were cut off. The absolute monarchy was no more, but violence was there at the start.

The National Assembly abolished feudalism and serfdom, but it never settled on a lasting constitution. The king did not endorse the National Assembly’s main decrees and he then sought to escape.   He was apprehended and later executed. An insurrectionary commune was set up in Paris, fragmenting government. The experiment of trying to settle a limited form of monarchy – like that of England – had failed.

European monarchs threatened the new regime from outside and it was also threatened from within. The result was what is known as the Terror which finished with the death of Robespierre in 1794. After that the French experimented with a ‘Convention’, a ‘Directory’, and a ‘Consulate’, until at last a young general called Bonaparte imposed his will over Paris and France before seeking to impose it over Europe. The execution of the King had been followed by the coronation of the Emperor. The wheel had revolved full circle.


On the eve of its revolution in 1917, Russia was in many ways behind France in 1789. If you go to St. Petersburg, you might think, depending on the season, that you were in Italy, or at least Europe, with the light classical architecture and the light pastel colours. When you get to Moscow, you know that you are near to Asia, with the onion tops and thick mustard colours. It is like going to Istanbul. You can feel Europe receding behind you. St. Petersburg was built so that the Tsar could feel closer to Europe in more ways than one. Many Russians have felt a kind of horror at being thought of as being Asian.

It was Peter who built St. Petersburg – in record time, with slave labour – and he also laid the basis of the modern absolutist state when he turned all the nobles into servants of the crown. A noble was then legally defined as the Tsar’s ‘slave’. The Russian nobleman became obsessed by rank and the marks and insignia and etiquette of rank. The nobles were to their underlings what the Tsar was to his nobles. It was a trickle-down absolutism. The serfs had no rights at all. A young squire often claimed his ‘rights’ over serf girls. Serf harems were very fashionable in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Members of the ruling class were desperate to be comme il faut after the French fashion. There was therefore an identity crisis with the Napoleonic wars. War and Peace by Tolstoy is all about that crisis. The Jacobin reign of terror in France had already undermined the belief of Russia in Europe as a light unto the nations. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, Russian noblemen gave up Cliquot and Lafite for kvas and vodka, and haute cuisine for cabbage soup.

From time to time, some of the better people took it into their heads to do something about the appalling standing of the serfs. There was a kind of aristocratic uprising when people dreamed that every Russian peasant would enjoy the rights of citizens instead of being treated as the slaves that they were. If they went to Paris or London and came back to Moscow, they felt that they were going back to a prehistoric past. But the intellectuals wanted to see the Napoleonic War – the war of 1812 – as a war of national liberation from the intellectual empire of the French. The old Russian values were seen not in St. Petersburg but in Moscow, the head of old Muscovy. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow saw itself as the last surviving centre of the Orthodox religion, and as the heir to Rome and Byzantium, and as such the saviour of mankind. The veneration for the motherland or fatherland was as much religious as patriotic.

The lives of the peasants were miserable beyond description. According to an 1835 digest of laws, a wife’s duty was to ‘submit to the will of her husband’ and reside with him in all circumstances, unless he was exiled to Siberia’. Additionally she may have had to put with the sexual advances of not just her husband, but his father too, because there was an ancient peasant custom that gave the household elder rights of access to her body in the absence of his son. Also the better people frequently resorted to peasant women for sex. The great writer Turgenev himself had several love affairs with his own serfs; Tolstoy also exercised the same ‘squire’s rights’. Russia was the most infamously patriarchal state in the history of the world.

But some of their better people and intelligentsia thought that they were, nevertheless, civilised. Indeed, they thought that they had a mission to the world. Gogol in his novel Dead Souls said: ‘Is it not like that you too, Russia, are speeding along with a spirited troika that nothing can overtake?….The bells fill the air with their wonderful tinkling; the air is torn asunder, it thunders and is transformed into wind; everything on earth is flying past, and, looking askance, other nations and states draw aside and make way for her.’ Trotsky said: ‘We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but surely we cannot improve one man. Yes we can! To produce a new improved version of man – that is the future task of communism.’

Russia was still a peasant country at the turn of the century. Eighty per cent of the population were said to be peasants. But the upper classes had no idea of how the peasants lived. There were in truth ‘Two Russias’ separated by a gulf of mutual ignorance, distaste, and distrust. Some of the better people – like Tolstoy – had romantic visions, possibly encouraged by frequent sexual congress with them. These were Populists, but their zeal did not often survive physical contact. Dostoevsky told the truth: ‘We, the lovers of the people, regard them as part of a theory, and it seems that none of us really likes them as they actually are, but only as each of us has imagined them. Moreover, should the Russian people at some future time, turn out to be not what we imagined, then we, despite our love of them, would immediately renounce them without regret.’ This is what the Communists would do in both Russia and China.

The problem was worse than one of mere incomprehension. The Russian intelligentsia had a kind of craving for and a faith in the idea of absolute truth. They wanted to embrace Marxism as a science, and therefore a vehicle of demonstrable truth. If you combine this ignorance of the Russian peasant with a romantic vision of what he may aspire to, then you might find the faith to say that you have found the way to go straight to the socialist utopia without going through what Marx had said was the necessary phase of bourgeois development. It is as if the ancient peasant somehow supplied ‘the Missing Link’, or as if ‘the ancient commune would be preserved as the basis of Russian communism.’

The truth is that the love of the better people for the peasants was an illusion. They were in love with their own ideas and their own conceits. They were repelled by the real thing, and they turned inwards to their own abstractions. They became like Rousseau – long on humanity in the abstract; short on love for real men, women, and children. Those who became revolutionary fought the police state, and learned its methods. The poachers became gamekeepers. This happens all the time – the lure of power, and the craving for revenge. These hardened but superior types felt able to ‘liberate’ those under them according to their own conceptions of revolutionary justice, and by means appropriate to the inferior condition of those being blessed with liberation. We are then near the apex of the political thought of the Evangelist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the people may have to be forced to be free.

When Nicholas II knew he would be the Tsar, he burst into tears. ‘What is going to happen to me and to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling.’ (Louis XVI had said much the same.) A senior minister would observe of Nicholas, ‘Our Tsar is an oriental, a hundred per cent Byzantine’. The problem was that he was set on ruling, but he was no good at wielding power. His wife was not much help. She had been brought up by her grandmother, Queen Victoria. The two conversed in English and got factory made furniture from Maples.

The end of the Romanovs’ rule came quickly in February 1917. The Great War again showed up Russia’s military ineptitude and aggravated fears of food shortages. Queues of women gathered outside shops in Petrograd, as it was then known. They were joined by workers and there was a general strike. Nicholas II sought to rule through his army, but his army was fighting the Germans. His generals advised him to step down (abdicate), and he did so. The double eagle came down and the end of the Tsars was almost bloodless. The Order No.1 of the Petrograd Soviet called for democratisation of the army and recognition of the authority of the Soviets

on all policy questions relating to the armed forces.

This was the revolution described by John Reed in his book, Ten Days that Shook the World. It was a coup d’etat. Lenin had to scrap his idea that the revolution would be carried out by disciplined intellectuals directing the workers. There was a popular uprising. Meetings of Soviets were clamorous, standing room affairs that made the leaders take the real decisions between themselves in caucus. When those on the fringe sought to assert themselves, Trotsky dispatched them to ‘the dust-heap of history’.

But Lenin had departed from Marx and his party’s script. Marx was clear that there had to be a bourgeois phase before the people would be ready to move to the next phase – Lenin in his ‘theses’ called for the immediate transfer of power to the proletariat and the peasants. This was the gamble that Lenin was prepared to take. The stake was Russia. As Professor Hosking observed: ‘Whether they liked it or not, the Bolsheviks had come to power on the wings of a largely peasant revolution imbued with that spirit. They found themselves trying to found a modern, industrialised world-wide proletarian state on the basis of the backward, parochial Russian village community – a contradiction which haunted them, and which they later tried to overcome violently.’ What Gorky thought that he saw immediately was not any kind of social revolution, but ‘a program of greed, hatred and vengeance’. There may not be, it might be said, any necessary contradiction. Greed, hatred, and vengeance are there in full in every revolution.

Lenin wanted the Party to take power, not the Soviets. At a November 1917 election, the Bolsheviks won 23 per cent of the popular vote (almost exactly half of the highest vote recorded for Adolf Hitler in Germany), but what matter, they had taken power in the name of the working class, not in the name of all of the peoples of all of the Russias. Then, Afghan-style, they arrested the three electoral commissioners and installed a Bolshevik. Lenin then secured the dictatorship of his party and his own dictatorship over the party itself. Did any Bolshevik seriously believe that they were in this for anything other than themselves? In condemning any compromise, Trotsky asserted the primacy of the party: ‘There was no point organising the insurrection if we don’t get the majority.’

There in a few words is the sell-out of all the Russias. They were just hijacked. People thinking of democracy were just dreamers, and probably bourgeois dreamers to boot. The Bolshevik Party had undergone a Leninist Management Buy-Out; the armed coup was just a front. This happens a lot with takeover merchants of all sorts. The capitalists wanted control of capital then labour. The communists wanted control of labour then capital. Their motives and styles were similar, as was their general want of decency; the difference came in the priority awarded to the differences in their greed.

Because they believed that their revolution heralded a world-wide revolution, the Bolsheviks changed their name to Communist, after the rising in the Paris Commune of 1871. Lenin signed the treaty that ended the war with Germany. Land was transferred to village assemblies and Lenin was trying to found proletarian internationalism on the basis of peasant parochialism. The Communists truly believed, they said, that socialism would rule the world – including China and Brazil. They also believed that they would need at least a European revolution to support their own revolution. They had a limitless capacity for projecting their dreams on to places that they knew nothing at all about.

The Communists’ hold on power was not strong. The Soviets formed Red Guards, workers’ police militias, a little like the Brownshirts of the Nazis. As a sign of things to come, the Communists closed down the newspapers that were not socialist, and established their own security police called Cheka – the Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Capitalist Speculation and Counter-Revolution.

In truth, the Communists could only hold their power by brutal means. But since they believed that the ends were ordained by history, as taught by Marx, they believed that savage means were warranted. People’s courts and revolutionary tribunals were set up. These worked with the Cheka, much as the Committee of Public Safety had worked in Paris. The People’s Courts would be guided by their ‘revolutionary conscience’ in line with the view of Lenin that the legal system should be used as a weapon of mass terror against the bourgeoisie.

Yet the workers were not seeing dividends. There was no improvement in their lives. And throughout Russia, many of the peasants were unhappy and unsettled. There was a scarcity of goods and runaway inflation. And once a regime stoops to lawless brutality to maintain itself in power, it finds it very hard to give it up and turn over a new leaf, or hand over to new people whose hands have not been dirtied and bloodied.

Language was violated in a movement that came to be crystallised in Orwell’s 1984. Trade unions were replaced by ‘political departments’. One party operative said that ‘militarisation is nothing other than the self-organisation of the working class’. The Communist Party, as might reasonably have been predicted, shrank within itself and came to be dominated by the Red Army veterans who saw themselves as the true believers charged with leading a suspicious and suspect but mindless citizenry to its Marx-given glory. One worker’s group was denounced as ‘anarcho-syndicalist deviation’.

By a process that others might see as the inevitable climax of Marxist historicism, the party became the be-all and end-all, transplanting the drab, uncomprehending working class and peasantry as the ultimate beneficiary of all the bloodshed. The Civil War militarised and brutalised the Communist cause and destroyed any inkling of the rule of law in Russia. What else could a minority dictatorship be but ruthlessly repressive? Terror became both necessary and desirable for both Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin asked: ‘If we are not ready to shoot a saboteur and White Guardist [the other side in the Civil War], what sort of revolution is that?’

The theoretical basis of the revolution was founded on hostility between classes. In one sense, at least, the revolution may be seen to have been predicated on hate. The Russian Revolution, like the French, started in violence. This is entailed by the notion of ‘revolution’, and it led to a brutal suppression and an even more brutal civil war. Did those responsible for all of this violence, terror and bloodshed, all of this upheaval, chaos and repression, truly believe that in the result they would all come to walk in peace, happiness and prosperity in what Churchill would come to call ‘these broad, sunlit uplands’? The answer, apparently, is ‘yes’.

Before he died, Lenin introduced a scheme that we now see as the embodiment of a regime like that of the Communists. His Plan for Monumental Propaganda was meant to surround workers with architectural and sculptural statements about their new world, but artistic life, like intellectual life, cannot survive under a totalitarian regime.

Lenin died in 1924 and, contrary to a wish expressed by him before his death, Stalin succeeded Lenin as the Secretary General of the Party. As such, he had more power than any Russian Tsar had ever had and the real Russian nightmare was about to begin.


The nation that we know as Germany did not come into being until the second half of the nineteenth century. Its architect was a most formidable Prussian statesman called Bismarck. Under him, Germany became the foremost liberal democracy in the world, with movements toward the Welfare State that would lead Lloyd George and Winston Churchill nearly to cause a revolution in England when they sought to keep up with the Germans’ tenderness toward the halt and the infirm. Then it all fell apart for Germany and Europe when most of the world descended into the First World War. It would be the last fling of the old monarchies, empires, aristocracies, and ruling classes, and the carnage was horrific and unimaginable. About eight million people were killed. The world was being introduced to numbers of dead that the living just could not get their heads around. The loss to a whole generation in people, and the damage to national economies, meant that people were reluctant to take up arms against new aggressors, and that the world as a whole might be more subject to economic collapse in the form that we know as a depression.

Germany lost the Great War, but we can now see that the victorious nations, known as the Allies, made two errors in the way that they concluded hostilities and then settled the terms of the Peace. The first mistake was not to reduce the losing nation to a level where it had to accept unconditional surrender. This enabled the Germans to say that they had not been beaten. The second mistake was to show a complete lack of statesmanship in the Treaty of Versailles, and to seek to crush the German nation and to render it economically helpless – with no corresponding benefit to the victors. The first mistake enabled someone like Hitler and a party like the Nazis to get off the ground. The second mistake, combined with the Depression, enabled Hitler and the Nazis to get control of Germany. Once that happened, we now know that something like another world war was almost inevitable. The Allies would not repeat either mistake after the next war. They insisted on crushing both Germany and Japan, and then conducting sensible occupations, fixing fair peace terms, and even giving support and relief to the vanquished.

John Maynard Keynes saw it all from Versailles. He wrote in The Economic Consequences of the Peace:

The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness, should be abhorrent and detestable – abhorrent and detestable even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilized life of Europe. Some preach it in the name of justice. In the great events of man’s history, in the unwinding of the complex fates of nations, justice is not so simple. And if it were, nations are not authorized, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.

In case people did not want to face the corollary, Keynes also said:

If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and progress of our generation.

The Germans were held responsible for starting the first war, but they could not bring themselves to accept the fact that they had lost the war. They invented the myth that they had not been defeated at all, but that they had been stabbed in the back. General Pershing of the U S had specifically warned the Allies of the consequences of not bringing Germany to its knees. He forecast just how the Germans would react.

The moral and political upheavals infesting Europe between the wars were tailor-made to produce simplistic dictators peddling snake-oil potions of nationalism, militarism, and command-style economic methods, a bizarre kind of feudal concoction that in the hands of people like Mussolini, Hitler and Franco now look to us to be at best stupidly implausible and at worst, if you could take them seriously, cruel and lethal.

Hitler had an additional scapegoat – the Jews. Anti-Semitism was alive if not raging across Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Hitler really believed in his crusade against them, and enough Germans were prepared to put this dark side behind them while Hitler was restoring national pride and ending unemployment and getting the trains to run on time. If the Jews had to take pain while Germany reversed the outrage of Versailles, so be it; they were at least used to being on the outer. You can assess the prevailing virulence of European anti-Semitism by looking at the roles that the people of France and Italy later played in assisting Germany deal with the Jews and the appalling atrocities committed against the Jews in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans. There would be fascist governments in Italy, Spain, Vichy France, Greece, and the Balkans. It would be in the Balkans that some of the worst racist atrocities would be committed, and long after the war.

But Hitler’s campaign was foundering. He never got to 50% of an electoral vote for parliament, and his final ascent was only made possible by the chaos following the Great Crash of 1929, and the Great Depression. If Hitler had been brought to the door of Germany, the Depression blew out the whole doorway. The national ‘socialists’ liked to go on about ‘plutocrats’, before retiring to their villas, to dine with the Krupps and the Fabens.

Hitler got to power by a combination of brute force, mass seduction, and fraud. His party consisted at its heart of perverts and thugs who were happy to beat up or kill anyone whom their leader (fuhrer) had not seduced. He had a kind of magical power over crowds who were ready to surrender to him. His word meant nothing; nothing, not even Germany, could stand in his way. In the Night of the Long Knives, he did not hesitate to murder those who had brought him to power. He was dealing with opponents weakened by the same thing as Germany – a brutal war that had robbed whole nations of their manhood and their humanity, and that had left the world without an enforceable moral compass.

The Germans cannot be heard to say that they had not been warned precisely of the terrors and moral horrors that would come with Hitler. They could not be heard to say that they did not know he was intent on annihilating both the Russians and the Jews. It was all there in chapter and verse in Mein Kampf. But, while Hitler was getting results, decent Germans, or enough of them, were prepared to look the other way. For whatever reason, the Germans did not take Mein Kampf seriously. For probably similar reasons, England and the rest of Europe chose not to take Keynes seriously, although the forecasts of both Keynes and Hitler were all ruinously fulfilled.

The failure of decent, sane people in Europe to respond to dictators like Mussolini, Hitler or Franco in a way that we would regard now as sensible or responsible is uncomfortably reflected in the fact that the Pope, the principal guardian of the religion of the West, found a way to come to terms with each of those dictators through deals called Concordats. Each dictator – and only Franco had any sort of religion and anything but contempt for Christ – regarded his deal with the pope as an essential plank in his political platform.

The failure of educated Germans to deal with Hitler led to a kind of national nervous breakdown that was summed up by Sebastian Haffner, who was a law student in Berlin when the Brownshirts evicted the Jews from the law library, as follows.

The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding’. This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial….At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed. They yielded and capitulated, and suffered a nervous breakdown….The Kammergericht [superior court] toed the line. No Frederick the Great was needed, not even Hitler had to intervene. All that was required was a few Amtsgerichtsrats [judges] with a deficient knowledge of the law.

What might be described as the failure of the better people of Italy has been described by a biographer of Mussolini in terms that could be transposed word for word to the Germans and Hitler.

Mussolini still needed their [the moderates’] help, for most of the liberal parliamentarians would look to them for a lead. He also took careful note that chaos had been caused in Russia when representatives of the old order were defenestrated en masse during the revolution: fascism could hardly have survived if the police, the magistrates, the army leaders and the civil service had not continued to work just as before, and the complicity of these older politicians was eagerly sought and helped to preserve the important illusion that nothing had changed.

The liberals failed to use the leverage afforded by his need for their approbation. Most of them saw some good in fascism as a way of defending social order and thought Italians too intelligent and civilised to permit the establishment of a complete dictatorship. Above all, there was the very persuasive argument that the only alternative was to return to the anarchy and parliamentary stalemate they remembered….Mussolini had convincingly proved that he was the most effective politician of them all: he alone could have asked parliament for full powers and been given what he asked; he alone provided a defence against, and an alternative to, socialism. And of course the old parliamentarians still hoped to capture and absorb him into their own system in the long run; their optimism was encouraged by the fact that his fascist collaborators were so second-rate.

Does that not seem to be a correct rendition of how decent Germans probably reacted to Hitler? Still today you will find Christian apologists for Franco, and not just in Spain, who say that his fascism was preferable to republican socialism.

Mussolini had the other advantage that for reasons we now regard as obvious, no one outside Italy could take Mussolini seriously. As his biographer reminds us, Mussolini was, rather like Berlusconi, seen as an ‘absurd little man’, a ‘second-rate cinema actor and someone who could not continue in power for long’, a ‘Cesar de carnaval’, a ‘braggart and an actor’, and possibly ‘slightly off his head.’ Churchill always took Hitler seriously; he could never do that with that Italian buffoon. The Fuhrer would betray his nation and kill himself and his mistress; the Italians would revolt from and then murder their Duce and his mistress, and hang them upside down in public. (The Italians have rarely had any idea of political stability or succession.)

Once war was declared, the German people overwhelmingly supported their fighting men and their Fatherland. For whatever reason, the middle classes and those above them in Germany, Italy or Spain, and the popes, did not realise that they had a tiger by the tail with Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco until it was far, far too late. Hitler had said that Germans should be ready to enter into a pact with the devil to eradicate the evil of Jewry. He entered into just such a pact with the devil and the German people entered into just such a pact with him. As usual, the devil won. The principal quarry of the Nazi Terror was the German people. The death squads of the SS were something else.

Venus in a Fur

This film may not be one for the boys, but it is a film for anyone who is into theatre or film, and who goes to either to be entertained. You will hardly ever be as well entertained as you are here. It is also a vindication of aging. The great director Roman Polanski is over eighty and the lead, Emmanuelle Seigner, who is his wife, is nearly fifty – and she is about to reach her prime – in any way you care to nominate. She is well supported by the only other actor, Mathieu Amalric, who does not look entirely unlike Polanski at that age.

The film follows a Broadway play a few years back. There is only one set, a theatre set for auditions. Thomas has written a play based on a nineteenth century novel about sado-masochism. He cannot find anyone from the modern stage to play an Ibsen-like siren-part. Then on a stormy night, Vanda arrives, unannounced, with a bag of tricks, as rough as guts, and larger than life, and ready to challenge all preconceptions about acting, sexiness, and politesse – and you know immediately that Thomas’s life may never be the same, the poor bastard. Vanda bludgeons Thomas into allowing her to start to an audition with him standing in for the male lead. The moment that she converts to the role might take your breath away. She knows the part by heart and Thomas gets sucked in to the point of obsession, and to where she has very much ceased to be the supplicant. Because they go in and out of character until you lose track, the capacity for irony is endless. The night might also be fateful for the fiancé of Thomas – a fiancé: how quaint! – who keeps ringing him to see what is keeping him. His phone rings to the Ride of the Valkyries, and our Thomas was not made to ride in that company. (Who is?) It is then that some of the boys in the audience might start to wonder how this all might end well for Thomas, and look around in case there are some Amazons on the prowl with a spare pair of garlic crushers.

The performance of Seigner is breathtaking. She does not command the camera – the camera salutes her. Her dominance – again in any way you like – is complete, although Mathieu Amalric is also flawless. Her presence and her mannerisms reminded me a lot of Gerard Depardieu and I say that in the warmest possible way. The play keeps trashing boundaries. It is a stunning night at the theatre – in the cinema – where we are privileged to be with great stars at the height of their powers. It is just that some of the boys might need a shot of something as a steadier on the way home.

For that matter, there may be something in it for the Sisters. I am not talking about sado-masochism, which I find at best unhappily tasteless and wasteful, like an angry drunk, but about the fact that this show revels in the celebration that women can be feminine in so many ways. Sex may not make the world go round, but it does see that the world stays peopled which is, as another play reminds us, an imperative.

The Judge


What is said to be the first rule of advocacy is that if you have good point, make it, and don’t spoil it with a dud point – or just bury it. It is good advice for any writer and any film-maker. One problem with The Judge is that there are too many currants in the bun, and that is one reason that it is far too long, at two hours twenty minutes. It is a father and son story that is full of improbability and schmalz, and as a trial story it is almost wildly loose – and we could have done without the leering, Satanic a prosecutor with a hang-up. But I enjoyed the film, a lot. A trial film cannot be all bad if it makes a ritual out of a young attorney throwing up each morning before court, and then gives us a commentary on the etiquette of throwing up. The hero – and he is there to undergo a rite of return – is a country boy made good – after a fashion. He is a glib smart-arse who gives the law a bad name. He goes back home to bury his mother and ends confronting himself, his past and his family when he acts for his father, the long-time judge of the town, on a murder charge. The hero is played by Robert Downey Junior who has real screen presence. Downey is impressive in that he impresses his role on you. His father is played by Robert Duvall at a stage in his career where you are going bad if you are not moved. Downey does hold your and the camera’s attention – he reminded me a lot of Dirk Bogarde. Duvall is a seriously good actor and he ends up wearing my version of a Stetson hat. Some of the schmalz is over the top, but two women have very good sexy parts, and I thought that the film used very fine actors to make enough contact with the facts of life to keep me well entertained and thinking about it fondly for the thirty minute drive home through the bush. Daylesford is a town on a lake and would be about the size of the town where this film was shot, but I do not think that it sports a diner with women behind the bar quite as sexy as those in the film. The cinema is however run on the free list as a community project and we should encourage it.