Here and there – Sowing the Wind

 

Sowing the Wind by John Keay (available in Folio Edition) is a balanced and luminous account of how the West imperially but brutally dismembered almost every part of the Middle East.  The result is that, as the Bible said, we are now reaping the whirlwind.  The lessons of this book are vital, but those who would like to concentrate on the West to the Exclusion of the East would want to have nothing to do with this book.  It shows, among other things, why the isolationist response is so fallacious and dangerous.

Robert Fisk raises the issue squarely in his Foreword.

Why does the West think it can lecture the Arabs on their history, their beliefs, their way of life, their ‘culture’?  How can this fundamental imbalance between ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient’ – themselves weirdly Western creations – be corrected or even understood?

And here we touch the essence of the difference between Christianity and Islam in its present tragic stage.  I do not think that we in the West believe in God these days.  American evangelists, no doubt.  Yet their refusal to accept evolutionism is oddly similar to that of ISIS, whose own concept of God refuses to countenance any Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest.’  The ‘fittest’ were those who followed God’s word, to the very letter, and that is an end to it.  Judaism offers a more nuanced response to God’s role and purpose in the creation of life.  Increasingly, however, Muslims find that God the ‘all-creator’ presided over evolution; hence the extraordinary – and to Westerners surprising – Islamist fascination with science.

But in the ‘West’ our gods tend to be human rights and the United Nations, Amnesty International and international law.  That is why our history books no longer speak of Islam and Christendom, but of Islam and the ‘West’.  So how is it……that a people who still believe in God, who still believe that the Quran is the word of God himself, for whom religion lies at the centre of the family and all that life holds, should find itself in submission – militarily, economically, socially, culturally – to a people who have largely forsaken their God?

What is the answer?

Keay tells us that in negotiating the Sykes-Picot agreement, Georges-Picot was ‘the scion of a colonialist dynasty’ and a firm believer in France’s mission historique et civilisatrice.  He therefore demanded and got all of Syria and CiliciaThe agreement was of course the one in which France and England casually carved up the Middle East between them so as to betray almost everyone involved.

Even when he knew the Arabs had been betrayed, Lawrence hoped for a new world order ‘in which the dominant races will forget their brute achievements, and white and red and yellow and brown and black will stand up together without side-glances in the service of the world.’  He said: ‘Unless we or our allies make an efficient Arab empire there will never be more than a discordant mosaic of provincial administrations.’  Keay says:

For all the fine words about building a new Arab nation, Lawrence was as intent as Brémond on creating a post-war Middle East that would be easily manageable in his own nation’s interest.  Syria, in Lawrence’s reckoning, was no more a suitable subject for sovereign independence than Arabia.  It was by nature a vassal country…..Mesopotamia/Iraq would be ‘our first brown dominion’

Lawrence said he was involved in ‘fraud.’

But there was neither sense nor virtue in identifying with the Arabs to the extent of condoning their political presumption.  The Bedouin, even in Lawrence’s piercing blue eyes, were uncouth and unmanageable; settled Arabs he was loth to consider as Arabs at all; and as for the educated, Westernised classes, they were the worst of all….’Europeanised youth’, ‘native Christians’…and ‘nationalised hot-heads’ were abominations who offended British conceits about both class distinction and racial privilege.  Their manners were appalling, yet they were precisely the people who, who, given a chance, would be running the ‘dream-palace’ [Lawrence’s term].  It was unthinkable.

After the armistice Clemenceau asked Lloyd George what he wanted.  ‘I wanted Mosul attached to Iraq and Palestine from Beersheba to Dan’.  ‘You shall have it.’  Why Mosul?  The oil, stupid.

The English bombed Iraq in a 1920 revolt.  The War Office said that they should not use the word ‘rebel’.  That may have entailed something like ‘sovereignty’ in Iraq.  They tried ‘insurgent’ and then ‘revolution.’  The same contortions and lies took place this century in Iraq.

In the Great Revolt in Iraq in 1920, the British lost 400 mostly Indian troops and Arab losses probably topped 8500.  (The Arabs now endure similar ratios against Israel.)

Jordan was set up as a place to park a loose cannon.  ‘Its political viability, even its value to the British, had yet to be proven; its international status had yet to be determined; and its frontiers had yet to be demarcated.  A child of political expedience, it had neither an economic or geographical rationale’.  The same went for Lebanon, but the French wanted to look after Maronite Christians.

Churchill thought of chemically bombing the Kurds, ahead of Hussein.  The Sunni Shia split made things worse.  Do you not see how all these things come back to haunt us?

The Great Revolt in Syria in 1925 saw France bomb Damascus.

That what was reputedly the world’s oldest city could be indiscriminately bombed and shelled in the name of one of the world’s most civilised peoples simply beggared belief.  In the heat of the First World War, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus itself had all changed hands with no more than occasional rifle fire within their revered precincts.  Yet here, without the sanction of war, the champions of religion, equality and fraternity were delivering death to the innocent and destruction to the hallowed while supposedly discharging a sacred trust on behalf of the League of Nations and operating within the consensual constraints of one of its mandates.

Look at what is left of Damascus now and ask yourself who is really responsible.

The Balfour Declaration implied that the ninety per cent of people in Palestine who were not Jewish possessed no national identity and no political rights.  Neither alone nor as part of some other existing entity were the local Arabs reckoned to be a putative nation.  The mandate had no time limit.  For Christians, Palestine was predominantly a Land (capital L) so Holy (capital H) that in respect of its inhabitants, the norms of nationality and government need not apply.  The indigenous Arabs may well have thought that the British treated them in the same way that they had treated our indigenous people – by the simple expedient of saying that their presence did not stop the occupying power doing what they liked.

There were massacres on both sides in Jerusalem in 1921.  This religious or race war is now nearly a century old.  Zionists would not tolerate a representative body since they were a minority and such a government would be prejudicial to the establishment of the national home.

Orde Wingate was involved in training Jewish fighters.  His family was Plymouth Brethren.  He and other Englishmen trained Jewish Night Squads to counter Arab terrorists.  They – people like Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan – became terrorists.  Wingate told them ‘You are the first soldiers if the Jewish army.  This provoked Arab responses.  The Jewish terrorists had the same motivation as the Arabs – they had God on their side – the only right God.

In one of the more signal failures of the West, the Vichy French fought the British in Palestine.  (One of my neighbours, who is no longer with us, was in the AIF in Syria where he was shot at by the French.  He joined the Air Force in disgust.)

Militant Jewish groups resembled those of the Nazis.  Keay says that ‘Buoyed by prophecy and desperate for sanctuary, the Zionists of the European ghettoes disdained legal restraint…’Churchill referred to ‘a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany.’  The most senior British politician to be killed in the Second World War was assassinated in the name of Zion.

Keay says that after the first war:

The ruling elites of all the Arab states who had failed to prevent this disaster found themselves fully discredited in the eyes of their own people….Revolution, long in the air, had now entered the bloodstream.

The author goes on to say how MI6 and the CIA installed the Shah; how the British and French were humiliated at Suez; and he mentions the massacres at Shatila and Sabra.

That is where he stops.  The disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria still go on.  The assault on the twin towers looks nigh on inevitable in the face of the inane cruelty and provocation of the Arabs by Europe and the U S.  The world may have been much better off if Europe and the U S had kept their hunger for power and oil to themselves.  The whirlwind has a very long way to go, and the conflict between Israel and its Arab and Persian neighbours looks to be soluble only by obliteration of the lines drawn during the death throes of the imperialism of Europe.  Just try to imagine what your reaction may have been if it was Europe that was Muslim and the Middle East that was Christian and that the Christians had carved up and insulted Europe in reverse and without asking dumped a group of the fold in Europe.  How well do you think the Europeans would take all that?  Would you not expect to see at least the level of terror that the Americans, Irish and Zionists used against Britain?  Was it not inevitable that each of those three nations was to be born in terror?

MY TOP SHELF – 17

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

17

ROIS ET SERFS

Marc Bloch (1920)

Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, Paris, 1920; facsimile reprint Slatkine-Megariotis, Geneva, 1976; rebound in quarter vellum with red cloth boards and red label embossed.

I was born in France.  I have drunk the waters of her culture.  I have made her past my own.  I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests.

Winston Churchill used the term ‘unconquerable fidelity’ to refer to some of the people opposing the Third Reich.  It is a very just epitaph for the French historian, Marc Bloch.  Coming from a family of assimilated Alsatian Jews, Bloch studied in Paris at the Ecole Normale Supérieur and then in Berlin and Leipzig.  He served in the infantry throughout the First World War and attained the rank of captain.  He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.  Between the wars he won an international reputation as an historian and helped to found the Annales School.  He invoked the work of German historians and his great work spanned all Europe.  He re-joined the army in 1939 and wrote a book Strange Defeat after the capitulation.  He worked on historiography, and he also served the Resistance, code named ‘Narbonne’.  Vichy police took him and handed him over to the Gestapo who tortured him and shot him shortly before the Allies arrived.  His friends had asked him to get out of France, but he had thought that he had a duty to stay.

In Strange Defeat, Bloch had uttered those most beautiful words that are set out at the head of this note.  I shall come back to his execution when looking at War and Peace, but it is enough to say now that Marc Bloch was a man to whom the word ‘patriot’ might be applied both fairly and decently.

Rois et Serfs (‘Kings and Serfs’) was Bloch’s doctoral thesis that looked at emancipation ordinances of 1315 and 1318 and found that the references to ‘natural freedom’ did not represent an endorsement of human liberty – they were just part of a conventional formula, a drafting device, although Bloch saw behind it a conflict between the ideals of the church fathers of equality and the reality of their hierarchy.  The work prefigures his later work with its focus on royalty and the functions of royal officials and the ways of the common people.  It contains valuable advice for lawyers today.  Ces discourses préliminaires tournaient tousjours dans le même cercle de pensées ou de lieux communs, sans avoir la vie reelle qu’un bien lointain rapport, – étant forcement elogieéux pour le personage qui avait commandé l’acte, et presentant invariablement ses motifs sous le jour le plus flatteur.  In translation – statutory preambles are self-serving propaganda.

But this book stands here for the great ‘Feudal Society’ (La société féodale), a clear and simple picture of feudalism that offers us a picture of medieval Europe.  It is extremely wide in its scope but, like the work of Maitland, it is rooted in the concrete and it is graphically written.  It is one of those great histories that can be read and enjoyed equally by the specialist and the general reader.  It is in truth a masterpiece of composition – in French or English.

Here are some extracts to show the style and substance of this colossal achievement.

Yet the revival of interest in Roman law provoked lively opposition.  Fundamentally secular, it disturbed many churchmen by its latent paganism.  The guardians of monastic virtue accused it of having turned away the monks from prayer.  The theologians reproached it with supplanting the only forms of speculative activity that seemed to them worthy of clerics.  The kings of France themselves or their counsellors, at least from Philip Augustus on, seem to have taken umbrage at the too easy justifications which it provided for the theorists of Imperial hegemony.  Far from arresting the movement, however, this opposition did little more than attest its strength.

The principal difficulty, therefore, which faced the central government was to reach residual subjects, in order to exact services and impose the necessary sanctions.  Thus there arose the idea of utilizing for the purposes of government the firmly established network of protective relationships.  The lord, at every level of the hierarchy, would be answerable for his ‘man’ and would be responsible for holding him to his duty.  This idea was not peculiar to the Carolingians….Under the Carolingians, on the other hand, various royal or imperial edicts were concerned with defining precisely the offences which, if committed by the lord, would justify the vassal in breaking the contract.  This meant that, with the exception of such cases, and apart from separations by mutual agreement, the tie lasted for life.

Yet, whatever the inequalities between the obligations of the respective parties, those obligations were none the less mutual; the obedience of the vassal was conditional upon the scrupulous fulfilment of his engagements by the lord.  This reciprocity in unequal obligations….was the really distinctive feature of European vassalage.  This characteristic distinguished it not only from ancient slavery but also, and very profoundly, from the forms of free dependence known to other civilizations, like that of Japan, and even to certain societies bordering on the feudal zone proper.

In reflecting on this picture of people being bound together by mutual agreement and ties, we are speaking of times more than a millennium ago.

It was there in the commune that the really revolutionary ferment was to be seen with its violent hostility to a stratified society.  Certainly these primitive urban groups were in no sense democratic.  The greater bourgeois, who were their real founders and whom the lesser bourgeois were not always eager to follow, were often in their treatment of the poor hard task masters and merciless creditors.  But by substituting for the promise of obedience, paid for by protection, the promise of mutual aid, they contributed to the social life of Europe a new element, profoundly alien to the feudal spirit properly so called.

There is a riveting insight there, both French and universal.

Assuredly the English parliamentary system was not cradled in ‘the forests of Germania’.  It bore the deep imprint of the feudal environment from which it sprang.  But the peculiar quality which distinguished it so sharply from the Continental systems of ‘Estates’, and, more generally, that collaboration of the well-to do classes in power, so characteristic of the English political structure so long ago as the Middle Ages – the origin of these is surely to be found in the firm establishment on English soil of the system of assemblies composed of the free men of the territory, in accordance with the practice of the barbarian epoch.

The book ends with these words.

Nor was it an accident that in Japan, where the vassal’s submission was much more unilateral and where, moreover, the divine power of the Emperor remained outside the structure of vassal engagements, nothing of the kind emerged from a regime which was nevertheless in many respects closely akin to the feudalism of the West.  The originality of the latter system consisted in the emphasis it placed on the idea of an agreement capable of binding the rulers; and in this way, oppressive as it may have been to the poor, it has in truth bequeathed to our Western civilization something with which we still desire to live.

So much of all this is treasure.  Here is the work and the writing of a man of immense learning and authority.  This great French scholar and patriot gives me the same feeling that I get when I am reading Maitland – that I am in the hands of an historian whose judgment has been forged in the mastery of his evidence and whose integrity is assured by the demonstration of his technique. You are blessed indeed if you ever get to read a work of history that is as enlightening – as illuminating – as ‘Feudal Society’.

Here and there – The Courtiers of King Henry VIII and President Donald Trump

 

A very long time ago – about, say, five or six centuries – the kings of England did not just reign, they ruled, and their subjects owed fealty to them personally.  Then you could still sensibly speak of an absolute monarchy, as was certainly the case in France, and the rule of law was an idea whose time had not yet come.  That was the case – more or less – with Henry VIII.

Donald Trump thinks that it should be the case for him – and he behaves as if it is.  He is about half a millennium out of date, as are those despotic regimes, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, which Trump most admires.

His gross appearance, his blustering demeanour, his vulgarity, his arrogance, his sensuality, his cruelty, his hypocrisy, his want of common decency, are marked in strong lines.

Every word applies to Donald Trump, but it was written by a famous English critic (Hazlitt) about Henry VIII as seen by Shakespeare in the play of that name – and his Harry might be thought to be mild compared to the historical king.  The play ends with the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth and before King Henry VIII became a retail terminator of his wives and first ministers.

Both Trump and Henry are – I will use the present tense for both – blustering, arrogant, sensual, cruel, hypocritical and lacking common decency.  The essential thing about them is that each of them is so full of himself that there is no room for anyone else.  Being a courtier to either is therefore tricky.  No courtier, no matter how high, ever knows when his time might be up.  The Prologue speaks of great people followed by a thousand friends –

…….Then in a moment, see

How soon this mightiness meets misery….(29-30)

Before looking at what Trump may have in common with Henry VIII – both in history and on the stage – we should notice some differences.  Henry is intelligent, religious and intent on doing the right thing by the country he rules.  None of that is true for Trump.  He is a stupid man with no room in his ego for God or his nation.  Sir Geoffrey Elton said that Henry was ‘intelligent, a capable musician, quite well-seen in theology, a patron of the arts and learning’ and that ‘foreign ambassadors as well as his own subjects praised him to the skies.’  How very different is Trump.  But Elton also said:

Of all Henry VIII’s follies none cost his country dearer than his illusion that he was an old and experienced king who knew his business and needed no one to do it for him.

That’s Trump to his toe nails.

There are other differences.  Young Harry was very well educated.  Young Donald was not.  Henry was fluent in four languages.  Trump has trouble putting a sentence together in one.  You would have as much chance of getting a definition of ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ from Trump as you would of seeing his school report cards.

King Henry disrupted the body politic in order to give the nation a secure heir to the throne.  That was his duty.  President Trump disrupted the body politic in order to secure places for his family.  That was a breach of his duty, and this vulgar family intrusion continues to generate conflicts of interest that would be laughable if they were not so gross.

What then do they have in common?

Each of the King and the President is a monument to the wisdom of the admonition ‘Put not your trust in princes’ (Psalm, 146:3).  Indeed, one of Harry’s principal victims (Cardinal Wolsey) echoed just those words:

…..O, how wretched

Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!

There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,

That sweet aspect of princes and their ruin,

More pangs and fears that wars or women have.

And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,

Never to hope again.  (III, ii, 366-372)

A strong leader does not have to claim the authoritarian powers of Stalin or Hitler before he reduces his senior advisers to nervous wrecks who look like menials – and whose consequent apparent weakness makes them only a more likely target.  They are made to look and feel servile.  Trump and Harry have this in common with dogs – they can sense fear and this arouses them.  They pleasure themselves by exploiting fear in others.  For each of them, it is a double hit of showing off his power.  They live to put people down and this means that neither has the mettle of a leader.

On this ground, too, neither has a sense of humour.  That is one way that the rest of us oil our humanity, but for each of these man-eaters, a joke is just a badly disguised kick to the groin.

The play Henry VIII sees the fall of three eminent persons – the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey – all engineered by the King.  We also have a putsch against Archbishop Cranmer that is scotched by the King (and what high theatre we have there).  The later execution of Anne Boleyn was little more than judicial murder.  Whether it was more cruel than the casting off of Queen Katherine is a question on which reasonable minds may differ.  The first minister, Cromwell, the prime author of the legislation giving effect to the Reformation in England, would also fall.  And if he fell like Lucifer, the fall was also far more terminal – what Buckingham refers to as ‘the long divorce of steel.’  Wolsey escaped the axe; Cromwell and More did not.  Some of Henry’s victims suffered death, but the list of Trump’s victims is so much longer – and in a much shorter time.

And yet, at least in the play, they all go quietly in the end.  As did most victims of Stalin.  The lethal reputation of the ruler induces a kind of resignation and acceptance.

This looks to be the case with the victims of Trump.  With the exception of James Comey, of the FBI, most went quietly to their end, although as often as not that end was pronounced in the most cowardly and vulgar manner.

Henry VIII appears to be as much a bully as Trump is.  The flip side of the bully is the coward.  Harry fancies himself as a latterday medieval man of steel.  Medieval kings had to rule in a personal way that does not apply to current presidents – at least outside of world war.  The cowardice of Trump is notorious – from his evasion of military service, to his refusal to show his tax returns, to his cringing before real despots – but at least in one respect Harry shares that cowardice.  In his recent biography Thomas Cromwell, A Life, Diarmaid MacCulloch says that Henry is ‘a thorough coward’ when it comes to ‘personal confrontations.’  Trump always gets a minion – like a demeaned three star general – to deliver the pink slip, and he could not bring himself to listen to the tape of the murder of a journalist – before he went ahead to acquit the murderer.

Although Henry is far more intelligent than Trump, we get the impression that both could be unduly swayed by the last person either spoke to.  That disability is nigh on terminal for a judge, but it also creates disharmony in the court of a ruler.  Courtiers suspected that both Wolsey and Cromwell had got to a position of dominance with King Henry.

He dives into the King’s soul, and there scatters

Dangers, doubts, wringing of the conscience,

Fears and despairs.  (II, ii, 26-28)

That is precisely what we could have heard from some in the White House when Mr Bannon was closeted alone with the President, or when Mr Kushner gets to be so now.  Both those gentlemen have the misfortune to look to be at their most dangerous when they look to be doing nothing.  (It is hard to imagine anyone showing outright blankness in the way Mr Kushner does.  Is anyone ever at home?)

Both rulers are relentlessly insensitive.  Eleven days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Henry VIII married Jane Seymour.  It was rumoured that he was pleasuring himself at the moment of her decapitation, but Harry has a capacity for self-deception – delusion – quite equal to that of Trump.  As he saw it, this marriage – his third – was his first proper one.  On the day of the execution of Cromwell, Henry diverted himself by marrying Katherine Howard.  Perhaps intercourse eases decapitation.  Both Henry and Trump have an alarming capacity to violate basic decency.

Some may think it is hard to accuse Trump of hypocrisy.  If you don’t believe anything, what is there that you can betray?  But with our Harry, Shakespeare lays it on with a shovel.  The middle aged man who is about to trade in his middle aged wife for a new model fairly wallows in his own moonshine.

O, my lord,

Would it not grieve an able man to leave

So sweet a bedfellow?  But, conscience, conscience!

O, ‘tis a tender place, and I must leave her.  (II, ii, 140-143)

Each ruler fairly glows with any praise.  MacCulloch says that ‘Henry always showed a touching confidence in other people’s admiration of his abilities as a ruler, and the prospect of anyone in mainland Europe expressing unalloyed support for his marital troubles was additionally thrilling.’  For Harry to get sympathy in Europe for his penchant for divorce would be like Trump getting support in Europe for his soft spot for coal.

Each is very touchy and easily kindled to incandescent rage and a lust for revenge.  Each is a born hater.  ‘Anne was now victim of Henry’s ability to turn deep affection into deep hatred, and then to believe any old nonsense to reinforce his new point of view.’

That is vintage Trump.  The original attraction may well have been affected, although the felt need to live in the present could make a sucker of both rulers; but the later loathing was sincerity itself.  Indeed, both claim to have been let down so badly so often that they must concede that they cannot pick the right people to have with them.  That is not a good result for a ruler.

Because neither can be trusted and each rules by fear, their court is a deeply unhappy place.  One of Harry’s courtiers laments ‘he will never give credit against you, whatsoever is laid to your charge; but let me or any other of the Council be complained of, his Grace will most seriously chide and fall out with us’  It is notorious that loyalty flows in only one direction for Trump, but this Tudor cri de coeur leads MacCulloch to comment that ‘the leading men at Court eyed one another and judged the moment to plant a negative thought in the mind of their terrifyingly unpredictable royal master.’

It is hard to think of a better description of what goes on in the White House – except that things are much, much worse there because of the close involvement of the members of the family of the ruler, none of whom knows what to do.  What you get is courtiers looking at each other with what Keats called ‘wild surmise.’

In truth, it is downright dangerous to walk into either court.  Three different fates might await you.  You might get it wrong, in which case a mere firing is an act of mercy.  Or you may have to take a hit for the ruler because it is universally acknowledged that he can do no wrong.  Or worse, you may put part of his gleam in the shade in which case you are really for it.

The Oxford History of England says that King Henry VIII was a ‘great king’.  Their criteria for greatness may be a bit wobbly, since they also say:

Henry VIII was brutal, crafty, selfish, and ungenerous….and as the years passed, what there was in him of magnanimity was eaten up by his all-devouring egoism.  His triumphant ride through life carried him unheeding over the bodies of his broken servants, and though he had an outward affability for use at will, he was faux bonhomme.

There again is Donald Trump á la lettre. David Hume said that Henry may have been great but not good, and that ‘every one dreaded a contest with a man who was known never to yield or to forgive, and who, in every controversy, was determined to ruin either himself or his antagonist.’

Courtiers are companions and councillors.  Both suffer under each of the king and the president.  ‘This enormous man was the nightmare of his advisers.  Once a scheme was fixed in his mind he could seldom be turned from it; resistance only made him more stubborn; and once embarked, he always tended to go too far unless restrained….The only secret of managing him, both Wolsey and Cromwell disclosed after they had fallen, was to see that dangerous ideas were not permitted to reach him.’  Churchill said that of King Henry; Bob Woodward said much the same of President Trump.

It is remarkable how many good lives and careers have been ruined when people have strayed into the court of this king or this president.  They seem to taint all whom they touch.  So many were crooked before they entered the orbit of Trump that for some time now he has had trouble attracting decent people.  Time spent with Trump does not look good on your C V now – how bad might it look in a few years’ time?

We had need pray,

And heartily, for our deliverance,

Or this imperious man will work us all

From princes into pages.  All men’s honours,

Lie like one lump before him, to be fashioned

Into what pitch he pleases.  (II, ii, 44-49)

Now let us see another difference.  Trump has no time or respect for the Constitution or its organs.  It would be silly to say he might leave a good legacy.  The future is not his shtick.

There was next to nothing about religion in the Reformation in England.  It was all about politics and England was much better off politically for getting its version of Home Rule.  And because King Henry chose to split with Rome by acts of Parliament – mere royal fiats would not have done the job – its status was greatly advanced.  We were on our way to the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law – and the colonies that would become the United States would be prime beneficiaries of this ascent.

Now may we end with something else that President Trump and King Henry VIII have in common?  For some of us, hardly a day goes by with Donald Trump when we are not reminded of the deathless words of a Boston attorney named Joseph Welch who, after another outrage committed by Senator McCarthy, asked: ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’  Nowhere is that want of decency more on show in this king and in this president than in their hunt for skirt and in their complete lack of judgment in how to go about it.

Well, at least the Tudors did not have to put up with wall-to-wall and coast to coast centrefolds, and the women allotted to King Henry were alleged to have some form of pedigree if not some kind of mind.  These things are sadly different now in this uncomely Playboy swamp in the New World.

Here and there -Political Instability – And the Sad Passing of Conservatism – Then and Now

 

Political stability is a consummation devoutly to be desired.  How quickly may we lose it?

Professor J H (later, Sir Jack) Plumb delivered the Ford Lectures at Oxford in 1965.  They were published in 1967 as The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725.  In them, Plumb said that lasting political stability was not common until recently and that ‘it is certainly far rarer than revolution.’  He defined political stability as –

…the acceptance by society of its political institutions, and of those classes of men who control them.

Instability comes from ‘conspiracy, plot, revolution and civil war’.  Plumb thought that political instability came in England because of three things –

….single party government; the legislature firmly under executive control; and a sense of common identity in those who wielded economic, social, and political power.

Since we now see political instability in England, America and Australia, especially in those parties that brand themselves ‘conservative’, we might learn from Plumb’s account of the arrival of stability.

There is one warning.  Anyone who thinks that the Whig v Tory divide might resemble the split between the two major parties in any of the three nations now is dead wrong.  The old concept is as simple as that of the Holy Trinity.  (Upon the arrival in England of the Germans (Hanoverians) in the person of George I, Sir Lewis Namier said that the ‘Tory gentlemen worshipped the Throne and loathed the Court, believed in authority and disliked Government…..expressing these contradictory feelings in harmless fancies about the ‘King over the water’, a royalty uncontaminated by administration.’  Try threading that needle with a knight of the shire after a few snifters in front of the fire after the hunt – while remembering the terminal penalty for treason.)

**

Migrant nations have become familiar with the resentment of migrants, especially among those who have missed out on the glittering prizes in their new home.  They see newcomers as trespassers on their property, as threats to what they have achieved.  (Our common law started with arguments over the forms of writs, and the earliest, and most fruitful form of writ was the writ of trespass, the word that figures in the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer.)  Those protesting against migrants sense that the migrants are debasing or diluting the currency of their citizenship – which might be their most valuable asset in their nation – and threatening to deprive them of a livelihood that is already precarious.  What you get is the syndrome ‘kick away the ladder.’

This issue often figures in what is called ‘nationalism’ – like America First – and is often a front for something worse.  People who want to puff out their chests about their nation often puff out their chests about themselves.  In their grosser form, you get megalomaniacs like Mussolini and Trump.

For some people – again those who are not among life’s winners – the colour of their skin is an asset that that allows them to fulfil a need to put some people beneath them on the social ladder.  These crude and nasty instincts are fanned – for profit – by those parts of the press that we least admire.

The Tory party would eventually lead to the Conservative party.  The ancestors of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage did not like foreigners.  (For a while England had a Naturalization Act.)  The dislike of outsiders, Plumb instructs us, was rife among country Tories.  ‘Xenophobia was a very strong concomitant of Toryism.’  If you wanted to find a closet Tory, you just had to mention the Dutch.  Of course, the French later became the bête noire of the Englishand General de Gaulle did all in his power to keep them there – to the extent that de Gaulle may be honoured as the spiritual founder of Brexit.  His rank ingratitude has come back to bite Europe on the bum.

**

The tags Whig and Tory did not so much stand for differences on policy, but different attitudes about how to get and handle the levers of power.  In the time we speak of, England ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption.  ‘The vote was the basic coin for traffic in influence.’  But, then as now, if political parties stand for too little or too much, they splinter.  The death word is faction.  Without a strong, rooted balance of power, a party is exposed to the cancer of faction.  The result is, almost by definition, incoherence.  The party has to confront the proposition that if it cannot govern itself, it cannot govern the nation.  That is precisely the problem faced by the soi disant conservative parties in our three nations.  The plots and conspiracies in Australia have acquired an aura of vaudeville.

Walpole is seen now as England’s first prime minister.  He had a genius for managing the business of government.  Someone called him the greatest bomb-disposal expert in history.  ‘Walpole created a centre of gravity at the heart of the administration.’  Previous monarchs had not achieved that and ‘every Cabinet from 1689 to 1714 rapidly disintegrated into faction; their composition rarely remained stable for more than a year.’

We have seen that in the U K and here, and it looks very likely that the political pressure that is about to be applied to the Republicans will see them go the same way.  They have so far shown an appalling lack of moral fibre in allowing a political brute to trash almost every part of their political dispensation.

What is different in Australia is that two generations ago all the factions, cranks and crooks were on the other side of politics.  Now they are on the so called conservative side, and you can watch their inanity being aerated every night on Sky News or each morning with The Australian as Rupert Murdoch inflicts on the land of his birth the lesions he has so sadly inflicted on the land of his choice.

**

It follows a fortiori that a government that cannot control its parliament or congress is by definition unstable.  Trump now finds himself in a position similar to that of the prime minister of the U K and Australia.  Both got where they are faute de mieux after a squalid faction fight and each looks both transient and wobbly – the antithesis of the required centre of gravity.

Plumb tells us that after 1601, the Commons were ‘fundamentally out of hand – difficult to screw money from and a hotbed of criticism; no one could manage them for long, neither James I, Charles I, Cromwell, nor Charles II.’  They were in truth king-baiters from hell.  (In another work, Plumb memorably said of the arrival of George I: ‘He was not in any way enamoured of his new subjects.  They had an evil reputation amongst monarchs for shiftiness. He was aware that most of the noblemen who fawned on him at his arrival had dabbled in treason.’)

All three nations have taken the benefit of the English settling their constitution in dealing with the caprices of the Stuarts, but blood and pain had to be drawn to achieve that settlement.  Seventeenth century England is a terrible lesson of a parliament out of control.  And that’s without looking at the mayhem in the outliers.

**

Failures in the political system have a snowball effect.  People lose respect for institutions that have caused or at least allowed these fissures to open up.  People then tend to align themselves by interest in distinct groups rather than as a citizen of the nation or a member or supporter of a party.

Plumb spoke of ‘a sense of common identity’ by those who wield power and the acceptance of the institutions and those who control them.  All that has gone clean out the window in Australia – and it does not look healthy elsewhere.  There is scarcely a political, religious, business or sporting body that does not have a dark cloud hanging over it.

An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that only the planet is worth conserving – but it is precisely on this issue that self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ have betrayed us and themselves – morally, intellectually, and politically.  England’s dull, imported Hanoverian kings were better with logic and science than our native born dunces.  It’s OK for the shock jocks – they are just there for the lucre and their vanity.  But have our would-be statesmen no care for the rest of us?  Nor does it help that their most voluble stooge, the IPA, covertly gets its gelt from Madam Coalminer Extraordinaire.

**

Scare tactics have been known since Pisistratus, but Walpole brought them to a form of squalid perfection.  There is an appeal – overt or covert – to that bad actor called patriotism.  Plumb says:

Patriotism, almost xenophobic in its intensity, had long been regarded by the Tories as one of their own sacred principles; it was an emotion, they half believed, that no one could feel so intensely as themselves.  Hence, if Walpole could reveal, not once but time and again, that leading Tories were involved in treason, he knew the effect would baffle many a country squire proud of his Englishry, and draw him to support the Crown.

The bogeyman then was called Jacobitism – the prince across the water, the threatened return of the Stuarts and the Church of Rome, and a return to the hell of the previous century.

And of course, accusations of Jacobitism were extremely useful at elections….Like McCarthyism in our own time [they] generated public fear and sapped the will to oppose.

The bogeyman now is Islam and it is a sitting duck for brutal bullies because it is even less coherent than its pursuers – and given the unhinged hysteria of Trump about a migrant caravan, that is no small suggestion.  Ruling by fear itself leads to instability, because it demeans the institutions that permit or require it.

**

Now for the bad news for those who call themselves conservatives.

But, first, what is there left in the name ‘conservative’?  How may that word be usefully applied in a welfare state facing the slow death of churches and the fading of once grand institutions?  Plumb was after all speaking of a time more than two centuries before the evolution of the welfare state in England.  Some ‘conservatives’ say they want small government.  Well, the role of government was very much smaller in England before they set up their jails down here.  This was a time of which Lord Shelburne could say, offhandedly enough: ‘Providence has so organised the world that very little government is necessary.’  England then was just like a well-run cricket club, and you were OK as long as you played cricket.

To return to the bad news:

It is necessary to stress this moral collapse….. the Tory party was destroyed, destroyed by its incompetent leadership, by the cupidity of many of its supporters, by its own internal contradictions; weakened by its virtues and lashed by events, it proved no match for Walpole…..It failed to provide an effective barrier to Walpole’s steady progress towards a single-party state.

Walpole, Plumb says, made ‘the world so safe for the Whigs that they stayed in power for a hundred years.’

Only a very robust and blithe member of the Conservative, Republican or Liberal Party could now suppress a heart tremor on this recall of history.  Can they divorce themselves from one word of the above citation?  In stressing the ‘moral collapse’, Plumb was warning us of the weakness of character and failure of nerve that is destroying political parties in our time.  It’s a shame that more historians don’t bite that bullet – au fond, political issues involve moral issues.

**

Now for some worse news.  So far we have sought to find guidance from Sir Jack Plumb in looking at our current instability here and elsewhere.  But Plumb did not have to confront what some see as our biggest problem.  The English were and are beset by caste as well as class.  We do not have the first problem as a matter of law: and for the most part, we do not have much of the second problem as a matter of fact.

But we have a huge worry with inequality of wealth and income – that looks to keep getting worse.  A bank teller may be paid one hundredth of what her boss gets paid – and that pay is likely to go up by his firing more people like her.

Any social group must rest on an implied and shared assumption of fairness, decency, and tolerance.  The bank teller cannot retain any faith that that assumption still holds good.  If that is right, our ship of state is in very dangerous waters.  Since at least 1789, people espousing what some are pleased to call Western civilisation have been committed to some form of equality.  If our want of it is too great or painful, the result is not just instability, but revolution.

‘Identity politics’ is a vogue but shifty phrase.  (What else underpins trade unions, churches, cricket clubs, towns, party politics, or nations?)  But if you want to see how all hell breaks loose when a group of people come together out of interest at the unfairness of their lot in life, have a look at the sans-culottes – roughly, blue collar ‘tradies’ – in France after 1789.  Just look at how they doted on Robespierre, then they rejected him, then they slew him, and then they forgot him.  Bored with mere lynchings, they had turned to the guillotine, then the Committee of Public Safety, and then the Terror.  They were plainly not our first terrorists, but they did terrify people by killing others.  They killed to avoid being killed.  And they did so in the name of equality – or what some call justice.

Too many people in political parties that were once truly conservative are now flirting with the mob – or, if you prefer, the gutter.  My dad didn’t have much truck with politicians, but he said to me more than once: ‘Son, if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.’

And if there is one thing that is transcendentally clear about the nature of conservatism, it is that people who claim to be under that umbrella while indulging the mob – while looking warmly at Hanson, Abbott, Farage, Johnson or Trump – are not just deluding themselves, they are spitting in the face of the history of mankind – if not of God.

In truth, the crowds that cheer on Farage and Trump have a lot in common with the crowds that cheered on Jack Cade and Barabbas.

Here and there – The vendetta before Hamlet

 

We can see the dawn of our laws not in Eden but in our felt need to control the vendetta – unless the law intervenes, a blood feud may have no end.  If the law helped to contain the vendetta, then a failure of the law to deliver justice to the family of the victim may well see a revival of self-help.  We can see that word for word in the beginning of The Godfather.

Homer saw the vicious the cycle.  Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, elopes to Troy.  The Greeks, led by King Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, want to go after her.  This is the Trojan War, the subject of the Iliad.  The gods hold them up.  Agamemnon is persuaded to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia so that his boats can sail for Troy.  After the war, his wife, Clytemnestra, who has taken Aegisthus as a lover, kills Agamemnon to avenge the death of a daughter.  Then her son, Orestes, with another daughter, Electra, kills Clytemnestra to avenge his father.  And so the vendetta goes on.  This theme is treated by the three great tragedians of ancient Greece – Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

Beowulf is replete with the blood feud – that is one reason we refer to that time as the Dark Age.

In Hamlet, the king is murdered by his brother who then speedily marries the widow.  The child of the marriage, Hamlet, is revolted by the conduct of both his uncle and his mother.  Her descent into those ‘incestuous sheets’ makes him ill.  Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells the young prince that his brother killed him and that Hamlet must avenge his death.

Was Hamlet morally obliged or entitled to kill the king to avenge his father? A C Bradley apparently thought so.  A Mafia don may feel it now.  But this was not the Dark Ages.  There are exchanges of students to fine German universities.  The royal family is firmly Christian.  Would they still be wedded to the vendetta?

Surely, no.  The answer is given by Tony Tanner.  (I know I have referred often to this before, but the point is worth it.)  Tanner described how western tragedy began two thousand five hundred years ago.  A play, the first in a trilogy, begins with a troubled guard on a battlement on a castle where the people live in disquiet.  A member of a ruling family has to avenge a murder.  Shortly before he executes his mother, Orestes pauses.  But not for long.

The play Hamlet is at the birth of modern drama nearly two thousand years later. It opens in the same way with a guard on a battlement over an unquiet people.  The hero again pauses before taking revenge.  But this time the pause lasts for nearly the whole play. Why?  ‘Because between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, something has taken place which permanently changed the western mind – namely, Christianity and, more particularly for the Elizabethans, the Reformation.’

Tanner went on to say out that although the Greeks dwelt on guilt, they had no word for conscience (a word that occurs seven times in Hamlet).

How, then, did the Greeks handle the vendetta?

The first in time is the trilogy of Aeschylus called The Oresteia.  Agamemnon deals with the murder of the husband; The Libation Bearers deals with the murder of the father; and The Eumenidies seeks to offer a solution – a court of law.  The difference to Hamlet is almost absurd here.  Having butchered the lover, Aegisthus, Orestes turns to his mother, Clytemnestra.  She reminds Orestes that she suckled him as a child.  Orestes pauses and asks his friend what he should so.  Should he be ‘shamed to kill his mother’?  His friend reminds Orestes of the oracles and their oaths in three lines.  Orestes then says:

I judge that you win.  Your advice is good.

Orestes tells his mother:

You killed and it was wrong.  Now suffer wrong.

Now madness is at hand.  Orestes is pursued by the furies of his mother – ‘the bloodhounds of his mother’s hate.’  The play ends:

Where is the end?  Where shall the fury of fate

Be stilled to sleep, be done with?

The Orestes of Aeschylus was, then, a different cup of tea to Hamlet

It is not quite so with Euripides.  His Orestes opens after the murder.  Electra tells Helen that Orestes killed himself when he killed his mother.  Orestes explains his sickness:

I call it conscience.  The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime..I mean remorse.  I am sick with remorse.

(I am not qualified to warrant the validity of the word ‘conscience’ there in light of the remark of Tony Tanner, but we are reminded that in all translations we are asked to take a lot on trust.)  Orestes had already prefigured the injunction given to Hamlet when he told Electra:

I think now

If I had asked my dead father at the time

If I should kill her, he would have begged me,

Gone down on his knees before me and pleaded,

Implored me not to take my mothers life.

What had we to gain by murdering her?

Later he says he was ordered by a god, Apollo, to commit the murder.  This leads him to this question.  ‘Was he [the god] competent to command a murder, but now incompetent to purge the guilt?’  That is a very fair question for that god.

The father of Clytemnestra can recall when they did things better:

Where I want to know, can this chain

Of murder end?  Can it ever end in fact

Since the last to kill is doomed to stand

Under permanent sentence of death by revenge?

Their ancestors banished the murderers and bound them to silence.  ‘They purged their guilt by banishment, not death.  And by so doing, they stopped that endless vicious cycle of murder and revenge.’  After that, the play takes a dive in tone.  Orestes says ‘I can never have my fill of killing whores’, and in trying to escape judgment for their crime, they plot to murder Helen and take her daughter Hermione hostage,

Euripides also had an Electra , but you get the Full Monty of the vendetta with Sophocles.  Electra is waiting for the return of Orestes to avenge her father’s death.

Come, how when the dead are in question,

Can it ever be honourable to forget?….

What sort of days do you imagine

I spend, watching Aegisthus sitting

On my father’s throne, watching him wear

My father’s self-same robes, watching him

At the hearth where he killed him, pouring libations?….

She [Clytemnestra] is so daring that she paramours

This foul polluted creature and fears no fury…..

But I am waiting for Orestes’ coming,

Waiting forever for the one who will stop

All our wrongs.  I wait and wait and die.

For his eternal going-to-do-something

Destroys my hopes, possible and impossible.

Now, there is a whole lot of Hamlet there – not least the sexual jealousy.  And while Hamlet feigned madness to give himself cover, Orestes put it out that he was dead – and sent an urn with his remains to his sister.  So, our heroes were cruel to those they loved – they were cruelled by their mission.  (The other phrase you see is pathei pathos or ‘suffering brutalises’.)

When Electra realises that she is in truth talking to a very much alive brother, we have one of the great set pieces of our stage.  It is wonderfully handled here by this great playwright.  Electra then taunts her mother before her death with the deadly steel that Queen Margaret applied to the Duke of York.  The Chorus says:

The courses are being fulfilled

Those under the earth are alive;

Men long dead draw from their killers

Blood to answer blood.

Electra asks Orestes ‘Is the wretch dead?’  There is then more icy dramatic irony – or the blackest humour – when Orestes leads Aegisthus, who is next to die, to believe that the corpse in the shroud is that of himself rather than that of Clytemnestra.  Orestes endorses justice on all who act above the law – ‘justice by killing.’

In Euripides’ version, Orestes does pause before the horror of killing his own mother.  Then he said he covered his eyes before sinking the steel in her neck.  Electra also put her hand to the sword.  Then Orestes is horrified by his deed.  ‘My god, how, how she bent to earth the legs which I was born through?’  But Orestes has a line that is straight Hamlet: ‘What must I do to punish the murderer and purify my mother from adultery?’  (And, yes, when there is adultery, it is always Mum who needs purifying; a quiet word is usually enough for Dad.)

When first rereading the two relevant plays of Euripides for this note, I thought that he had got too close to Neighbours and The Untouchables.  If sympathy for the hero is essential in tragedy, these plays have problems.  But two translators in the Folio edition have changed my mind.  As we saw, these plays are set after the law had provided a remedy.  Orestes and Electra now look petty or vicious – Germaine Greer saw ‘a shared craziness.’

This Orestes is aptly compared with another difficult play, Troilus and Cressida –‘tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched, disfigured and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.’  That is spot on for Troilus. Unloveliness pervades both plays, but when Orestes is set in what we would call modern times, we can see the characters for what they are.  Both children look more worried about lifestyle than morality.  Orestes, like Hamlet, has a grudge that his dynastic leanings have been crushed, and the plays raise an alternative motive – if the children don’t get Aegisthus, he will get them.  (And Claudius did go after Hamlet.)

But you get this sense of bourgeois tawdriness that roused one critic to say ‘Electra is a self-pitying slattern, Orestes a timid ruffian, Clytemnestra a suburban clubwoman, Aegisthus a courteous and popular ruler, the murders as dastardly as conceivable.’  The neighbours at Elsinore don’t look so bad now.

That, then, is in part how the Greek tragedians looked at the vendetta.  Two things.  First, none of these three great playwrights seeks to excuse the vendetta – Electra does not see that she is committing precisely the crime for which she seeks to punish her mother, and Orestes is at best cloudy on that point.  Secondly, we will never know if Hamlet would ever have obeyed the ghost.  When he returns to Denmark, he has enough evidence to slot the king, but Hamlet kills him because in seeking to kill Hamlet, the king had just killed Hamlet’s mother.

The two worlds were very different.  The Sophocles Electra is very high theatre; it is great theatre.  Little wonder that Strauss built an opera on it.  We hardly see either version.  One reason may be that this Electra at times makes The Godfather look like Snow White.  Sometimes we may just want to steer clear of those dark lakes lying in all of us.  And we must recall that the Greeks got into trouble with a human sacrifice to start a pointless war when they got the vapours about the fall of a Greek wife to a man of an inferior race.

The heroic code and chivalric ideal take heavy hits in these Greek plays and Troilus.  They may then be plays for our times when truth has gone clean out the window and people smirk at plain human kindness.  In his note on Troilus, Tony Tanner spoke of the ‘great meltdown of distinctions and values.’  It was chivalry versus barbarism.  Troilus is a ‘sour and abrasive’ play in which ‘rampant appetite is allowed free rein’.  That goes for these Greek plays.  And in Troilus, it is the Greeks in the black hats.  How stands it with us?

MY TOP SHELF – 14

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

14

ENGLAND IN THE AGE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Sir Lewis Namier (1930)

Second Edition, Macmillan, 1961; rebound in quarter red Morocco with gold embossed label and stone cloth boards.

Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time; but restraint was a quality in which the eighteenth-century Englishman was as deficient as most other nations are even now.

When Ved Mehta wrote a book about English intellectuals, he went to see a star pupil of the late Sir Lewis Namier, and a keeper of the flame, John Brooke.  A woman showed Mehta to Brooke’s room and said: ‘Mr Brooke is a very eccentric man.  When it gets cold, he wears an electric waistcoat plugged into the light socket, and reads aloud to himself.’  Such conduct would come within my understanding of the word ‘eccentric.’

Brooke said that Namier looked on history as bundles of biographies; his interest was in the small men rather than the big; he believed that psychology was as important to history as mathematics was to astronomy; he looked at how men and women responded to the pressure of circumstances; his east European Jewish background enabled him to see his adopted and idolized nation in perspective; unlike liberals, he had no faith in progress – it was not that he did not wish to reform institutions that were decrepit – he just hated seeing them go; he would hammer out the first draft of a work with two-finger typing, and not be able to revise it until his secretary had finished the first draft – a process that might be repeated ten or more times.  He would go back and forth between his research boxes and indexes and his typewriter.  ‘It would be a constant process of writing and rewriting, shaping and reshaping, agony and more agony – and the biography was not more than a seven-thousand word job.’

There were other sources of pain.  He never relished acceptance by the English intellectual establishment; his deeply withdrawn nature led him to psychoanalysis; he suffered a cramp in the arm that got worse with the ill treatment of the Jews in the thirties – he was so terrified by the thought of a German occupation that he got a bottle of poison from a doctor friend and carried it in his waistcoat so that he could kill himself if the Germans came.

But his work, beginning with The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III in 1929, hit English literature like an earthquake in much the same way as F R Leavis did with literary criticism – and people who shake up the Establishment like that can expect a backlash.

Namier was, I am told, not an easy person to be with.  He was not respected as a teacher, and in good English universities that is a real minus.  John Kenyon referred to his ‘granitic seriousness, and the monomaniacal way in which he would impose his thoughts on others’  Sir Jack Plumb referred to the vulgar name-calling: ‘Constipation Namier – the big shit we can’t get rid of.’

Rejection was not new to Namier – his father cut him off for his espousal of Zionism – but exclusion breeds resentment and more exclusion – Namier became a frightful snob and name-dropper, and he fell for the English aristocracy.  He would never be offered a chair at Oxford, Cambridge or London – according to Kenyon, his commitment to Zionism ‘increased the coolness of an Arab-orientated upper class.’  A more rewarded historian – a man named Butterfield – had what might be called the Establishment view that ‘the point of teaching history to undergraduates is to turn them into public servants and statesmen…but I happen to think history is a school of wisdom and statesmanship.’  Butterfield thought that Namier’s factual inquiry was cutting the ground from under the feet of would-be philosopher-kings.

Why not just try to open their minds?  Things have changed.  The advocacy of the ideas or ideals of a dying empire now looks to us like a prospectus for a School for Bullshit.  But Butterfield and others went after Namier like gnats straining at a camel, and Namier became a kind of celebrity.

To those who have had to make findings of fact on inadequate and conflicting evidence, the Namier revolution seems to be the unsurprising suggestion that history should be based on evidence rather than romance.  From this book on the shelf, we have the following.

The basic elements of the Imperial Problem during the American Revolution must be sought not so much in conscious opinions and professed views bearing directly on it, as in the very structure and life of the Empire; and in doing that, the words of Danton should be remembered – on ne fait pas le proces aux revolutions.  Those who are out to apportion guilt in history have to keep to views and opinions, judge the collisions of planets by the rules of road traffic, make history into something like a column of motoring accidents, and discuss it in the atmosphere of a police court.

No wonder the idealists and the Glory Boys were crestfallen, but on Namier’s death, an undergraduate wrote to Lady Namier saying that ‘he was probably the only truly great man that I have known personally.’  It is not hard to see how Namier could have had precisely that effect.  He was like a great artist who has taken the trouble to learn how to draw.  After Namier had done the hard work of amassing and sifting the evidence, he could allow himself a go with the broad brush.

‘Characteristic of English social groups is the degree of freedom which they leave to the individual and the basic equality of their members, the voluntary submission to the rules of ‘the game’ and the curious mixture of elasticity and rigidity in these rules; most of all, the moral standards which these groups enforce or to which they aspire.  Characteristic of the German social group is the utter, conscious subordination of the individual, the iron discipline which they enforce, the high degree of organisation and efficiency which they attain, and their resultant inhumanity.  The State is an aim in itself….The English national pattern raises individuals above their average moral level, the German suppresses their human sides.’  (Conflicts, 1941)

‘And it was again on the masses that Hitler drew: what was worst in the Germans, their hatreds and resentments, their envy and cruelty, their brutality and adoration of force, he focused and radiated back on them.  A master in the realm of psyche but debarred from that of the spirit, he was the Prophet of the Possessed; and interchange there was between him and them, unknown between any other political leader and his followers.  This is the outstanding fact about Hitler and the Third Reich.’ (Personalities and Powers, 1955.)

‘But revolutions are not made; they occur…..The year 1848 proved in Germany that union could not be achieved through discussion and by agreement; that it could be achieved only by force; that there were not sufficient revolutionary forces in Germany to impose from below; and that, therefore, if it was to be, it had to be imposed by the Prussian army.’  (Vanished Supremacies, 1957)

‘The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.’  (Structure, etc., 2nd Ed, 1957.  ‘Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…’)

‘Trade was not despised in eighteenth-century England – it was acknowledged to be the great concern of the nation; and money was honoured, the mystic common denominator of all values, the universal repository of as yet undetermined possibilities….A man’s status in English society has always depended primarily on his own consciousness; for the English are not a methodical or logical nation – they perceive and accept facts without anxiously inquiring into their reasons or meaning.’  (England in the Age, etc., 2nd Ed, 1961; ‘….Fox would probably have found it easier to account for his fears than for the money…’).

On Charles Townshend: ‘He did not change or mellow; nor did he learn by experience; there was something ageless about him; never young, he remained immature to the end…Conscious superiority over other men freely flaunted, a capacity for seeing things from every angle displayed with vanity, and the absence of any deeper feelings of attachment left Townshend, as Chase Price put it, “entirely unhinged.”’  (Crossroads of Power, 1962).

The English aristocracy survived, almost alone in Europe.  They had been able to reach an accommodation with the Commons in shaping the English constitution, and they reached an accommodation with business and money in shaping British trade.  This triumph of the English aristocracy is unique in all Europe, and the failure of English historians to notice it, let alone celebrate it, is a sad reflection upon the provincialism and specialization of too much of English historical writing.  Namier saw it plainly, but he was from out of town.  Maitland frequently stressed the need for a comparative outlook, and was deeply interested in German history.  French historians such as Marc Bloch and Georges Lefebvre laced their analyses of the history of France and Europe with comparisons with what was happening across the Channel, and their work was so much more illuminating as a result.  But English historians do not often return that serve.  How often do you read in English history how the French law of derogation precluded the French lords from engaging in trade?  For example, under the heading La Noblesse et L’Argent, (The Nobility and Money), Georges Lefebvre remarked that the French lords envied the English lords who became rich on mixing with the bourgeoisie and who, thanks to their Parliament, formed the ministry and government of the nation.

The English lack of interest in Europe has borne fruit, and is currently celebrating a kind of mordant vindication, but the mind-set may also be at risk of being described as insular – definitively insular – with all the darkening and proud exclusion that that state of mind entails.

They are the kind of sparks you come across when reading Namier.  I can imagine he was difficult, a stranger to his new people, and possibly disloyal to his old people, and he was denied the acceptance that he craved and that he had so plainly earned.  My copy of The Structure, etc., has a letter signed by Namier on faded blue paper Shepherds Bush 2445, 60 The Grampians W 6, 14 December 1950.  The tone is antiseptic, but the signature is defiantly formal and straight.

When I read Namier, it is like being overtaken by a Bentley or listening to Joan Sutherland – you just know that there is plenty left in the tank.  Just as I think that Maitland’s intellect was far stronger than that of Pollock’, so I think that Namier was stronger than Berlin – it is just that the other two were better at the game.

Sir Geoffrey Elton was another import with a name-change who changed the way people saw his part of the history of England.  Elton said this about the reaction to Namier: ‘….the violence provoked by Namier owed much to the astonishment felt in conventional circles at the uncalled-for appearance of a historian with tory predilections who clearly outranked the liberals intellectually.’  We all recognize that syndrome immediately – the refuge of the tepid, the mediocre, the smug, and the fellow-travellers.  I have been a fan of Namier since 1963, and I will stay loyal to him.  I am not aware of anyone writing history now who comes even close.  He had a most formidable and penetrating intellect.  And how many historians now would have the courage to refer to ‘plain human kindness’?

Here and there – Frontier Justice

 

Like a lot of people busy in the birth of the United States, John Marshall came from Virginia – Fauquier County between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers.  (It’s hard to get more American than that.)  Mary Marshall was eighteen when John was born.  She would later have fourteen more children.  John’s dad was a surveyor, as was another local called George Washington.

John Marshall fought the English beside his father.  It was in truth a brutal form of civil war.  ‘Liberty or Death’ was inscribed on their jacket, and they were armed with a tomahawk and scalping knife.  When it came to this kind of fight, the white people were content to ape people they described as savages.

John would later qualify as a lawyer.  He too would have a large family whom he provided for by giving them land and slaves.  He was intensely political, but he is remembered for serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for thirty five years, a record that still stands.  Even Australian lawyers know of Marshall, C J, as the judge who affirmed that the Supreme Court could tell politicians where to get off by striking down laws of Congress that the Court found to be against the Constitution.

This story is crisply told by Richard Brookhiser in John Marshall, The Man who made the Supreme Court.  The author is a writer, not a historian or lawyer.  Given contemporary scholarship in either field, that is a huge plus.  Just tell the story and let us chase up the evidence or the law if we want to.  I am sick of acting as unpaid editor for bookish workaholics who feel the need to lay out the results of years of trawling that just obscure all that we need to know about the subject.  This book comes in at under 300 well-spaced pages, and the subject turns twenty before the book does (an achievement of Roy Jenkins on Churchill).  And the fact that the author is not a lawyer might serve to revive that wonderful old fairy tale that we should all be able to understand the law.  (That reminds me of a remark by an English judge that justice was open to all – just like the Ritz Hotel.)

The book justifies its subtitle.  Marshall brought to this new constitutional organ dignity as well as power.  He understood and acted upon the wisdom of our English ancestors that people don’t like or trust division in government.  A split in the highest court in the land is as welcome, or suspect, as a split in cabinet, or even in a political party.  Our ancestors forbade the publishing of any dissent within the Privy Council sitting in either its executive or its judicial capacity.  We preserve that doctrine for cabinet.  ‘As much as possible, Marshall made them [the justices] not six or seven men but one body.’

Marshall did so by juristic leadership, intellectual humility, and personal charm – in which Madeira played its part.  Not for him, or the people, the prima donna, or prima ballerina, or prima donna assoluta.  God only knows what the founding justices would have thought of the massive footnoted encyclopaedias scatter-gunned over the land by hugely over-resourced untouchables sealed away from the masses in a barren federal fastness.

For better or worse, the highest courts in common law countries now spend a lot time legislating.  The need for one voice then becomes imperative.  Our parliaments inflict misery and indignity on us, but not to the extent that they offer alternative, and not consistent, versions of a new law.  Yet our judicial law-makers do just that to us all the time.

There is another problem, one that is at least as bad.  You do not have to subscribe to the radical fringe of one political party to complain that we have too much law – and too much that is incomprehensible as well as suffocating.  Our judicial law-makers need to understand one simple truth.  Your decision may add to the law or it may not.  If not, you don’t need to say anything, except perhaps to apologise to the parties for putting them to an expense that has no point.  But if you are adding to the law, the odds are long that you will make it worse – either ipso facto just by adding to the volume, or because that’s just the way it is unless you are one of the All Time All Stars – and they come along about once each century.  On this point, the lawyers need to get their act together in parliament, the executive, and the judiciary.  You only have to look across the Pacific to see the awful fate that waits us if we don’t.

That I think is the point of the book, and it is a big one.  But the book gets there with lots of anecdotes that are the main reason we turn to biography.  (Why do we turn our noses up at ‘anecdotal evidence’?  Does not all evidence rest on a report of what has been perceived, just as all history resolves into parts of biographies?)

After Marshall had been on the court some time, he was joined by Joseph Story.  I have on many occasions consulted Story on equity.  He is up there juristically with Holmes, Ames and Pound – and on Kanchenjunga, the atmosphere is lofty.  Story and Marshall were very close.  Story helped Marshall bind the court.  Marshall could not have had a better man riding shotgun.  They also did comic routines.  The judges dined in a boarding house.  It was their custom to take wine only if it was raining.  Marshall would ask ‘Brother Story’ to look out the window and check the weather.  If he reported that it was sunny, Marshall would reply that ‘our territory is so large it must be raining somewhere’.  Grown men in high places who can act with that sense are doing something right.

Americans were then and are now much more attracted to oratory.  It was an art form and you got in for free.  Society came to hear the big guns.  When Dolly Madison arrived at the court with a party of ladies, counsel stopped and recapped the argument for their benefit.  Daniel Webster was a very big hitter.  In terms that only he could have found, Carlyle compared his eyes to ‘anthracite furnaces needing only to be blown…I have not traced so much of silent berserker rage in any other man.’  (I felt a bit like that with Tom Hughes in a case more than thirty years ago – and I was on his side!).  In one massive case about Dartmouth College, Webster at the conclusion of his argument, looked directly at the Chief Justice and said: ‘Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands….It is, sir, a small college.  And yet there are those who love it.’  In our terms, that is not something you try on at home, but two people who were there said that the room was deadly silent or in tears.

Another hotshot was Pinkney who was ‘acerbic, arrogant, and vain. He bullied opposing counsel, laced himself into corsets, and used cosmetics on his face.’  If you out to one side the underwear and make-up, we all know these people.  They commonly have a chip on their shoulder, often about their status before they rose up in the world.  Pinkney’s dad was a Tory who lost all in the Revolution.  The son started by sweeping out law offices.  When he was on the rise, he went to London to settle war claims.  He met Pitt and Fox and other greats.  He felt humiliated when these ‘Oxbridge-educated aristos’ were discussing Euripides.  He could add nothing.  ‘I resolved to study the classics’ – in other words, he would not be shamed again.

Marshall was able to champion the Constitution as the supreme voice of the people.  The high romance of its history helped him, even if much of it was invented.  (It’s harder for us.  Our founding document is in the schedule to an act of the British Parliament and Queen Victoria.)  In one case, he held that the power to tax was the power to destroy, and since the power of Congress to charter a bank was supreme, no state could claim a power that might destroy it.  States’ rights were and are much more lively there than here.  The author refers to one loaded states’ rights judge as a man of ‘strong passions and morose manners …who could not endure a superior.’  Well, we too know all about those judges, but Robert E Lee would lead his fellow Americans to pay a hideous price for his putting his state before the union.  (It is not surprising that some in the north later wanted to hang Lee and Davis.)

Marshall hated Jefferson with heat all his life and Jefferson responded in kind all his life.  (For some reason, I am not surprised that Jefferson got up some people’s noses.  The Declaration of Independence is for me full of that self-serving humbug that so troubled de Tocqueville about the American character.  The Convention did Jefferson and us a big favour by striking out the most purple passages.)  Marshall called Jefferson ‘the great Lama of the mountains.’  He had told Hamilton that Jefferson was a demagogue.

His great power is chiefly acquired by professions of democracy.  Every check on the wild impulse of the moment is therefore a check on his own power, and he is unfriendly to the source from which it flows.  He looks, of course, with an ill will at an independent judiciary.

God only knows what wan thoughts those words might arouse in a Chief Justice who every day might be called to check ‘the wild impulse of the moment’ of a president who makes Jefferson look like a Trappist monk on industrial strength sedatives.

Nor was Jefferson found wanting.  ‘Marshall makes history descend from its dignity, and the ermine from its sanctity’.  Jefferson spoke of the ‘slipperiness of the eels of the law’ and decisions ‘hanging inference on inference, from heaven to earth, like Jacob’s ladder.’  And we lawyers need to remember which side in this fight will get the popular vote – even putting to one side what is softly called ‘the base.’

Some of the stories look apocryphal, but they throw light nevertheless.  James Kent was a very learned judge in New York.  He had idolized Hamilton.  Aaron Burr was another figure larger than life.  He had killed Hamilton in a duel and would go on to dabble in treason.  When Kent saw Burr in the street, his Honour permitted himself the loud observation that Burr was a scoundrel.  Burr, the author tells us, ‘answered suavely’ that his Honour’s opinions were ‘always entitled to the highest consideration.’

And so it went on.  Jefferson died on the fiftieth anniversary of his Declaration.  Marshall kept going, although some prima donnas made a splash in the pool.

Every February, the same justices came to Washington, roomed at the same hotel, drank the same wine rain or shine, and followed Marshall’s lead regardless of their own party affiliation.

It was a colossal achievement.  Marshall would be followed by Taney.  The Dred Scott decision would sanctify the Original Sin of the Republic.  Marshall had wrestled with the ugly notion that ‘conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny’.  It would take the genius, and the murder, of Abraham Lincoln and the blood of 600,000 Americans to begin to erase the infamy of slavery.  Lincoln referred to Dred Scott in his first inaugural.  Taney sat behind him looking like a ‘galvanized corpse.’

When Marshall died, he had been on the court for nearly two generations.  From 1812 to 1823, the personnel on the court had not changed.  The only comparable period would come in 1994 to 2005.

Eight years after the death of Marshall, his friend Justice Story said that such men ‘are found only when our need is the greatest.’  History suggests that his Honour then uttered a great truth.  But the author is surely right to refer to another tribute.  Marshall had been a life-long member of the Richmond Quoits Club.  (I gather that they threw horse shoes.)  This was a very sensible and convivial body for a very sensible and convivial man to belong to.  There was a flat ban on any talk about religion or politics, but the members did not mind a drink.  When Marshall died the members resolved that he was irreplaceable and that the club should always have one less member.  I don’t know whether this gesture founded the tradition of retiring the number of a great player – like Babe Ruth – but it was a charming gesture on behalf of America to a very great American.

Here and there – The French Problem

 

On two of my six visits to Paris, I have been within earshot of the sounds of insurrection.  It is unsettling.  The French love a barricade and the first line of their national anthem has that bogus word ‘glory’ – after the exhortation to take up arms.  That’s fine before a footy match, or in Casablanca, but is that how you run a country?  It helps to understand this French love affair with violence if you look at events in England before their revolution and events in France after theirs.

During the 1700’s the people of the American colonies and of France revolted against their government.  In each case, the government had sought more revenue from taxation; the people wanted more representation in their government; when their governments denied their requests, the people revolted.

It is not just that the two revolutions have a lot in common – the French supported the American colonists against their old enemy England, and the cost of that support bankrupted the French nation.  Since that bankruptcy started the series of events that we know as the French revolution, that revolution may be said to have arisen from the determination of the French to keep up with the English.

The English had been developing a system of government since the Romans quit.  A system of government by the Crown in parliament had grown up with what the English called their common law.  Over the centuries, the English had experienced and absorbed four revolts each of which might fairly be called a revolution.  Between the first and second of these revolts, they had deposed two kings, and the deposition of one king – Richard II – was celebrated by the world’s greatest author in a play that put the fear of God into one of that nation’s strongest monarchs, Elizabeth I.

Armed barons induced King John to agree to a constitutional settlement.  The document, known as Magna Carta, is the root of title of the English constitution.  Since the king was assuming binding legal obligations, the settlement logically entailed, nearly six centuries before the French revolution against an absolute monarch, that the king was under and subject to the law.  This is how English judges and lawyers saw it, and have seen it ever since.  It is the foundation of what we call the rule of law.

This document laid the basis for civil liberties of the kind set out in the United States Bill of Rights.  It also rendered the doctrine of the divine right of kings into a kind of fiction, or regnal Dreamtime.  It was hard for a king to say that he was put there by God, and was only answerable to God, when in truth he held the Crown on terms laid down by his great and powerful subjects – who claimed to be acting on behalf of the whole nation – and where on a very bad day, the people would just depose a king if they thought that he was just not up to the job.

More than two centuries later, England obtained Home Rule from Rome.  It later defended that liberty under arms.  Unlike the son of the carpenter, the Holy Father had not renounced the kingdoms of this world.  One pope had annulled Magna Carta, and no self-respecting nation could leave itself open to that kind of foreign intervention.  The English proclaimed that ‘this realm is an empire’ – it had no peers.  (Before Agincourt, Shakespeare has the French herald Mountjoy giving the message of the French king, ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial.’)  In accordance with their custom, the English insisted that they were merely restating what had always been the case.  The pope issued fatwas and licences to kill the English monarch, and England felt the binding cement of the defeat of a great foreign armada.

This independence of the English church was fundamental to the capacity of the English people to mould their system of civil and religious governance as they saw fit.  What we call the Reformation was a great step up for the English parliament, since it was by its statutes that the constitutional settlement, including the succession of the Crown, was effected.  It was even harder for a king to claim authority from God when the royal succession was prescribed not by the Bible but by an act of parliament.  Putting to one side any spiritual differences, the constitutional effect of the revolution that we call the Reformation has been underestimated by historians.  If you doubt that effect, just look at the subsequent histories of European nations that did not achieve religious Home Rule – like Greece, Italy, Spain – or France.

In the seventeenth century, the English revolted against two Stuart kings.  The English nation owes a lot to that Stuart family from Scotland – they were a one-family Punch and Judy show, sent by God to provoke the English, and not bright enough to avoid quite terminal consequences.

The first revolt is sometimes called the Puritan Revolution.  It was fomented against a crafty and devious royal ideologue, Charles I, by a bunch of religious fanatics in parliament – both Lords and Commons – aided by common lawyers and judges outside of parliament, all king-busters straight from hell.  They procured the death of the king’s first minister by a parliamentary process that even Macaulay and Churchill conceded was revolutionary, but which might stand as a high point of ministerial responsibility.  (One of their great constitutional protests had said ministers should have the confidence of parliament.)  They forced through legislative protection of parliament against the king.

But Charles refused to go quietly and botched an attempted armed coup d’état.  This led to a civil war which the king lost to one of only two men the English have erected statues to outside their parliament.  When the king failed to negotiate responsibly, he paid the ultimate price for starting and losing a civil war.  The parliament proclaimed the end of the monarchy.  You do not get any more revolutionary than that – except that this was done by the law.

But the English were not ready for a republic.  It was too rude a shock, and they were frankly appalled by the excesses of some Puritans – who even liked closing pubs.  The monarch was restored with barely a ripple.  One vital statistic of English history is that after they passed a general act of indemnity, only about a dozen people were executed for their role in a revolution that saw the execution – now called the murder – of a king.

But when the second restored Stuart king refused to toe the parliamentary line, the English people revolted again.  This time they did it in style.  They called in a Dutch prince married to an English princess as a kind of receiver, and handed the Crown to him and his wife on conditions laid down in the English Bill of Rights.  James II fled, but this revolution, called the Glorious Revolution, effectively settled in 1689 the centuries old struggle between the crown and parliament.  The crown cannot get revenue except by act of parliament.  This is still the lynch-pin of parliamentary democracy in England and those states that follow its model.  This revolution was bloodless in England, but it was their last.

But at least as important as these revolutionary land-mark changes – that are celebrated in England and in the U S and elsewhere – were changes that evolved in England over six centuries.  English lawyers and litigants did not go the way of Europe in adopting Roman law.  They developed on a case by case basis their own native body of law based on custom and precedent.  This is the common law, which is still the ultimate source of authority for the English constitution, since it is the common law that says that parliament is sovereign.  The English gradually disbanded the feudal system under which people owed obligations to their seniors in return for protection (a kind of Mafia system that grew up in the chaos after Rome fell apart).  They developed their system of parliament from a small group advising the king and settling disputes to a broad representative body that was nowhere near being democratic, but which could and did claim to represent the nation in calling the king to account and making his advisers responsible to parliament.  They took the idea of a jury from the French as an ad hoc advisory panel to the crown to an essential ingredient in the judicial process, and a representative body in determining cases just as the parliament was in framing laws.  The jury was and is seen as a vital part of the constitutional settlement – in both the U K and the U S.  The Lords and Commons worked together to win their ascendancy over the Crown, and they did so with real help from lawyers, judges and juries.

By the time the English came to deal with James II, one hundred years before the fall of the Bastille, they looked back on, rejoiced in, and embroidered upon hundreds and hundreds of years of legal and constitutional development and political growth and maturity.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 contained the following:

When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and any portion thereof, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.

This was a bad mistake by people who put logic above experience.  Of course people can rebel or revolt.  But never assert that fact of life in a constitutional document that might be said to found something suspiciously like a right.  You might end up with a people who are beyond reform by legal means.

In the hundred years beginning in 1789, France experienced those events that we know as the French Revolution and then horrible revolutions in 1830, 1848, and 1870.  Putting to one side, for the moment, the huge death toll of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars – possibly seven million lives – and the subsequent coups, insurrections, and purges, France was subjected to the following forms of government in that period: the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons (Louis XIV); a limited monarchy ( the Rights of Man, and the detention of the king); a republic (the abolition of royalty and the execution of the king); a directory (after the fall of Robespierre); a tribunate (after a coup); the empire of Napoleon; the Restoration of Bourbons; the return of Bonaparte and his empire; the further restoration of the Bourbons (Louis XVI); the more limited monarchy after the 1830 revolution; the Second Republic (Louis-Philippe); the Second Empire (Napoleon III); and the third republic (after 1870).  Any nation so afflicted must be profoundly insecure.  France made banana republics look positively serene.

The horror of two world wars did not obliterate the French appetite for insurrection.  A revolution is a successful act of treason; an insurrection is a revolution that did not take off.  The French demand and get more benefits from their government than almost any people on earth.  Yet they periodically seek to blow up the whole lot.

The current insurrection takes us right back to the bad guys of Dostoevsky and Conrad – anarchists.  Like their comrades across the water who want the benefits of Europe without the cost, they aspire to what was rightly called the prerogative of the harlot through the ages – power without responsibility.

Here and there – Lowlights of western civilisation

 

Without seeing an outline of studies for the Ramsay proposal, it is difficult to comment on its educational utility.  I am currently writing my second version of the top fifty books.  If the proposal envisages offering a smattering of those, it will be a bit like a finishing school for English gels before they offer themselves up to the meat market with a sombre photo of a twin-set in Country Life.  If it is a matter of offering a dabble in history, literature and philosophy, it would be like offering a shallow B A before something useful or sensible.  I wonder how ‘Western’ adds to or subtracts from ‘Civilisation’, and how the course would treat the lowlights set out below.

 

The barbarism of ancient Greece and Rome – whose citizens called everyone else barbarians

The failure of our education systems to identify that barbarism – especially at Cambridge and Oxford

The Dark Ages

The Crusades

Feudalism (a Mafia protection racket)

Apartheid by England in Ireland for six centuries

Anti-Semitism throughout and from time immemorial

The inherent conviction of Kant and Hume, and other leaders of the Enlightenment, that people of colour were seriously inferior to white people

A growing hostility to Islam masked as concern about migrants or refugees

The hardening of attitudes to refugees – including people made refugees by failed policies of the West

The Thirty Years War, the religious wars on the Dutch, and the French religious wars.  (Has anything inflicted more loss and misery upon Europe than Christianity?)

The Inquisition

The Spanish Armada, and its motives

The perpetuation of the lie about Original Sin in order to hold women down

Holding women down

Persecuting Galileo and retarding Darwin

The intolerance of both Catholics and Protestants after the schism

Civil wars in England and America

The toleration of slavery – in some places until now

The spoliation and ruination of all of Latin America

The looting of India

The rape of Africa

The attempted rape of China and Japan

The actual dismemberment of the Middle East

The failures of European imperialism generally and in particular the cruelty of imperial powers and colonising peoples to indigenous peoples

Napoleon, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.  (Russia is not part of the West.)

The role of Christianity in each of the above regimes

The perfection of terrorism in the French Revolution and by other oppressive regimes – all but the French claiming collaboration with Christianity

The intellectual failure of Marxism and the moral and political failure of Communism

The failure or degradation at one time or other of all the Great Powers of Europe and their Empires

Two world wars

The Holocaust

The Depression and the Great Financial Crisis

The failed interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East

The impending failure of the European experiment

The failure to civilise Russia

The failure of the rule of law to consolidate elsewhere than in common law countries and Western Europe

The involvement of so many religious bodies in abuse and covering up that abuse

The brutal ineptitude of American evangelicals

The present decline of Christianity and the failure to find something to put in its place

The sterility and uselessness of modern philosophy

The failure to confront inequality of opportunity and other lesions of what we call capitalism

The growing threat to the party system and democratic government

The consequent onset of the aberration called populism – the populists and those they follow are the antithesis of whatever western civilisation may be, and they evidence its failure

The sterility of popular entertainment and the popular press

The lingering death of classical music, opera, and modern jazz

The moral and intellectual collapse currently being experienced by the nation that once led the west

The present decline in literacy, numeracy, and courtesy

The failure to provide any sense of vision about where we are headed

The failure to come to grips with the notion that all the pillars of what is called western civilisation – religion, philosophy, the rule of law, courtesy (civility) and a sense of refinement – have failed or look likely to fail with the result that many now see the whole notion as having failed

A felt sense of superiority – notwithstanding all these manifest failures – and a need felt by some to engage in propaganda about the virtues and values of Western civilisation

Which will appear from the response – express or implied – of the zealots of western civilisation to this sad catalogue: ‘Well, yes, we have made mistakes – but we are much better than any other bastards – so stay with us for all of your answers to all of the big questions.’

Here and there – Some terrorists from God: 4

 

[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

13  Politics or morals?

Guy Fawkes there raised the issue of motive.  These insurrectionists had a political object – regime change – but their motive was religious – the vindication of their idea or brand of religion.  Like Brutus, they wanted to think that they were pure.  They may in some part have persuaded Trevelyan.  He said this of the treasonous conspirators.

But unlike their clerical chiefs, they were pure from self-interest and love of power.  It is difficult to detect any stain upon their conduct, except the one monstrous illusion that murder is right, which put all their virtues at the devil’s service.  Courage cold as steel, self-sacrifice untainted by jealousy or ambition, readiness when all was lost to endure all, raises the Gunpowder Plot into a story of which the ungarnished facts might well be read by those of every faith, not with shame or anger, but with enlarged admiration and pity for the things which men can do.

This is very slippery ground.  On what basis would we refuse this accolade or at least epitaph to the minions of Osama bin Laden who drove their aircraft into the twin towers with courage  cold as steel?  We may be reminded of the suggestion that the invasions and wars of Napoleon were somehow less evil than those of Hitler.  If you are being bayoneted or raped, your misery will not be lessened by the answer of your assailant to the question: ‘Why are you here?’

These conspirators were bent on killing people.  That is evil.  That the conspirators purported to do so in the name of God can only make it more evil.   As can the fact that they applied all their best qualities to achieve their purpose.  As indicated above, on at least two grounds, a person killing for God is worse than one killing for lucre.  First, his zeal makes him more venomous; it gives him strength, and some colour of right.  Secondly, and putting blasphemy to one side, it is obvious that by his crime against others, he exposes other members of his faith to retribution.

Even after he had ascended the scaffold, Father Garnet said, before making his final sign of the cross in this life: ‘I beseech all men that Catholics shall not fare the worse for my sake and I exhort all Catholics to take care not to mix themselves with seditious or traitorous designs against the king.’  No, Trevelyan should have stuck with his proposition that the conspirators put all their virtues at the service of the devil.

But this issue raises the question of how we judge insurrections, whether or not we apply the label ‘terrorists’ to those leading the insurrection.  (What is the difference between George Washington & Co and the IRA, except that the first lot clearly won and the jury is still out on the second?)  The rude truth may be that we assess an insurrection in the same way that we assess a business.  It is good if it succeeds.  If not, it is bad.  This was clearly seen by one of the leaders of what Americans call the American Revolution.  When the Declaration of Independence was finally signed, Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Well, Gentlemen, we must now hang together, or we will assuredly hang separately.’  (As ever, John Adams was different: ‘Power and artillery are the most efficacious, sure and infallible conciliatory measures we can adopt.’)  If you succeed, you are a patriot, a hero and a liberator, a father of the nation.  If you fail, you get topped for treason.

As Antonia Fraser remarked in her book The Gunpowder Plot, ‘terrorism does not exist in a vacuum.’

I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage.  I did not plan it in any spirit of recklessness or because I have any love of violence.  I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people.

It was not Robert Catesby who said that, but Nelson Mandela when in the dock at the Rivoni trial in 1964.  This sometime terrorist is now widely revered as being as close to a secular saint as we can get.  Possibly our only hero who might match Mandela is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Yet, he was plainly involved in a plot to kill Hitler.  Do we see our two secular saints as terrorists?

So, as ever the kinks in our timber preclude us from formulating wide and fast maxims about any right to resort to violence.  Indeed, even the word ‘right’ is fraught there.  The brute historical fact looks to be that some forms of evil or oppression leave us no reasonable alternative but to resort to a form of action which would otherwise be plainly wrong.  But none of us wants to trust anyone else to make that decision for us.

14  Lessons?

There is one other great reminder in the story of the Gunpowder Plot (that as a kid I celebrated every 5 November with crackers and potatoes in the fire on the night that all dogs loathed – Bonfire Night.)  We say that we allow freedom of religion and that we claim to be tolerant.  Put that bluff or bluster aside.  It is obviously wrong and unfair to brand all those who profess a faith with the blame for wrongs done by fanatics who claim to be of that faith but whose actions show that they reject its teaching for their own motives.  It is like branding people because of the crimes, real or imagined, of their ancestors.  Typing people because of their faith or race is like holding them liable for the failures of others – they are two sides of our original sin.  We need to reach the insight that escaped Napoleon – you do not win people over by killing them or insulting them.  And that’s before you look at the moral question about how you should treat your neighbour.

We have a problem with religion that the ancients did not.  The religions of Greece and Rome look daffy to us.  It is hard for us to think of the Greeks or Romans taking them seriously.  But many of them did, especially if it suited them, like when the people of Athens decided that they had had enough of Socrates.  But one result of having so many all too human gods was that the people were very tolerant of other religions.  That stopped being the case with absolute religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Each of them said that there was only one God.  And it was theirs.  The problem then is one of simple arithmetic.  People are agreed that there can only be one answer.  But there are at least three different answers on offer.  The insight of Kant that I referred to was as follows.

If someone declares himself for this church [one that passes itself off as the only universal one] yet deviates from its faith in something essential (something made out to be so), especially if he propagates his errant belief, he is called a heretic and, like a rebel, is held more punishable than an external foe and is expelled from the church…..and given over to all the gods of hell. 

Kant also observed that the claim of each church to be the only universal church is ultimately ‘based on faith in a particular revelation which, since it is historical, can never be demanded of everyone.’  We might induce people to act on faith; we cannot compel them to do so.  Those remarks go to the heart of what we have been looking at.  So much of the suffering of this world has been caused by ruptures within religions that put themselves above all others.

We have been looking at manifestations of two of those ruptures.  The schism that we call the Reformation started a domino reaction that has been at least as lethal for mankind as the schism in Islam between Sunni and Shia.  As people on both sides could and did predict, the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath set back the course of religious peace in England in ways that can still be seen.  The reaction of the Protestant Crown left ample room for Catholic reaction and rejection, especially when disabilities were multiplied and decent people were asked to take responsibility for the actions of outright criminals who thought that they could fix their whole world with one big bang.  We might be reminded of the Treaty of Versailles.  The moral offence of Germany was great.  But the savagery of the reaction, as Keynes surely predicted, ensured that there would be another and worse war.

The division and hatred would be worse in Ireland.  The crimes of the English against the Irish were originally founded on a contempt for the Irish race.  A vicious sectarian shade was now added to that hostility.  At Drogheda, Cromwell, the great Puritan, engaged in what we would now call ethnic cleansing in the name of Christ.  As Christopher Hill remarked, ‘religious hostility reinforced cultural contempt.’  ‘Cultural’ there is the polite word for ‘racial.’  Professor Hill, no enemy of Cromwell, went on to compare the attitude of English people to the Irish with that of the Nazis  to the Slavs, and that of the Boers to black Africans, and said that ‘in each case the contempt rationalised a desire to exploit’.  The agony would go on for centuries.

So would blind prejudice.  In 1897, a Jesuit priest with the same name as one who fled when the Gunpowder Plot was exposed, Father John Gerard, published a book What Was Gunpowder Plot?  He said Salisbury made the whole lot up.  Off hand, it is hard to see how such a tract might achieve anything at all.

Those of us who look on glumly while mankind suffers from these two great schisms may just have to take refuge in the remark of a friend of Ben Johnson who gloried under the name of Lord Zouche:

Two religions cannot stand together.

Well, on one view, we may have been discussing four religions.

There may, then, be something to be said for teaching people about Western civilisation.  We saw that John Mortimer said that our Western civilisation is, after all, the product of a religion founded by Jesus of Nazareth.  That is, if I may say so, rather large.  Among other things, the splitting of Christianity has been about as much a blessing for us as the splitting of the atom – or the splitting of Islam.  Perhaps because I am a lawyer, I see the common law, including the rule of law, as fundamental to what I see as civilisation.  That may just be my prejudice.  The impact of religion on the common law has not been large – and part of the great teaching and legacy of the common law is that that’s the way it ought to be.  The alternative, frankly, is bloody dangerous.

Sources

[I apologise to those who like footnotes.  I don’t.  I like writing and reading and think that footnotes are bad for both.  They have clearly ruined our jurisprudence.  Any necessary references may be found below.]

Black, J B, The Reign of Elizabeth, Oxford History of England, 1959, 166-194, esp. 172

Bowen, C D, The Lion and the Throne, The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, Little Brown & Co, 1957, 252, 261, 267 and 270

Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot, Terror and Faith in 1605, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996, passim, but esp. 183, 235, 255, 258, and 295

Hill, C, God’s Englishman, Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, Folio Society, 2013, 99

Johnson, P, A History of the American People, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997, 125, 130

Kant, I, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 6:109; Religion and Rational Theology, A Wood and G Di Giovanni, C U P, 1996, 141

Lovell, J, Notable Historical Trials, Folio Society, 1999, Volume 1, 482-514, esp. 494, 505, 510

Neale, J E, Elizabeth I, Folio Society, 2005, 243

Ranke, History of England, Oxford, 1875, Volume 1, 403-417, esp. 408,411

State Trials, London, 1816 (Printed T C Hansard), Volume 2, 217-358 (trial of Garnet)

Trevelyan, G M, England Under the Stuarts, Folio Society, 1996, 80, 81, 84