Here and there – Rage by Bob Woodward

It may have been a mistake for me to buy this book.  We have seen it all before and it is too painful to recall.  That is, I suppose, the whole problem.  In more than 300 pages that are meticulously reported, there are probably 300 acts of this President for which the CEO of a public company would be fired.  But so what?  We have seen it all before.  But at least we are reminded  – especially the Trump supporters in this country – that it is impossible to imagine a person worse placed to hold any form of public office – let alone that of President of the United States.

So, I could only bring myself quickly to scan it.  That’s a great shame, because this is a well kept a diary of a sad national failure.

The CIA never figured out conclusively who wrote and crafted Kim’s letters to Trump.  They were masterpieces.  The analysts marvelled at the skill someone brought to finding the exact mixture of flattery while appealing to Trump’s sense of grandiosity and being centre stage in history.

I expect that Kim, like Trump, has an ego that leaves no room for God, but Kim, like a few other cold killers, could go down on his knees each day and give thanks that Providence has given him this rude, loud, weak spoiled child – whom he can walk over at will.

A devout Catholic, Redfield had gone through a religious awakening during a private 10-minute conversation with Pope John Paul II in 1989 and believed in the redemptive power of suffering.  Redfield prayed every day, including a prayer for President Trump.

We thought the Evangelicals were the problem.  The whole mess has been very bad for religion.  For that matter, so has most of the history of the U S.

‘Don’t mock Kim’, Trump repeated.  ‘I don’t want a fucking nuclear war,’ he said again.  He returned to the new nuclear weapons he had.  ‘I have such powerful weapons.  They’re so powerful you wouldn’t believe it.  You wouldn’t even put them in your book.’

Those who think Trump is not a fool might answer this question.  Could anyone but a fool have said that on the record to the most respected reporter on earth?  And it is so utterly characteristic.

You do not have to be an expert in managing people to know that about the worst mistake a CEO can make is to have someone outside the hierarchy available to counsel the CEO on how to deal with those reporting to him – behind their backs – especially if that person is very close to the CEO – like being the husband of his daughter.  The trouble with Jared Kushner is that he is inadequate enough not to see how inadequate he is, or how much damage he is doing to the structure of management.  Messrs Mattis and Fauci are faultless leaders in their spheres.  One look at them tells you that these people understand and embrace public service – in a way that the Trump family could never understand.  How could decent people like them survive dealing with someone like Trump and his family?

The book confirms my worst fears about Kushner.  Kushner told Woodward – again on the record – that if he wanted to understand Trump, he should read four texts.  One of them was Alice in Wonderland.

When combined, Kushner’s four texts painted President Trump as crazy, aimless, stubborn and manipulative.  I could hardly believe anyone would recommend these as ways to understand their father-in-law, much less the president they believed in and served.

The worst is yet to come.  You thought Trump had got rid of his best advisers.

‘And by the way,’ Kushner added, ‘that’s why the most dangerous people around the president are overconfident idiots.’ It was apparently a reference to Mattis, Tillerson and former White House economic adviser Gary Cohn.  All had left.  ‘If you look at the evolution over time, we’ve gotten rid of a lot of the overconfident idiots.  And now he’s got a lot more thoughtful people who kind of know their place and know what to do.’

Trump is a spoiled child who never learned anything better.  Those Republican grandees who have enabled him do not have that excuse.  Their time will come in the blackest pages of history.

Perhaps we should all read this book to recall why.

Here and there – Twilight of Democracy

Twilight of Democracy

The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

Anne Applebaum

This book is beautifully written.  It is also very sad.  It could be given to apprentice barristers because its author understands that for an advocate, candour is a weapon.  And that it is a weapon is not realised by those people that Anne Applebaum describes.  She looks at the recent political shifts in Poland, Hungary, Spain and England – or, I should say, Great Britain – and asks who are the kinds of people that are attracted by the lure of authoritarian rule?  Her answer is ‘people who cannot tolerate complexity.’  You may want to be careful how you put that.  You could get into serious trouble if you referred to those people as ‘simpletons’ or even ‘simple minded.’  (You get sent straight to the stocks if you say that they are ‘deplorable.’)

….the ‘authoritarian predisposition’….is not exactly the same thing as closed-mindedness.  It is better described as simple-mindedness: people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity.  They dislike divisiveness.  They prefer unity.  A sudden onslaught of diversity – diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences – therefore makes them angry.  They seek solutions in new political language that makes them feel safer and more secure.

This is the kind of failing that Keats had in mind when he spoke of the ‘negative capability’ of Shakespeare – ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’  A professional person must pursue this course; its absence is fatal in a judge; and it should be a paramount objective of what might be called a liberal education.  Educated people – and you also need to be careful about where you use that term – are brought up to distrust anyone claiming to have the answer.  But that is what those who surrender to the seduction crave.  It puts an end to anxiety and gives them peace.  Life is easier when you march to the beat of a drum.

And, of course, if you have the answer, then those against you are worse than perverse.  They are diagnosably wrong.  What you get is something like all-out war.  What we then miss is what Sir Lewis Namier referred to as ‘restraint coupled with the tolerance that it implies.’  The term is ‘polarised’ – what one participant told the author was ‘winner takes all.’  In Australia at the moment, a mild disagreement about handling a virus leads to shrieking about the death of democracy.

And you will see immediately how Twitter and the like feed those cancers and deliver up the credulous to their puppeteers.  What you get is a ‘frame of mind, not a set of ideas.’  And in the company of those of like mind, you get identity, the marks of which you bear with pride.

And the answers are plain.  ‘The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity.’  For the followers of Hitler, the Jews were the enemy; for the followers of Obán, it is Mr George Soros.  It doesn’t matter much whom you choose for scapegoats – say Jews, Muslims, migrants or gay people – as long as they are indentifiable and vulnerable.  What you have is ‘resentment, revenge, and envy.’  What you are released from is responsibility for your own history.  And you distrust experts.  You don’t want to concede their power or let them take your time.  You may even burble some nonsense about sovereignty.

As I said elsewhere:

Lord Clark said … that ‘as rational argument declines, vivid assertion takes its place.’…. You see a similar problem with people who ignore evidence that is contrary to the view they have formed provisionally.  It looks good enough to get a problem off their desk to someone else’s – why give yourself more trouble by re‑examining the point?  The problem is, in large part, one of laziness, the quest for the easy life, and for an end  to uncertainty and anxiety. …..The real problem is that most of us are not ready to acknowledge the prior opinion, nor the extent of its hold on us.  As Aldous Huxley observed, ‘Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored’; or, as Warren Buffett said: ‘What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.’  ….There is a related problem about our reluctance to be left in doubt or uncertainty.  It is sometimes hard to resist the suggestion that doing something is better than doing nothing.  That position is commonly dead wrong.  The French philosopher Blaise Pascal memorably said that, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

At least three things sadden me about what this book tells us.  The first is that people like Farage, Trump and Boris Johnson are not people you would like to invite into your home.

Quite a lot of people have since remarked on Johnson’s outsized narcissism, which is indeed all consuming, as well as his equally remarkable laziness.  His penchant for fabrication is a matter of record.

They are the attributes of Farage and Trump.  They are like spoiled children.  They are not used to being denied, or even checked.  If they do meet obstruction, they sulk about the structures in their way.  They even claim to be persecuted.  The contempt of Farage for displaced Muslim persons in 2016 was manifest.  Just about every day, people like Trump or Johnson do something that would get them fired from the position of CEO of a public company.  But it appears that the bargaining power of those who put them in power does not allow them to call their leader to account.

The second point of sadness is that the followers of these liars rejoice in their lies.  This is part of the myth that the establishment is being stormed.  ‘Dominic Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign proved it was possible to lie, repeatedly, and to get away with it.’  It is quite remarkable how much time is spent by members of the elite complaining about the conduct of the elite; some even claim to be persecuted by the elite.

That brings us to God in America.  It has been a problem since the Puritans arrived and found themselves in the majority – they were fast running out of favour in England.  The pact between Trump and the evangelical Christians is something like: ‘You give us judges that will ban abortion and we will forget the Sermon on the Mount for federal politics.’  (Could you believe it?  The meek shall inherit the earth?)  That is sickening enough – but Rome did deals with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco.  And according to the author, some in America believe that ‘Russia is a godly Christian nation seeking to protect its ethnic identity.’  Others have odd views about Jerusalem.

If you see Laura Ingraham of Fox News on TV, you may feel the chill of her Aryan froideur even if you are not Jewish.  She is a Catholic who once went on a date with Trump and who gives lectures on Christian values and virtues – ‘honor, courage, selflessness, sacrifice, hard work, personal responsibility, respect for elders, respect for the vulnerable.’ Trump is none of those things.  When Ms Ingraham interviewed Trump on the anniversary of D-day, she said ‘By the way, congratulations on your polling numbers.’  How can any faith survive that kind of betrayal?  And the worst of it is that some of these people call themselves ‘conservatives’.  Do any of them have any sense of shame left at all?

Then there is Falstaff – ‘Jack to my friends and Sir John to all Europe’.  (I refer to the Falstaff of the history plays, and not the sit-com of The Merry Wives of Windsor so gorgeously realised by Verdi in his carnival opera version).  Falstaff is, not necessarily in order, a coward, a drunk, a thief, a liar, a cheat, a crawler, a snob and a womaniser.  He is also the most popular character that Shakespeare ever created – so popular, some say, that the Queen commanded and got a whole play by way of encore.  For all his faults – his vices – we relate to Falstaff.  But looked at objectively, he is what Sir Anthony Quayle – and he should know – described as ‘frankly vicious.’

Is there something in our psyche – perhaps the complete reverse of the superego – that leads us to enjoy someone who openly mocks our whole establishment and its tiresome virtues?  You often hear people say that they like Trump because he can say things that they would never get away with – about, say, the first black president.  That is probably also the main source of appeal of those frightful parasites called shock jocks.  This is what Tony Tanner (in his Prefaces to Shakespeare) said:

In carnival, social hierarchy was inverted, authority mocked, conventional values profaned, official ceremonies and rituals grotesquely parodied, the normal power structures dissolved  – in a word, Misrule, Riot, the world upside down.

That is a fair summary of some of the more unattractive aspects of Falstaff and of those living in the world of the current White House.  And when you look at it, there is about Falstaff, as there is about Trump and Johnson, the aura of a spoiled child who never grew up.

Anne Applebaum says that ancient philosophers had their doubts about democracy – as did the movers of the revolutions of 1688, 1776, 1789, and 1917.  Plato feared the ‘false and braggart words’ of the demagogue, and wondered if democracy was anything more than a staging point on the way to tyranny.  This fine book shows a clear light on our current descent.

Here and there – Black Knight plays White Queen

The events known as the Dismissal of 1975 have come back to the front page of our press with the release of correspondence between the Palace in London (on behalf of the Queen) and the Governor-General (Sir John Kerr) in Australia.  Those who had the custody of those documents had resisted disclosing them.  The resistance was fierce and prolonged.  It is hard to think of a good reason why the people of Australia should have been prevented from getting access to documents that may throw light on one of the most contentious political episodes in our history.

At the heart of that dispute was the question of what is the proper role of the executive of the Commonwealth – the Queen and the Governor-General – in resolving a deadlock between the two houses of Parliament.

The dispute had arisen because one party had used its numbers in the Senate to block supply to the government with a view to forcing an early election and, as I recall, state governments had filled Senate vacancies with people they thought would be amenable to their views.  The government had been acting badly, but there were good grounds to suggest that the opposition parties had breached long standing political conventions in the way in which they were blocking supply.  The atmosphere was worse than tense.  It was venomous.

The answer about the proper role of the Queen and the Governor-General in our political affairs was not given by the Queen.  The answer was driven from London from advisers in the Palace and from the Governor-General and his staff in Canberra.  The Queen, we are told, had no part in the decision.  According to the correspondence now released, the decision reached by her advisers in the Palace and the Governor-General in Australia was that the Queen should have nothing to do with this crisis in Australia, and it should all be left to the Governor General – albeit with the benefit of advice to him from the staff of the Queen at the Palace.  The decision that the Queen should play no part extended to a decision that she should not be told in advance what action the Governor-General might take.

All that raises the question – if the Queen has no part to play in resolving an issue like this, what is the point of keeping the Queen as part of the government of the Commonwealth of Australia?

The Constitution in section 61 provides:

The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.

In considering this provision, we should remember that the Constitution was contained in a schedule to an act of the British Parliament that was passed at the time when Great Britain was at the pinnacle of its power ruling over one of the greatest empires in the history of the world – if ‘great’ is an appropriate epithet for any empire.  When the mother country granted former colonies their independence, as it had done with Canada and as it would do with many other nations in Africa and Asia, it did so by setting up the constitutions of those nations so that they would follow what the British were reasonably entitled to believe was their greatest contribution to the world – the rule of law under the common law and the Westminster version of parliamentary democracy.  You can, if you wish, test the validity or worth of that faith by looking at the subsequent histories of, say, the former colonies of Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, or Italy.

The terms ‘power’ and ‘vesting’ that appear in s. 61 may at times be legally charged, as may be the notion of delegation implicit in the stipulation that the Governor-General may exercise those powers of the Queen, but the intention and effect of this law is plain enough.  The mother country is bequeathing its system of government to the fledging nation that it is giving birth to.  If you look at s. 61, you see that the powers that are exercisable by the Governor-General are the powers of the Queen.  The law says that the Governor-General acts as ‘the Queen’s representative.’  It is like the relation between principal and agent developed by the common law.

In the business of running the government, the Governor-General has the powers of the Queen.  And part of our overall constitutional framework is that the Governor-General, like the Queen, can only exercise those powers on advice from the Ministers of the Crown who are members of parliament and who have the confidence of a majority of that parliament.

There is therefore no need to ask what might happen if there was a dispute between the Queen and the Governor-General as to how those powers should be exercised – each of them can only act on the advice of the government of the day.  It follows of course that it would not be open to the Governor-General to act in a manner that is denied to the Queen – by, for example, acting not just without the consent of the government, but by acting against the express wishes of that government.  To put it more broadly, it is difficult under our law to envisage an agent having more power than the principal.  Perhaps we might consider the analogy of chess – the queen is much more powerful than a knight, but the knight moves in a way that the queen cannot; a player who sacrifices a queen for a knight is mad; and the king is untouchable.

The debate, if that is what it was, about the ‘reserve powers’ of the Governor-General calls to mind the issue of the ‘royal prerogative’ in the seventeenth century.  The Stuart kings could not shed the illusion that their powers – the prerogative of the Crown – came from God – and could only be taken from them by God.  That issue was resolved against the Crown in the events known as the Glorious Revolution of 1788-1789.  James II, the last of the Stuarts, decamped ingloriously, heaving the royal seals into the Thames as he went, possibly reflecting, as one mordant historian remarked, about that part of the neck that was severed when the English cut off his father’s head; Dutch troops patrolled the streets of London; and the parliament and the Queen, who was the daughter of James II, and William of Orange signed the Hanoverians up to supply a line of house trained kings from Germany to run things in England.  This is where we get the supremacy, or, if you prefer, the sovereignty of parliament.  Virtually all powers of the Crown were subject to the will of the people in parliament.  Looking back on it now, this does look like a pan European solution to a very English problem.  The efforts of the French to follow suit a century later met a much harder fate.

Lord Denning, am English jurist of last century, did not pussy-foot about the English solution.

Concede, if you wish, that, as an ideology, communism has much to be said for it: nevertheless, the danger in a totalitarian system is that those in control of the State will, sooner or later, come to identify their own interests, or the interests of their own party, with those of the State: and when that happens the freedom of the individual has to give way to the interests of the persons in power.  We have had all that out time and again in our long history: and we know the answer.  It is that the executive government must never be allowed more power than is absolutely necessary.  They must always be made subject to the law; and there must be judges in the land who are ‘no respecters of persons and stand between the subject and any encroachment on his liberty by the executive.’  We taught the kings that from Runnymede to the scaffold at Whitehall [the execution of Charles I]: and we have not had any serious trouble about it since.

It therefore came as quite a surprise to learn from the correspondence now released that the staff of the Queen at the Palace and the Governor-General in Australia went out of their way to ensure that the Queen had no notice at all of what would be the most significant step ever taken purportedly on behalf of the Queen in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia.  Of course in the day to day business of government, the Queen is never consulted.  But on what basis did those who advised Sir John Kerr about his powers decide that the Queen should be not be informed or in any way involved in the way that her powers should be exercised in a manner that had never been done before?

And although the Queen could only act on the advice of the government of the day, the Governor-General was acting in this case in a manner expressly contrary to that advice.  It has always seemed to many to be odd to say that the person entrusted with the powers of the Queen could exercise those powers in a manner expressly denied to the Queen – that in some ways his powers were more plenary than when exercised by Her Majesty.  What the Palace correspondence shows is a Governor-General acting in a manner that was contrary to an essential pillar of our inherited Westminster system of government.

The reason offered for that course is that if the Governor-General had warned the Prime Minister of his intention, the Prime Minister could have asked the Queen to remove the Governor-General and she would then have been obliged to do so.  Is that not a matter of the Governor-General acting peremptorily in order to preclude the possibility of the Queen acting appropriately?  And does that just leave us with Alice in Wonderland?

If after the Governor-General had acted as he did and he had informed the Queen, what may have been the case if the Queen had been of the opinion that she would have acted differently?  And how could Her Majesty have said otherwise when she was obliged to act, and only to act, on the advice of her Australian ministers?

It is not therefore surprising to read that a former member of the Palace bureaucracy says now:

I suspect that the advice that would have been given to him [Sir John Kerr] was that it would have been prudent to hold off a bit longer.  But obviously he felt the pressure of these two contingencies about the election and the financial situation were too pressing to ignore.  I think it was very proper of him not to ask and in ways which are now very evident, very sensible and satisfactory that he didn’t.  There was considerable discussion of a hypothetical nature about the existence of, and appropriateness of, applying to those reserve powers, but at no stage did the Governor-General ever ask the Queen to suggest that he should act in any particular way, and nor did she offer that advice through her private secretary…

The press reports that this gentleman and the author of the Palace letters thought that Australia was embroiled in a ‘political’ and not ‘constitutional’ crisis and concluded that the Governor- General had intervened ‘too precipitously’ to resolve the deadlock over supply.

All of us in London thought that if Kerr had been able to hold his nerve for just a day or two more, there probably would have been a political solution to the problem, which would have avoided a lot fuss.

And ‘a lot of fuss’ there was – that might have been avoided if the various officials in London and Canberra had not sought and managed to keep the Queen out of this dispute.

And one day someone in Whitehall may illuminate us about the distinction between a ‘political’ crisis and a ‘constitutional’ crisis.  It looks to be the kind of question that could have tantalised Aristotle or Plato or Augustine or Aquinas in different ways.  Some may be reminded that the medieval Schoolmen agonised over the question of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle.  This is not the kind of speculation that we need to see in the government of our nation.

Well, what are we now to make of all this?  Does it not just look like an episode of Yes, Minister that has gone horribly wrong?

Many Australians, including me, were infuriated by what happened in 1975.  Now many of those Australians, again including me, just feel personally insulted that the fate of their government in 1975 had been determined by the actions of Palace officials in London and a Governor-General here who thought that it was appropriate for him to act in the way that he did without notice either to the Queen of Australia or to the Prime Minister of Australia.

When you come to think about it, there was truly chutzpah to behold in civil servants in the onetime seat of a mighty empire involving themselves in the affairs of onetime colonies and helping to bring about a change of government – without any notice to its head of state or prime minister. The term coup d’état may be too strong, but I know how some people feel.  If there is one thing worse than a monarch wanting to intervene in our affairs, it may be a monarch who wants nothing to do with us, even though our constitution makes her the primary repository of the executive powers of the Commonwealth.

Now, forty-five years later, we may wonder if the reaction to the election of Gough Whitlam in Australia might now be seen in the reaction to the election of Barak Obama in the United States – ‘this aberration is not the way that we the better people are used to doing business,  and we may therefore just have to bend the rules a little in order to restore the status quo; democracy is at its best when it is duly guided, and sometimes the people just forget what’s best for them.’

It brings to mind an immortal cartoon of Ron Tandberg.  Just before he retired, Sir John put on a routine of another but much better known Sir John – Falstaff.  Sir John presented the Melbourne Cup when it was obvious to tout le monde that he was as full as a state school.  Tandberg showed him blotto with crosses for eyes under a silly, tilted top hat.  The caption was: ‘I love making presentations in November.  Like when I gave the nation back to its true owners.’

Gough Whitlam said Sir John was the last of the Bourbons.  He might as well have said Stuarts – they were very helpfully incorrigible.  But it is notorious that those in the diaspora cling to relics long after their time has passed.  Sir Lewis Namier said that the US is ‘in certain ways, a refrigerator in which British ideas and institutions are preferred long after they have been forgotten in this country’.

Well, two things are clear enough – indeed, two things are transcendentally clear.  First, very few people in Australia want to give any power to any government officials in London to settle their political disputes.  Secondly, no one in London wants to be involved in any such Australian disputes.  The time of this institution in Australia has passed from us long ago.  That being so, the presence of the monarchy in our body politic is as useful as the appendix in my body and it is time for us to achieve independence from Great Britain and proceed under our own head of state.

 

Here and there – but the centre did hold

 

Well now, you have every right to complain about the way I bang on about labels, or the repetition of that line that labels are what you put on soup cans.  My only excuse is that I keep getting provoked.  A lot of the labels get rolled out in what are called ‘culture wars’, and I gather that a female civil servant is about to get what my father called ‘the rounds of the kitchen’ for a remark about Captain Cook that reminded me of a wonderful line from a lecture in Cambridge.  It was to the effect that those who sailed from England as part of the empire were ‘water-borne parasites’.  That truly was a line for the ages.

The word ‘socialist’ is still loaded in America.  Well, they do things differently there.  But what use can we make of it here and now?  We believe, and we have believed since well before I was born, that it is the business of the State to deal with the sick, the aged, and the unemployed.  The phrase ‘the business of the State’ comes from Lloyd George.  He and Winston Churchill introduced the welfare state to England in 1909.  We have followed them.  Since we no longer organise our primary production through state owned corporations, what work is there left for the term ‘socialism’ in Australia?  That question may be more pointed during a pandemic, when even the most entrenched ideologues are begging the State to do all that it can to look after them.

The English don’t often say that they are following in the steps of others, but in 1909, they looked at what Bismarck had done in Germany.  Could it possibly be the case that the Iron Chancellor, the man of blood and iron, that fierce Prussian conservative, was in any way, much less in a liberal way, ahead of England?

I have mused on this question reading a book on Bismarck written by a Fellow of All Souls in 1920 by C. Grant Robertson.  That was an interesting time to publish a book about the man who unified Germany, but it has the advantage of being written when major events were within living memory.

Socialism was a fraught term in Germany in and after 1870.  Germany was the birthplace of Karl Marx, and his teaching was anathema to Prussian Junckers like Bismarck.  The Germans passed a law against them in 1870.  Socialists could be banished from their homes.  Mr Robertson offered some acute observations.

But the National Liberals by their action threw the earth on their own coffin.  The program of Social Democracy has always terrified middle class Liberalism more than any other party…..When National Liberalism had ceased to exist as a solid phalanx the way would be open for a reactionary Conservatism.  National Liberalism was to learn the wholesale lesson that when parties prefer tactics to principles and opportunism to conviction, the funeral service with their antagonist as the officiating minister is at hand.

All Souls is special, but do not these words, written more than a century ago, throw a frightening light on the United States of today?

Mr Robertson went on to remark that ‘Criticism that is successful is always ‘offensive’ to autocrats and bureaucrats.’  (And, Boy! do we not see that every day in Washington?)  And, of course, the Social Democrats thrived under persecution.

So, how did the man of iron, by far the leading statesman in the entire world then, respond?  He engaged in a huge program of reform in a nation that had just been just born and for a people not renowned for radicalism.  Every part had to be fought over hard, not least the comprehensive legislative code creating for the industrial workers compulsory insurance by the State against accidents and sickness, and establishing old-age pensions.

The broad result of these nine years of feverish effort and strenuous controversy was completely to alter the economic and political structure of Germany….But he [Bismarck] was a realist and opportunist and he recognised that change must continually be taking place….The problem was essentially one of political judgment, knowledge, delicacy of method, and elastic adaptability – a perpetual compromise which conceded details but never allowed fundamentals to be questioned or weakened…A Conservatism that lacked the political instinct and the true political judgment was as useless as….Socialism…

Mr Robertson went on to say that in one sense every act of a State is ‘socialistic’, and that ‘bargaining over principles is always a failure.’

Hence coalitions in a country where party systems rest on principles are usually failures, and always hated by the country as a whole. But bargaining over interests is simply an affair of political and economic arithmetic.

So, what did that arithmetic suggest?  The socialists might sulk and call this ‘bastard Socialism,’ but – and this is what it’s all about – ‘Bismarck’s ‘socialistic’ policy was the minimum of blackmail that the ruling classes would pay in order to strengthen their own political power.’

That rings dead true.  It’s about politics, numbers and not dreams, dear boy, so shut up, and eat your sauerkraut.

So, when you ask if America is about one and a half centuries behind, say, Germany, here is what Herr Otto von Bismarck, Duke of Lauenberg and Prince of Bismarck, told the German people way back in 1884.

Give the working man the right to work as long as he is healthy, assure him care when he is sick, and assure him maintenance when he is old.  If you do that and do not fear the sacrifice, or cry out at State Socialism – if the State will show a more Christian solicitude for the working man, then I believe that the gentlemen of the Social-Democratic program will sound their bird calls in vain…..Yes, I acknowledge unconditionally a right to work, and I will stand up for it as long as I am in this place.

Heavens above!  Can you imagine the bird calls – the shrieks, even – coming out of that house of all labels, the Institute of Public Affairs?  To see just how awful it may be, you need to conjure up an image of the eternal victim – the ‘terrified middle class Liberalism.’

Here and there – Evading the question

 

People in public life are trained to evade answering questions.  They practise it.  It becomes second nature.  You might think that people in positions of trust should be obliged to answer questions about their discharge of that trust candidly and in good faith.  The law and I would agree with you.  But that is not what happens.  What we get are evasion, equivocation and half-truths.  The idea is never to give a straight answer.  Even if you are just asked to say what time it is.

Here are some of the most popular techniques.

  1. Restate or reframe the question so that you can answer it favourably to yourself. Mediators are trained to do this in a good way to try to take some heat out of the dispute.  It is notorious that opinion polls can be slanted by the way the question is framed.  ‘Do you think that it is in the public interest for the media to have more protection – more freedom of speech, if you like – in reporting on political issues?’  That is very different to: ‘Should we give Rupert Murdoch carte blanche to walk all over us in political cat fights?’  Instead of saying what your party has done, say what its policy is.  This is very common – offering motherhood in place of fact.  Alternatively, instead of talking about policy, say what your party has in fact done.  This simple if blatant evasion is standard.  For question A you have response X; for question B you have response Y; and so on.
  2. Challenge a premise of the question. ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ is objectionable as it assumes that you do beat your wife.  What about: ‘Why do you call this informant a whistle-blower?  He is just a common garden snitch and liar.’  ‘I object to your labelling this man as a conservative.  He is a closet lefty…anarchist ….alarmist’ …..and so on.
  3. If you get a chance to say that the question is ambiguous, think about saying so. (Some lawyers think that if their opponent looks clumsy, it may be best to leave them to try to dog paddle to shore on their own.)
  4. Brand the question as hypothetical and say that you don’t answer hypothetical questions. This may sometimes be true.
  5. Or invoke some other trite label. ‘I don’t engage in the Canberra bubble’, ‘water cooler gossip’, ‘locker room banter’, ‘hearsay’, ‘bloviations of the elites’, ‘virtue signalling’, ‘politically motivated’, ‘fake news’ or ‘deep state’……  Or, I speak to ‘quiet Australians’ (who never answer back).  You can get the full range of this nonsense every Saturday in The Weekend Australian.  Seasoned operatives take the view that the more meaningless and inflammatory the label is, the better off is the response.  It may depend on the acuity of the audience.
  6. If asked about the past say that you are focussed on the future. One Australian Minister, whose sense is matched by their deportment – the avoidance of gender is deliberate – always ‘looks to move on.’  (Walking backwards for Christmas does not enjoy a good pedigree.)  Then, when asked about the future, you decline to speculate on the suppositious or academic.  The golden template is in these immortal lines from the greatest movie ever made.

YVONNE: Where were you last night?

RICK: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.

YVONNE: Will I see you tonight?

RICK: I never make plans that far ahead.

But, alas, that kind of spark is missing from those who bring coals into our parliament.  (On a good day, they remind me of a bus driver from Box Hill in the Fifties.)

  1. If the matter is sensitive – say gun control or climate change – say that current or recent events make it in bade taste to allow ‘political point scoring’ to cloud delicate and personal issues. You can use the word ‘opportunistic’ – and hope that you are not asked to say what you mean.  In this country at least, this is a dead horse – except for followers of Sky After Dark or The Australian.
  2. A primary object is to keep onside that part of the audience that fears doubt and is made insecure by a want of finality. (This is sometimes called ‘the base’ – a useful double entendre.)  That sadly is a large part of the audience (although not as large as in the U S).  For that purpose, keep serving up the same old platitudes.  The simpler, the better.  But be careful about mixing escalation and increase in volume with repetition.  (The leading modern exponent of that technique is currently – in November, 2019 – heading for a gutser.)
  3. Be like a good poker player. Just bluff hard and big and look them dead in the eye and dare them to call you out.  After all, this is all about saving   You could model this aspect on President Xi.  (Who would play poker with that sphinx?)
  4. Blind them with science or big words. This is mandatory in any discussion of science or economics.  (The two are very different things.)  Remember the immortal advice cited by Professor Frankfurt in On Bullshit – ‘Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.’  It’s like throwing sand in your protagonist’s eyes.  But this response, too, requires care.  Your supporters take offence if they think you are deliberately aiming to go above their heads (which it is alarmingly easy to do).
  5. Bury them with detail. ‘Yes, in order to deal with that issue in the manner it deserves, I need to take you to some of the figures……’  This is called a snow job.  It is very common in legal and commercial negotiations.  You may look aggrieved if you are called on to get to the point.  ‘This is not a matter to be entered into lightly or ill-advisedly.’  You could then give the Andrew Bolt look of dolour – with appropriate hand gestures.
  6. Alternatively, you may say that the question calls for an opinion that you are not qualified to give. You must apply this technique with extreme care –especially if you devote most of your time to doing just that (which is the case for many lawyers and most politicians).
  7. A similar caution goes for slowing down the process by taking an inordinate time to answer the question – or, more properly, to respond to the question. This technique can be useful in dealing with tyro journalists or barristers in cross-examination, but it may not fit your schtick – this is no place for modesty – and it may not appeal to that ghastly mirage called your ‘base.’  They are happy with front and bluff, and not impressed by a devotion to care; or, for that matter, by fidelity of any colour.
  8. Depending on the forum, you may choose to be pleasant – you should always at least look polite and courteous and under control. If you are prepared to resort to flattery, leave aside the trowel.  And ‘That’s a very good question’ is badly overdone.  And don’t ramble.  You might convict yourself out of your own mouth.  And avoid traps like ‘sincerely’ or ‘honestly.’  (What is your condition when you do not expressly adopt that position?)
  9. An alternative is to belittle the questioner. This too requires care and skill.  Many people don’t like bullies.  (That proposition is just one of those that is refuted by the current rise of two worst leaders in the West.)  Cajolery may be better.  (Blackmail of course should not be undertaken in public, and then only under total and detachable and renounceable cover in private – witness aid to the Ukraine.)
  10. Attack the questioner head on. ‘Well, that’s just the kind of bias I would expect from the ABC.’  (Compare: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands at last?’)
  11. The Latin tag for playing the man is ad hominem ( ‘to the man’). It is repellently overused by diverting attention to the other side.  ‘Well, we are not perfect.  We are realists.  But just have a look at the mess that our opponents left for us – and for you, the people.’  This is intellectual trash, but you get truckloads of it every day, and the people out of doors don’t hear the sighs or groans.
  12. If in doubt, start a fight. This has been the resort of lawyers and business people from time out of mind.  It comes ever so naturally to those who appeal to the gutter, because they know that the gutter enjoys a good fight.
  13. The alternative to a fight is just to walk out. That may be easier to live with than an admission of guilt – and the whole point of the exercise is to avoid precisely that.

They are some of the more common techniques.  The questioner must recall one of the major rules of cross-examination.  Make sure that the witness answers the question.  If you get a snow job or some other windy evasion, bring them back to the point.  ‘Well, are you quite finished?  Are you sure?  Did you understand the question?  Well then, could you now please answer it?’  It’s about even money that they will say that they forget what the question was – and sometimes that may be the case.

Professor Frankfurt cites two definitions of ‘bull’: ‘Talk which is not to the purpose; ‘hot air’; ‘slang term for a combination of bluff, bravado, ‘hot air’ and what we used to call in the Army ‘kidding the troops’’.  He spoke of people ‘unconstrained by a concern with truth.’

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit…..For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony….The bullshitter is faking things.  But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong….Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

That book was published in 2005.  Since then, bull has become an art form and reached its apotheosis in Messrs Trump and Johnson.

Now, you may well think that whatever else we have been talking about, it is not honesty.  I agree with you.  But that is where we are now.

Here and there – Annual Awards

 

Best wishes for Christmas and 2020.  I shall be off for a few weeks, but I commend the list below.  The season of good will is also the season of pay back and catharsis.  My Mum said I should have one every day.

Stay safe and watch out for the smoke.

With Compliments

Annual Awards 2019

Film of the year

The Irishman – an epic in the good old style with three of the best screen actors around.

Sporting events of the year

Two resurrections – Steve Smith and Tiger Woods.

Winx made a lot of people happy – including me, for winning at her last start the day after the Wolf joined his ancestors.

Mesut Ozil.  The German, Muslim, Arsenal footballer who stuck it right up President Xi, and who thereby gave the supporters of Israel Folau something to think about – an experience that they may find exhilarating – or, perhaps, intimidating.

Book of the year

Bending Toward Justice, Doug Jones; Finding My Place, Anne Aly; and Trials of the State, Jonathan Sumption.  (Curiously, the first two authors are intensely sane, but each had two prior marriages.)  (I read Carlyle’s The French Revolution for the seventh time, but that does not fit these criteria.)

Business head of the year

BHP is the biggest shareholding in my small fund, in no small part because of my respect for Andrew Mackenzie, the outgoing CEO.  His education record is formidable – in Scotland, England, and Germany, and in three disciplines; he has a remarkable business sense and capacity to lead; most importantly, he can still behave like a ‘merely decent human being’ – to quote a line from The Russia House.  ‘Leadership’ is a facility that is subject to more bullshit than most others, but Mr Mackenzie has it – in spades.  And he has shown it not just in BHP but at large – in a community that cries out for it – and to the consternation of those dolts who know nothing about business because they have never been involved in running one and because they have not seen the change in the role of business in our community.

Lawyer of the year

Lady Hale of the UK Supreme Court, for herding the cats and striking a blow for the rule of law and common sense and common decency with a single joint judgment.  And because she was once a barmaid and because she wore that brooch.  The U S establishment has not produced it at that level – although the impeachment civil servants looked to be impeccable.

Reporter of the year

Nesrine Malik.  I would not give her any cheek at all.  Seriously bright.  She is from Ethiopia or thereabouts – the cradle of mankind.  She is both imperious and imperial – and with a delicious and imposing sidelong glance.

Columnist of the year

Joe Aston.  For serving it up to people who deserve it.  With a special mention for his gutsy libel lawyer.

Artist of the year

David Rowe.  Easily.  Cartoons are something we do well.  And they are a very necessary guard against depression or madness.

Newspaper of the year

Financial Times.  Producing good newspapers is something that the English do well.  This paper oozes professional decency.  Its views on Johnson are not dissimilar to those of The New Yorker on Trump – but it is not so overtly on a war footing, or so incessantly feeding the beast.  No prize for the worst.

Victims of the year

Those who voted against Trump, Johnson and Morrison; closely followed by those who voted for them.

Mediocrity of the year

ScoMo.  Can someone tell him that there is a world of difference between volunteers’ facing death before killer fires and sending crack armed forces against unarmed refugees and then spitefully repealing a law to simplify the refugees’ getting medical aid – and then putting a plaque on your wall to celebrate – in all humility, of course – your own downright heroism?  ScoMo is a BYO sandwich board – nothing more; nothing less.  He is a ventriloquist’s doll, an organ-grinder’s monkey, and a pencil box with vocal chords.  And if you ever meet someone who is happy to be called a ‘quiet Australian’, could you please be so kind as to let me know? Because we just might have the world’s best practice prize galah on our hands.

Comparison of the year

The New Zealand PM and the Australian PM on national disasters.

Musical event of the year

Jonas Kaufman in opera concert (Andrea Chénier); the MSO Choir and the Brahms Requiem; and my recent acquisition of the Glyndebourne CD set of Billy Budd and my recent re-discovery of the Karajan Boris Godunov.

Symptom of our time

Boeing killed people because money meant more than the safety of you and me.  It then put out unrepentant spin to hold its share price.  For a while the U S government went along with it to save money and face.  No one will go to jail.

Another symptom

The slutty evanescence of Twenty/20 cricket.  And, no, I will not love her in the morning.  As fulfilling as Chinese takeaways in the Fifties.

The Joseph Stalin Award for Bastardry of the Year

The repeal of Medivac.  They did it because they could.

The Geoffrey Boycott Award for Utter and Unlovely Predictability

Anyone from the IPA or Murdoch Press – Brownie points for the quinella.  The IPA in Parliament come from Mars, boy wonders with no experience and less judgment, full of front and emptiness, signifying nothing.  Paterson and Wilson are names to conjure with.  They are true Princes of Bullshit.

Hypocrites of the year

The whole federal parliament.  They pray to start their day and then devote themselves to letting down the same God whose Son would be appalled because they do know what they do.  It is sad to see believers – or so they say – shred their Gospel to schmooze with womanising liars who are so transparently in it for their amoral selves and then turn their backs on refugees – many fleeing from a mess that we had a hand in creating.  Their bizarre response to learning and pollution suggests that they have no children.  Or that they have been bought.  God save us.

Sad sack of the year

Gerard Henderson, the Prince of Sadness in eternal pursuit of the Prince of Darkness – Aunty.  Has driven more people from religion than Savonarola or Mike Pence.  This is a very large statement.

Ratbag of the year

Rowan Dean.  The embodiment of the ugliness in us all down here.  Loves to leer, jeer and sneer at those he regards as inferior.  The ghastly price that we pay for not having a conservative press.  Actually likes Trump, Johnson and Morrison – although his team – yes, team – preferred Dutton.  Dean makes Bolt look like a tame also-ran.

Recipe of the year

Roast vegetables – peel and cut vegies to size (say Dutch Cream or Kipfler potatoes, carrot or parsnip, and zucchini) – simmer on boil for five minutes – place into colander and coat with olive oil and toss with salt, pepper, seasoning, flour and thyme – transfer to roasting pan after melting duck fat on the hob and then lightly repeat the coating process and toss – cook in oven under dripping roast meat.  Reserve vegie water for gravy (for which I cheat).

Restaurant of the year

Tsindos.  OK – I am biased in favour of the Greeks, and this place in particular, but I have been going to that site for more than forty-five years, and any restaurant that puts up with and survives the Deplorables deserves commendation from on high.  Comfort food for the ages.  If you go, tell Harry I sent you.  And wait for the curious look.

Wine of the year

I normally stick with my own, and my own regions, but Bordeaux Chateau Meillac of 2012 for $25 from Banks’ Fine Wines is very acceptable – and it was good to be reminded of that solid old trouper Redman 2013 Coonawarra Shiraz in something like the old Rouge Homme livery.

Aggravation of the year

The continuing despoliation of Shakespeare by miss-casting his plays to make a political point – we need to think about resurrecting the law of blasphemy.

Anything to do with the Mayor of Box Hill (aka our P M) – although Prince Andrew was a late and inspired challenger with an inside run on the rails.

Error of judgment of the year

My resigning my membership of Melbourne Storm and joining Melbourne Rebels.  The former then barely lost a game.  The latter then barely won one.  (I know how Collingwood supporters feel – I was there in 1964 when the D’s won their last pennant.  With my Mum.  And I am in the process of spreading the curse from the Melbourne Redlegs to the Boston Red Sox.)

The Australian Christian Lobby applying publicly collected money to aid a member of the entertainment industry to sue his employer for millions of dollars because they and their supporters were put out that his religious fanaticism led him to denigrate those who differed from him.  The bad taste press thought it was terrific.

And see also Victims of the year and Comparison of the year, above.

Find of the year

Marnus Laberschagne and the Malmsbury Pub – under new management.

Star turn of the year

Anita Hill and those other civil servants who gave evidence before the Congress and whose courage and integrity showed up their political masters for the ratbags they are.  She and they gave us hope that the U S may recover from this catastrophe.

Hardest falls of the year

The whole Republican Party, but especially their soi disant leaders – gloomy, scared old white males bereft alike of integrity and courage – especially those two goons who always turn up behind the same shoulder of Water-mouth McConnell.

Reminiscence of the year

Catherine Deneuve and Juliet Binoche in the one movie.  Just as well they didn’t rope in Emmanuelle Béart as well – they may have had to issue a health warning for fading old men – like the Deplorables (et pour moi aussi).

Realisation of the year

In a two party system of government, it takes two to tango.  And if the opposition isn’t up to it, you can end up with a mess like ours – or England’s or America’s.

Bullshit of the year

This magnificent vote is a reassertion of national sovereignty and national will.

It is a powerful boost to the cause of Western civilisation at a time when it is struggling, and widely seen as under attack.

This is an epic moment in Britain’s long national story.

Johnson is that rarest of leaders; he has bent the arc of history to his will.

The author of the Brexit political project, Nigel Farage, is the other figure who was most influential in this result.  His electoral pressure transformed the Conservatives from a Remain Party to a Leave Party.

Farage stiffened the spines of the Conservatives and then stood down in the seats they were defending to maximise the pro-sovereignty vote.

No smiley koala stamp for guessing the paper or the journalist.  And the poor fellow has crumbled even further since this one.

Australian of the year

Sam Kerr – for being herself, for being the best, and for staring down our worst trait – the adoration of mediocrity and the fear of the novel.

The oncologists at the Prince Alfred Hospital for adopting a philosophical response – nay, a mature or adult response – to the Liver Function Tests that come their way every three weeks in the blood tests that precede each session of immunotherapy.  They also get an elephant stamp for keeping me above the ground.

And most of all, and clear over-all winners, the nurses at the Alfred and elsewhere, for being the crown and cream of the best healthcare system in the world – by the length of the bloody straight at Flemington.  My gratitude knows no bounds.  A safe reservoir of grace and decency.

Aspirations for 2020

My staying above the ground, so delaying my reunion with the Wolf.

Those of us who believe that we might have been privileged to have done something useful fighting back against those pygmies – those gnats straining at a camel – who are just plain jealous.

Trying to bring Sharan Burrow back to help try to right the ship.  I had a bit to do with her at the MFB.  I quickly developed a great respect for her.  She is one of those straight shooters that you quickly sense that you can do business with.  You can see her now on the BBC telling Spanish coal miners that there are no jobs on a dead planet – an inevitable truth that wholly escapes our government – whose minds close at shopping lists and power bills.

Michaelia Cash sacking her hairdresser and fashion designer and then retiring from public life to some very quiet place; not necessarily of the kind that Hamlet commended to Ophelia.  (And while I am there, that Danish prince is a lesson of the dangers of feigning madness.)

ScoMo following his ancestors in the mediocrity bloodline – Little Johnnie and Bro Tony – and getting fired by his electorate.  That would for me constitute irrefutable evidence of the existence of God.

The Demons either putting up or getting put down – if it was good enough for the Wolf, it is good enough for a football club that has been near death since it incurred the curse of Norm Smith.

My getting a standing ovation at the 2020 Brisbane Ring Cycle of Wagner for being noticed for the number of acts I have missed – currently aiming at five out of thirteen – or, as John Steinbeck said of the returning Tuna fishermen in Cannery Row, being ‘embraced and admired’ – but we may forego the twenty-five foot string of firecrackers so nobly presented by the immortal Lee Chong of the general store.  If you let them off in Parliament House, would anyone notice – or care?

Here and there -The Decline and Fall of Faith and Confidence

 

The Nurse does not know Romeo, but she says to him ‘If you be he, sir, I desire come confidence with you’.  She will confide in him – that is, she will place faith (fides), reliance, and trust in him.  She will trust him to keep what she says to himself, except to the extent that she may permit.  This is the kind of communication that passes between you and your lawyer, priest or doctor, and in varying degrees the law will back you up without your having to expressly stipulate that what you are saying is confidential.

If Romeo accepts the condition of the Nurse, she may have more or less confidence that he will respect her wishes.  She may be confident, to a greater or lesser degree since she does not know this youth at all, that her faith will be respected.  But, by definition, nothing about faith is ever certain.

When, in Othello, worried nobles are speculating on the designs of their Turkish enemy, the Duke says ‘Nay, in all confidence, he’s not for Rhodes’, he could be using the phrase in either of the meanings that we have just seen.  And you do not have to be a philosopher to know that you can hardly warrant any prediction about the future – let alone predict the conduct of any one of us.

The English have led the way in developing our basic model of democratic government.  At times – say, in about 1215, 1535, 1641, and 1689 – they have displayed what might fairly be called genius in shaping their constitution.  As with a lot of geniuses, you think that the answer is obvious once you have seen it – but it took them to unveil it.

At the height of their conflict with King Charles I, the Commons in 1641 passed what they called the Grand Remonstrance.  As slaps in the face go, this one was pretty loud.  Nor was it short.  In clause 197, they expressed the wish that the king should employ only such counsellors (ministers) as ‘the Parliament may have cause to confide in’ without which ‘we cannot give His Majesty such supplies for support of his own estate….’  Shortly after this, and after a stern tongue lashing from his Latin wife, Charles Stuart, as he would come to be called, lost his head, metaphorically, and sought in person to arrest his leading opponents, including the main author of the Remonstrance, in the Parliament itself – leading to a course of events where his stubborn blindness would lead to his physically losing his head at the edge of an axe.

Macaulay was always honest about what side he was on in this long battle that became a war.

In support of this opinion [the felt need of the Commons to tread softly with the King], many plausible arguments have been used.  But to all these arguments, there is one short answer.  The King could not be trusted.

The sentiment expressed in clause 197 is the keystone of responsible government that was settled by the Declaration of Rights in 1689.  It is typical of the English that what started its juristic life as a throwaway line in an instrument of dubious provenance soon became a pillar of ageless, hard law that only an inane anarchist could seek to fiddle with.  If you mention this to an English lawyer or historian, you will get a wry smile and something like: ‘Winners are grinners – the rest make their own arrangements’.

Well, they are no longer grinning – not even the winners.  Across too much of the western world, too many people have lost faith and confidence in their system of government in general, and those holding office from time to time.

Now in my eighth decade, I can sense that this has been going on slowly in Australia through most of that time, but the acceleration across the West since the Great Financial has been too hard to miss.  And the collapse of public decency in the U S and U K in the last few years has been shocking.  Have we then built our house on sand?

Those in government should not feel unfairly singled out.  Very few people have confidence in what Ibsen called the pillars of society.  Churches, trading corporations, charities, trade unions, employer groups, the professions, schools and universities (especially those lumbered with that weasel sobriquet ‘elite’), the press, sporting teams, the professions, the rich – yes, especially the filthy rich – and even the poor bloody poor and refugees are all on the nose with at least some people for one reason or another – with more reason in some cases than in others.

And as we draw further back from God and his Church, we search in vain for any kind of bedrock.  Instead we are left with a revoltingly insipid moral relativity and an even more revoltingly spineless absence of anything like leadership.  The picture is not pretty.

Even the law recognises and seeks to enforce obligations of confidence in some relations – such as partners, husband and wife, directors and shareholders, trustees, and holders of office of public trust – like Ministers of the Crown.

The President of the United States presently stands accused of breaching his office of public trust by seeking to abuse that office to obtain a personal benefit.  The essential evidence is not in dispute.  It is for the most part uncontradicted.  Nor is the allegation of breach of trust fairly answerable on that evidence.  The only question is whether that breach of trust warrants a finding that the President be removed from office.

But it looks like that process will miscarry because those charged with making that decision will commit one of the sins or failures that have brought us to this pass – they will put the interests of party over those of the nation.  And in doing so, they will not see that they are committing a wrong just like that of the man they are protecting.  And too many of them will do that because they are just plain scared of him.  Our brave ancestors who stood up to King Charles I, and who prevailed over him to our lasting benefit, would be worse than disgusted.  As would those in the American colonies who stood up to King George III and his Ministers, and who then fought and defeated his army.

As a result of the doctrine espoused in the Grand Remonstrance, our government must resign if it loses the confidence of parliament.  Can our system survive if so many people have lost confidence in it?  Before looking at what Lord Sumption says about this in his book on the Reith Lectures, we might notice some of the reasons for the fall of faith and confidence in government.

We have sat by for decades watching them let the Westminster system fail through neglect.  Government has been unable to check a shocking inequality in income and wealth that undermines faith in the only ideology in town – capitalism.  There is something inherently unreasonable and unfair going on.  There is a continuing and self-perpetuating decline in the character of people going into government – and people make money by talking with or about the worst of them.

‘Populists’ – a dreadful word – like Trump and Johnson were born to put themselves first, to discard custom and convention, to put party above the nation, and to betray all trust.  They also wallow in that tribalism that demeans all process, and all logic.  Each of them is obviously a charlatan; one is also a thug; both are bullies.  And we have apparently botched the education of a sufficient number of people to allow such people to get away with it.  And the longer they are there, the more that any trust just evaporates.

Trump and Johnson also are champions of the 100% vae victis rule.  (In Kenya, it is called: ‘It’s our turn at the table.’)  This is part of the collapse of moderation and the prevalence of tribalism.  All this is causing parties to forget their function, and is opening up the system to be gamed by minor parties, cranks and crooks.  The result is even more unattractive.

This is happening at a time when the internet is destroying minds, civility, security and privacy.  Its filthy rich drivers are seen as public enemies that our governments are too gutless or inept to control.  Just as they have failed to nail those crooks who fleece us and pay no tax.  Technology is also seen to destroy jobs.  The absurd bonuses of directors may be conditioned on sacking people.  Too few share in the wealth created by sending jobs overseas.  Too few went to jail for crimes committed in the GFC that nearly put the West on its knees.  The cries of envy and for revenge are matched by heightened credibility, and the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories are aided by people in the press who have no sense of decency, much less professional obligation.

The intellectual problem may be simply stated.  Too many people cannot tolerate uncertainty or doubt.  They crave the answer – which is both delusional and dangerous – and a sponsored response that they can hide behind.  This is how Edward Gibbon described the effect of a new faith on old beliefs.

The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation.  A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude, that if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision.  Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favored the establishment of Polytheism.  So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition. 

You could get into serious trouble for saying any of that now – in part because this is a sin for which truth provides no defence.  But if you doubt it, just look at the crowd at a Trump rally or any advertisement put out by Farage.

Sectarian division has been replaced by generational schism.  Technology has made that worse too.  The young are jealous and frustrated, but we that are left worked hard and paid our taxes and we expect a return.  It’s not our fault that life was simpler and better in our flowering time – nor is it our fault that science means that we will live longer and so probably delay or wipe out any devolution.  Nor do we think that it’s our fault that people commit mayhem on the laws of language and logic.  But the sense of betrayal on climate and housing is palpable and warranted in whole generation that finds itself lost.

And our sense of family is almost travelling as badly as our feeling for religion.

Fifty years ago in this country, all the political nuts and crooks were on the side of labour.  They are all now on the side of capital.  This is in no small part due to our failure to develop a decent conservative press.  Instead, that ground is falsely claimed by unreformed Liberal Party hacks, deranged cadres from right wing think tanks, and regressive relics of a repressive sectarian faith.  And for good measure they forfeit any claim to professionalism by going after the ABC with malice fuelled by the lucre and envy of a vengeful feudal owner.  We have to face it – Murdoch is now doing to Australia what he has been doing to America.

The wilful inanity of soi disant conservatives in Australia about climate change makes it hard to resist the impression that they have been bought – which is certainly the case for at least one think tank.

Nationalism is a poll-booster that appeals to those who are jealous of their citizenship, because they think they have so little else – but it always comes with resentment and scapegoats; it is the seed of bad wars; and both get very ugly when it mixes with religion.

And people who abuse ‘elites’ because they – the members of the elite – think they know better, just fail to see that they – the critics – indulge in the same sin.  And their touchiness about inferiority and insecurity gets hilarious results with ‘experts’ – unless they themselves are on the line, in which case they will prostrate themselves before their superior.

We have rediscovered the simple truth of a democracy based on two parties – the standard of governance is only as good as the opposition.  In the U S, the U K, and Australia, dreadful people have succeeded only because the reluctant electorate could not stomach the alternative.  Each now has a leader that too many neither trust nor respect – and each has succumbed to the view that they are there on merit.

My arrival on this earth came just after the end of a war that we did not look for, but which we had to win.  We had fought bravely, and we as a nation walked tall.  We were entitled to do so.  The nation blossomed in my youth, even though its political process had been sterilised.  The whole world lay before us.

Now, as I slip back toward my ancestors and my dog, I will leave a nation whose government has at least twice led us into wars based on false premises.  As a result, we and the nations that we fought over were worse off.  There can be no more fundamental breach of trust by a government than to lead its people into war on the basis of a falsehood – and the breach is so much worse if the government knew or ought to have known that it was not telling the truth.

We at last worked up the courage and common courtesy to apologise to our first nations for the way we took over their land and for what we did to them.  I have not heard any apology from anyone in government for our bad wars.  Instead, the politician who most owes us an apology refused to join in the apology to the blackfellas.  How do you place any confidence in people who behave like that to you?

They are some of our present discontents.

In Trials of the State, Lord Sumption says:

Fundamentally, we obey the state because we respect the legitimacy of the political order on which it is founded.  Legitimacy is a vital but elusive concept in human affairs.  Legitimacy is less than law but more than opinion.  It is a collective instinct that we owe it to each other to accept the authority of our institutions, even when we do not like what they are doing.  This depends on an unspoken sense that we are [all] in it together…..legitimacy is still the basis of all consent.  For all its power the modern state depends on a large measure of tacit consent…..

The legitimacy of state action in a democracy depends on a general acceptance of its decision-making processes…..Democracies operate on the implicit basis that although the majority has authorised policies which the minority rejects, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision-making processes….Majority rule is the basic principle of democracy.  But that only means that a majority is enough to authorise the state’s acts.  It is not enough to make them legitimate….Democracies cannot operate on the basis that a bare majority takes 100% of the political spoils.

The notions of legitimacy and tacit consent are hard to nail down, but our law was founded on custom and our politics depend on conventions.  My own view is that ultimately the rule of law depends on little more than a state of mind.  I wonder now whether the same does not hold for our whole system of government.

We are looking for an implied premise of reasonableness or moderation.  Our law says that the parties to an agreement are obliged to try to help each other get what they have promised.  At the very least, they must not take steps to abort the deal.  So, if I promise to do something if I get a permit, and I change my mind, and try to stop the issue of the permit, the law will deal with me.

Let us look at a political analogy.  The Republicans defied convention by blocking President Obama’s appointment of a Supreme Court justice, which is seen to be a huge political prize in the U S (especially by those puritans who avert their gaze and hold their nose to vote for Trump).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of putting a spoke in the wheel.  But that was to stop Hitler.  The Republicans now put spokes in the wheel of the United States.  And now Trump is repeating the dose by shutting down the WTO by stopping new appointments.  This is another bad faith breach of convention for short term political gain.

Lord Sumption says that it is not enough for a law to be ‘good’ – the public must in some sense ‘own’ the law.  ‘Law must have the legitimacy which only some process of consent can confer.’  This gets hard when we look at the failure of the public to engage in the process.  This in his view is the problem.  It is the same here.  Few people now wish to join a political party, and not many members of parties are that keen to talk about it – except with insiders.  There is a sense of estrangement – and ‘wholesale rejection.’  Confidence is gone.

I entirely agree that formulating a new constitution or trying to get judges to fix the problem is not the answer.  I also agree that one reason the Americans are so tied up on abortion is that the law is judge made – so that they vote for people as president who will appoint judges to change that law.  It would be hard to conceive of a more twisted perversion of the separation of powers.

As to legislating in a binding constitutional manner for human rights and conventions, look at what a mess we have made of company law by overlaying the broad teaching of equity with vast volumes of black letter law.  And then recall that recently a government that calls itself conservative thought that the answer was to scrap equity for that purpose – and for the relief of their friends in business who had lobbied them so frenziedly (quite possibly with the well-endowed aid of a few former ministers of that party).  And that is the same party that goes into reverse cartwheels at the mere mention of investigating federal corruption.

The author says:

On critical issues, our political culture has lost the capacity to identify common premises, common bonds and common priorities that stand above our differences.

He quotes an American judge who said ‘a society so riven that the spirit of moderation has gone, no court can save.’  All that is as true for us as it is for England and America.  Disraeli – ‘perhaps the only true genius ever to rise to the top of British politics’ – said the problem with England was ‘the decline of its character as a community.’

That sense of community is vital.  Like ‘confidence’, the word ‘commune’ has a very long history – on both sides of the Channel.  In the enforcement clause in Magna Carta, the barons reserved a right to go against a defaulting king ‘with the whole commune’.  The great French historian Marc Bloch said:

….by substituting for the promise of obedience, paid for by protection, they contributed to the social life of Europe, profoundly alien to the feudal spirit properly so called.

The commune exploded in France in 1792 and 1869.  For better or worse, you can see its descendants today in gillets jaunes. 

When an Englishman was arraigned in court to be tried a jury, the jury would be told that the accused ‘has put himself upon his country, which country you are.’  That is a very stirring phrase.  The jury was originally brought over by the Normans as an inquiry made of neighbours – that is, the local community having an interest in the relevant inquiry.  The first medieval reports of cases might refer to the pleadings and then just say: ‘Issue to the country.’

Lord Sumption goes on:

…..experience counts for a great deal in human affairs: more than rationality, more even than beauty.  Ultimately, the habits, traditions and attitudes of human communities are more powerful than law.  Indeed they are the foundation of law.

Oliver Wendell Holmes might have said that.

These notions are large, but we must deal with them.  Lord Sumption fears that we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes.    I wonder whether we will go down like the way Gibbon saw the Roman Empire go down.

….as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.

You know things are sick when a fat, ugly seventy-three year old man, who happens to be the President of the United States, bullies a sixteen year old Swedish girl on the absurdly named ‘social media’ for giving voice to the sense of betrayal of her generation.

I’m not sorry that I will not be here to see the end of it all.

Postscript

In Chapter 3 of his History of England, Macaulay experienced something like an epiphany on how we see our ups and downs.

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana. We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man. And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Here and there – Dictators and Populists

 

The following citations come from the most recent book of Frank Dikotter, How to be a Dictator, Bloomsbury, 2019.  They are not a source of comfort when looking at their attenuated successors, those whom we call populists.

Preface

There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals.  There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule, to name only a few.  But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient.

Dictators lied to their people, but they also lied to themselves.  A few became wrapped up in their own world, convinced of their own genius.  Others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourage.  All were surrounded by sycophants.  They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own.  With devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people.  A few became unmoored from reality altogether….

Mussolini

Like most dictators, Mussolini fostered the idea that he was a man of the people accessible to all…..By one account, Mussolini spent more than half his time curating his own image…. Fascism took from d’Annunzio not so much a political creed as a way of doing politics.  Mussolini realised that pomp and pageantry appealed far more to the crowd than incendiary editorials.

‘He was sensitive to the emergence of any possible rival and he viewed all men with a peasant’s suspicion.’…[He insisted on being in the public eye as much as possible.]  What was at first a political necessity would over time become an obsession.

Realising that their own survival now depended on the myth of the great dictator, other party leaders joined the chorus, portraying Mussolini as a saviour, a miracle worker who was ‘almost divine’.

In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance.  Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor.  Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him.

Always suspicious of others, Mussolini not only surrounded himself with mediocre followers but also frequently replaced them.

‘The strength of fascism…lies in the lack of fascists.’  Loyalty to the leader rather than belief in fascism became paramount….He was unable to develop a political philosophy, and in any event unwilling to be hemmed in by any principle, moral. ideological or otherwise.  ‘Action, action, action – this summed up his whole creed….’

A Ministry of Popular Culture replaced the Press Office….The new organisation was run by the Duce’s son-in-law….

The crowd, already carefully selected, knew precisely how to rise to the occasion, having watched the ritual on the silver screen.

They lied to him, much as he lied to them.  But most of all Mussolini lied to himself.  He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth.’

The cult of personality demanded loyalty to the leader rather than faith in a particular political program.  It was deliberately superficial…

The historian Emilio Gentile pointed out decades ago that a god who proved to be fallible ‘was destined to be dethroned and desecrated by his faithful with the same passion with which he had been adored. [And he had no friends and many bitter rejects and enemies.]

Hitler

‘The brownshirts would probably not have existed without the blackshirts.’

He knew how to tailor his message to his listeners, giving voice to their hatred and hope’.  The audience responded with a final outburst of frenzied cheering and clapping.

…as Hitler turned forty on 20 April 1929, he ascribed to the ideal leader a combination of character, willpower, ability and luck.

[After the Crash] Faith in democracy dissolved, inflation took hold, and a sense of despair and hopelessness spread.  Hitler was the man of the hour.

It [invading Poland] was a huge gamble, but Hitler trusted his intuition, which had proved him right so far.  He had built an image of himself as the man of destiny and had come to believe in it….’In my life, I have always put my whole stake on the table.’

‘He can tell a lie with as straight a face as any man’, noticed William Shirer.

Stalin

The Bolsheviks, like the fascists and the Nazis, were a party held together not so much by a program or platform, but by a chosen leader….The deification of Lenin also served as a substitute for a popular mandate.

…Stalin was a cunning unscrupulous operator who exploited other people’s weaknesses to turn them into willing accomplices.  He was also a gifted strategic thinker with a genuine political touch.  Like Hitler, he showed concern for the people around him, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, remembering their names and past conversations.  He also knew how to bide his time.

He used his position as General Secretary to replace supporters of all his rivals with his own henchman.

Just as soon as his main rival was dispatched, Stalin began implementing Trotsky’s policies.

Stalin’s underlings composed paeans to their leader, enthusiastically abasing themselves.

Sheer vindictiveness and cold calculation had kept Stalin moving forward, but over the years he also developed a sense of grievance, viewing himself as a victim. A victor with a grudge, he became permanently distrustful of those around him.

One month after his funeral, Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers.

We need not consider the others in the book – Mao, Duvalier, Ceausescu and Mengitsu.  We have enough to work on as it is.

Each of these dictators was an affront to humanity.  Each was a selfish, vicious, cruel man who always put himself above all others.  Each was fearfully insecure but deeply in love with himself.  Each created a world that was as tasteless as it was mindless.  An air of stupidity and vanity – emptiness – prevailed.  Their ambition was more than greedy – it was insatiable.  Although each might be seen as morally void or insane, each gave their followers ample evidence of the damage that they could do unleashed – and not one of them was ever fit to be on the leash.  At least with hindsight, each showed that they could not be trusted.  (Mein Kampf set out in detail the evil in Hitler’s mind; Lenin, as cruel a man as any, left a testament warning Russia about Stalin.)  Each loved the sound of his own voice.  Each acquiesced in sickening nonsense from sycophants and nauseating behaviour from underlings.  Somehow each charmed at least some people enough to ignore warning signs, and many of them conned sensible people who should have known better into accepting them.  Each was a big gambler because they attached little weight to the lives of their people.  (You could say this and a lot more of the above about Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon.)

Not one of them lived or died a happy man.  Offhand it is hard to think of any woman in history who has exercised such power for evil.  Each did lasting damage to his people and nation.

What these lives teach us about the current scourge of populism is a matter for you.  But it looks like political crashes are driven by the same two primal causes of economic crashes – greed (or ambition) and stupidity.

There is a third element – fear and cowardice.  Educated people did not do enough to resist or check dictators like Mussolini and Hitler borne to power on the gullibility of what used to be called the masses.  We see just that now in America.  Anyone who believes virtually anything Trump says is, frankly, stupid.  And yet many prefer him and, from fear and cowardice, educated people in positions of power do nothing to resist him.  If they do so, they will be called ‘human scum.’  Republican Senators think they fulfil their constitutional function by acting as Stormtroopers in Congress – and then sending out for pizza.  Has ever a once decent nation collapsed so quickly?

There is still nothing new under the sun.  Except this – before populists relied on mass rallies; now they rely on mass media designed by crooks specifically for use by fools and cowards.

Here and there -Hunter Biden, Donald Trump – and Clive of India

 

In discussing the colossal good fortune of Hunter Biden in the Ukraine, a friend quoted the delicious remark of Sam Goldwyn: ‘The son also rises.’  (Yes, the computer did query this.)  We don’t like seeing people in public office on the take.  They should be in it for us – not themselves.  Diverting the profit to the family does not achieve deliverance – at least for those who did not come down in the last shower.

Putting someone in office under obligation inevitably creates conflicts of interest.  And the risk of the donee, the recipient of the gift, being, or appearing, compromised.  It is of course worse if someone is obviously appointed above their pay level.  They are some of the reasons decent people are nauseated by the gifts showered by Trump on his daughter and son-in-law.  (The claim of Jared Kushner, to advise on jails appears to rest on the fact that his dad went one up on his dad-in-law by doing time for fraud.)

Writing in The Guardian, a writer from New York said:

When you are the son of a famous and powerful politician, you are showered with opportunity, whether you deserve it or not.  This is nepotism, but it is also, if we are being direct, a form of corruption.  Moral corruption.  Not only because these prestigious positions are not earned, and because these celebukids are taking something that rightly should have gone to someone more deserving; but also because, even though there is rarely anything so crude as a direct quid pro quo, this undeserved largesse is always motivated to some extent by a desire by some powerful interest to take advantage of the halo of influence cast by the parents.  That influence should properly accrue to the public, who their parents work for.  The lavish lives afforded to famous kids are, in effect, stolen from the American people.  Each coveted job handed to a president’s kid represents a small quantity of subversion of the spirit of the democratic process.

This particular form of injustice is often waved off as just be the way of the world.  Seven-foot-tall people get to be in the NBA, and the children of presidents and vice-presidents get sweet, lucrative gigs whether they’re qualified for them or not.  We shouldn’t take this so lightly.  We should, in fact, be enraged by it.  Politics is not just another way to get rich.  It is a public service field, and the more important the position, the more stringent the ethical requirements it should carry.

The next three generations of a president’s family should have to work the checkout line at Family Dollar.  What better way to stay in touch with the pulse of America?  What better way to demonstrate how much they value hard work, and the gargantuan struggle to join the middle class? 

All this reminded me that England, the home of our parliamentary democracy, ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption during for most of the 18th century.  The story was luminously illustrated by Sir Lewis Namier in something of a revolution in the writing and teaching of history.

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.  ….Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…

Richard Pares referred to the difficulty of one MP on a conscience vote: ‘It will hurt my preferment to tell.’  There you see the conflict of interest.  He quoted the advice of one MP who would be called an ‘old lag’ in another context:

Get into Parliament, make tiresome speeches; you will have great offers; do not accept them at first, – then do; then make great provision for yourself and family, and then call yourself an independent country gentleman.

What, old boy, could be simpler – or fairer?  If you read any biography of Abraham Lincoln, you will see that on the eve of war, the incoming president had to spend days rewarding those who put him there.  It’s as rewarding as giving Christmas presents to sisters – God preserve you from any seen inequality.

Now, ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours underlay’ feudalism and the Mafia; Napoleon was shockingly greedy in looking after his family – with thrones; the Nazis were as corrupt as the Spartans.

But we are now shocked to see the establishment looking after its own when anyone with a modicum of ability can make their way up the bourgeois ladder on their own.  As I recall, one act of nepotism came back to slap George W Bush square in the face after Katrina, but Ivanka and Jared are as in your face as any other aspect of the present White House.

All this occurred to me reading again the luminous East India Company in Eighteenth Century Politics by Lucy Sutherland.*

Clive of India was unlovely – largely for the same reason as Trump – you get the same combination of greed and banality – and without shame.  Although to be fair, Clive was anything but downright stupid.

With Clive you get the corruption of Georgian politics with the corruption of the English doing business – committing something like daylight robbery – in India.  The engine of the business was the company of the title of the book.  It was a magnificent edifice that so beautifully delineates the ruling class of England at the time and their innate capacity to bulldust their way out of the gutter with some affable condescension of the kind that would have propelled Mr Collins to the feet of Greer Garson.  As Dame Lucy Sutherland drily remarks early on: ‘The Company was very unsuccessful in checking corruption even when it was discovered.’

To make a comfortable fortune in the public service and to establish those dependent on him in situations of profit was the major (and to contemporaries) the legitimate ambition of the ordinary politician…As a result, there emerged, not an orgy of corruption, but a fragile balance between public and private interests expressed in the system of ‘political connection’ and ‘political management.’

Clive was a latterday proconsul.  The Company was ripping off the natives – ‘gifts’ – and its servants were making their fortune on the side.  Here is Clive on gifts.

When presents are received as the price of services to the Nation, to the Company and to that Prince who bestowed those presents; when they are not extracted from him by compulsion; when he is in a state of independence and can do with his money what he pleases; and when they are not received to the disadvantage of the Company, he holds presents so received not dishonourable.

What is the word price doing in there?  That suggests that the ‘gift’ has been bought.  That is a contradiction in terms.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done for the Company, then the Company is being deprived of an entitlement.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done by an agent of the Company on the side, then the chances are the Company is not getting the full benefit of the promise of that agent to work in good faith in the interests of the Company.  Either way, the gift is ‘received to the disadvantage of the Company.’  And if the gift is large, is not the agent’s ‘independence’ impugned?  It is one thing for bank manager to accept a bottle of wine or Scotch; but a whole new vista unfolds if the gift is a first class return ticket to Monaco for the Grand Prix.

The truth is that while people may refer to the transactions as ‘gifts’ or ‘presents,’ they are for most part not made from any spirit of benevolence, but as an attempt to acquire, or buy, influence.  In that, they are just like most donations to political parties – and, on the same ground, fair game for the epithet of ‘corrupt’.

For instance, a person of interest in the Ukrainian–Trump corruption scandal is the U S Ambassador to the E U.  He appears to have three qualifications for that position – like the man who appointed him, his business is in boozers; he gave his wife a signed copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; and, most importantly, he is a big donor to the Republican Party.  Indeed, it does appear that he bought this ambassadorship for a snip – a mere one million dollars (on which, we may be sure, he has paid no tax).  The notion that he might be a disinterested diplomat is fanciful.  Like everyone else appointed by this President, he is there to do the bidding of the appointer – and if he doesn’t, he will be sacked loudly on Twitter.

Clive’s defence of ‘presents’, then, does not hold up.  As it happens, our law is, now at least, clear that the agent would have to account for that gift to the Company.  It does not matter if the agent acted in good faith – or in a criminal way.  A member of the armed forces who used one of their trucks in smuggling was found to hold his resulting profit on trust for the Crown.

In my judgment, it is a principle of law that if a servant takes advantage of his service by violating his duty of honesty and good faith, to make a profit for himself, in this sense, that the assets of which he has control, or the facilities which he enjoys, or the position which he occupies, are the real cause of his obtaining the money, as distinct from being the mere opportunity for getting it, that is to say, if they play the predominant part in his obtaining the money, then he is accountable for it to the master. It matters not that the master has not lost any profit, nor suffered any damage. Nor does it matter that the master could not have done the act himself.  (Denning, J, upheld on appeal to the House of Lords: Reading v A-G [1951] A C 507.)

Nor did Clive feel any need to pussyfoot about using wealth to increase his political power.  (On a bad day he may have resembled Mr Kurtz in A Heart of Darkness.)

…a large fortune honourably acquired will be the source of great honours and advantages….believe me, there is no other interest in this kingdom but what arises from great possessions, and if after the Battle of Placis I had stayed in India for myself as well as the Company and acquired the fortune I might have done, by this time I might have been an English Earl with a Blue Ribbon instead of an Irish Peer (with the promise of a Red One).  However the receipt of the Jaggeer [jagir – an annuity paid by an Indian Prince] money for a few years will do great things.

As soulless materialism goes, Trump could hardly improve on that – but at least Clive had put on the uniform and put himself in harm’s way.

The jagir was worth £25,000 a year.  That puts the windfall of Hunter Biden (US $ 600,000) in the shade.  But common jealousy did its work and the struggle to retain that benefit, which the law would not I think now tolerate, dominated the life of Clive and the Company.  When he lost the benefit, he consulted Lord Hardwicke, a master of Equity, who said Clive and his father ‘either could not or were not willing to tell me what pretence of right was alleged for this proceeding.’  Later on, Horace Walpole, the first prime minister, said: ‘The Ministry have bought off Lord Clive with a bribe that would frighten the King of France himself; they have given him back his £25,000 a year.’  That does give new meaning to the word mercenary.  Walpole did say ‘that [Clive] owed his indemnity neither to innocence nor eloquence.’  And Dame Lucy did not exonerate Clive from guilt on the more modern charge ‘of using his inside information to gain profit on the market.’  (Clive did not buy the stock in his own name.)

Mind you, Clive gave good consideration to get his fortune back.  He promised the Government:

…..my poor services, such as they are, shall be dedicated for the rest of my days to the King, and my obligations to you always acknowledged, whether in or out of power….If these conditions are fulfilled, I do promise, Sir, that I never will give any opposition to the present or any other Court of Directors, and never will interfere in any of their affairs directly, or indirectly.

It’s ‘peace in our time’ all over again.  And is it not inherently vulgar for a subject of the King to make his loyalty to the King conditional upon the execution of a promise?

In the just released book, The Anarchy, The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple says that Clive was a ‘violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator.’  He was also an utterly fearless guerrilla fighter.  Calcutta should have suited him: ‘one of the most wicked places in the Universe….Rapacious and Luxurious beyond conception.’

Dalrymple says the jagir would now be worth £3,000,000 a year – and income tax had not been invented.  In addition, this swashbuckling buccaneer took plunder – called prize.  ‘Not since Cortés had Europe seen an adventurer return with so much treasure from distant conquests.’  And now the financial rape got serious.  The English called it ‘the shaking of the pagoda tree.’

And of course the white man did to the coloured man things he would never do to one of his own.  Dame Lucy records that Clive’s English attorney said the question ‘was this, whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own.’  And of course, in the tropics on the wrong side of the world, all decency had gone clean overboard.  Macaulay was up for it.

A succession of nominal sovereigns, sunk in indolence and debauchery, sauntered away life in secluded palaces, chewing bang [cannabis], fondling concubines, and listening to buffoons.  A succession of ferocious invaders [Persians and Afghans] descended through the Western passes to prey on the defenceless wealth of Hindostan…

Before them, Alexander.  After, them, the English and Clive.  And, yes, Mr Kurtz.

Well, well, well …..Clive’s men kept the doctors busy.  Now Trump’s men keep the lawyers busy.  The one difference is that you would have known you were going bad if you had run into your doctor in a Calcutta knock shop.  Manhattan’s slammers are filling up with Trump’s lawyers.

*F.n.: Lucy was a Geelong Girl educated in South Africa and Oxford.  According to Wikipedia, she was the first woman undergraduate to address the Union there.  She was the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall for more than a quarter of a century.  She was an acolyte of Namier – and it shows – to her benefit.  (I am a Namier fan.)  God bless her – but I do fear that Lucy may have gone to God without having once seen in action the Mighty Cats of Geelong – let alone the late, great Polly Farmer, a blackfella who could punch a footy through the window of a moving car.

Here and there – A glimmer of hope at long last

 

As with any label, ‘populist’ is dodgy.  But in two people – Trump and Johnson – we have two of them.  Each is frankly vicious, and liked by some people for that very reason.  No decent person would allow either of them into their house – much less leave him in charge of their children.

Who support them?  We are speaking of people who are happy to chant ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Send them back,’ or who believe that another rich heir will stand up for the ordinary bloke in the street, even though this spoiled fop got the full treatment from Eton and Oxford and, probably White’s, and has only ever come across blue collars by accident.

Johnson was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, an all-male dining club for Oxford boys in drag, that indoctrinated him in how to trash common decency.  Speaking of those times, Johnson said:

This is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness.  But at the time you felt it was wonderful to be going round swanking it up. Or was it? Actually I remember the dinners being incredibly drunken.

That is a fair statement of the cast of mind, if such it may be called, that led to the events of 14 July 1789.  No sane person could have spent more than five minutes at one of those functions before throwing up.

In the last few years, we have witnessed an alarming moral and intellectual collapse in both England and America.  The scale of that collapse, coming from people who once claimed to be conservatives, suggests to me that our current model of government may not have long to live.

Our version of democracy must be premised on some degree of respect, tolerance and acquiescence – all of which are denied by political thugs who appeal to people who have lost all interest and faith.  Any democracy must sit above some level of reasonableness, but we are watching it all go down the drain – noisily and rapidly.  In the beautiful words of Yeats:

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

And it just keeps getting worse.  Trump and Johnson are like Ponzi schemes – they have to keep fuelling their own furnace.  And the bitterness and division then lead sensible people to extremes.  The Financial Times is now in something like a state of war with Johnson in the same way that The New York Times is with Trump.  But how else do you respond to a lying oaf who is content to incite murder of his opponents – who were barred by their sex from Eton or the Bullingdon Club?

This descent into the gutter of previously decent people resembles the descent that occurred in Europe a century or less ago.  My guess is that a lot of the disenchantment, especially of younger voters, comes from our failure to halt a galling inequality; to deal with those people whose greed and crookedness nearly brought us all undone in the Great Financial Crisis; the insecurity that comes with the technological revolution; and the farcical and selfish failure to deal with climate change.  I suspect that the chief of these is inequality.  And if you had to give one word for what the French and Russian Revolutions were about, that would be it.

In looking at Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital and Ideology, Simon Kuper in the Financial Times made some very acute observations about where we are.  I will set some out at length.

Helped a little by that book, inequality has soared up the left’s agenda, especially in the particularly unequal US and UK.  Now Elizabeth Warren has a shot at becoming the most redistributionist US president since Franklin D Roosevelt, while an electable post-Corbyn Labour leader could achieve similar in Britain….

 Whereas Marx saw history as class struggle, Piketty sees it as a battle of ideologies.  Every unequal society, he says, creates an ideology to justify inequality.  That allows the rich to fall asleep in their town houses while the homeless freeze outside….

Piketty recounts the justifications of inequality that recur throughout time:

‘Rich people deserve their wealth.’  ‘It will trickle down.’ ‘They give it back through philanthropy.’ ‘Property is liberty.’ ‘The poor are undeserving.’ ‘Once you start redistributing wealth, you won’t know where to stop and there’ll be chaos’ — a favourite argument after the French Revolution. ‘Communism failed.’ ‘The money will go to black people’ — an argument that, Piketty says, explains why inequality remains highest in countries with historic racial divides such as Brazil, South Africa and the US.

Another common justification, which he doesn’t mention, is ‘High taxes are punitive’ — as if the main issue were the supposed psychology behind redistribution rather than its actual effects.  All these justifications add up to what he calls the ‘sacralisation of property’….

There’s a growing understanding that so-called meritocracy has been captured by the rich, who get their kids into the top universities, buy political parties and hide their money from taxation.

Moreover, notes Piketty, the wealthy are overwhelmingly male and their lifestyles tend to be particularly environmentally damaging. Donald Trump — a climate-change-denying sexist heir who got elected president without releasing his tax returns — embodies the problem…..

Millennials are especially suspicious of success.  More American adults under 30 say they believe in ‘socialism’ than ‘capitalism’, report the pollsters Gallup.  This generation owns too little property to sacralise it.

Centre-right parties across the west have taken up populism because their low-tax, small-state story wasn’t selling any more.  Rightwing populism speaks to today’s anti-elitist, anti-meritocratic mood. However, it deliberately refocuses debate from property to what Piketty calls ‘the frontier’ (and others would call borders).

That leaves a gap in the political market for redistributionist ideas. We’re now at a juncture much like around 1900, when extreme inequality helped launch social democratic and communist parties.  Piketty lays out a new redistributionist agenda.  He calls for ‘educational justice’ — essentially, spending the same amount on each person’s education.  He favours giving workers a major say over how their companies are run, as in Germany and Sweden.  But his main proposal is for wealth taxes.  Far from abolishing property, he wants to spread it to the bottom half of the population, who even in rich countries have never owned much.

To do this, he says, requires redefining private property as ‘temporary’ and limited: you can enjoy it during your lifetime, in moderate quantities.  He proposes wealth taxes of 90 per cent on billionaires.  From the proceeds, a country such as France could give each citizen a trust fund worth about €120,000 at age 25.  Very high tax rates, he notes, didn’t impede fast growth in the 1950-80 period.

Warren (advised by economists who work with Piketty) is proposing annual taxes of 2 per cent on household fortunes over $50m, and 3 per cent on billionaires.  She projects that this would affect 75,000 households, and yield revenues of $2.75tn over 10 years.  Polls suggest most Americans like the idea.  Paradoxically, the plutocratic US may be ideal terrain for a wealth tax…..[Emphases added.]

This is the most sensible discussion of our current condition that I have seen.  It oozes good sense for me.  One test of a political proposition is the extent of its rejection by Rupert Murdoch.  This is not just anathema – it is schismatic heresy and capital treason.  And I may add that I have long suspected that the prime driver of Trump was the belief of most of his followers that far too much of America had gone to people of colour – including the White House.

Perhaps, after all, Elizabeth Warren may have the answer.  (‘Educational justice’ – now there’s a phrase that has a whiff of 1789 about it.)  And could we get Aeschylus to provide the script for Donald Trump going down to Pocahontas?

My impression is that unless democracies get their act together and do something ‘deep and meaningful’ about inequality, then, in the language of rugby league, things could ‘get very ugly.’