Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Born to rule over us. And we want them to do it again...

“Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves…”

A gem of a description. Through the voice of one of his most colourful characters, Connie Sachs in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carré elegantly sums up the tragedy of the men of privilege who grew up in thirties Britain. Their generation provided some of the most swashbuckling of our spies – and of our traitors.

Kim Philby. "One of us" and not to be touched
even though he was working for them
They were educated at the finest schools and universities. Their background, their families and their training guaranteed them entry to any clubs, ministry or intelligence agency they chose. According to Ben Macintyre’s excellent book, A Spy among Friends, the most infamous of our traitors, Kim Philby, was interviewed for recruitment into counter-espionage agency MI6by a Miss Marjorie Maxse. She was:

…chief organisation officer for the Conservative Party, a role that apparently equipped her to identify people who would be good at spreading propaganda and blowing things up.

Valentine Vivian, then Deputy Head of MI6, explained his decision to clear Philby for recruitment, in what MacIntyre describes as the “quintessential definition of Britain’s Old Boys network”:

I was asked about him, and said I knew his people.

Macintyre provides invaluable insight into the workings of the British establishment. Philby drifted through that world with untroubled ease. Even after he was exposed as a double agent. In an Afterword, John Le Carré reproduces extracts from his notes of an interview he conducted with Nick Elliott, the last MI6 agent to interrogate Philby before he defected to Russia. At the time, PHilby was in Beirut. Elliott explained that nobody wanted him back in London, where a trial would only have been deeply embarrassing. But, Le Carré suggested, more extreme, even terminal, measures, could have been taken:

”… could you have him killed, liquidated?”

“My dear chap. One of us.”

One of us. Indeed. A commoner like George Blake, who passed British secrets to the Russians, could be condemned to 42 years in gaol, but not a Phlby. Allowing him to flee to Moscow was the only thing for a gentleman.

Micintyre doesn’t try to count the number of agents who killed as result of Philby’s spying. For a wonderful object lesson of his betrayals and British establishment ineptitude, we need only turn to Western action against Albania. The US and British decided that it would make sense to select young men from among Albanian refugees, train them, arm them and send them back into their country to foment revolution against its Communist government.

One might question the wisdom of this policy. Think Vietnam. Cuba. Cambodia. Iraq. Syria. Libya. The cause of democracy hasn’t been particularly advanced by Western interventions. But then, experience does rather show that the establishment of our great nations isn’t distinguished by good judgement or principle, even when it isn’t actively engaged in treason. I don’t approve of what the infiltrators into Albania were planning to do, and they may well have been thoroughly unpleasant people.

Even so, it’s painful to think of those young men taking their training, their weapons and their lives into their hands, to back Western plans ostensibly designed to promote their freedom, only to find that the secret police knew the time and place of their landing in the country and were waiting for them. Few got out. Most were tortured, imprisoned or killed, as were their families, their friends and even people who had the misfortune to share a surname with one of the infiltrators. Two agents were tied to the back of a jeep and dragged around until they were reduced to bloody pulp.

Their fates were sealed by Philiby. And yet the establishment, who sent the young men, felt that no punishment was appropriate.

Not for “one of us”.

Of course, when I say, “one of us”, I really mean “one of them”. This was a tiny number of people, bound by friendship and blood, especially blood. Their families had passed power from generation to generation, for centuries. As Connie Sachs understood, they had been bred to run an Empire and, after World War 2, there was no Empire for them to rule. Betrayal was an outlet for their pent-up frustration.

Sadly, that establishment hasn’t gone away. The more recent generations have lowered their sights and no longer aspire to Empire. But in all other respects they continue the tradition. The previous British Prime Minister, David Cameron, had been a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, made up of entitled sons of the obscenely rich for whom a night out was to wreck a restaurant and have Daddy pop by to pay for the damage the next day.

Britain’s current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was a contemporary in the same Club. Born to rule, bred to behave badly.

One of the great advantages of the European Union is that it put a limited brake on their behaviour.

It’s interesting that a major aim of the Brexit movement is to “bring back control”. Free us up from those tiresome constraints from Brussels.

So that those born to rule can take control back and rule again.

God help us all.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The transients' diary: week 1

It all started when we decided that it would be fun to add some space to our little house, and make it slightly less little. Convert the loft, say, so that we could have three bedrooms – and, hey, luxury, two bathrooms. And how about a bigger kitchen that led straight to the garden? That could be a lot more comfortable.

It would be inconvenient, of course. There’d be noise and dust and the place would be barely inhabitable, but that seemed a price worth paying.

“Barely inhabitable?” said the contractor with what could only be described as a guffaw. “You want to stay here while we’re working? You’re kidding, right?”

“Not a good idea, you think?”

“Listen, pal.” He may not actually have said that – we are the clients, after all, and he wouldn’t be offensive – but the sneer was there by implication. “Barely inhabitable doesn’t cover the half of it. Completely uninhabitable’s a bit closer the mark. We’re going to cut off the gas and the electricity. The water too. And we’ll be working in both bedrooms. No, no, you can forget it. Out you go, I’m afraid. For two months, till we finish.”

Homeless! We’d made ourselves homeless! In pursuit of a more comfortable home.

Oh, life abounds with amusing ironies.

Barely inhabitable

Fortunately, we had friends with a flat to let. So we moved there.

So we’re in a time of transience. Which struck me as worth documenting. If only because it’s slightly different, and therefore potentially more interesting, than mere banal normality.

Oh, wow, that’s so much easier to write than to do…

It’s surprising how much less difference there is than you might imagine, between a small temporary move, and a full-scale permanent one. That’s principally because anything we weren’t taking with us had to be boxed up, or at least covered with dust sheets, if we wanted any hope of still being able to use it when we got back. As for the things we were taking, well that was just like a normal move. We used the same great Polish company we’d already used twice before since we moved to Luton (yep: we’re one just one step away from nomadic living). We prepared and boxed everything for them to take, made sure they had everything with them, and unpacked it all at the other end.

Just as big a job after a five-minute move as after a five-hour one.

The worst bit was getting the sofa up the stairs and into the living room. Both ends had to come off. And then be put back on again. But, hey, it had to be done: it’s where the dogs like to lie during the day, and they need to feel at home in the new environment. 

Don’t they?

The next day the builders moved in. And, as usual, the first step in making the place more attractive was to make it profoundly unappealing. To turn it into a disaster area, in fact.

However, and I have to admit this a perpetual source of amazement to me, within the maelstrom of destruction something constructive began to appear. Within days, a new set of steps appeared. We don’t have our new top floor yet – for the moment, we still have a loft – but we have steps up to it.

They may not go anywhere but, hey, they’re stairs

That’s progress, isn’t it?

Naturally, progress has to pause from time to time. What project doesn’t, after all? Today I learned that the scaffolders’ lorry had failed its emission tests and needed a new engine. That won’t be fitted until Tuesday, so the scaffolding won’t arrive until later next week, instead of last week as planned. But, never fear, the contractor assures me, as long as it does come by then, work can still complete within the two-month schedule.

“The timetable stays the same, does it?” I asked him.

“Oh yes, no problem,” he said, with that nonchalant tone people always adopt when they’re trying to hide the doubts that assail them.

There might be another small problem. The daughter of one of the building workers has been having seizures – “well, she has them all the time, but you know, this time she’s in hospital” – which means her Dad has had to have time off. But the contractor’s still nonchalant about things.

Worryingly nonchalant.

Meanwhile, we’re having trouble adapting to our temporary life. As she was driving us back from badminton today, I had to remind Danielle that she needed to turn left to the flat, and not go straight on to the now uninhabitable house.

“Old habits,” she said as she wrenched the wheel around to enter the side street, “they’re difficult to break.”

That’s certainly true. Later, I took the dogs for a long walk, and didn’t wake up to what I was doing on the drive back until I found myself pulling up in front of our house instead of the flat. I, of course, don’t acknowledge my faults as readily as Danielle does, so I just pretended (to the dogs and to myself, because there was nowhere else present) that I was there deliberately, preferring to park near our house rather than in any old anonymous side street near where we’re staying – though not living.

We’re now at day 6 of our temporary exile. That means there are only 56 more days to go. The plan is to be back in our place by 15 October.

I have confidence in that date. Because the contractor has told me he’ll meet it, so what grounds have I for doubt? Contractors are people for whom it is a point of pride to perform or die, to bring a project in to budget and to schedule against any odds that society or nature throws against them.

Aren’t they?

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

After Charlottesville: Trump and taking down statues

Donald Trump has come up with some interesting remarks on the clashes that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. These were the background that led to the murder of a protester  leading to the murder of a protester, Heather Heyer, and the injury of several others, by a white supremacist who took a leaf out of the terrorists’ book, and drove a car into the crowd. 

Trump said:

Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee. This week, it is Robert E Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? ... Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue? … You're changing history, you're changing culture...

Robert E. Lee: should his statue go?
In a sense, he has a point, though not the one he thinks he’s making. It’s true that iconic figures from the US past have terribly tarnished images: George Washington was a slaveowner who never freed any of his slaves, even on his deathbed.

Thomas Jefferson too, who penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” clearly felt the right to liberty was alienable for anyone with African blood. Why, he even took it from his own family. Visitors to his house at Monticello commented on the strange sensation of being served at table by slaves whose looks made it absolutely clear they were Jefferson’s own sons. He had fathered them on another of his slaves, Sally Hemings. 

He enslaved his own children? What an indictment.

So one can see an argument for taking down their statues.

However, that would mean simply ignoring their real achievements elsewhere. One of Washington’s finest was to have led the American army to victory over the British colonial power, and then to have resisted the temptation to take on the military dictatorship that was clearly open to him. And Jefferson was the voice of the revolution. He may have behaved shockingly in his home, but at least he set certain principles for democratic behaviour – though limited only to white males at the time – which have become a benchmark for the rest of us to aim at (but for everyone).

So maybe their statues should remain after all.

What about Lee?

I’ve never understood why he had monuments anyway. He swore allegiance to the United States, served in its armed forces, and when his state rose against his country, chose to side with his state. He couldn’t, he claimed, draw his sword against his “country”, but by that he meant Virginia, not the USA.

That made him an oathbreaker and turncoat. In absolutely strict terms, he committed treason. And that betrayal was directed at the very country, the United States, most Southerners would loudly uphold today.

Why on earth celebrate such treason? Why tolerate monuments to it? Why aren’t they in the forefront of the movement to tear down his statue?

Don’t think it was the only option open to him. His fellow-Virginian, George H. Thomas, made the opposite decision. He remained loyal to the country to which he had sworn allegiance and to the army in which he served. He became, in my view, the most effective general on either side – significantly better in that respect than was Lee himself.

That view runs counter to the claims of many who maintain that Lee deserves our respect as a great soldier. Really? He sent men to march a mile under devastating fire from enemies in well-protected positions, in what became known as Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. George Pickett himself, the man who gave his name to the charge though he didn’t order it, when asked to put his division in order for a defensive fight after the charge, replied that he no longer had a division.

Men like Douglas Haig, who threw away hundreds of thousands of lives of British soldiers under his command in the First World War, and his equivalents in the French and German armies, simply took Lee’s Gettysburg lunacy to a new level of carnage.

As for Stonewall Jackson, well there’s little to say. He was a religious maniac and a man of appalling brutality. An effective soldier maybe but a thoroughly unpleasant man. Take down his statue by all means.

And why not, indeed, Lee’s too.

So, you see, Trump has a point. Though I doubt he’d agree with it if he thought it through. On the other hand, who’s ever accused Trump of thinking things through?

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Toffee's diary: strange things. Like trains. And adulthood.

Trains. Terrible things. Do you know them? I didn’t. But I found out a week ago.

They go chunka-chunka-chunka for hours and hours. And sometimes woosh-woosh-woosh. Worst of all, when another one goes by, they go woosh-woosh-roar-roar-roar-clackety-clackety-clack.

It’s horrible. Especially because it goes on and on and on.

Still it was wonderful when we got to the end. Its somewhere called Scotland. There’s lots of great places. A river we can wander along. A field with lots of other dogs that Luci could run away from and I could play with. And there was even a sea thing which was fun.

“Yes,” says Luci, “where I went in and you ran away.”

Luci went into the sea thing
But I thought it was a bit safer to watch and bark a bit at it
Not really. I didn’t run away. I went in too. But I only went in just a bit. Paws, you know. That was far enough. The rest of the water just kept moving. Luci may have liked that but I though it made more sense to stay near the sand. Sand! That’s great stuff. You can get it everywhere, and dig in it, and even run across it.

What’s more, there were some really nice humans in Scotland. There was a woman who was like our human number 1, but she was even better at picking me up. Rocking me, you know, and stroking me and telling me how nice I was.

“She doesn’t know you like our number 1 does,” says Luci.

And a man too, who’s terribly big. Bigger than human number 2. Amazing. And the third one’s a puppy. I knew that because she was, well, puppy-like. She was taller than my humans and almost as big as the man one, but still a puppy’s a puppy, and you just know when you see one.

Talking about puppies, something really odd happened to me this week. The humans told me I wasn’t one any more. Not a puppy. No idea why. “She’s in season,” the humans kept saying.

In season? What on earth did that mean?

“It’s summer,” said Luci, “that’s the season. Not that you’d know it with the rain. And it won’t be for long anyway. Trust me, I know. I’ve seen seasons come and go.”

Seasons come and go? So what does that mean? That I’ll stop being an adult and be a puppy all over again? I think I’d prefer that.

But the worst of it was that they started talking about me making puppies. Making them? I like being one but I’ve no idea how to make one. Why don’t they just let me go on as a puppy myself instead of trying to turn me into some kind of puppy-making adult? 

“The humans will sort it all out,” says Luci. 

It’s all very well for her to say that: it seems they’ve made sure she can’t make puppies, and I don’t know how they did that, any more than I know why I can’t either but they think I can.

“You’ll find out,” says Luci.

Oh, well. It was fun in Scotland anyway. And now we’re off again. Chunka-chunka-chunka. Woosh-woosh-woosh. But it doesn’t feel so bad this time. Maybe I’m getting more used to it. And, after all, putting up with it worked out pretty well, considering, last time.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Venezuela: the case for just saying “no”

There is a glorious scene in my favourite book of World War One memoirs, Emilio Lussu’s Sardinian Brigade. He describes a moment when his Italian unit is waiting to charge the Austrian lines. The pre-assault artillery barrage starts up but the fire, instead of hitting the Austrians, falls on its own, Italian positions.

While Lussu rushes about trying to restore discipline among the panicking troops, he’s struck by an astonishing sight: one machine gun unit which is under full control of its officer, a friend of his, marching in fine order – towards the rear.

“What on Earth are you doing?” shouts Lussu.

“Attacking those guns,” replies his friend.

“But they’re our guns,” he shouts back.

“They’re firing at me,” comes the calm reply, “so they’re enemy guns.”

That strikes me as a thoroughly sensible, not to say commendable, attitude. By analogous reasoning, if a government is wreaking havoc on the lives of workers and the poor, it is, by that simple fact, a government hostile to the principles of socialism. It’s crucial to bring it down, as quickly as possible. If it claims to be socialist then, as soon as we’ve got our hollow laugh out of the way, we need to devote ourselves still more urgently to the task – a false friend is far more dangerous than an open enemy.

Why do I mention that just now?

Because there seems to be a belief among certain circles of the British Left that we need to back the present government in Venezuela, on the grounds that it’s ‘socialist’. This is a ‘socialist’ government that presided over a reduction in GDP by 18.6% last year. Inflation was running at a yearly rate of 741% in February 2017. Although the official figures are different, many commentators believe that unemployment is climbing towards 20%.

The face of socialism? Not as I see it
Venezuela is sitting on the biggest oil reserves in the world. And yet it’s GDP per head is a little over $12,800 a head and falling, while even Cuba, with no oil, is running at $11,900. How long before Venezuela falls below Cuba?

There’s plenty wrong about Cuba, but at least it’s delivering a stable economy, secure if low living standards and decent healthcare, in spite of decades of US sanctions. Nicolás Maduro’s government is delivering chaos, in which the first victims are the poor and the workers it claims to protect.

Sure, the parties likely to replace his in power may well be pretty awful. At least they’re open enemies and we can get on with opposing them once they’re in office. The one controlling the regime right down is a false friend and it’s wreaking horrific damage on those it should be defending.

Marching on it at the head of a machine gun detachment probably isn’t a good idea. But doing the same thing metaphorically? It’s firing on our people, which makes it the enemy, so why not?

After all, don’t forget Stalin called himself a socialist too. He proved it by taking out 80 million people. Among whom were all the leaders, bar him, of the revolution that was supposed to bring socialism to Russia.

I got tired decades ago of being told that his successors’ governments had to be supported simply for the principles to which they paid lip service. I feel tired when I hear the same stale old rhetoric being dragged out in defence of Maduro. 

We need to find something more innovative. And actually stand up for the people we’re supposed to represent.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Who'd be a democratic socialist? Depends on what you mean by it

On 21 October 1966, 40,000 cubic metres of stones and mud slid down a hillside in Wales. In their track stood the village of Aberfan and Pantglas Junior School. 116 children and 28 adults died.

Aberfan: aftermath of disaster
The heap that slid was slurry from the nearby coalmine. It had been dumped for years on top of known springs. The constant flow of water made it unstable and many voices had been raised in concern.

The slagheap was the responsibility by the National Coal Board. It had taken control of the coal industry when it was nationalised by Attlee’s iconic Labour government. It was headed by Alf Robens, a former Labour MP who had held the position of Minister for Power in that same government.

Robens falsely claimed that the disaster could not have been foreseen. He strove to minimise the Coal Board’s contribution to reconstruction, which only proceeded when a new Labour government under Harold Wilson came up with some money, though that didn’t stop £150,000 being taken from the charitable fund for the disaster (ultimately paid back by yet another Labour government, under Tony Blair).

Why do I recall that story now?

Because just recently some friends on the left accused me of not being a “democratic socialist”. I don’t take offence at such attacks: they merely balance charges of being a “raving socialist” levelled at me from the right (the centre-right: I don’t knowingly have friends in the hard right). Still, it’s a criticism that deserves consideration.

I’ve always thought that central to socialism is the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. There are huge difficulties with this principle, not least that no one can really say what anyone’s needs are.

Generally, many socialists accept as an intermediate step the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution”. Achieving even that would be a huge step forward. And we’re a long way from doing so.

A recent report reveals that chief executives of top UK companies are, on average, paid in a year what someone on a median income would take 160 years to earn.

Major company chief executives may be doing an important job. But their claims to take responsibility are empty. When companies go wrong, Chief Executives generally just move on. Tony Hayward, Chief Executive of BP at the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, has taken up lucrative new positions with Glencore Xstrata and Corus. As his history shows, these top executives aren’t always as competent as one might hope: the link between ther contribution and reward is hard to see. Certainly, it isn’t established at 160 times median pay.

Tackling this kind of problem strikes me as central to democratic socialism.

Sadly, however, those who most loudly proclaim their socialism take what to me seems a far more reductionist view of socialism. They equate it with nationalisation of industry which they conflate with people’s control. That sounds democratic. Indeed, with people’s control it would seem likely that a more socialistic approach, linking remuneration to contribution might be adopted.

Sadly, the real experience of nationalisation is that it produces not people’s control but state control. The bureaucrats who run nationalised industries don’t act in the interests of the people, but generally in the interests of the self-proclaimed elite that includes men of Tony Hayward’s ilk.

Aberfan shows how such bureaucrats can be sucked into the game and ignore the legitimate claims of ordinary people. I sympathise with the Aberfan father who wanted the cause of his son’s death to be recorded as “buried alive by the National Coal Board”. The same coal board would do Thatcher’s bidding and bury the entire British coal industry less than twenty years later.

It also saddens me that many friends on the left line up with the Brexit camp in the great debate that dominates British politics. In a pamphlet on the subject, an MP for whom I have great admiration expressed his surprise at the fact that the far right shares his desire to leave the European Union. Only his surprise surprises me. The driving force for Brexit is fear of immigration and a nationalistic loss of local state power – a fundamental concern of the far right.

On the other hand, one of the few forces to have resisted the hegemony of the Tony Haywards has been the EU. It has ensured the adoption of employment laws that are anathema to the top executives. It represents a bulwark against the kind of behaviour of employers that marked the National Coal Board and Lord Robens at Aberfan. It guarantees freedoms, including the freedom of movement, that give wage earners the right to pursue the best opportunities for themselves anywhere across the world’s largest trading bloc.

Why would any democratic socialist want to give any of that up?

Brexit: "bringing back control" to hand it to Washington?
Thanks for sharing, @AnnEnglishRose

So, friends who doubt my democratic socialist credentials, here’s my answer: if democratic socialism is reduced to state control of industry and a nationalistic refusal of merged sovereignty with our neighbours, then certainly I want no part of it. If, on the other hand, democratic socialism means battling against the injustice and regressive effect of inequity, revealed in individuals being paid 160 times more than others for delivering not even a fraction of 160 times as much; if it means working with other nations to defend our rights and extend our prosperity; why, then democratic socialism is precisely what I believe in.

And isn’t that precisely what the Labour Party should be about?