"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Scotland and the EU

Alex Salmond in response to the accusation that he is a 'bare-faced liar' on his pronouncements on the legality of an independent Scotland's membership of the EU has suggested submitting himself to an independent inquiry on the matter, one of his own making.

 It's a bizarre turn of events, which I'll try and summarise as briefly and simply as possible. Presently Scotland as part of the UK is a member of the EU. Salmond and the SNP have been and are very pro-Europe so have suggested that membership of the EU post-independence would be a legal foregone conclusions. Probing by the opposition the exact nature of the legal advice he and his administration sought, to the point of submitting a Freedom of Information request, evoked a prevaricating response. The suspicion arose that the advice Salmond received was adverse but what now seems to be emerging is that they didn't actually seek any at all.

 While I can't claim I don't enjoy Salmond & Co. being made to feel uncomfortable when confronted with credible accusations that they have been economical with the truth, I think here the critics are missing the wider picture. It could be that I'm saying this because I lack the necessary legal knowledge to comment but what I think is happening here is that the implications of the SNP's 'Independence in Europe' theme that they plugged heavily prior to the Euro-crisis are only now beginning to make themselves felt in a post-crash world.

 I didn't agree with the Nationalists and their slogan but it did at least represent a cogent alternative to the Union. Why bother interacting with the increasingly important EU via Westminster when a small country like Scotland could do this directly? A Europe of regions sharing a common currency didn't look at all ridiculous before 2008. Then all the prosperous exemplar countries Salmond liked to cite as models of what Scotland could be began to cave in - Ireland here being the most frequently used case. Ah well, there's always the non-EU Norway and let's forget about Iceland for the time being. (Nationalists pick on exemplar countries in the way Tories do when they're banging on about education.) The point here is to note the degree of confusion at the heart of the Nationalist campaign. It's now no longer clear whether membership of the EU is the foregone conclusion the SNP said it was but at the same time, it is also now no longer clear whether this membership is desirable.

 It's difficult to answer the question of membership of the EU when the very nature of this international arrangement is in a state of flux, which is why if they'd had any sense, Salmond and Cameron could have agreed to park this question for a while. I get to the point when I don't know the answer myself. Europe doesn't look at all like a good prospect just now and I've never favoured the single currency but would I defend the Union even if it got to the point where withdrawing from the EU was a serious prospect?  I'm not so sure about that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dear Michael

Thank you for your letter but I can assure you, no apology is necessary.  You write to express your regret that you asked "clever dick questions" and that you were "showing off"?  Michael, most people are aresholes and never more so than when they are going through adolescence.

Now, in any given year I have around three-hundred and fifty pupils on my timetable.  I think it's fair to say that usually the arsehole quota will reach triple digits most years.  While you obviously regret your particular brand of arseholeism, can I put your mind at rest and tell you that there was nothing exceptional about it?  It didn't bother me that much.  Coping with it is, after all, what I got paid for and when I wasn't working, I did and do things like drink, eat, sleep, read books, watch movies, hang out with friends, raise my children, fuck make love, play guitar - had a life, in other words. I see from your recent pronouncements that you disapprove of such things but most of us then were accustomed to thinking this sort of activity formed part of what we considered the Good Life.

Ego-centrism is part and parcel of the adolescent experience but I have to say that I'm more than a little disappointed that you don't seem to have got over this. I often meet former pupils and the more troubled but intelligent ones realise we were just falling into the roles society had assigned for us.  They give you a nod of recognition as if to say, "I was an asshole and I thought you were an asshole but we've both moved on from that."  And you nod back, saying, "Uh huh.  Peace - and all the best for the future."  So what's the deal with you, man?  You're talking about 'us'.  There is no 'us', dude - it was thirty years ago.  What makes you think I'm interested in your apology now? You weren't that important then.

 P.S. Don't call me 'Danny', you over-familiar little prick. It's 'Sir' or Mr McGlumpher.

Yours etc,

Mr McGlumpher

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The problem with academics

I read Will Davies' post on 'the problem with clever people' with amusement - and it reminded me of a another group of clever people who have an impressive capacity for annoyance and that is academics.

It's partly the way some of them give the impression that their specialism has absorbed all the energy that they might otherwise use for practical things like operating electrical appliances - but this is often too funny to be truly annoying.

No, it's the way some of them talk.  Some of them?  Most of them in my experience.  I think there must be post-PhD classes they attend:  "Now remember boys and girls - you should never ever say, 'I think'.  That's just too ghastly and pedestrian.  From now on it's always, 'it seems to me'."

But that's not anywhere near as annoying as their tendency to say things like, "I'm mystified by, intrigued by, confused by, puzzled by..." something you've said - when what they mean is they think you are puzzled and confused.  Why don't they just say so?  Annoying, especially when it comes from people who aren't even real academics.  Do you do this? You should stop it immediately.  It's pompous, patronising and makes you sound like a complete tosser.

(As I've said before, my dad was an academic so feel free to find something Freudian in this if you wish.)


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The long and boring road to referendum 2014

Tom Devine reckons the forthcoming referendum is the most significant event in Scotland's history since 1707.  As everyone who follows this debate knows, Mr Devine is Scotland's only historian so I suppose we should pay attention - but I'm fed up already and here's some reasons why in no particular order:

1)  I'm bored beyond belief with Nationalists who suggest - either implicitly or explicitly - that anyone who disagrees with them is suffering from some sort of pathology.  Sometimes it's posed as an inferiority complex they like to call the 'cultural cringe' but more often it's framed as a straightforward phobia.  "What are you afraid of?", is a common refrain - as if this was the only possible reason one could have for rejecting their rather protean arguments for something they still insist on calling 'independence'.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to any of them that there are not a few of us who think independence is perfectly feasible, it's just that we don't happen to find it desirable.

2)  What characterises the 'debate' so far is amazing short-termism.  Don't like the Coalition and their austerity?  Well obviously the thing to do is to rip up over three-hundred years of history come 2014 since waiting another year for a General Election is too demanding for the average Caledonian attention span.  Those who understandably have better things to be doing with their time than follow this could be forgiven for missing that this has been a perennial feature of Nationalist rhetoric.  Salmond used to argue for 'independence in Europe' based on something as ephemeral as the price of a currency in the markets.  He doesn't do this now for obvious reasons but it's ok because no-one was paying attention anyway.

3)  The 'vision thing'.  Here the Nats really have some brassneck.  They engage in senior-school level of political fantasy - "What kind of independent Scotland would you like to see?  Ooh, I'd like a republican, nuclear-free, wind-powered one with full employment, Scandinavian levels of public services but with Irish levels of corporation tax.  One where everyone is equal and we all hold hands and teach the world to sing, please" - and they have the gall to suggest we enter the debate on their infantile level?  No, they insist - and frame this as making a 'positive case for the Union'.  I decline to do so.  Is there no room in their world view for people of a sceptical disposition?  I'm not that optimistic about the future of any European country at the moment, although I hope we'll muddle through - and I happen to think my country will have a better chance of doing this as part of the UK.

4)  Alex Salmond.  Space prohibits the reasons one could give for having had enough of this embodiment of self-regard we call our First Minister but his latest in a long line of demotic suggestions- that he and Cameron should have a debate - is worth a mention.  His reasons for wanting this should be clear: in the Nationalist mind, the Union becomes the repository of everything the Nationalists claim to be opposed to and this is why he wants the Prime Minister to make the case - being as he is an Englishman, the sitting Prime Minister, one that happened to attend an elite public school and one who is an architect of the present fiscal austerity.  If Cameron is being properly advised, he will have nothing to do with this nonsense.  All the polling evidence suggests that a majority of Scots oppose independence and of these only a minority are Conservative voters.  Among the reasons we wouldn't care for the present Prime Minister to make the Unionist case is that he is unrepresentative.  

5)  The outcome is already decided.  This is my main reason for being fed up with the whole process.  This'll seem counter-intuitive to many but I reckon the option that we now know is not going to be included on the ballot is the most likely outcome, and this is 'devo-max'.  If the referendum is won, it'll only be because what it being offered as 'independence' will be a package that lacks the essential features of what one has become accustomed to thinking were the defining features of a sovereign state; if it is lost, the Holyrood Parliament will acquire further powers nevertheless.  Like Quebec or Catalonia, in other words - places where national disputes have lead to constitutional compromises, which in turn seem to institutionalise dissatisfaction.
  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Savile obituary

Here's one that should have been spread a little more widely...

 

  Update: Seems that one has been taken down. So here it is again...

 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Alex Salmond: the incarnation of the partisan style of politics

It's a sign that partisanship has gone too far when the significant political actors within a country cannot conceive of political institutions that are above the party politics in which they are so deeply-involved.  Samuel Huntington of  Clash of Civilisations infamy thought this a feature of what he called 'praetorian societies' where political disagreement was not merely one over policy but where there wasn't even a consensus over the institutions and mechanisms that produced governments in the first place.

While he was referring to countries in the developing world, I've often wondered if the United States itself hasn't edged rather too close to this condition for comfort in recent years?  Not to suggest they have reached the state of dysfunction one was accustomed to seeing in Latin America but you've got to wonder when, for example, supposedly 'umpire' institutions like the Supreme Court are routinely dismissed by partisans if they make decisions that are uncongenial to their particular political disposition.

It doesn't help that these institutions are indeed subjected to partisan pressure and seen as fair game in the political contest.  The desire to see policy preferences embedded in institutions that would subsequently bind successor administrations is, I suppose, an inevitable downside to having a legalistic polity like the United States and there's certainly nothing new about it.  But it seems to be getting worse in recent years with suggestions, for example, that purely partisan policy preferences like a balanced budget or a prohibition on gay marriage be embedded in constitutional law.

I was reminded of all this when I read that Alex Salmond has suggested that an independent Scotland should have a ban on nuclear weapons written into a new constitution.  Now by taking issue with this, I could be accused of partisanship myself.  I don't believe in Scottish nationalism and I have a particular animus towards Salmond, this is true.  However, in the unlikely event that Scotland becomes an independent country in the way that we have been accustomed to understanding the concept, I would obviously have a self-interest in our country doing well.  Moreover, it just so happens that I share the SNP's view on nuclear weapons.  But it would be folly to include this in a constitution.  It is a clear policy preference, not a constitutional principle and Salmond's suggestion that it should be considered as such is nothing but a sop to the peaceniks and fundies on his side who aren't too happy about his screeching hand-brake turn on the matter of NATO membership.  Wherefore, if Nationalists want an independent Scotland to be something other than a banana republic without the bananas they should eschew this nakedly partisan style of politics.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Totalitarianism then and now

The death of Eric Hobsbawm - or rather some of the subsequent commentary - has raised a couple of issues I've often thought need addressing.  One has to do with the concept of 'totalitarianism' and how it is used today.  The totalitarian thesis holds that Stalinist communism and fascism had more in common than what separated them.  It's an idea not without its problems.  Leaving aside its origins in the work of the American Cold Warriors, who in some cases used it to justify what might loosely be termed the Kissinger doctrine, it has been suggested that it is a rather brittle and static idea that tends to break on the application to history.  Given, for example, that the 'total control' the thesis identifies was never actually achieved by either Hitler or Stalin, how helpful is it to categorise regimes according to their aspirations?  And then there's the question of how useful it is when even the intention has been given up and the regime has succumbed to the forces of routinisation.  Is 'post-totalitarian' really the best way of describing the USSR under Brezhnev, for example?

Having said this, it would be probably fair to say that most political scientists and historians, while being aware of its shortcomings, are reluctant to dispense with the totalitarian thesis entirely since it does seem to at least approximate a reality that most people recognise; the one-party elevated above the state, the propagation through terror of an official ideology that has acquired the status of a religious orthodoxy, the shared hostility to bourgeois values and so on.

However, those who accepted the usefulness of the concept did not take it to mean that communism and fascism were the same thing - at least not until recently.  The vulgarisation of the totalitarian thesis was something that I had hitherto thought of being restricted to the American right, often stated in a rather crass and simple-minded manner.  "The Nazis were National Socialists.  All the same, these totalitarians.  Anyway, Stalin killed more people than Hitler."  When the disgraced former Independent columnist Johann Hari once described Hobsbawm as "the left's David Irvine (sic)", I dismissed it as a stupid comment made by someone who found making moral commentary on historians more lucrative and congenial than reading history.  It is therefore with a sense of dismay and more than a little concern that one notes this is appears to be a much more widely-shared view among those who identify themselves as the democratic left in Britain than I imagined.  I have in the last few days read how Hobsbawm can be considered no better than an unrepentant Nazi because totalitarianism is totalitarianism; there is nothing to choose between fascism and communism.

The Wild East
I was and still am completely incredulous.  Do they mean what they say?  Stalingrad, as everyone knows, is generally considered to be the turning point of the Second World War - a battle won at an enormous cost, one that was characterised by unbelievable brutality on both sides, as well as astonishing feats of bravery and human endurance.  Anthony Beevor writes of the way that the commanders of the Wehrmacht in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa osscilated between self-confidence and unease.  The former isn't difficult to understand.  Few invading armies have had the advantages that they did.  Stalin had purged the officer class prior to the invasion and refused to listen to those who were left when they told him four million enemy troops had crossed the border.  Yet there was the unease too.  Despite the stunning territorial gains, the Russian landscape seemed limitless like the ocean.  And despite the fact that two million Red Army soldiers had been killed in the early stages of the campaign, still more came.  Among the underestimates made by the invading German army was of the willingness of Russian soldiers to fight.  This they did some way beyond the point at which the British and Americans would have surrendered.  This no doubt partly accounted for by a knowledge of their likely fate if captured.  Over five million Russians were taken prisoner of war between 1939 and 1945.  Only two million of them survived the experience.

In relation to this, the advocates of the new updated totalitarian thesis might want to consider the implications of their position.  Do they think all this sacrifice was futile?  That since there's nothing to choose between totalitarianims, the outcome of the battle was unimportant?  Tell me this isn't so. All totalitarianism are not the same; they did not have the same intentions because they did not have the same ideology.  Call me old-fashioned but I had been accustomed to thinking of Nazism as worse because it had a genocidal project informed by a psuedo-scientific racist biology as part of theirs - and see no reason to change my mind.  Perhaps those who disagree might be persuaded to try a little counter-factual history.  We know what Eastern Europe under a routinised communism would look like because that is what we got.  Are we seriously being asked to accept that there wouldn't have been much to choose between this and one under a bureaucratic National Socialism?  It will remain forever as a thought-experiment anyway, given the intrinsically unstable and warlike nature of fascism.  After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks pursued peace, withdrew from the Great War and the country was plunged into civil war.  After Hitler comes to power, there is territorial expansion and then war.  Given that much of the debate has concerned the unpleasantness between 1939 and 1945, one would have thought this was a distinction of no small importance.  But it has disappeared into the generalising receptacle of the new totalitarian thesis.

There is something else as well.  Among the most prolific users of the 'totalitarian' epithet are some of those on the 'Decent Left'.  It's a grouping which I've been sometimes associated, something I'm not entirely comfortable with.  There are a number of reasons for this and one of them is the sense that there's a little too much of the zeal of the converted among the 'anti-totalitarian' faction.  Without naming names and linking to blogs, there are a few of the 'Decents' who have in the past been associated with factions within this broad political church we call the Left where they didn't have the reputation for being quite so unambiguously 'anti-totalitarian' as they like to see themselves now, to say no more than that.  Their newer and more vocally uncompromising social incarnation was prompted, they would claim, by the recognition that a significant chunk of the left had been prepared to make common cause with violent religious reactionaries, provided these had the over-riding virtue of being anti-American.  It's not the broad general analysis I would dissent from but rather the suggestion that this is an unprecedented event on the left.   It is argued to be so because the totalitarianism in question happens to be religious.  But as we have already seen, they insist that the precise nature of  the totalitarian ideology is irrelevant so this too should be a matter of no importance.  No, there's something else going on.  The fact of the matter is that there has been at least since the Bolshevik revolution a division on the left between those who were prepared to jettison democracy if it was an obstacle to socialist goals and those who were not - a point made, ironically, by Hobsbawm himself.  Not all by any means but I think quite a few of those who have claimed to have identified a new deviant strain of compromise on the left are experiencing something more mundane: they've been having their Krondstadt moments.  The 11th of September, 2001 is rather late to be having one of those.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

For Eric Hobsbawm

I was sorry to hear that Eric Hobsbawm has died.  His critics, while being right on the substance - i.e. his blindness to the crimes of Stalinism - are also wrong, and not just because of the utterly obnoxious way they have done the intellectual equivalent of pissing on his grave.  (If you've missed any of this, while it's a strong field in which to compete, this has to be one of the most gratuitously stupid and offensive pieces written so far.)

A couple of points and with the first I'm grateful, as is so often the case, to Chris Dillow for cutting through the bullshit:
"But what exactly is wrong with Hobsbawm's reply [to Michael Ignatieff]? The obvious retort is the deontological one, that there are some things we simply shouldn't do to people, even if they are necessary to create a radiant tomorrow. But many of Hobsbawm's critics cannot use this reply, because they themselves are utilitarians. Those who defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that civilian deaths were a price worth paying for the removal of a dictator, or who defend the use of A-bombs against Japan because they shortened the war are using the same calculus as Hobsbawm - weighing some lives against others' future well-being. The difference between them and him is one of accounting, not politics or morality."
While I was among those who supported the invasion of Iraq, I would go further: not a few of those who took the same position as I did on this issue made what I thought then and now a rather lazy comparison between the architects of Appeasement and those who disagreed with them on Iraq, and identifying - not always implicitly - with Winston Churchill.

To them I'd have to say - because they are over-represented among Hobsbawm's critics - that I'm sorry if this is too obvious an historical point to make but Churchill and FDR seemed to be able to distinguish between the threat posed by communism and that presented by the Nazis, which is why they were on the same side as the USSR during the unpleasantness between 1939 and 1945. What is it with young people today that they can't complete a similar intellectual exercise?

Here's another thing: from what one has read, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Hobsbawm was primarily a historian of the 20th century. This is not the case. His trilogy - the Age of... - which focused on the 'dual revolution' in industry and politics, taking place over what he described as the 'long 19th century', is what those of us who prefer reading history to moral posturing will remember him for.  He had, until the 'Age of Extremes', avoided the 20th century for fear his own partisanship would have coloured his work, as he remarked to Antonio Polito. Would that his critics were even half as self-aware.
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