Monthly Archives: March 2015

The New Yorker may have hit the spot

There’s a piece by John Cassidy currently on the web-site of The New Yorker. Viewed from a comfortable distance, he still finds: An Exciting Election Beckons in the U.K.

His thesis amounts to:

The outcome of the election will therefore offer some indication of whether the shift toward conservatism that much of Europe experienced in the wake of the Great Recession was a temporary reaction to hard times, or something deeper and more disturbing.

I question that on a number of (equally-superficial) grounds:

  • Has there been a shift towards conservatism … across much of Europe? What about the election of a socialist President of France? The success of Syriza in Greece? Podemos in Spain (Giles Tremlett does a long essay on that in today’s Guardian)?
  • Is this shift towards conservatism (if has happened) something deeper and more disturbing? Could it not also be interpreted as a revulsion against Big Capital, Big Government and Mr Big in general? I, for one, see in UKIP a kind of local Poujadism.
  • Why should whatever happens in a British General Election have wider applications than the local ones?

Did I lose you there with “Poujadism”? I reckon my definition has moved on from that given by the OED:

The political philosophy and methods advocated in France during the 1950s by Pierre Poujade, who in 1954 founded a populist right-wing movement for the protection of artisans and small shopkeepers (Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans), protesting chiefly against the French tax system then in force. Now also: any similar populist movement of the right identifying itself with the interests of small businesses.

Wikipedia is closer to my appreciation:

In addition to the protest against the income tax and the price control…, Poujadism was opposed to industrialization, urbanization, and American-style modernization, which were perceived as a threat to the identity of rural France. Poujadism denounced the French state as “rapetout et inhumain” (“thieving and inhuman”). The movement’s “common man” populism led to antiparliamentarism (Poujade called the Chamber of Deputies “the biggest brothel in Paris” and the deputies a “pile of rubbish” and “pederasts”) a strong anti-intellectualism…

Compare that, say, with The Observer Magazine profile of Nigel Farage.

Later in Cassidy’s account is this:

Amid signs of nervousness in the Conservative camp, Cameron visited the Queen at Buckingham Palace on Monday, and subsequently promised to campaign in ”all four corners of all four nations of the U.K.” over the next thirty-eight days. Moving to quash rumors that he was already thinking about retiring to his country house in Oxfordshire, Cameron also promised to serve a full five-year term if he wins, saying that he wanted to “see the job through.” Miliband, meanwhile, launched Labour’s business manifesto, pledging to keep Britain inside the European Union and describing the Conservatives’ plan to hold a referendum on E.U. membership (a position it adopted in response to by-election gains by UKIP) as “a clear and present danger” to British jobs.

I’ll have to confess I missed the ”all four corners of all four nations of the U.K.”. I look forward to Cameron tripping through the western reaches of the County Fermanagh — perhaps Beleek — which is about the westernmost “corner” of the Saxon Empire, before it dissolves into  … outer darkness.


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Fissiparous revisited

Well, if was OK for Larkin and Toads, why not here?

Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.

After this General Election, were the Tories to “win” (or, as happened in 2010, were the Cabinet Secretary to spatchcock them a “win”), the Big Event would not longer be the “deficit”. It would be “Europe”.

In our local politics we are urged to remember that Farage’s Kippers (4.3% of the vote, 38 seats) — not Manfred Weber’s EDD (29.4% of the vote, 221 seats) — “won” the 2014 European Parliamentary Elections. Clearly, as in 1938, things European are still “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

Wars and rumours of wars

Yet, assuming that Tory Election “win”, “Europe” is the coming crisis —”Europe” being a shorthand for the fissiparous state of the Tory Party. And, yes (since you didn’t ask), I have today been reading Ian Traynor in The Guardian:

For more than two years, Cameron has regularly demanded changes to the EU, requested that concessions be made so he can repatriate powers from Brussels, win the referendum and keep the UK in. But he has yet to tell the other 27 heads of government what he wants.

“We need more concrete British demands,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European council and former Polish prime minister, told the Guardian three weeks ago. Tusk organises and chairs EU summits and will have a key mediation role over the British issue, which he describes as one of his top three dossiers. He said he wanted to help solve the British problem in a “limited and rational way”, but in effect ruled out a renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty to accommodate the British.

Reopening the treaty has long been Cameron’s main demand, although he has also been told authoritatively that it will not happen. “No one thinks he’s credible,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform thinktank. “Cameron wants to have his cake and eat it.”

The whole of that piece is a recognition that, for Cameron and the Tories, “Europe” is code for the unbridgeable divide which John Major suffered with his “bastards”. Then it was the Maastricht rebels. The headbanger tendency has been self-denying and quiet in recent months, but, after 7th May, will be liberated and reinvigorated. It could be Eurosceptic two-thirds of the parliamentary Tory benches. Exactly a year ago Matthew d’Ancona had this:

In moments of exasperation, the PM has been heard to say that he would rather form another Coalition after the next election than win a small majority and, in practice, govern in a daily modified coalition with [Peter] Bone and his gang of hardcore Eurosceptic backbenchers (“Bonie’s Cronies”, as I have heard them described). 

In any case, if Cameron wins with a majority of any sort, or negotiates a second coalition that includes the fulfilment of his pledge to hold a referendum before the end of 2017, the Conservative Party’s energies will be utterly absorbed by Europe, as never before, for up to 18 months.

Conservatives and “National Conservatives”?

When I was observing those divisive amoeba, the North Norfolk MP was Eddie Gooch. At each General Election he had a single opponent, a “National Liberal”. This strange sub-species of Tories now needs explanation: since I can’t be bothered, try wikipedia. They were a lingering residue of the 1931 split in the Liberal Party. There was also a “National Labour” party (those who went with Ramsay MacDonald into the 1931 coalition) until after the 1945 Election.

The question has to be: would a commitment to (or against) #Brexit be as devastating to Tory “unity” as was 1931 to the other two parties? Cameron, as a prisoner of the rampant Eurosceptic right, the faction howled on by the Murdoch scandal-sheets, would likely lead to some constituency associations so alienated they resigned, or were suspended. If Cameron were able to stave off the “Better off out” loopies, the obvious beneficiary would be the Farageistes.

On the other hand, none of these fissiparous tendencies are neutered by a Tory defeat in this General Election. Cameron would be out, gone, the designated fall-guy. Inflexible rigour would be the order the day. [Isn’t it odd that “ideology”, however warped and homeopathically diluted, is now the norm on the right?]


If all we hear about the selection of Tory parliamentary candidates is anywhere near the reality, the next leader will be further right — a hardliner, such as Liam Fox (always sniffing round the parliamentary henhouse) or Theresa May, or a trimmer, such as Boris Johnson (the original arse on which everything has sat except a man).

Watch this dividing space: it could be fun.

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A fissiparous state

Fakenham Grammar School, Norfolk, mid-1950s: looking down a microscope to witness an amoeba dividing. Odd how these memories come back to haunt, and intrigue.

It’s one of those Victorian words, when intelligent folk were getting into the new science of “biology” — itself a definition which was only then coming into use.

“Fissiparous” (reproducing by splitting) is a very useful and adaptable term. John Morley was rendering it as a metaphor by 1886:

… a false opinion, like an erroneous motive, can hardly have even a provisional usefulness. For how can you attack an erroneous way of thinking except in detail, that is to say through the sides of this or that single wrong opinion? Each of these wrong opinions is an illustration and type, as it is a standing support and abettor, of some kind of wrong reasoning, though they are not all on the same scale nor all of them equally instructive. It is precisely by this method of gradual displacement of error step by step, that the few stages of progress which the race has yet traversed, have been actually achieved. Even if the place of the erroneous idea is not immediately taken by the corresponding true one, or by the idea which is at least one or two degrees nearer to the true one, still the removal of error in this purely negative way amounts to a positive gain. Why? For the excellent reason that it is the removal of a bad element which otherwise tends to propagate itself, or even if it fails to do that, tends at the best to make the surrounding mass of error more inveterate. All error is what physiologists term fissiparous, and in exterminating one false opinion you may be hindering the growth of an uncounted brood of false opinions.

Morley was a classical liberal, and Liberal, and that final sentence (even if you wisely skipped the build-up) is an eternal political truth worth cherishing.

A phrase from The Times, 21 November 1891, appears as one of the OED‘s citations for “fissiparous”:

 Scotch Home Rule and, perhaps, half-a-dozen other fissiparous developments of ‘national life’. 

As then, now still with us.

Out of the peaty fog

Sticking to the problem of “devolution” (which I’ll be redefining in a moment), I was much taken by the latest entry on the sage Andrew Tickell’s blog. One might not expect excitement from a constitutional lawyer, but that prejudice fails when your piece is entitled Jockophobia and kicks off with:

The Scottish people may have a right to self determination, but as a matter of international law, we have no right to secede from the United Kingdom.

Cat: meet pigeons.

Much of the Lallands Peat Worrier‘s short essay is then directed at the way in which Scottish devolution has been “weaponised” by our local English Tories:

Although the Nats are the explicit target of these Tory diatribes, their real objective is to pre-emptively de-legitimise the idea of a minority Labour government taking office with Nationalist votes, even if such a government would command stronger support in the Commons than a Tory minority.  The real victims in all of these antics are not the SNP—but the pigeon-hearted Labour Party, who predictably enough, seem content to go along with their own annihilation at the hands of Fleet Street and Conservative Central Office.

pack-blueTickell, as a straight-speaking ScotNat is fully entitled to that dig at Labour. My own take is that, could we overcome a long legacy of mutual antipathy, we’d be having to force Rizla papers between the “rival” social policies of Nicola Sturgeon and proper-thinking democratic socialists both sides of the Border. When we have overcome the present short-term difficulties (i.e about Sunday 10th May, 2015), such a meeting of minds is inevitable. In exterminating one false opinion (on a fallacious division of the left-of-centre over a non-issue and the canker of “nationalism”) we might avoid an unnecessary uncounted brood of false opinions. 


Only a historian, in some remote future, will determine whether more good or ill fell out of #Indyref. And, we can be sure, that opinionated historian will be promptly shot down by other historians and their contrary notions.

As things currently stand, what hasn’t emerged so far is any serious consideration of “devolution”. What we have are loud, insistent and narrow nationalisms. These “nationalisms” are voiced by self-serving politicians, and summed into crude monetary terms. Just today, Plaid Cymru launch a manifesto:

Plaid Cymru wants the devolved Welsh government funded to the same level per head of population as the Scottish government – which it says amounts to £1.2bn extra a year.

Earlier this week, to the great delight of the Daily Mail, under the headlineSalmond holds Ed to ransom“:

One of the SNP’s many demands is to delay plans to tackle Britain’s deficit by spending an extra £180 billion over five years on the country’s credit card. Treasury chiefs have warned that it would drive up debt.

Filthy lucre to be dispensed at the behest and whim of national politicians to their grateful, obedient and bought clients.

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Myth? Ah, magna!

Properly, a myth is:

A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

This being England, we have to reinvent, recycle, relaunch our national myths serially. Something happens once, it is an occasion; we then have a celebration, and after that it’s a regular tradition. We’re stuck with that process, else the tourists pass us by for somewhere with more “history”.

This year’s come-all-ye is Magna Carta.

There will be a full-on bun-fight at Runnymede on 15th June to endorse the whole she-bang.

And it’s all load of hooey.

There was a document sealed at Runnymede that day: it was the list of demands by the rebels. So it is properly the Articles of the Barons, which they had cobbled together at Bury St Edmunds the previous year. Not surprisingly, it is largely a narrow and self-interested agenda, and certainly nothing to hail as the root of “our freedoms”.

The Archbishop, Stephen Langton, took this away, and compared it with the Charter of Liberties which was Henry I Beauclerc’s declaration of what he thought were his obligations. Langton then codified a document, had it engrossed, and it was then sealed by the King and his rebels at Windsor on 19th June.

Even as a peace treaty between king and his barons, it fell apart when Pope Innocent III, as King John’s feudal overlord (a claim John was happy to accept for the nonce), promptly abrogated it.

The Charter’s afterlife

This is far more interesting than the events of 1215.


First of all, the Charter was resurrected by William Marshall, the power in the land as guardian of the ten-year-old Henry III. Successive re-writes in 1216 and 1217 made further concessions to the insurgent barons. Since, at the same time, another Charter “of the Forests” was being endorsed, we got the magna carta libertatum, “the great charter of liberties”, though the “liberties” were mainly to be taken and exploited by the feudal lords.

In 1225 the successors to William Marshall, in the name of King Henry, not quite come of age, needed funds to defend the remaining territory in Poitou and Gascony. In exchange for £40,000 of agreed taxation, Henry III re-issued both the Charter of 1217 and the Charter of the Forests of his “own spontaneous and free will”.

Again in 1253, with the main feudal conflicts still bubbling, Henry III had to endorse the Charters again, as a way of accessing funds. By then the barons were pushing their luck, and in 1258 the Simon de Montfort faction seized power, and pressed for yet more royal concessions in the Provisions of Oxford. If anything, this is the basis of the Common Law of England. The Provisions would also be renounced by the King, prompting the Second Baron’s War, which finally put the baronage back in its box.


And that would be the big end of it, except Magna Carta became a meme for wannabe “libertarians” (a term, and originally a derisory one, invented by William Belsham in — significantly — 1789). In particular it was something of a rallying-cry for the Parliamentarian faction against the early Stuart kings. If one individual is held responsible for this resuscitation, it is Sir Edward Coke (above):

The principle that taxes were only to be granted in Parliament was not simply an accepted convention but was enshrined in law, for by an Act of 1352, which Coke described as ‘worthy to be writ in letters of gold’, the king was expressly forbidden to raise loans against the wishes of his subjects, as this would infringe their liberties and turn them into slaves. These liberties were protected by Magna Carta, and by an Act of 1370, which declared that all laws contrary to Magna Carta were void.

This, clearly, is not merely native Norfolk cussedness, but a bit of educated self-interest. [There is, by the way, a neat summary of Coke here.]

However, out of all this came the Petition of Right of 1628. Although the Petition of Right claims to derive from early precedents, and — see Clause III — specifically from Magna Carta, it is historically a far more significant, if less dramatic document.

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That went well … err, well

Very much taken by two postings this very morning.

First up—

ConHome was bigging up the totally-bogus Cameron photo-op and gig at the Palace. The very first comment on the charade was a devastating put-down:


Than you, philkean: the wheel-clamps were the clincher.

Then the IFS spannered the Tory wheel —


Well, no, actually.

First the authors sneer at the simplistic of such a non-calculation:

The first point to note is that, on the basis of these figures, you get to an average £3,000 tax increase by (1) cumulating increases over four years – this is the average additional bill in total over four years, it is not an annual additional cost – and (2) dividing the total tax increase only by the number of working households not by the total number of households.

In a world in which taxes were to rise by £15 billion one would usually describe this as leaving households worse off by £560 a year – £15 billion divided by 26.7 million households.

Cumulating numbers like this over several years is, at best, unhelpful. Ignoring the existence of non-working households doesn’t help provide sensible averages either.

Then they get sniffy by noting that, even taking the worst possible Tory line:

if half [the budget deficit] is to come from tax rises – would imply a net tax rise of around £9 billion in 2017–18 (and not the £15 billion the Conservatives suggest).

Anyway, the IFS conclude, neither party has come clean on what and where cuts come.

And, yesterday, Iain Duncan Smith really helped us on that one. Not.

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Back to the grind

Lots going on, so not lots happening here.

One small matter that has occupied my declining intellect these recent days is my total ignorance of “the Eastern Question”.

It must have occupied my time at school, intruded into those long hours acquiring Leaving Cert History in the dusty rooms of the High School (then at the top of Harcourt Street). Yet … near total mental void.

If pressed, I suppose I could rattle off the good bits of Chesterton:

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.
Being honest, I didn’t manage line 7 to 10 from memory without a prompt. Though that, in itself, may be a brag.


It’s a long while, too, since I read John Julius Norwich’s Short History of Byzantium. That didn’t particularly stay with me, either — unlike his History of Venice, which I still rate as a tour-de-force.

Then along came a thread on, starting from the Dardanelles affair, but rapidly developing. Predictably a general tone was anti-British and, specifically, “let’s get Churchill”. Both of those flavours have something going for them; but simplicity has never been my strong point.

I have had a go, previously here, and on, to try and decipher what actually happened in the run-up to the attempted landing, and the doings of two Irish seamen: Admiral Sir Sackville Carden, from Templemore in the County Tipp, and Admiral John de Robeck, from Naas in the County Kildare.

This re-visit I became more interested in the curious way in which the Turks attached themselves to Berlin.9780805088090So I located David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace, and became much more informed.

Essentially I was unravelling two parallel chronologies:

  • One is happening between the Sublime Porte and Berlin, as the C.U.P./Young Turks have Enver Pasha soliciting an arrangement. Fromkin (writing in the late 1980s) conceded that “details of how the Ottoman Empire and Germany forged their alliance remained obscure” and skates over this in his Chapters 4 and 7.
  • The other is all about doings in the Admiralty in London, with Churchill as First Lord and calling the shots (quite literally).  This is Fromkin’s pages 54-61 and Chapter 6: Churchill seizes Turkey’s Warships.

In 1912 someone in the British naval bureaucracy had come up with contingency plans, in the event of war, to take over any foreign vessels being constructed in British yards. So Churchill could claim he was merely applying a previous decision. Fromkin casts doubts on this:

  • his only source is Churchill himself;
  • in late July 1914, there were other, smaller, ships were being built for Chile, Greece, Brazil and the Netherlands, but the two Ottomans were the sole focus, until the First Sea Lord pointed out a broader picture. On the other hand the two Ottomans were ready for sea: the Reshadieh (later HMS Erin) had been ready for a year, but — incredibly — the Turks didn’t have a dock to receive her.

I found myself making notes, and came up with this:

Towards a meeting of minds

☛ 22 July 1914: Enver Pasha “made his approach” to Hans von Wangenheim. The “approach” was rejected: “Apparently he was unable to persuade the German ambassador that the Ottoman Empire had anything of sufficient value to give in return.” [My stress: it’ll regurgitate.]

What makes me reconsider my assumptions is a recognition that the Ottomans, not the Germans, are making the advances, with the C.U.P./Young Turks — Russians to the north, Bulgarians to the east, Greeks to the south, and Italians messing in the Aegean and North Africa — anxious for a major power protector.

☛ 23 July 1914: the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia. From here until 4 August (when the lines between Central Powers and the Triple Entente are complete) everything seems up-in-the-air.
☛ 24 July 1914: Kaiser Wilhelm II overruled Ambassador von Wangenheim, and declared for an Ottoman alliance “for reasons of expediency”.
☛ 28 July 1914: the Ottoman leaders sent Berlin a draft of a treaty of alliance. It seems that only Prince Said Halim, as Grand Vizier and Foreign Minister, Talaat Bey, the Interior Minister, and Enver Pasha, the War Minister, were in the loop. Despite assurances given to Berlin that the C.U.P./Young Turk Central Committee had approved the offer, the Central Committee and (more significantly) Djamal Pasha, the Minister of the Marine, were kept ignorant.
☛ 28 July 1914: Churchill asks Prince Louis Battenberg (First Sea Lord) and Sir Archibald Moore (Third Sea Lord) to “formulate plans in detail” to seize the two Ottoman ships. Moore asked legal opinion of the Foreign Office, and was told such seizure would be illegal except in case of war itself, with the rider that the Ottomans should be persuaded to sell.
☛ 29 July 1914: the Foreign Office warned the Admiralty that Sultan Osman I was bunkering, and — although not finished out — was preparing for sea. This is when we can be assured the Turks had fully sussed what was happening. Churchill immediately personally ordered the constructors to retain both Ottoman ships, and sent security to guard the vessels and prevent the raising on them of an Ottoman flag (which would secure ownership under international law).
☛ The German Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg had been consistently cool about a deal with the Turks. When the General Staff told him, 31 July 1914, to issue the order to go to war, Bethmann Hollweg was still telling Ambassador von Wangenheim not to sign anything, unless “Turkey either can or will undertake some action against Russia worthy of the name”.
☛ Also 31 July 1914: the business of the Ottoman ships came to Cabinet, which accepted Churchill’s argument in case of war. Churchill sent naval detachments to board the ships. The Ottoman ambassador called at the Foreign Office to demand an explanation, but was told it was all just for the time being.

A busy day

☛ 1 August 1914, midnight: Churchill gave formal written instructions that Moore mobilise the fleet, to Vickers that the two ships had to be detained, while the Admiralty intended negotiations for their purchase. This was the first time Churchill had made any move on those other foreign ships under construction, nearly a week after Moore had drawn them to his attention.

1 August was also the day the Constantinople negotiations came to a head. The Ottomans did not want any kind of active involvement in waging war: the Germans were anxious they should. Even so, an agreement was reached, and signed the following day (2 August). Article 8 was an obligation that the treaty remain an absolute secret. Article 4 gave the C.U.P./Young Turks the assurance they required: “Germany obligates itself, by force of arms if need be, to defend Ottoman territory”. Turkey would remain neutral between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarians: curiously the wording seems to allow the Turks not to intervene under any treaty between Germany and Austro-Hungary, while allowing the German military mission to exercise “effective influence” over the Turkish army.

There were some very peculiar doings this day, not least over the Sultan Osman I. Much later a document emerged that shows on 1 August Enver and Talaat had offered von Wangenheim that Turkey would hand over the ship to Germany. British intelligence reported, a fortnight later, that the Kaiserliche Marine had been salivating over the potential addition to the fleet, and very severely discountenanced when Churchill forestalled it.

Who’s the sucker here?

Of course, in making that seductive, possibly decisive — but essentially empty — offer, the anything of sufficient value to give in return, Enver Pasha knew the British had seized the ship.

Now it becomes just “fall-out”

☛ 3 August 1914: the Admiralty began those formal negotiations to acquire the two ships. A Foreign Office cable was received in Constantinople that evening. By that stage, the Ottoman government had ordered general mobilisation, but also declared neutrality. The treaty with Germany remained a deep secret, and Enver Pasha was still suggesting Turkey might combine with the Triple Entente.
☛ 4 August 1914: Sir Edward Grey further telegraphed the Turkish government, saying he was sure the Turks would understand the British position (!) and offered “further consideration” to appropriate compensation.

And that, folks, is how an old man profitably occupies a weekend afternoon.

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