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UK General Election: Get Ready for Positive Inertia

Ramsay MacDonald

Ramsay MacDonald, leader of Britain’s last peacetime National Government (1931-1935)


This morning I read in the UK Times that the Scottish Nationalists, if they hold the balance of power after May 7th,  would use their power to veto line items of government expenditure in future budgets. Specifically, they will vote against any Finance Bill that provides for the continuance of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Also on the SNP agenda – if not explicitly stated – is another referendum on Scottish independence.

They won’t succeed with the former, and they won’t bring about the latter. What they could do is to trigger a form of politics not seen since the Second World War: “national government”. Not a formal arrangement wherein the two largest parties come together at a time of national emergency as was the case in 1931 and 1939, but something more fluid and subtle.

I use the nuclear question and Scottish independence as two stand-out issues on which either party, Labour or Conservative, might seek the support of the other in order to override the ambitions of the SNP. The independence issue is fairly straightforward. If the government required an act of parliament to authorise a new referendum, the two major parties could simply bring the measure down on a free vote.

The continuance of the nuclear deterrent is less simple. Government expenditure is rolled up into an all-encompassing annual budget. If, say, the SNP threatened to vote a Labour Finance Bill down if it included expenditure on the Trident nuclear programme, they would get a more sympathetic ear among Labour members of parliament than among the Conservatives. But Labour, in its manifesto is “committed to a minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent”. So its MPs would be unlikely to join the SNP in torpedoing the Finance Bill on the issue. If the SNP delivered on its threat, and the Conservative opposition also voted against the Bill for its own ideological reasons, an amended Bill would have to be brought before Parliament.

At this point, to save the nuclear deterrent, Labour would need to reach an accommodation, not with the SNP, but with the Conservatives, who would no doubt insist on watering down those aspects of the Budget that they most disliked as the price of their support. And if the Conservatives formed a minority government, the same dynamics would apply vis-a-vis Labour.

So it’s easy to see a scenario in which the two main parties would work together to defeat attempts by minority parties – the SNP and UKIP being the most likely actors – to introduce measures that they considered would be against the national interest.

The result would be de facto government by broad consensus – a government based on national unity if you like, rather than a government of national unity. Measures on one party’s agenda that were supported by the SNP would be enacted regardless of the opposition’s view. But where the SNP pushes too hard, the government could turn to the opposition for support.

You could argue that this situation would lead to horse-trading, slow decision-making and inertia, particularly on matters of spending. Some would say that this would be bad for business confidence, therefore for the economy and ultimately for Britain’s international reputation.

Not necessarily. The essence of modern democratic politics is the promise of change for the better. The problem is that the first part of the equation doesn’t always result in the second. No party will be elected on the basis of keeping things exactly as they are. So even if they believe that this is the best course – as the Conservatives do with the economy, for example – they still feel compelled to come up with eye-catching new policies to counter those of their opponents. The result is what we see in the political manifestos: commitments to a whole bunch of changes that may or may not improve the state of the nation even though they appeal to sections of the electorate that they wish to target.

The major parties make these promises in full knowledge that if they have to form minority governments, which is highly likely this year, all bets – and all promises – are off. So in effect the promises are meaningless. They are, in fact, aspirations.

So if we end up with a parliament after the election that can only enact measures that have broad cross-party support, is that such a bad thing? If a new measure is proposed, tested and scrutinised without regard to party allegiance, will that not ensure that only the most important and urgently-needed measures will make the cut? That will depend on the ability of the parties, their members and their managers to step back from their allegiances and vote instead in the national interest.

I believe that there are times when it does no harm to slow down the pace of legislative change. If we end up with a government that can introduce only the most self-evidently needed changes, the country will not be the worse off, even if the politicians and civil servants find themselves with more time on their hands than usual. In many situations they will need to work to achieve objectives within the existing legislative framework. A few years of positive inertia, in other words.

Not for ever, you understand. There are times when radical action is required that will not be agreeable to both major parties. But if we have a few years of government by national consensus, followed by a majority government in the following election – whenever that might be – it’s reasonable to expect that the party with the strongest arguments will carry the day, and thereby be in a position to make major changes.

Am I ridiculously naïve, unrealistic, hopelessly optimistic? Maybe. I’m not a professional politician or a political analyst. But I’ve lived through enough election campaigns as frenzied as the current one, only to see normal service resumed after the excitement has died down.

As long as the new parliament, and whoever ends up governing us, retains a measure of common sense, we’ll get by. So I for one will not spend the next three weeks in a lather of anxiety while the politicians – nervously eyeing their future employment – campaign until they drop.

Whichever way things go on May 7th, the following month will be extremely interesting.

UK General Election: Demented already? Help is at hand if you know where to look!

UK Election Graph

Here in jolly old Britain we’re halfway through the periodic bout of insanity otherwise known as a general election campaign. Way back when, the political parties, of which there were only two that counted instead of seven (how we used to look down on the Italians, who never seemed able to elect a stable government!) would announce their manifestos, appear in a few party political broadcasts and set off into the country for their once-in-a-blue-moon encounters with the voters.

These days the parties, or rather the leaders (because nobody counts but them, do they?) unleash a carefully choreographed cascade of announcements, photo opportunities, tweets and factory visits. And that’s before they launch their manifestos! The manifestos themselves are carefully timed so that everybody has their turn in the spotlight. Yesterday, it was the turn of the UK Independence Party, from somewhere in Tonbridge, and the Social Democratic Labour Party of Northern Ireland. Or was it the Democratic Social Labour Party, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea?

Anyway, thank goodness for that. At least we know where all the parties stand, don’t we? Not without the assistance of a swarm of media analysts, we don’t. We need them to tell us of the gaping holes in logic, and warn us which policies are or are not properly costed. The empty promises, in other words.

All this desperate nonsense from well-meaning people – because yes, most British politicians are well-meaning – causes me to reflect on what a bewildering world we find ourselves in, especially if, like me, we grew up in simpler times. Not better, by the way, because I don’t buy UKIP’s bitter attempts to turn back the clock to an age when husbands beat wives with impunity, landlords banned blacks and the Irish, and stockbrokers like Nigel Farage worked two hours a day, sandwiched between boozy train rides between Brighton and the City. Just simpler.

Take the family, for example, or more specifically those in the upper strata of society.

Once upon a time the offspring of well-to-do families would have followed highly predictable career paths. The oldest male would inherit the estate or the family business. The next son would become a priest. Younger sons ones would work for a living as stockbrokers, doctors or lawyers. Alternatively they would head east (or west) to make their fortunes within the Empire or the New World. The women would be married off. Those who failed to find a match would become maiden aunts who cared for their parents as they grew elderly. If they happened to be Catholic, the nunnery also awaited.

These days – thanks to better education and the housing boom, there are many more people who would be described as well-to-do by the standards of the 19th Century. The really wealthy still hire people to do everything for them. The rest of us have to fend for ourselves. We can do the shopping without a concierge. We can look after our kids without a nanny. We can do our own cleaning without a maid from Ethiopia. We can mow the lawn, buy things online, go on holidays in ordinary aircraft, drive ordinary cars.

Career opportunities for today’s reasonably well-to-do are also more diverse. Choices of university courses are far wider. This doesn’t go down well with everyone. Graduates in the more traditional disciplines – engineering, law, accountancy and the liberal arts – might sniff at some of the newer degrees.

Media studies, for example. Don’t we have enough media types queueing up to be smacked by Jeremy Clarkson? Then there’s leisure and hospitality. I suppose you could argue that golf clubs, hotels and gyms contribute somewhat to Britain’s GDP.

But psychologists? A parasitical profession if ever there was one, busy putting chocolates at the check-out counters to pile the pressure on harassed mums, watching monkeys copulate and creating yet more “conditions” to fuel our mental hypochondria.

IT graduates? More cannon fodder to propel into ill-conceived government projects that cost the taxpayer billions but achieve little more than to compound the frustrations of the long-suffering public who have to deal with online as well as human bureaucracy.  Or clambering on board Apple, Google and the myriad start-ups churning out products and apps that nobody really needs.

But in the Big Society – much touted by the Conservatives in the last election campaign – in which people help each other for free, there’s an opportunity for some of these much maligned folks to do something worthwhile. Not least to help out doddering old parents in return for their inheritances.

In the old days it was handy to have a lawyer in your family to protect your wealth, a doctor to keep you alive and a priest to see to your spiritual well-being.

If we assume that modern families still rely on the younger generation for support and expertise that they might otherwise have to pay for, nowadays very different skills are needed to keep us from going insane with worry, and enable us to spend our newly-liberated pension funds in peace and serenity. These days it seems to me that whether we know it or not are three types of person that every family should be able to call upon for help if needed: a media studies graduate, a psychologist and a techno-geek.

Why so? Well, let’s take the current election season. To start with, it should be absolutely obvious to any voter that you need to spend about eight hours a day watching TV and reading the print and online media to figure out what the hell the politicians are raving on about. Should you therefore back off, shut your eyes to the stuff coming at you from all angles and vote by your gut feeling, or according to family tradition (as in “I’ve always voted conservative”)?

Then how do you ensure you and your fellow voters are not being taken for a ride? That’s where the family helpers come in. Your media studies graduate should be able tell you what is spin and what isn’t. She will be able to help you distinguish between contrived stories and genuine ones. And if it’s not already blindingly obvious, she may be able to help you tell the difference between scare stories and real problems.

And your psychologist son may know something about micro-expressions, and be able to help you detect the transient facial tics which indicate that the very plausible politician staring at the camera with a piously sincere expression is actually lying between his or her teeth. He might also be able to point you to phrases they use that have absolutely no meaning whatsoever but are designed to send the seratonin coursing through your veins. Either that, or lull you into a contented sleep on the couch in front of Newsnight.

All that emotional stuff like assurance, well-being and security gives you the feeling that you’ll be in safe hands with this or that politician, despite the grim reality that no government – can control more than, say, 25% of the outcomes they promise. Why? Because there’s little any individual government can do to mitigate a natural catastrophe like a super-volcano, or man-made disasters like the collapse of the Chinese economy, the implosion of the euro-zone or war with Russia. Be afraid. Be very afraid, then call on your family psychologist, psychiatrist or therapist for help.

I haven’t mentioned the geeks yet have I? Apart from helping you to block unwanted emails from political parties, their use in an election is of limited value unless you’re an election geek yourself, in which case he can direct you to opinion on the social media, or help you to decipher the opinion polls that predict the outcome of the election based on the opinion of one man and his dog from Luton.

The geeks have other uses, which we’ll come to in a while.

Once the election is over, things will return to normal, and we’ll return to normal nightmares. The problem for middle-aged citizens of the 21st century like me, is that many of us are ravenous users of the internet. We’re blessed with always-on broadband. We who shop for 50% of what we buy online. We’re partial to the odd tweet and we like keeping tabs on our kids on Facebook. We suffer through hours of ads on telly, on the radio and on the web. Unless we switch off al devices and run to a monastery where we can moulder away in our final years, we cannot escape from people trying to sell us stuff – directly or indirectly.

This weekend I watched the coverage of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race – a feature of British heritage that most foreigners find utterly inexplicable. Not so long ago you would have had to sit through 15 minutes of nonsense about the teams, and then straight into the race. These days the whole thing is sponsored up to the eyeballs. Interminable pre-race coverage, interviews with the stroke’s granddad and the cox’s cousin, pictures of the coach’s dog. A pre-race tableau withthe teams lined up in front of – you guessed it – the sponsor’s logo. And a trophy, as if the glory of crushing the other buggers in blue wasn’t enough. For what? For the viewer? No way. For the crews, maybe. I guess the money goes towards technology that shaves a few seconds off the race time. So rowing is heading in the same direction as Formula One, where the kit rather the knucklehead behind the wheel determines the outcome. What happened to Chariots of Fire?

And has anyone noticed how smart and pervasive the online media has become? I make a search on a flight to Riyadh, and seemingly until the end of time I will get emails telling me about cheap flights to just about every city in the Middle East. I look at Amazon to check out lawnmowers, and for some reason Jeff Bezos has become convinced that I’m looking for enough equipment to maintain the gardens of Hampton Court Palace.

This is not to mention all the spam you get from people who have stolen your details from some online vendor with useless security, or because you agreed that your details could be shared with others by pressing the Agree button to terms and conditions longer than the Encyclopaedia Britannica (the very fact that I mention that august publication shows my age, doesn’t it?).

I have a Gmail account which readers of this blog can use to communicate with me if you so chose. The trouble is that a thousand social media geeks have hovered up my details, so that for every single email I get from a reader, I have to skip over a countless offerings from publicists who want to tell me that there’s a very good hospital in Abu Dhabi that specialises in repairing anal fistulas. And before you ask, no, I have never suffered from that dire affliction, nor have I ever done an online search for an elderly relative whose world is coming out of his bottom, so to speak.

So send me a media studies graduate who can tell me why I’m being bombarded with all this ordure. Give me a psychologist who can help me come to terms with this loathsome new world in which everything coming at me has a price or an ulterior motive attached to it. Call a geek to show me how I can protect myself from and army of phishers and fraudsters that want to rob and exploit me. I may be wise to the cyber-robbers now, but what about decades from now when my marbles are going but I still retain enough savvy to use the internet, and when the internet of things offers perennial temptation to press a button and buy what I don’t need?

Watching those fine athletes posing and preening before rowing their guts out down the Thames makes me wonder where the sponsors will go from here. Will we have sponsored war? Will celebrities invite magazines to be present at the birth of their children? What about funerals – sponsored by Goodbye Magazine? Will logos be genetically engineered to appear on the backsides of elephants? People are already renting their bodies for tattoos of logos, so why not embed the logo in your DNA?

It seems to me that we are in an age when the media is more important than the people it serves. When Lynton Crosby, the Conservative Party’s Aussie spin doctor virtually orders David Cameron to demote Michael Gove from his high profile job as Education Minister because the Gove brand is not playing well with the customers – aka the voters. When a star journalist like Nick Kristof of the New York Times has the audacity to tweet about the detention of a Bahraini political activist: “Bahrain’s government is enraged by @NABEELRAJAB’s post on my blog. If they really want to show Bahrain is inclusive, just give me a visa!” Yes Nick, and why don’t they make you King of Bahrain while they’re at it?

Let’s not even talk about product placements in film and TV shows, about websites that take an age to load because because of the ads, about the rubbish that adulterates social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, about brain-rotting lists from Buzzfeed and inane videos that tell you that you won’t believe what Grandma did next, and the ten calls a day from robots trying to convince you that your bank has ripped you off or that tiny dink you had in your car has given you a life-changing whiplash injury. The Mad Men now seem to rule a Mad World.

You might think of this as a dyspeptic rant of a grumpy old man. And yes, we’re all being bombarded with ads, manipulated by spin doctors and saturated with sponsors. It’s life. We should be used to it by now. But consider the role the dark arts have played in the rise of Isis, and in the capture of the Russian media by Vladimir Putin that has resulted in 87% of the population thinking he walks on water. Consider also British newspapers that are alleged to back off from incriminating stories about their advertisers; the diet industry that leads us up hill and down dale to persuade us to use products that end up discredited next week; the sustainable energy industry that rips out the rain forest in pursuit of bio-fuels; the fashion industry that clothes us on the back of slave labour; the IT and telecoms industry that sells us products with features most of us never use. I could go on, but you’d go to sleep if you haven’t started nodding already.

There are a few heroes out there who resist the temptation of squeezing every drop of commercial benefit from what they do.

Andy Murray, who got married last weekend without the benefit of a million pound fee from Hello Magazine or its analogues. Jordan Speith, who won the US Masters golf tournament at the age of 21, and has already set up a charitable foundation to help kids with special needs and injured veterans. And there are a few members of the super-rich fraternity who do some good. People like Bill Gates who, despite his company’s questionable business tactics, redeems himself by ploughing vast sums into medical research. Whereas other plutocrats pour their wealth into political campaigns that leave you wondering if any politician in the US can succeed without being hopelessly compromised by the money they receive from 0.01 percent of the population.

As for me, I will never be able to influence more than the flight of a butterfly. But rest assured that my humble efforts in this blog to inform, amuse and provoke will never be underpinned by anyone’s money. You will never see a paid ad on these pages (unless I get desperate of course!).

When it’s time to shuffle off, assuming it’s to the next world, a part of me wonders if the decision to send me to heaven or hell will have been outsourced to some celestial service company, and will, as some religions promise, be based on a gigantic database that has recorded our every thought and deed – also outsourced no doubt. After all, who knows what Steve Jobs and Margaret Thatcher are up to these days?

Easter Reading: I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn – Biography of Sandy Denny


It’s 1971, and I’m sitting in my room in a student house in King’s Heath, a suburb of Birmingham. Not studying as usual. The gas fire is on – no central heating in those days. I have record deck, a decent amplifier and two big speakers. Somewhere on the floor are my LPs, my most precious possessions.

I have about a hundred. Some classical, the rest the usual mish-mash that a student might possess who’s at university for the experience rather than through a burning desire to follow a specific career: The Stones, the Beatles, Crosby Stills and Nash, Leonard Cohen, the Doors, the Incredible Spring Band, Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Traffic and Blind Faith. Each grabbed me in different ways: lyrics, musicianship, emotional, political and social reach.

I have a few friends with me on the floor of my room. We didn’t do armchairs in those days, just carpets and mattresses. We often sit listening to the music in silence, incapable of conversation for reasons I’ll leave you to guess.

Those were the days. If we weren’t playing records, we might have been in the pub, at parties or at gigs in the student’s union. Mornings were not a good time. I lost count of the number of 9 o’clock lectures I missed. When I look back it seems that my whole life revolved around music – and of course the usually hopeless search for romance. Later I went on for a few years to promote concerts and manage groups. Some of my friends were already writing songs and playing in pubs or student events.

None of us hit the commercial heights for one reason or another, yet for me that period – the early Seventies – was one of the most glorious times of my life. Those who stayed with their music have produced work as memorable as that of the vinyl stars I listened to back then. Andrew Morton, for example, and the late Jim Cleary.

Some of the music that inspired us in 1971 I never revisited, or if I did I laughed out loud that I was ever so enraptured – the Incredible String Band, for example. Fey, self-indulgent, over-ornate. Baroque fury signifying nothing unless your perception was chemically distorted. Other artists I listen to still, even if the passage of time and a different perspective makes me smile at the naivety of the lyrics.

But there was one person – a singer – with whom I fell in love, and I’m in love with her still, even though she’s been dead for thirty-seven years. Did I really fall in love with the person? Of course not. I only knew her through her music, through what she projected in her songs and with her matchless singing. Sadness, longing, joy, love and revenge.

That person was Sandy Denny. I still get lost in her music today. And I still mourn her early death – one of the less celebrated music casualties of the last four decades, yet no less a tragedy than the demise Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and other contemporaries who crashed and burned.

Mick Houghton, music journalist and PR, has written a biography of Sandy. It’s called I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn. In the introduction he talks about his love affair with her. So I was not alone in my devotion. I suspect there are thousands like me and Houghton. I hope they get to read his book.

For those who are not familiar with Sandy’s life and career, here’s a nutshell. Born and raised in Wimbledon, she started singing in folk clubs as an awkward teenager with a divine voice. She rubbed shoulders with the likes of Paul Simon, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. After an unhappy spell as an auxiliary nurse she went to Kingston Art College, which seems to have been a breeding ground for musicians – other eminent alumni included Renbourn and Eric Clapton.

After a brief spell with the Strawbs, Sandy joined Fairport Convention and recorded three memorable albums, What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Leige and Leif. Between the last two albums the band were shattered by the road accident that killed their drummer, Martin Lamble and left Ashley Hutchings, the bass player, seriously injured. Swarbrick, Britain’s foremost folk violinist, then joined Fairport. He, Sandy, new drummer Dave Mattacks and bassist Dave Pegg were part of a band that effectively to re-invented themselves after the crash. With Leige and Leif  you could argue that they single-handedly created the folk rock genre. Bands like Traffic, Steeleye Span and even Led Zeppelin followed in their footsteps.

Sandy left Fairport in 1969 and formed a new band with Trevor Lucas, her Australian boyfriend. Fotheringay recorded a single album. Sandy then released three solo albums before returning briefly to Fairport, with whom she recorded two albums – one live and one studio. Subsequently her career went into decline as she became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. After her second stint with Fairport she recorded one more solo album and was then dropped by her record label. She died in 1978, aged 31, after a fall which appeared to have triggered her collapse into a coma a few days later.

Like Houghton, I lost her in her last few years, and only when she died did I realise what we had all lost. Her death had as least as much impact on me as John Lennon’s the following year. Lennon died young, but he fully explored his talent over more than twenty years of making music. Sandy’s life was full of what if’s. The commercial success many felt was her due eluded her. She was and remains a cult figure, unlike her American contemporary Joni Mitchell. What if, for example, she had settled in California, where she had a large following?

In I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn, Mick Houghton fills out the bare facts of her life with input from a host of people who knew and worked with her. Trevor Lucas, the love of her life whom she eventually married, is not around to tell his story. He died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 45. But by piecing together contemporary accounts and more recent interviews, the author tells a tale that would be familiar to those who believe that extreme talent, or genius if you want to call it that, often comes at the price of a tortured personal life.

Many of Houghton’s sources describe a woman who was insecure but exuberant, lovable yet sometimes hateful, stubborn yet sometimes indecisive. She struggled against being labelled a folk singer, rightly pointing out that her work went way beyond her original folk roots. Her soaring vocal contribution to Led Zeppelin’s Battle of Evermore is evidence that she was no ordinary singer.

Sandy’s own songs are almost always contemplative, often sad and frequently autobiographical. Unlike Joni Mitchell, she rarely spoke directly of her life, preferring to rely on metaphor.

As a singer, she was beyond compare. Yes, that’s a highly subjective view, but one shared by many of her friends and fellow musicians. For me, only Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion come close to her for feeling, phrasing and vocal quality. What perhaps clinched my love affair with her was her Englishness – despite her Scottish roots – and in her songs the sense of innocence and melancholy that chimed with my age at the time. Yet unlike many of her contemporaries, much of her work feels as fresh and compelling today as it did in her lifetime. Surely a mark of greatness.

If you have have never encountered Sandy Denny, you could do worse than start with Banks of the Nile, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, It’ll Take a Long Time and Fotheringay. Also take a look at this BBC recording from 1971 on YouTube. It doesn’t feature my favourite songs but captures her intensity of performance and the purity of her voice.

If you’re among the many who loved Sandy when she was alive, or discovered her subsequently, Mick Houghton’s book is well worth a read, if for no other reason than that he puts her music into the context of her life – her often stormy relationship with Trevor Lucas; the producers, managers and record company bosses who supported her, messed with her and ultimately walked away; her fellow musicians who admired and loved her but often found working with her exasperating; the underlying meanings and messages in her songs; and the final weeks and months when she fell apart.

As with all artists who die young, there is always the lingering question of what she might have achieved under different circumstances. Ironically as it turned out, one of the songs she recorded was Elton John’s Candle in the Wind – more appropriate to her life than to those of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, I’ve always thought.

If you believe in predestination, then the last word belongs to Linda Thompson, whose husband Richard worked with Sandy throughout most of her career. Houghton quotes her thus as she compares Sandy with Nick Drake, another revered singer/songwriter who died young:

“I don’t mean to romanticise, but I am a believer in fate or destiny. She had such an amazing life and such an amazing talent and she left some wonderful songs and that might have been all that was meant to be. And Richard did say something like that at the funeral – something to the effect that she was never meant to write anything more, which upset some people. But we were both like that at the time. I still feel like that.

Sandy wasn’t daft. Part of her went to the country to finish the job. It was the same with Nick Drake. I never feel with either of them that it was the biggest tragedy, “How could this have happened?” It was perfectly obvious to everybody and it was perfectly obvious to them. That’s their destiny. What Nick and Sandy left behind is amazing, and I don’t think he had much of a will to live at the end. I don’t think Sandy did either.”

Whether Sandy Denny’s end was premature or written in some book of destiny, she left us plenty to treasure, for which we should be thankful. And If I was given the choice of a long life or thirty-one years in which I would match her achievements, I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t have opted for the latter.

Easter Reading: Germany – Memories of a Nation

Durer Rhino

Yesterday’s announcement by Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, that he is leaving to set up a similar institution in Berlin coincides with news that Goethe University in Frankfurt is setting up the nation’s first professorship in Holocaust studies.

I have a few memories of Germany, some good and others not so good. I once spent an idyllic autumn walking down the Roman limes – the border fortifications that marked the limit of Roman rule – in the forest near Bad Homburg, living on a diet of grapes and wurst. I had a conversation on economics – in English – with a Stuttgart taxi driver whose knowledge far exceeded my own and probably that of the vast majority of English cabbies. In Frankfurt I got drunk for the first time at the age of eighteen. The poison was a German equivalent of scrumpy, a cloudy, toxic brew much loved in England’s West Country. Not an experience I would wish to repeat.

A few years ago I made my first trip to Berlin – and hated it. I felt oppressed by its monumental architecture. Wide streets, huge buildings towering over the inhabitants. A series of messages – from the time of Frederick the Great through the Bismarck era, the Nazis period and the rivalry of two ideologies that divided the city in two during the Cold War. Even after unification, Berlin continued to build on a monumental scale, re-building much of what was flattened during World War 2, and creating steel and glass blockbusters to evidence the German state’s modern prosperity.

For me it’s a brutal city, not built for its inhabitants but to show off. Perhaps Berliners like it that way. Certainly the couple energetically making love in front of an uncurtained third floor window opposite the pavement café where I and my friends were eating seemed to enjoy sharing their passion with the rest of the world.

I should have expected the city to make a strong impression one way or another given its history, and given its modern reputation for “edginess” (one of those clichés beloved of travel journalists that usually send me on a wide berth around the object of their attention).

Goering’s Air Ministry, Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, the grim remnants of Himmler’s SS/Gestapo headquarters next door to what remains of the Wall and the humble children’s sandpit surrounded by dowdy communist-era apartment blocks that marks the spot where Hitler’s fellow bunker dwellers burned his body were depressing landmarks of the city’s recent past. The concrete blocks of the Holocaust Memorial and the magnificent Pergamon Museum went only some way towards redeeming what was by and large rather a gloomy experience.

But as I often point out to friends whose only experience of Britain is a trip to London – a country should not be judged solely on its capital city. And given the damage inflicted on Germany’s cities by bombs and shells, it’s a miracle that so much survives – rebuilt or otherwise.

The wartime scars – and the enduring fascination in Britain with all things Nazi – tend to overshadow the fact that for much of the five centuries before  the last one, Britain and Germany – or the constituent parts thereof, were often the best of friends – culturally, politically and militarily. We acquired a German dynasty on the British throne in the eighteenth century. It was the Prussian army that sealed the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. Queen Victoria’s consort was a German prince, and her daughter was married to the crown prince of the unified German Empire.

If Germany and its rivals had taken a different path in 1914, perhaps we wouldn’t need Neil MacGregor to remind us of its earlier legacy. We should really speak of Germans rather than Germany, because before 1870 there was no such political entity – merely a plethora of semi-autonomous city states, bishoprics, duchies and kingdoms that constituted a major part of the Holy Roman Empire.

I missed GermanyMemories of a Nation, the British Museum’s 2014 exhibition. But MacGregor’s subsequent book of the same title more than makes up for the omission.

The author uses objects and places and artists to build his narrative, much in the same way as he did with A History of the World in 100 Objects, his renowned radio series for the BBC. Gutenberg’s printing press, Luther’s bible, porcelain from Dresden, Bauhaus furniture, the Iron Cross and the German sausage. Dürer, Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, Klee and Kolwitz. Kaliningrad and Strasbourg, now Russian and French respectively – symbols of Germany’s ever-shifting frontiers.

Over six parts he traces the origins of Germany under the Holy Roman Empire, the growth of trade and commerce, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, political upheavals, civil strife and wars culminating in Napoleon’s destruction of the Empire, unification under Prussian hegemony, the disaster of 1914-1945, the division and finally the reunification of the state we know today – all by reference to the works of art, literature, architectural landmarks, craftmanship and cultural icons.

Were it not for the bestiality of Nazism, these would be the first things to come to mind when we think of Germany – unless of course we happen to be into football.

Memories of a Nation is not an ultra-highbrow tome. Although it’s likely to appeal most to history nuts and culture fiends, it’s highly accessible and beautifully written. It has as many pictures as the average coffee table book, but far more written content across its 500-odd pages.

Much of what I previously knew about Germany was in the context of English history. Without indulging in a laborious chronological narrative, McGregor fills in some gaps. For example he uses the perfection of the Chinese technique for producing porcelain to illustrate the commercial rivalry between cities and states. He tells the story of Tilman Reimenschneider, perhaps the greatest wood sculptor of the renaissance, who found himself on the wrong side of the 1525 Peasant’s Revolt, and ended up having his hands broken for supporting the demands of the oppressed.

He discusses the origin of the Iron Cross, created at a time when the Prussian state – much of it conquered by Napoleon – was confined to the enclave of Koenigsburg (now Kaliningrad, part of Russia). A shortage of precious metals was turned into a virtue; it became fashionable for society women to wear iron jewellery. And iron became a metaphor for Prussian – and ultimately German – resilience and strength, so effectively marshalled by Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of the unified nation.

My memories of Germany are helplessly bound up by the Nazi era, more so after reading Memories of a Nation. How could a nation – in the widest sense of the word – produce Albrecht Dürer, Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, generations of classical scholars and archaeologists, writers and philosophers like Goethe and Kant, and yet descend into barbarism? How could people who contributed so much to Western civilisation devote their talent to the industrial-scale extermination of whole sections of their society? A mass psychosis brought about by the collapse of the imperial project in World War 1? A resurgence of deep-seated exceptionalism instilled in the nation in the nineteenth century?

Those questions are endlessly discussed by post-war historians far more knowledgeable than me. But MacGregor’s book led me to revisit The Topography of Terror, a chilling documentation of the apparatus of oppression and extermination established step-by-step over the twelve years of Nazi rule. Chronologies, extracts from laws, memoranda of SS and Gestapo bureaucrats, biographies of victims and perpetrators, pictures of the huge complex of headquarters buildings in central Berlin devoted to the practical application of Nazi ideology tell an appalling story. I bought the book at the exhibition on the site of those demolished buildings, of which little remains but the basement cells in which prisoners awaited torture and death, but these days it’s also available on Amazon.

It’s to Germany’s credit that it never supported a “right to be forgotten”, even if many thousands of willing participants in the Nazi project did manage to fade into obscurity, unnoticed and unpunished. Thanks to its reinvention as an energetic, prosperous and fundamentally humane social democracy, and as the passing of time extinguishes living memories of that dark era, attitudes towards the country have slowly changed from contempt to admiration, underpinned by an acceptance that “that was then, and this is now”.

Today the history and heritage of Germany serves as a lesson as much for the rest of us as for today’s Germans. Other nations and peoples have shown in subsequent decades that what happened in Germany is far from unique; that under certain conditions we are all capable of oppression and genocide, and that civilisation is a very thin veneer, easily fractured. Yet equally many of our societies are capable of stunning acts of invention and creativity, and none more so than the Germans.

Neil MacGregor has done wonders for the British Museum. It’s one of my favourite places in London. I frequently revisit galleries that feel like old friends. And some of the temporary exhibitions, particularly those of Pompeii, the Vikings and the Aztecs, have been a joy to behold.

If he can create an institution in Berlin to rival the one he is leaving, perhaps the record of German contributions to humanity in the eyes of the city’s visitors will finally put its acts of destruction in the shade.

The UK Election Debate – little more than a political speed date

Leader Debate

According to Daniel Finkelstein, columnist for The Times, Conservative Peer and statistical analyst. “this campaign will turn out to be the election campaign of our lives”. If last night’s General Election debate between seven party leaders is anything to go by, he may be right, but not necessarily in the way he intended.

The debate was a contest of personalities. Its format was about as conducive to exploring the issues as a stream of Twitter one-liners. For unfortunate voters who might be pondering how to cast their ballots, it was about as useful as trying to listen to birdsong in a London traffic jam.

No doubt the orchestrators of the debate would say that the limited time restricted the number of issues. They would be right, but shoe-horning the opinions of seven leaders into two hours allowed for little more than soundbites, big pictures and pointing fingers. One wonders how Churchill, Macmillan and others would have fared. Or which opponent Harold Wilson would have smacked in the face.

On the personality front the bombastic Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, won out because he had little to lose, because everybody expected him to behave like the pub loud-mouth. I found myself waiting for each successive variant on his single theme – we must leave the European Union. He also won hands down in the face-pulling contest, rivalled only by Labour’s oh-so-caring Ed Miliband.

Commentators often explain the rise of marginal parties like UKIP on the grounds that an increasing number of voters are anti-politics. I don’t believe that the electorate is wearier with politics than in any of the dozen-or-so previous elections I can recall. I think that most of us are anti-bullshit, and our cynicism is more about broken promises than honest failure. Nothing new there. Have we not heard the same refrain at every election in living memory?

Judging by the issues selected for the debate, it does seem that we are more insular in our concerns than at any recent time. Whether that’s the media’s fault or that of the politicians, I don’t know. But it says much about our national mindset that the Iran agreement – potentially one of the most significant diplomatic breakthroughs of the past decade – took second place to the debate in the subsequent news programmes.

For what it’s worth, here are some thoughts on the topics discussed – and not discussed – last night:

  1. Nigel Farage claimed there was nothing any of the leaders could do about immigration as long as the UK stays in the European Union. There was no discussion on limiting immigration from outside the EU, which is something governments can control.
  2. There was no discussion on foreign policy. Developments in Russia, Iran, China and the Middle East could derail the best-laid economic plans. Not a single caveat that the UK’s prosperity over the next five years depends as much on factors beyond the country’s control as within it.
  3. Another subject that didn’t get a mention was defence. Are we so certain that we will never again need to act unilaterally in defence of our interests or against the grain of international consensus, as we did in the Falklands?
  4. Farage’s health tourism remark – about the cost of treating non-British HIV sufferers – snuffed out any potential debate on the benefit to the National Health Service of paid health tourism. Does the UK make the most of its reputation and facilities in treating foreign visitors who are prepared to pay?
  5. Nicola Sturgeon’s remarks about the benefits of free tertiary education hit home. If there was a choice between university places for all at a cost, and free places rewarding those who meet tougher selection criteria, one wonders which option the electorate would go for. With the National Health Service firmly entrenched in British politics as a sacred cow, why is education not similarly sacred?
  6. Why did nobody point out that foreign students, who do pay substantially for their education in British universities, play a major part in funding tertiary education? Should be not be welcoming more of them, not less, not least because of the goodwill towards Britain that these graduates bring back to their home countries?
  7. Nicola Sturgeon was impressive, just as Nick Clegg was in the 2010 debates. Almost certainly her Scottish Nationalist party will have greater influence in the next parliament even if they don’t end up as coalition partners. But Sturgeon should ponder the fate of Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats stand to lose many seats this time round. What goes up comes down.
  8. It’s interesting that there was no mention as to whether the experiment of a fixed term parliament will be repeated. Are we prepared to be stuck with a weak and indecisive coalition for the next five years?
  9. Finally, the leader of the Welsh Nationalists made a point that I would endorse. If there is to be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, an exit should be contingent on each component of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – voting in favour. If we believe in devolved decision-making in the British Islands, we should not be seeking to force any component in such a fundamental direction against its will.

It sticks in my craw that a single-issue demagogue like Farage, who represents the sum of England’s racist, xenophobic sentiment, was given an equal place at the debating table despite leading a party with as much substance as the national football team. Fine if there had also been debates between the parties with a realistic chance of being elected. But then I suppose it was useful to hear from the minority parties that, like it or not, are bound to have an influence over any minority government that might be formed.

All in all, for this viewer the event was a pretty futile exercise – as unsatisfying as a cardboard burger. I suspect that this was the outcome in David Cameron’s mind when he agreed to what was always going to be a political speed date.

I’m not one who writes off all politicians as self-serving careerists. There are plenty of talented, well-meaning people in all the parties represented last night, with the possible exception of UKIP. The sad reality is that the presidential-style debate format projects the participants as the embodiments of the parties they lead. Thanks to the campaign managers, other voices will not get a look in, or at least their exposure will be limited to two-minute news clips and specialist (therefore minority interest) current affairs programmes.

I suspect that this debate might be the only piece of discussion that many of our voters will tune into over the next few weeks. So if our nation’s perception of each party stands or falls on the performance – and likeability – of the not-so-magnificent seven in two hours of superficial blathering, then the outcome on May 7th is anybody’s guess, and not necessarily one I look forward to.

Daesh: the Destroyers of History? No Chance

ISIS Nimrud

Does the desecration of Nimrud and Hatra by the so-called Islamic State add ammunition to the argument that priceless antiquities scooped up from around the world by the colonisers and the wealthy should stay within the safe embrace of Western museums?

You bet, if you believe that sooner or later the black flags will fly over Athens, Cairo and Baghdad. And to boost the argument further, it wasn’t the Daesh storm troopers who blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas and looted the museums of Cairo and Baghdad.

In conflict zones where religion plays a part, it seems that antiquities are fair game, either as a source of funds or as a means of making a politico-religious point. Nothing unusual in this – the newly powerful have a habit of trying to erase evidence of the formerly powerful by destroying things. The early Christians in their desire to eradicate pagan worship pulverised much of the finest Greek and Roman statuary. The Byzantine iconoclasts ripped down and burned thousands of exquisite religious artefacts in the cathedrals and churches of their declining domains in the hope that God would thereby again look favourably upon them.

In Baghdad, the Tigris ran black with the ink of books cast therein by the invading Mongols. When Henry VIII destroyed the English monasteries, gold and silver treasures were melted down to fund the King’s endless arguments with France. His son Edward VI and the puritans of a century later finished the job by whitewashing the walls of the churches.

And in case we imagine that great acts of cultural destruction are carried out only by invaders and religious fanatics, consider the burning the Great Library of Alexandria by Julius Caesars’s troops, and the demolition of cathedrals and churches by Stalin’s henchmen in Moscow.

Yet for all the efforts of the blind, the bigoted and greedy, enough remains from every era of history to educate and inspire future generations. Daesh may seek to erase history and make a fast buck in the process, but their task is made harder than ever by the very medium that they have exploited to feed its rise: the internet. Every museum has a website. Books are being digitised and many universities have put the efforts of their scholars online.

What is above the ground has been documented, analysed and pondered over, even if future generations will now be deprived of the opportunity to revisit the conclusions of the past in Nimrud and Hatra. But what is still under the ground is equally important, and the likes of Daesh would need a massive fleet of JCBs to erase what has yet to be discovered in the territories they control. Beyond the Middle East, two-thirds of Herculaneum lies unexcavated under metres of volcanic ash. Cities are still being discovered in the jungles of Central America, and under the sands of the deserts that skirt the ancient Silk Road.

Of course it’s sad that young Iraqis will not have the opportunity to touch the walls of their ancient cities. Not just Iraqis – anyone who has an interest in the history of earlier civilisations. In one sense, ancestry doesn’t really come into it, because there are not so many ethnic groups on our mainland continents whose genes can’t be traced back to forebears from any number of geographical areas, whether as the result of migration or conquest. I am likely to have as direct a line of descent from an inhabitant of ancient Nimrud as a modern Iraqi, just as the blood of Genghis Khan flows in sixteen million people across the world.

But national heritage counts. Egyptians – those who don’t want to raze the sphinx and the pyramids – feel proud of their pharaonic past, just as the Irish are proud of their Celtic lineage, even if Egypt is a melting pot of African, European and Asian ancestors, and archaeologists cast doubt on the central role of the Celts in the pre-history of the British Isles.

Though organisations like Daesh try to expunge physical evidence of an inconvenient past, and fashion the minds of their youth through selective education and ideological control, they have no more chance of erasing history than they have of capping a volcano. There are too many books, too many internet nodes, too many satellite dishes and too many people. Information borders are way more porous than the walls and fences that separate countries.

I’m the proud owner of a modest collection of ancient coins. Every so often I take one out – perhaps an Athenian tetradrachm or a denarius of the Roman Republic – and I hold it in my hand, knowing that I’m touching something that merchants, slaves and small farmers might have used over two millennia ago. That’s just one way in which I connect with the past. Some sing songs and recite poetry. Others listen in churches, mosques and synagogues to tales of suffering and exultation. Or read books and visit museums.

Whether we’re illiterate or hold a doctorate from Harvard, we are all touched by history in one way or another. And it’ll take more than a bunch of psychopaths with sledgehammers to wipe out the history of Iraq and Syria. Just as when the murderers are all dead, buried or atomised, the memory of the suffering they inflicted will be passed on through generations.

People in the Middle East have long memories, in case Daesh have forgotten. The tragedy is that so many of their stories are soaked in blood.

Jeremy Clarkson – a product of his tribe….and mine


The difference between Jeremy Clarkson and the dinosaurs is that they didn’t know they had it coming.

I’ve never met the guy, yet I feel that I know him, as do millions of Top Gear fans around the world. I can number the times I’ve watched the show on the fingers of one hand, but I do read his column in the UK Sunday Times.

I don’t know him, but I know his tribe. Once upon a time, when I was at boarding school, I was thumped in the face by the son of a famous film director. I don’t remember why, but I do recall that he was several years older, and was good at sports. I’d probably behaved like a nerdish 14-year-old and hadn’t shown the necessary respect due to a prefect. A very male reaction. I won’t say he was a bully, because that was the only time it happened. Nor was bullying a regular feature of school life. But in Britain’s public schools war war has always been a viable alternative to jaw jaw.

Within the public school tribe of which I’m a member – Britain’s private schools are rather confusingly known as public schools – there tended to be two camps: those who were for things and those who were against them. The pro’s were the prefects, the captains of cricket, the upholders of the school traditions, those who excelled in the traditional things, like exams, who went to Oxford and became judges, or inherited the family land. The anti’s were the rule-breakers, the sniggerers, the mickey-takers, the poseurs, the smart-asses who mocked everything and everyone. They tended to be good at art, writing, acting and anything else that marked them out as different. Not rebels exactly, because many of them were smart enough to get to the universities of their choice.

When they left school the two camps coalesced at the edges somewhat. Comedians became doctors and head prefects became eco-warriers. More often the pro’s continued their upright path to become generals, captains of industry, politicians, academics and diplomats, though not without the occasional bout of ritualised wildness at university – as witness the antics of Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne in Oxford’s Bullingham Club. The anti’s went to art school, the BBC, the theatre or publishing, and sometimes to an early grave for one substance-related reason or another. I use the past tense because most of the public schools in my day were single sex. For the last thirty years many of them have opened their doors to girls. This has changed the dynamic somewhat, though there are a number of schools – Eton for example – that have remained resolutely male only.

Clarkson I suspect was a dedicated anti. He was expelled from a similar school to mine for various misdemeanours including, according to him, drinking and smoking. Very male activities, in which I also indulged, though not to the extent that I was kicked out. He comes over as confident within the parameters of male camaraderie. Perhaps more comfortable in male company – in the pub, in cars, doing male things. And like many fellow-anti’s, he’s intelligent, witty and perceptive. He would appeal to his smart friends like David Cameron because although Cameron took the pro path, both will sing from the same tribal hymnsheet. Also Clarkson will say things that our Prime Minister might believe yet can never afford to say himself. All speculation of course, but it’s based on my own experience.

So why would someone like him fall prey to the kind of rage that led him (allegedly) to throw a punch at a BBC producer? Was that late-night meal so important that the red mist descended when it was not forthcoming? What of the Madonna-like contract riders demanding that food be available the moment he and his colleagues stepped into their hotel after filming – so precise that they stipulated that the starter should be on the table once he crossed the threshold? Or was there an underlying problem between him and the guy he’s supposed to have hit, or perhaps against the BBC?

Did this example of “do you know who I am?” behaviour stem from the expectation of one who grew up surrounded by privilege, or was it another example of star become spoilt brat, like so many rock musicians I dealt with in my younger days?

I have no idea, because I don’t know all the circumstances and I definitely don’t know the man. But, as I said, I do know the tribe, because I belong to it too. I can spot someone who went to Repton, Eton, Rugby or Winchester a mile off. Not so much when they open their mouths, because these days many have learned to de-posh their accents. But because of signals that are imperceptible to those outside the tribe. Mannerisms, foibles, reactions, responses. Ask me to categorise the signals and I would struggle. But I know them when I see them. And I see them in Jeremy Clarkson. He may have his demons, but he’s a leader. The type of person to whom others gravitate. The life and soul.

If you took a representative sample of Britain’s TV-watching population and asked them what they thought of the man, I suspect that that they would be divided down the middle. There would be those who love Clarkson as the blokeish, brawling (ask Piers Morgan about that – he claims to bear a scar from an encounter with our hero) champion of political incorrectness. And then there would be those who see him as a boorish, bullying representative of the privileged classes with an emotional age similar to that of the guy who smacked me at school. A subset of that group would be the HR types who probably prompted his “final warning” last time round. The BBC is certainly full of them.

But the BBC of today is a far cry from the organisation that first employed John Simpson, that doyen of foreign correspondents, as a junior reporter in the 60s. When Simpson had the temerity to ask Prime Minister Harold Wilson whether he was planning to call an election, Wilson responded with a well-aimed punch in the reporter’s stomach. Did the BBC support its man by referring the assault to the police? It doesn’t appear so.

So will the BBC pull the plug on Clarkson and his show? I suspect not, unless they can come up with an astounding replacement, which seems unlikely – a bit like replacing John Lennon during the Beatles’ heyday. Also there’s too much money at stake, and the BBC is not exactly flush these days.

More likely there will be some sort of financial penalty and an apology to the hapless producer who was the target of the great man’s wrath. I also suspect that Clarkson won’t care either way. If he goes, other TV channels will snap him up in whatever form he proposes. Nothing like a new challenge.

In the long term, though, when details of the fracas become widely known, I suspect that his reputation will be diminished, especially if it turns out that the cause of his anger was the lack of a meal. Because much as we British admire a maverick, especially one with Clarkson’s charm and wit, we do have a keen sense of fair play, and there will be a number of people who might think that he should pick on someone his own size.

As for me, I don’t really care one way or another. It’s just a welcome break from all the really grim stuff that dominates the headlines. And a pleasant change to see a member of my tribe wielding a bludgeon rather than a stiletto.

One thing’s for sure: whatever he does next, he’ll always be part of an in-crowd. But whenever I see Jeremy Clarkson on TV from now onwards, it will be hard not to think of the raging thug who punched me in the face when I was 14.


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