The German word Historikerstreit, meaning a quarrel between historians, gained popularity in the 1980s, to describe arguments over whether Nazism represented a continuity or rupture in the German story, or over the comparative evils of Fascism and Stalinism. Historical debates over questions bearing on political decision-taking – such as Greece’s debt to Germany (or vice versa), or whether Turkey is a European country – have kept the practice going in the 21st century. The British historical guild has been slow to emulate the European model, but the self-styled ‘Historians for Britain’ in October last year launched a manifesto using a selective reading of the past to argue for British uniqueness and superiority vis-à-vis the EU.
The Palace of Westminster is crumbling. It will require £3 billion to restore it. I’ve never been very fond of the building architecturally, and it wasn’t popular when it was built – least of all among MPs, who complained of the stink it let in from the Thames – but familiarity often breeds acceptance, and the silhouette has become so iconic that of course the place needs to be put back into shape. Whether or not that’s worth splashing out three billion for, when there are so many other worthy causes to hand, such as bailing out banks, is for taxpayers – or rather the chancellor – to decide.
Four hundred up for the King James Bible and David Cameron has this to say: Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France. Why? Because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too. And because many of the values of a Christian country are shared by people of all faiths and indeed by people of no faith at all. The French say bad things about our economy. We respond that we’re not the sort to sneer at people for their religion or tell them what they shouldn’t wear. Ours is a big tent full of believers and unbelievers, with an altar at the far end, the bailiffs at the entrance and Group 4 Security on the perimeter. Theirs is a profane republic, with an army of sapeurs-pompiers hosing down the bright flame of multiculturalism wherever it appears.
The latest design of UK passports, released last year, has a number of new security features: the chip is now hidden within the cover boards, which makes it more difficult to extract and replace fraudulently; the passport number is dot-matrix‐punched through every page; page numbers are both watermarked in the paper and integrated into the collaged pictorial backgrounds which, intaglio printed in fine detail and subtle colour blends, span each two‐page spread. Every background is different, and includes a good deal of microscopic text.
The two agreements struck by Britain and France on defence co-operation this week have not brought citizens out on the streets of Paris. There were worries – expressions of anger even – about Sarkozy’s decision to take France back into Nato’s integrated command structure last year, but this is different. The fresh-faced Cameron and the embattled, less rosy-cheeked Sarkozy are like two sons whose parents have frittered away their family fortunes: they must now find common cause and drastic economies, which means moving in together if they wish to remain in the ritzy part of town reserved for big military spenders.
The UK supplies Israel with a steady stream of arms on a 'case-by-case basis', although none of them are supposed to be used inside the Occupied Territories. In practice there is no way of knowing what Israel does with the kit it buys, so British companies are restricted from selling things, including fighter parts and missile systems, that have been used in the Occupied Territories in the past. But under the current rules the US can still tranship this kind of hardware to Israel through the UK.
There's an oddly fawning interview with the work and pensions secretary in today's Guardian. Iain Duncan Smith is apparently a 'politician with no personal ambition' whose only aim is 'to help the worst off'. He's got all sorts of schemes to get people off benefits and into work, improve their quality of life in the process, and, in the long term, save the government a great deal of money. What a miracle worker. There's some indication even in the Guardian, however, that the Tory noises about making everyone better off and Britain a fairer place are too good to be true.
When I used to cover Liberal Democrat party conferences, the late-night curious journalist could wander the hotel in Harrogate or Torquay, push against a glass door and, at 1.30 in the morning, find a dozen of the delegates in workshop mode, discussing the minutiae of land valuation tax or the single transferable vote. The spirit of earnest still flourishes among them. Their assault on compulsory ID cards and biometric passports lifts the heart. What makes it twitch is Nick Clegg’s invitation to the People to tell the Ministry what reforms it wants. We are getting far too much of ‘the People’ at present.
The shade of Earl Russell, ‘Finality Jack’, still moves among us, and his name is Clegg. The deputy prime minister’s brief in the new administration is political reform, whose compass, he promised in yesterday’s statement, will be wide – as wide as Russell’s vaunted ‘final’ settlement of 1832. Clegg describes the electoral system as ‘broken’. The Electoral Reform Society branded the general election result ‘unrepresentative’. The criticism is invited by the umbrella labelling of the electoral reform statutes of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918 etc. as ‘Representation of the People’ Acts. The complaint that the system is unrepresentative is levelled indifferently at the simple plurality voting system (‘first past the post’), and at the remaining ‘pale, male, stale’ demographic in the House of Commons. These two complaints are distinct. Clearly proportionality defangs the first charge, of unrepresentativeness, or at least those forms of PR that make seats won directly proportional to votes cast. But it doesn’t fix the Commons’ dominance by middle-aged white males.
So the Lib Dems have caved on Trident, immigration, the euro and voting reform. Quite a list. True, you can't have power without compromise, but too much compromise starts to look a lot like powerlessness. At least they've won a concession from the Tories on income tax: according to the BBC, in their summary of the coalition's policies, there will be a ‘substantial rise in income tax allowances for lowest paid from April 2011’. Hang on a minute, though. Can it be that the public broadcaster has fallen for the new government's spin? Because, as it happens, raising the personal income tax allowance won't benefit the very lowest paid:
Tomorrow at dusk, to mark the 1600th anniversary of the departure of the Romans from Britain, flaming torches will be lit every 250 metres along the length of Hadrian's Wall, starting at the North Tyneside end, to create a 'line of light from coast to coast'. It will take about an hour for the light to reach Carlisle, where it will be greeted with a variety of neopagan festivities: Led by the stirring sounds of street band Tongues of Fire and impressive fiery engines (from Pandeamonium) and lit by thousands of flickering flames, a parade of costumed characters and musicians will follow the elusive and beautiful airborne Heliosphere through the streets. It should all be very pretty, as long as it doesn't rain. You may be wondering, though, how the date of the end of the Roman occupation of Britain can appear to be known so precisely.
Children quickly master the idea of fairness. On my five-year-old son’s lips, ‘It’s not fair!’ covers an impressive variety of unwelcome contingencies, like his not getting as much ice-cream as he wants, or the fact that it isn’t snowing. Some optimistic political theorists think this shows that an instinct for fairness is hard-wired, or acculturated early on. Others suspect that it shows how fluently humans adapt principled talk to self-interest. On 22 February, Desire Petroleum, the UK firm set up to prospect for oil in the North Falkland Basin, began exploratory drilling, in the face of Argentine objections.
The enemies of Gordon Brown are a wonderful company as, God knows, were the enemies of John Major. A government suffers bad shocks, its leader stumbles and attracts a bad press. What government and prime minister do next, over time and rather successfully, may well redeem them with mere voters. But party members in internal opposition at Westminster will have none of it. What follows is suicide bombing – of a genteel and wittering sort.
The BNP clearly hopes it has the wind in its sails. It has dispatched a newsletter to its supporters which, though it apologises for the lateness of the 2008 accounts (just completed), is intended to sound pretty self-confident. Indeed, one reason the letter gives for lateness is that the party has been overwhelmed by new members. (There is also a coy reference to ‘unresolved internal problems’ as factors which made life difficult, problems which have, we are to understand, now been resolved.) Party membership, it says, is now 13,000 and rising – with 3000 ‘on hold’ as a result (it does not quite say) of a ruling that the BNP was in breach of the law by imposing a racial bar on membership. There are two interesting features to this letter.
It is hard to know what to make of this week’s Question Time. Most of what happened was fairly predictable. Nick Griffin was a rhetorical mess and the other members of the panel (including David Dimbleby) had clearly come well-prepared with damning quotations and facts. If Griffin hoped to advance his cause – as he believed he could – then he failed. But it is questionable whether that matters. Most of his actual and potential supporters are unlikely to watch Question Time and few people who do watch it would be converted, however brilliantly he performed. The BNP draws such strength as it has (and it is not much) from grievances which are not met by arguments from the facts.
Is it too late for the Labour Party to do anything? The delegates at this year’s conference appear not to think so. They loved Peter Mandelson and were coaxed into being enthusiastic about Gordon Brown. But the role of delegates at Labour’s stage-managed conferences now is to be enthusiastic: that's what they're there for. The electorate outside the doors and the security men is unlikely to be so thrilled. Mandelson’s speech, though it certainly had spirit, was precisely the kind of mannered, self-conscious performance that most voters find really offputting. Brown’s speech was certainly not mannered.
Justin Webb, the BBC reporter, has returned from the US to assume new responsibilities in London, but it seeems as if he isn't pleased to be in the UK. On his blog, Webb says: 'Now back in the UK I find myself utterly at sea – I say hello to people I pass in the street. They lunge on, muttering insults.' Then, without offering any examples of what he means, he goes on to write about the 'kindness' of Americans, his affection for American cars, his dislike of Swindon, his sense that Britain may be a more violent country than the US, the peaceableness of Americans and their moral fibre. He makes one of those sweeping pseudo-lyrical observations that sound nice but mean almost nothing: ‘As for America's future – this country is full of space and youth and and hope.
There's a story in the Times about the far-right islamophobic organisation of British ex-football hooligans who call themselves Casuals United. The piece ticks the box for evenhandedness, ending with a quote from a spokesman for United Against Fascism, though it's not clear why the Casuals deserve a whole page about them in a national 'quality' daily. Online, the piece is illustrated with a portrait of the group's leader in a heroic pose, backlit and shot from below, and a picture of the Casuals marching through Birmingham, confrontational but not – yet – violent.
In the current issue of the LRB, Slavoj Žižek argues that Italy is leading the way as the West descends into authoritarian capitalism. One of the ways that Berlusconi maintains his grip on power, as Žižek says, is by fostering fear of immigrants. 'Our governments righteously reject populist racism as "unreasonable" by our democratic standards, and instead endorse "reasonably" racist protective measures,' Žižek writes. In one respect, when it comes to 'reasonable' racism, Brown's Britain has the edge over Berlusconi's Italy. The threat of compulsory ID cards for freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons and other British citizens seems to be fading (more to do with the need to save money than with an upsurge of libertarian feeling in the cabinet).
From a news report on the trial of Ricardo Morrison, the son of a police officer, accused of murdering his girlfriend, Amy Leigh Barnes: Ms Barnes's mother, Karyn, phoned Pc Wilks from the hospital soon after the attack. "She told her that Amy had been stabbed and accused her son, Ricardo Morrison, of doing it," he said. ... Pc Wilks then sent a text to Ms Barnes' mother: "I know what my son has done is unforgivable. No need to be rude. Now I understand more about your family. "Do not call me again. My son will be dealt with by law."
Maybe editors should only ever be gratified, never startled, to come across a photograph of someone caught actually reading what they publish. Startled somewhat we were, however, by this image. A someone in camouflage and with an assault rifle to hand: not your average phantom subscriber. It is in fact a young officer in the British army serving in Afghanistan and he’s one of the illustrations in a newly published military memoir called The Junior Officers’ Reading Club, whose author, Patrick Hennessey, has now resigned from the army to become a lawyer. He helped start the club when he was in Iraq and then took it with him to Afghanistan.
If it isn't bad enough that the government believes it can stagger on, Britain's universities are to be made part of the answer to the economic mess. The portfolio of Peter Mandelson, First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council – who does he think he is, Thomas Strafford? – will include higher education. Teaching and research are to be considered 'economic sectors', and according to Gordon Brown this reorganisation will lead to a ‘single department committed to building Britain's future economic strengths'. Everything under New Labour, it seems, must have an economic function.
Maybe one should be tremendously worried about the electoral victories of the British National Party. Maybe not. 'Leading historians' say there's no reason to panic. Still, worry seems to characterise some of the reaction. Harriet Harman and Alistair Darling both say that their party is responsible because – oh no! – the Labour Party has let these voters down, though only Labour, they also insist, can now rescue them from the clutches of the wicked Nick Griffin.
Now it looks likely that a vote will take place next year which will decide whether the Labour Party has a future. But this is not the general election, which however bad for Labour is unlikely to kill it off altogether. The vote that has the potential to change the entire dynamics of British politics is the referendum on Scottish independence, promised for the second half of 2010. In all the torrents of speculation about Brown and his future, no one south of the border seems to be giving the possibility of the SNP actually winning this referendum a second thought. The Labour hierarchy, traumatised by their drubbing in England in the European and local elections and their embarrassing loss to the Tories in Wales, seem remarkably complacent about their equally catastrophic showing in Scotland, where the SNP beat them by 9 per cent and increased their share of the vote by 10 per cent. It has been widely noted that parties of government across Europe only escaped the wrath of the voters if they were on the centre-right (as in France, Germany, Italy); governing parties of the centre-left (Spain, England) got hammered. But there is one striking exception: Scotland, where a governing party of the centre-left (certainly to the left of Labour) won handsomely. The Labour government in Westminster should be terrified.
There has, I hear, been much whispering in dark corners at the Palace of Westminster in recent days. But if the papers are to be believed, the darkest of dark whisperings have been taking place on the internet, in the form of the super-secret 'Hotmail conspiracy' to oust Gordon Brown. To recap: on Wednesday night, a few hours before polling opened for the European and local elections, the Guardianexclusively revealed that a group of parliamentary plotters had set up an anonymous webmail address, email@example.com, in order to gather virtual signatories to a virtual letter calling for the PM to resign.
Short-term profiteering is one explanation for the banking crisis. Who was among those who warned of the dangers of short-term economic and financial thinking? Gordon Brown, who has begun to resemble Richard Nixon in the way he is clinging to power because that's all there is left to cling to. Twenty years ago, in two pieces he wrote for the LRB, Brown attacked Thatcher for promoting short-term gain at the expense of long-term investment and research. In fact, Brown equated the entire Thatcher project with short-term thinking, blind as he also believed it was to long-term growth.
The parliamentary crisis, the Guardiansaid two weeks ago, can be compared to the crisis that led to the reform of Parliament in 1832. Last week, the Guardiansaid: 'In the end, we need a new politics more than we need a new government.' What does this mean? That MPs, when they appear on TV or write editorials in newspapers, must radiate the right moral tone, just as their American counterparts do every Sunday on Meet the Press or in the pieces they write for the op-ed page of the New York Times? Making the UK more like the USA appears to be the assumption behind this clamour for change, as if the further Americanisation of institutions and practices were always for the good. If only Britain were more like the US – two wholly elected legislative chambers! two-year-long presidential election contests! the money! the expense! – the better off we would all be? And what is it with this fixation with dates?
Right from the start of the MPs' expenses – sorry, ‘allowances’ – scandal, I think we’ve all had personal favourites. The multiply-flipping Labour ministers may edge the contest in terms of the outrageousness of what they’ve done, but the Tories have had the upper hand in terms of vivid details. The wisteria was good, the manure was better, the moat-cleaning was better still, and then best of all was the £1645 floating island for Sir Peter Viggers’s duck pond. (Incidentally, it’s not clear whether Sir Peter got the money: according to the Torygraph, the claim had ‘not allowable’ scribbled beside it.
David Cameron and I visited the Open University the other day, he to give a speech to the world, me to learn something about day-old chicks and biochemistry. Neither of us knew the other was going to be there. I was told at the reception desk to wait on one of the seats behind me and handed a label, one of those clip things I can never work out how to fix to myself. As I turned to go to the chairs, preoccupied with my label dyspraxia, someone grabbed me by my elbow and pulled me to the left. I dislike being grabbed so I pulled away and carried on the way I was going. But I'd failed to notice that the world had changed while I had my back to the room, and a semicircle of large chests in suits were claiming all the space for the man at their centre.
The Orwell Prize committee this year introduced a new prize for political blogging. It has been won by an anonymous 'English detective' who calls himself 'NightJack'. His posts are a mixture of general comment and diary accounts of apparently typical days in the lives of English policemen. They are vigorously written and sometimes perfectly reasonable. NightJack regrets that the police today are kitted out as imperial stormtroopers, he has little nostalgia for the old canteen culture, he laments the mass of paperwork that has been foisted on the police (like everyone else in the public sector) and fairly argues that if plea-bargaining is to become entrenched it ought to be formalised. Thereafter, however, reasonableness ends.
It's like being a grown-up caught picking your nose and eating it. There you were all alone, absent-mindedly doing what you do – doesn't everyone? – when all of a sudden you realise that that door is open and someone's standing there watching you. Were they there when you . . . ? You drop your hand to your side and frown into your book, your keyboard, the clouds outside the window in the hope that either they weren't there, or that your new move obliterates, invisibilises, what you were doing. But for the rest of your life at any time, waking in the middle of the night, sitting on the loo, chairing a committee, that moment will come to you and you will seize up inside, curl, if it's at all possible, into a foetal hummock and moan gently. Can it be otherwise for the MPs who see their receipts in the Telegraph?
What’s the difference between Martha Stewart, ‘lifestyle guru’, ‘third most powerful woman in America’ etc, who was refused entry into the UK last year, and the 16 foreigners who have just been barred by the Home Office? Jacqui Smith’s initiative – name the naughties – was announced on Tuesday, with some fanfare and much triumphalism. It fingers people likely to stir up hatred or ‘glorify terrorist violence’, which obviously isn’t Stewart’s bag, and not all of them have criminal records, which obviously is, yet somewhere here there’s a bigger difference. It was about this time last year that Stewart was planning a visit to Britain but a few days before she was due to jet in, she was told she couldn't come. Her criminal past in the US was the problem. She wasn't convicted of insider trading, but she did fib to investigators during an inquiry into the sale of shares in the cancer-drug company ImClone hours before the public announcement that its wonder therapy, Erbitux, had failed to win FDA approval. That was in 2001; Stewart offloaded more than $200,000 worth of shares. In 2004 she was sentenced to five months in jail, which she served, coming out under supervised release in 2005. She famously told Barbara Walters that she wasn’t the only irreproachable human being in history to be sent down: ‘Look at Nelson Mandela.’
Outside the main gate of RAF Wittering, on the A1 in Cambridgeshire, just past the funny old sign that says 'Beware: Camp Entrances', is a shiny new sign saying: 'Now Recruiting'. It's there outside RAF Scampton, on the A15 in Lincolnshire, too. And then in a lay-by on the A165 in East Yorkshire there's a big camouflage-green truck with a sign suggesting that if you'd like to drive it, you should think about joining the army. Back in London, on every other phone box (which are surely just glorified advertising billboards these days) I see there's an army recruitment ad, reminding people that doctors and engineers are needed too; it's not all about killing and being killed.
On Good Friday, the Times reported, with much self-righteousness, the news that a sculpture by a convicted criminal has been removed from the Royal Festival Hall. Bringing Music to Life is a model of an orchestra made from folded sheet music. The Southbank Centre bought it for £600 after it was displayed in an exhibition of prisoners' art organised by the Koestler Trust. The artist was unnamed, but the Times took it upon itself to identify him, and couldn't have been more pleased to announce that Bringing Music to Life was the work of Colin Pitchfork, who was jailed for life in 1988 for raping and murdering two teenage girls.