Cornelia Parker @ Tate Britain

Cornelia Parker (CBE, RA) is a very well-known and successful figure in British art. Born in 1956, she’s become famous for her ‘immersive’ i.e. BIG works. Above all she is a conceptual artist. What is conceptual art? According to the Tate website:

Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object. It emerged as an art movement in the 1960s and the term usually refers to art made from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

In some exhibitions you react to the painting or sculpture immediately, as an object in space which fills your visual cortex with sensations and impressions. You don’t necessarily have to read the wall labels. With conceptual art it is almost always vital to read the wall label in order to understand what you’re looking at. Sure, you could still respond naively and sensuously to the work’s appearance but you would be missing out on 99% of its meaning and intention.

The wonderful wall labels

This major retrospective of Parker’s career brings together almost 100 works, spanning the last 35 years. So that’s quite a lot of reading you have to do in order to understand almost every one of these pieces.

But a major feature of the exhibition is that the wall labels are written by Parker herself. Most wall labels at exhibitions are written by curators who, in our day and age, are obsessed with the same handful of issues around gender and ethnicity and lose no opportunity to bash the visitor over the head with reminders of Britain’s shameful, imperial, racist, slave-trading past etc etc.

So it is a major appeal of this exhibition that, instead of every single piece explained solely in terms of race or gender – as it would be if Tate curators had written them – Parker’s own wall labels are fantastically interesting, insightful, thought-provoking insights into her way of thinking and seeing the world. Instead of the world of art being reduced to a handful of worn-out ideas, Parker’s wall labels are as entertainingly varied as her subject matter, full of stories, anecdotes, bright ideas, explanations of technique, aims, collaborations.

They give you a really privileged insight into her worldview and into her decades’-long ability to be interested, curious, take everyday objects and have funny and creative ideas about how to transform them. After spending an hour and a half working through her thought processes for the different pieces, some of her creative spirit begins to rub off on you, you begin to see the everyday world the way she does, full of opportunities for disruptive and fun interventions. In this respect, this exhibition is one of the most genuinely inspiring I’ve ever been to.

Types of work

The exhibition includes immersive installations, sculptures, photographs, embroidery and drawings, as well as four large-scale, room-sized installations, and two rooms showing her art films. At the simplest, physical level, the pieces can be divided into two categories: Small and Large. Examples of the small will serve as an introduction to the large.

Introductory

In the downstairs atrium of Tate Britain stands a single sculpture, preparing you for the exhibition ahead.

The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached) by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Tate Photography

It is, of course, a life-size cast of Rodin’s sculpture, The Kiss, wrapped up in a mile of string. A vague symbolic gesture towards ‘the ties that bind’ people in relationships, maybe. In the nearby wall label Parker describes this as a ‘punk gesture’, which I found very significant. It’s the only time she mentions punk but she was just 20 when it hit, maybe at art school by then, so its attitude of really offensive, in-your-face irreverence must have taken her art school by storm. The point is, various later wall labels repeatedly say that she is interested in destruction and violence – but not violence against persons, against things. Her art does violence to inanimate objects in all kinds of inventive, creative and often very funny ways.

But there is, as so often, a further twist to the tail. Wrapping The Kiss in string is a relatively tame thing to do compared with Dada, Surrealist, Duchamp provocations from 100 years ago. It becomes more interesting when you learn that some opponents of conceptual art within the art world, fellow young irreverent artists, vandalised the original version of The Distance by cutting up the string into short sections, thus ‘liberating’ the sculpture.

And best of all, that Parker was undaunted and promptly gathered up all the cut-up pieces of string and tied them back together around a mysterious object at the centre, ‘a secret weapon’, which is unnamed and unknown.

‘The Distance (with concealed weapon)’ by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Small

I’ll jump straight in and give examples.

‘The Negative of Words’ (1996)

Parker realised that when an engraver engraves words into silver, for example into a cup like the Wimbledon champion’s cups, tiny fragments or curls of silver are generated. This piece is a pile of the shavings thus created. Parker contacted a silversmith, who agreed to her proposal, and it took several months to accumulate enough shavings for her to create the little mound, with sprinkled outliers, which we see on display here. As she points out, each sliver represents a letter, is the trace of a letter, is the inverse of writing, of language. They are absences made solid. This idea really resonated with me as I admired this carefully created little mound and its sprinkled outliers.

‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker (1996) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

‘Luck Runs out’ (1995)

In the case next to it is an old dictionary. Under careful supervision, Parker arranged for a shotgun loaded with dice to be fired into the back of the book. The die penetrated to different depths into the text and jammed most of the pages together.  As it happens the post-shooting dictionary automatically fell open at a page about ‘luck’. Hence the title, The luck of the draw. The roll of the dice.

‘Luck Runs Out’ and ‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Apparently it’s part of a series titled ‘Avoided Objects’, so-called ‘object poems’ which ‘explore the fractured, unmade and unclassified’. The series explores ‘the denied and repressed’, which sounds a bit hackneyed and stale until she goes on to specify what that means in practice – the backs, underbellies or tarnished surfaces of things, which is much more interesting. Hence shooting this dictionary ‘in the back’.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995)

While in Hartford Connecticut, Parker asked to visit the factory where the famous Colt 45 handgun is made. She was surprised to discover the process began with blank featureless gun-shaped casts, before any working parts were added. She asked if she could have one and the Americans, obliging as ever, gave her two and gave them a nice smooth industrial polish. Adding the word ’embryo’ to firearm juxtaposes the birth of the gun with the general idea of the birth of a human being, alongside a tool which might potentially bring it to an end.

‘Embryo money’ (1996)

Fascinated by money, Parker asked permission to visit the Royal Mint in Pontyclun, Wales. She asked for some samples of coins before they were ‘struck’ i.e. had the monarch’s face, writing, value, corrugated edges and everything else added – just the blank dummy coins. Embryo money, before it has accrued any of the power which so dominates all our lives.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995) and ‘Embryo money’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

See what I mean by ‘conceptual’. You could relate to these just as intriguing objects, but the stories behind them – the anecdotes of Parker’s expeditions to interesting and unusual places to see industrial processes in action – add immeasurably to the enjoyment.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996)

Parker developed a relationship with His Majesty’s Customs and Excise. She visited and got to know them at their Cardiff headquarters over a period of several months. One of the many, many types of contraband objects they confiscate are drugs. Parker persuaded them to let her have a seizure of cocaine after it had been incinerated. A million pounds worth of cocaine turned to ash, which is on display here, as a sad little pile.

In her wall label, Parker adds the coda, which you’d never have got from a curator, that she really loves the way Customs and Exercise destroy things in such a theatrical way, steamrollering fake Rolex watches or alcohol. ‘Like me, they are often symbolically killing things off.’ This kind of casual, candid opinion is a lovely insight into her way of thinking.

Inhaled cliffs’ (1996)

A personal favourite was ‘Inhaled cliffs’. She asked Customs about methods people use to smuggle stuff into the country, especially drugs, and discovered that some drugs can be used to ‘starch’ sheets, so a set of innocuous looking sheets turn out to be drenched in heroin, cocaine or other illicit substances which can be extracted once they’re safely in the country. This notion inspired ‘Inhaled cliffs’ in which Parker starched sheets with chalk from the white cliffs of Dover, ‘smuggling’ those great symbols of England into bed with her. She is tickled by the notion of ‘sleeping between cliffs’.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996) and Inhaled cliffs’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

I’m focusing a bit much on these objects in cases. There were conventional things attached to the wall, prints, flat objects treated in various ways. Photographs, for example. On her way to her studio past Pentonville Prison she noticed workmen plastering cracks in the perimeter wall, creating vivid white abstract shapes. They then started to whitewash the wall as a whole so, before these irregular, crack-shaped gestures disappeared, she quickly took photos with her phone and developed a set of 12 prints which are hung here, titled ‘Prison Wall Abstract’.

Or the ‘Pornographic drawings’ (1996). As part of her ongoing conversations with HM Customs she asked for examples of contraband and they gave her (along with the bag of cocaine ashes) chopped up lengths of pornographic film. Parker dissolved the fragments in solvent to create her own ink. She used this ink to create Rorschach blots i.e. poured them on one side of a piece of folded paper, pressed the other side down on the inked side and reopened it to have a symmetrical image. For some reason, all the ones she made (or chose to display) came out ‘to be particularly explicit’.

It dawns on me that these works are beyond ‘conceptual’ in the sense that they might better be described as anecdotal. Often there isn’t a grand concept, project or goal behind them – there is happenstance and accident. Seeing an opportunity to do something interesting and seizing it.

The other obvious thing is that she’s about transforming objects from one state to another. She starts with ‘found objects’ – gun moulds, unstamped coins, porn movies, cocaine and so on – and, in the examples I’ve given, doesn’t even transform them herself, but recognises their artistic potential.

Medium

Using this technique of remodelling the existing and everyday, is a middle-sized work titled ‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ from 2013. Parker describes playing hopscotch on pavements with her daughter. This led her to pay attention to pavements and to notice the antiquity of the old stone paving in Bunhill Fields near Old Street. She got permission to pour liquid rubber into the cracks in a path through Bunhill Fields. When the rubber dried she used the mould to make a metal cast, memorialising the captured cracks in bronze. She then suspended the mould on pins so that the cracks in the pavement hover a few inches above the floor, making it seem more spectral and ghostly. (It’s an accidental quirk that my photo of it features so many people’s feet.)

‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ (2013) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Large

The interest in destruction I’ve mentioned earlier really comes to the fore in the three most famous room-sized installations in the exhibition. These are by way of being her greatest hits. They are:

  • Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988 to 89)
  • Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)
  • Perpetual canon (2004)

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)

I’ll quote her wall label in its entirety:

We watch explosions daily, in action films, documentaries and on the news in never-ending reports of conflict. I wanted to create a real explosion, not a representation. I chose the garden shed because it’s the place where you store things you can’t quite throw away. The shed was blown up at the Army School of Ammunition. We used Semtex, a plastic explosive popular with terrorists. I pressed the plunger that blew the shed skywards. The soldiers helped me comb the field afterwards, picking up the blackened, mangled objects. In the gallery, as I suspended the objects one by one, they began to lose their aura of death and appeared reanimated. The light inside created huge shadows on the wall. The shed looked as if it was re-exploding or perhaps coming back together again. The first part of the title is a scientific term for all the matter in the universe that can’t be seen or measured. The second part describes a diagram in which a machine’s parts are laid out and labelled to show how it works.

I’ve seen photos of this many times. Seeing it in the flesh I realised several things:

  1. it is a mobile – a very complex mobile, but in principle the same kind of thing my son makes to hang his origami figures from his ceiling
  2. it has a cubic, rectangular shape i.e. it is the opposite of chaotically exploding outwards; it is very contained
  3. this is achieved by hanging multiple objects from the same string, not just one
  4. as people walk slowly respectfully round it the eddies of air they stir
  5. and placing a single light bulb at the centre of it means not only that is casts shadows on the wall, but as the string move gently, so a) your perspective through the multiple layers of debris shifts and changes b) the shadows they cast on the wall subtly change

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Perpetual canon (2004)

Again, I’ll give Parker’s words verbatim:

I was invited to make a work for a circular space with a beautiful domed ceiling. I first thought of filling it with sound. This evolved into the idea of a mute marching band, frozen breathlessly in limbo. Perpetual Canon is a musical term that means repeating a phrase over and over again. The old instruments had experienced thousands of breaths circulating through them in their lifetime. They had their last breath squeezed out of them when they were squashed flat. Suspended pointing upwards around a central light bulb, their shadows march around the walls. This shadow performance replaces the cacophonous sound of their flattened hosts. Viewers and their shadows stand in for the absent players.

Perpetual canon (2004) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

The ghosts of music past. I was really taken by the idea that the shadows of us, the visitors, stand in for the long-dead players of these instruments.

Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89)

Tate own this piece. In Tate’s words:

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ comprises over a thousand flattened silver objects, including plates, spoons, candlesticks, trophies, cigarette cases, teapots and trombones. All the objects were ceremoniously crushed by a steamroller at Cornelia Parker’s request. She then arranged the transformed silver artefacts into thirty disc-shaped groups, which are suspended about a foot from the floor by hundreds of fine wires. Each ‘disc’ is approximately ninety centimetres in diameter and they are always hung in orderly rows, although their overall configuration is adapted each time to the space in which the work is displayed. The title refers to the biblical story of how the apostle Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus in return for thirty pieces of silver.

And in Parker’s own words:

Drawn to broken things, I decided it was time to give in to my destructive urges on an epic scale. I collected as much silver plate as I could from car-boot sales, markets and auctions. Friends even donated their wedding presents. All these objects, with their various histories, shared the same fate: they were all robbed of their third dimension on the same day, on the same dusty road, by a steamroller. I took the fragments and assembled them into thirty separate pools. Every piece was suspended to hover a few inches above the ground, resurrecting the objects and replacing their lost volume. Inspired by my childhood love of the cartoon ‘deaths’ of Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry, I thought I was abandoning the traditional seriousness of sculptural technique. But perhaps there was another unconscious reason for my need to squash things. My home in east London was due to be demolished to make way for the M11 link road. The sense of anxiety lingers even now.

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ by Cornelia Parker (1988-89) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Newer works

‘War Room’ (2015)

The biggest thing in the show is a big long room entirely lined with red paper with holes in, titled ‘War Room’, from 2015. As usual, you need to read the wall label to understand what this is about.

‘War Room’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

In Parker’s own words:

I was invited to make a piece of work about the First World War. I had always wanted to go to the poppy factory in Richmond, London. Artificial poppies have been made there since 1922. They are sold to raise for money for ex-military personnel and their families. When I visited the factory, I saw this machine that had rolls of red paper with perforations where the poppies had been punched out. The fact that the poppies are absent is poignant, because obviously a lot of people didn’t come back from the First World War, and other wars since. In this room there’s something like 300,000 holes, and there’s many more lives lost than that. I decided to make War Room like a tent, suspending the material like fabric. It’s based on the magnificent tent which Henry VIII had made for a peace summit with the French king in 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. About a year later they were at war again.

The story, the anecdote, is, as usual, interesting but the resulting work less so.. You walk in, you walk round, you walk out. Meh. A slightly shimmery effect is created by having two layers of hole-y red paper hanging everywhere but…this is a minimal effect.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ (2015)

One work dominates the penultimate room. It is an enormous, thirteen-metre long, hand-sewn embroidery of the Wikipedia page about Magna Carta.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

It is a collaborative work which involved over 200 volunteers including public figures, human rights lawyers, politicians and prisoners. On the wall is a list of the worthies who signed up to be involved, an entertaining list of the usual suspects: media-friendly left-of-centre politicians (Tom Watson, 55), actors, psychotherapists (Susie Orbach, 75), academics (Germaine Greer, 83), other high profile artists (Antony Gormley, 72), writers (Jeanette Winterson, 63, Philip Pullman, 75) and so on.

What struck me was how old all these people are. Our generation is declining, now, Cornelia. We’ve trashed the planet, wrecked the economy and degraded the political system for our children: best to withdraw tactfully and not keep on shouting and marching and trying to dominate everything. We’ve had our time. Over to a younger generation and hope they can do better.

The videos

There are two rooms featuring 7 or 8 art videos running consecutively. The best thing in the first room is a new six-minute video titled ‘FLAG 2022’ and made specially for this exhibition. Very entertainingly this shows the creation of a Union Jack by seamstresses in a factory only run backwards – so we see the British flag being systematically unsown and unstitched. It’s accompanied by a straight orchestral rendition of the hymn Jerusalem. Shame. It would have been funnier if Jerusalem had been played backwards, too – but maybe that would be a bit too 1960s, too much like the old avant-garde.

The second film room is about America. Oh dear. That far away country of which we hear so little, which is so rarely in the news, whose cultural products we so rarely get to see. This room contains:

  • One film which Parker shot at the annual Halloween Parade in New York, that city we so rarely hear about. Personally, I’d have though New York has enough artists of its own to do this kind of thing.
  • Another film showing supporters of Donald Trump milling about in New York outside Trump Tower sometime during his election campaign. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of Donald Trump? He was quite big in America, apparently.

Frankly, these films are a let-down. It’s disappointing to see Parker genuflecting to God’s Own Country – as if New York or America need the slightest bit more coverage or publicity than the saturation exposure they already enjoy in the British media, TV, radio, films, academia, all across the internet and the toxic marshes of social media. There are other countries in the world, you know.

I’d like to have shared FLAG or any of the others in t his review, but I can’t find any of them on the internet.

Politics

From here onwards – in the second half of the exhibition – politics emerges as an increasingly dominant theme.

As well as the flag movie, the British film room includes a film made in the empty chamber of the House of Commons in 2018 using a camera attached to a drone, titled ‘Left Right and Centre’. Not only did they make this film, but they made a film about the making of the film, in which I caught Parker telling us how damn difficult it was to make because of health and safety, fire risk assessment etc. When artists start to think they are heroes…

I thought the result was very underwhelming. The drone hovered over the table you see in front of the Speaker of the House’s chair, set between the two front benches, which usually has the Mace on it – except in this film it had been covered with copies of England’s daily papers, which fluttered in the downdraft of the drone’s little rotors.

As with Donald Trump, I am sick to death of Parliament, the succession of incompetent politicians we have had leading our nation for the past 12 years, and the corrupt newspapers which lie and distort in order to keep the ruling party in power. Watching a 10-minute film on the wretched subject of contemporary British politics went a long way to destroying the happy, creative, open impression inspired by the first half of the exhibition.

In 2017 Parker was the first woman to be appointed official artist for the General Election. In this role, she observed the election campaign leading up to the 8 June vote, meeting with politicians, campaigners and voters and producing artworks in response. She made several films during this period including the aforementioned drone movie, and one titled ‘Election Abstract 2018’, a documentation of Parker’s observations during the campaign, posted on her Instagram account.

None of this, to my mind, is as funny or inventive as flattening a load of silverware with a steamroller, or displaying a little pile of incinerated cocaine, or soaking sheets in white cliff chalk, or taking a mould of Bunhill pavement. It just looks and sounds like the news, with little or no inventiveness and no particular insight. British politicians are idiots. Our newspapers are studies in bias and lies. So what’s new?

My heart sank even further when I read that another of her films is titled ‘Chomskian Abstract 2007’ and is an interview with the American social critic and philosopher Noam Chomsky, apparently about ‘the entwined relationship between ecological disaster and capitalism’.

Oh dear God. It’s not that Chomsky’s wrong or that hyper-capitalism driven on by American corporations and banks is not destroying the planet; it’s just that he is such a bleeding obvious choice for Great Man of the Left to interview. And so very, very, very old (born in 1928, Noam Chomsky turns 93 this year).

Is this the best Parker can do in the field of ‘radical’ or oppositional politics – interview a 93-year-old? It’s like waking up one morning and deciding you need to make a film about the environment and, after careful consideration, deciding you’d like to interview David Attenborough (aged 96) on the subject. Topics, and interviewees, don’t come more crashingly obvious than this.

Each year thousands and thousands of students in Britain graduate from international studies, politics or environmental courses. It would have been so much more interesting to interview the young, the future generation, and get their point of view rather than the done-to-death, decrepit old.

And he’s another Yank for God’s sake. What is it with the British cultural establishment and their cringing obeisance to American culture, artists, film-makers, politicians and intellectuals. Of the 200 contributors to the Magna Carta embroidery, in their summary of the show the curators single out just two – Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (who stitched ‘user’s manual’ into the embroidery) and Edward Snowden (who stitched the word ‘Liberty’).

Notice anything about them? Yes, they’re both American. Americans just seem carry more weight with Britain’s art establishment. They have a little more human value than mere Brits like you and me. More pizzazz, more glamour.

Lastly, what has Chomsky actually changed in his 50-odd years of railing against the American government and global capitalism? Nothing. Come to that, what good does getting 200 media-friendly worthies to contribute bits to a 13-metre-long embroidery achieve? Nothing. It’s a feel-good exercise for everyone involved and maybe it makes some of the gallery visitors feel warm and fuzzy and virtuous, too. Which is nice, but…

But meanwhile, out in the real world, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are destroying the economy, ruining Britain’s standing in the financial world, and declaring war on the poor, the unwell, the vulnerable, even trashing support among their own middle-class, mortgage-paying supporters, in a zombie march of ideologues divorced from reality.

Flying a drone round the House of Commons or stitching a room-length embroidery are not only feeble responses to the world we live in but, worse, I found them imaginatively limiting and cramped. If you’re going to tackle the terrible world of contemporary politics, at least do it with some style and imagination. Old newspaper photos of Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn didn’t take me anywhere new – unlike the pile of silver shavings or a cast of Bunhill pavement or most of the pieces in the first half of the show, which opened magic doors in my mind.

Maybe Parker should stick to what she does best – blowing things up. Guy Fawkes Night is coming. Just a thought…


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: