Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1993) – 2

As I’ve discovered in Croatia and Serbia, the four-wheel drive is the vehicle of preference for the war zones of the post-Cold War world. It has become the chariot of choice for the warlords who rule the checkpoints and the command posts of the factions, gangs, guerrilla armies, tribes that are fighting over the bones of the nation in the 1990s. (p.139)

In 1993 Michael Ignatieff was commissioned by the BBC to make a TV series in which he investigated what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. With this aim he and his TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, to recently reunified Germany, to Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland. Each location produced an episode of the TV series and a chapter of this book.

Ignatieff introduces autobiographical elements into his text. We learn that he has personal links with Ukraine (where his Russian great-grandfather bought a farm), Quebec (his grandparents emigrated to Canada where he spent his boyhood), Yugoslavia (where his father was posted as a diplomat and Ignatieff appears to have spent 2 years as a teenager), Germany (where he has also lived) and Northern Ireland, because he had lived and worked in London through the later 1980s and 1990s, and Ulster was (and is) the UK’s biggest nationalist problem.

But the autobiographical elements are always dignified and restrained (for example, the moving and evocative descriptions of his great-grandfather’s long-ruined house in the Ukraine). More importantly, they always serve a purpose. They are chosen to bring out the broader political, sociological or historical points which he wants to make.

1. Croatia and Serbia

The key point about the wars in the former Yugoslavia is that, despite lingering memories of the brutal civil war between Croats and Serbs 1941 to 1945 within the larger Second World War, the wars which broke out across the former Yugoslavia were not inevitable. They were the result of the calculated efforts of communist leaders to cling onto power as the Soviet Union collapsed, especially Slobodan Milošević of Serbia; and of the over-hasty and thoughtless steps to independence of Croatia under its leader Franjo Tuđman which alienated the large (600,000) Serb minority within Croatia’s borders.

Another way of looking at it is that neither Serbia nor Croatia, nor Slovenia nor Bosnia, had time to develop anything like western levels of civic society before the slide to war began, at which point the crudest ethnic nationalism became the quickest way to maintain power, for someone like Milošević, and opened the way for opportunistic warlords such as Arkan (real name Željko Ražnatović, ‘the most powerful organized crime figure in the Balkans’ to take over entire regions).

Ignatieff reiterates the themes summarised in the introduction:

  • a slide towards anarchy inculcates fear; ethnic nationalism addresses that fear by providing safety and security among ‘your’ people
  • into the vacuum left by the collapse of civil society step warlords, whose rule revives the political arrangements of the late Middle Ages

He points out, in more than one chapter, the intense psychological and erotic pleasure of being a young men in a gang of young men wielding guns or machetes and lording it over everyone you meet, forcing everyone out of their houses, looting and raping at will, bullying people at checkpoints, making them lie on the ground while you swank around above them. Photos of Arkan and his tigers indicate what a band of brothers they were and how this kind of behaviour fulfils a deep male need. (Until you’re killed in a firefight or assassinated, that is; but who wants to live forever?)

Large parts of former Yugoslavia are now ruled by figures that have not been seen in Europe since late medieval times: the warlord. They appear wherever states disintegrate: in the Lebanon, Somalia, northern India, Armenia, Georgia, Ossetia, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia. With their carphones, faxes and exquisite personal weaponry, they look post-modern, but the reality is pure early-medieval. (p.28)

(Which is why Beowulf is, in many ways, a much more reliable guide to life in many parts of the contemporary world than any number of modern novels.)

The warlord is not only the figure who naturally emerges when civic society collapses; the ethnic cleansing which was given its name in Yugoslavia is his natural strategy.

The logic of ethnic cleansing is not just motivated by nationalist hatred. Cleansing is the warlord’s coldly rational solution to the war of all against all. Rid yourself of your neighbours, the warlord says, and you no longer have to fear them. Live among your own, and you can live in peace. With me and the boys to protect you. (p.30)

Ignatieff gives a great deal of historical background, especially the long shadow cast by the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945. In this context he explains Tito’s great failing. Tito went out of his way to defuse ethnic tension in the region by carefully redistributing power between the national groups and seeding Serb communities in Croatia and Croatian communities in Serbia and so on. But he made two signal mistakes:

  1. He tried to bury and suppress the genocidal past, as symbolised by the way he had the notorious concentration camp at Jasenovach (where as many as 250,000 people, mostly Serbs, were taken to be murdered in the most brutal ways imaginable) bulldozed to the ground instead of acknowledging the atrocity and undertaking a truth and reconciliation process.
  2. Although Tito’s Yugoslavia gained the reputation of being more independent from Soviet control and therefore more liberal, Tito completely failed to develop any form of civic democracy. When the collapse came none of the constituent nations had any track record of real democratic debate, of addressing disputes through discussion. Instead the respective leaders (in Serbia and Croatia in particular) seized power for themselves with arrogant indifference to the large minorities within their borders (most notably the 600,000 Serbs who lived inside Croatia) which triggered a wave of paranoia, and then it only took a few sparks to ignite localised fighting, and then the leaders declared ‘It’s war!’

To summarise the road to war:

  • until recently the difference between Serbs and Croats were glossed over or ignored by people who lived together, intermarried, worked and played football together
  • they made up a community of interest where people concern themselves with jobs and pay and housing and schools
  • the collapse of Yugoslavia into its constituent states was a long time coming (Tito, who held the place together, died in 1980);
  • in the decade after Tito’s death the peoples off Yugoslavia underwent a sustained period of austerity imposed on them by the IMF and Western bankers as the price of repaying the massive debts Tito had run up in the 1970s
  • at the same time it became evermore obvious that the communist rulers were corrupt and creamed foreign money off to live a luxurious life; the combination of poverty and corrupt leadership led to widespread resentment
  • the trigger was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the realisation by the communist rulers that their rule was destined to end soon
  • therefore they turned to ‘national identity’ to create a new ideology to underpin their rule
  • civic nationalism treats every citizen as equal, regardless of race, creed, colour, gender and so on, and citizens are united by a shared commitment to the rule of law and established institutions
  • however, the traditions and institutions of democracy and the civic virtues of tolerance and inclusivity take time to create and inculcate via education
  • for demagogues in a hurry it is much much easier to whip your population up using ethnic nationalism i.e. to tell people a) they are part of a distinct ethnic group b) that this group has historically been victimised and exploited but now c) it’s time to rise up, to stop being helpless victims, to stand up to the exploiter, to seize what is rightfully ours etc
  • ethnic nationalism provides all kinds of advantages to both the ruler and the ruled: for the ruler it is a quick way to whip up fervent support for a National Idea and cover up your own corruption; for the ruled the excitable fervour of nationalist belief makes you feel authentic, like you finally belong; it creates a community of equals, your tribe, gives opportunities to rise in the ranks and lord it over friends and neighbours who thought you were a loser: all the while this ideology explains that everything bad that’s ever happened in your life and to your country by blaming it on them, the others, the outsiders, who must be purged, expelled or plain liquidated from the territory you now consider your Holy Soil

Update

Ignatieff visited in 1993 and travelled through zones where different militias held neighbouring villages and had dynamited all the homes belonging to their ethnic adversaries. Reading his account you get the sense that some kind of uneasy peace had settled. But this was way wrong. The wars in Yugoslavia were to continue right up till 2001, centred on the cruelty and then Serb massacres of the Bosnian war, and then, when the Serbs refused to cease killing Kosovans, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Belgrade.

  1. The Ten-Day War (1991)
  2. Croatian War of Independence (1991 to 1995)
  3. Bosnian War (1992 to 1995)
  4. Kosovo War (1998 to 1999)
  5. Insurgency in the Preševo Valley (1999 to 2001)
  6. Insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia (2001)

2. Germany

Ignatieff’s prose is a little more purple and metaphorical in the chapter on Germany. This is because the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the epicentre of the crisis which swept the Soviet regime and its east European colonies. So he uses descriptive prose to try and capture what East Germany felt like during the long years of drab, repressed communist rule, and then what it felt like in the ecstatic months of protest leading up to the demolition of the wall.

Now, four years later, all the euphoria has gone. The East Germans he speaks to are a shabby, disillusioned bunch, very conscious of the way the West Germans quickly took to looking down on them, accusing them of being workshy malingerers.

What happened was a massive experiment in political theory. Divide a nation in half. Keep them utterly separate, physically and psychologically isolated, for 45 years. Then suddenly remove all barriers and let them reunite. Then ask: to what extent does the people (an unchanging social and cultural group) make the state? Or how much does the state shape and mould the people? I.e. in those 45 years, how much had the wildly divergent West and East German governments managed to mould their populations?

Short answer: states mould the people. During the Cold War West Germans were quietly proud that East Germany was the most economically successful of Russia’s colonies. But when the wall came down and Western industrialists visit the East’s fabled factories they discovered they were a shambles, incompetent managers overseeing workshy workers. They would have to start again from scratch, inculcating Germany virtues: timekeeping, conscientiousness, hard work.

In reality, it was less a reunification than the West colonising the East. Ignatieff meets Helmut Börner, the tired manager of a museum in Leipzig, so conceived and run to flatter the East German authorities and their Russian sponsors and they both reflect on how quickly the new Germany will erase memories of the shameful East. Ignatieff visits a sweaty underground club full of pounding music which has the exotic twist that it used to be the torture rooms of the East German security police. He looks around. It’s only a few years after reunification but the kids don’t care. They’re dancing and getting off with each other. Life is for living.

Ignatieff interviews a neo-Nazi called Leo who cheerfully denies the Holocaust and yearns to reconquer Silesia, now part of Poland, where his family came from. Ignatieff thinks the resurgence of neo-Nazism is dangerous but not really worrying, when it amounts to gangs of skinheads fighting immigrants.

More worrying is the growth of right-wing anti-immigrant parties, exemplified by the retired prison officer and local politician, Herr K, standing for election for the Republikaner Party. He wants rights for immigrants restricted more than they already were in 1990s Germany (where a Turk could be born, educated, work, pay taxes, and yet never achieve formal German citizenship).

Because there’s no actual war in reunified Germany, this long chapter is the most varied and subtle. It is a beautifully observed essay on the contradictions and quirks of the German nation and its ideas of itself, something we Brits rarely hear about.

Update

That was a long time ago. Inequality between East and West Germany has proved an intractable problem, admittedly partly because the East is more rural than the dynamic, industrialised West. And the refugee crisis he discusses turned out to be just the harbinger of a central issue of the 21st century, which is what to do about the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants wanting to escape Africa and the Middle East and start new lives in affluent Europe. Which came to a head in the refugee crisis of 2015.

And the right-wing Republikan Party candidate Ignatieff interviews has been superseded by the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, founded in 2013 and which now holds 83 seats in the Bundestag. Germany’s struggle with its past, with its national identity, and its multicultural present, is a microcosm of the problems which face all Western nations.

3. Ukraine

Ignatieff’s great-grandfather was Russian and bought an estate in the Ukraine in the 1860s when he was ambassador to Constantinople (over 1,000 miles away). Ignatieff flies in to Kiev and takes a bus then taxi out to the old estate, stays the night, interviews the priest in the village church and the manager of the collective farm.

What keeps coming over is his sense of the Soviet Empire, as he calls it, the largest empire of the twentieth century, as a magnificent and catastrophic failure. In the Ukraine Soviet failure and tyranny had disastrous effects.

Something like 3 million Ukrainians died of hunger between 1931 and 1932. A further million were killed during the collectivisation of agriculture and the purges of intellectuals and party officials later in the decade. An additional 2 to 3 million Ukrainians were deported to Siberia. The peasant culture of small farmers and labourers that my grandfather grew up among was exterminated. This was when the great fear came. And it never left… (p.91)

Like the communist officials in charge in Yugoslavia, the leaders of communist Ukraine realised they could transition to independence and still remain in power, so they deftly adopted nationalist clothes, language and slogans, despite the fact that only a few years previously they had been locking up nationalists as subversives. Ignatieff meets the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, a smooth operator

He speaks to a Ukrainian journalist working for the Financial Times and a former nationalist, locked up in prison. Their fear is what happened to Russia will happen to Ukraine i.e. a relentless slide into economic collapse and anarchy.

He attends a service of the Ukrainian Uniate Church in St George’s Cathedral, Lvov, and has an insight. The nationalists dream that their entire country will be like this congregation:

Standing among men and women who do not hide the intensity of their feelings, it becomes clear what nationalism really is: the dream that a whole nation could be like a congregation; singing the same hymns, listening to the same gospel, sharing the same emotions, linked not only to each other, but to the dead buried beneath their feet. (p.95)

In other words nationalism can be a beautiful dream, a vision of unity and belonging, typically, as here, through religion, language and song.

Also, this passage mentions the importance of the dead and where the dead are buried. The land where the dead are buried. For the first time Ignatieff feels a stirring of that feeling for the land where his great grandfather and mother are buried, which he is the first member of his family to revisit since the revolution of 1917.

When he meets the Tartars returning to Crimea from their long exile in central Asia, they are even more obsessed about the land, about the soil, about the sacred earth of their ancestors (pages 99 to 103). Ignatieff begins to understand how our individual lives are trite and superficial, but acquire depth and meaning in light of these ancestral attachments.

Land is sacred because it where your ancestors lie. Ancestors must be remembered because human life is a small and trivial thing without the anchoring of the past. Land is worth dying for, because strangers will profane the graves… (p.93)

Update

In 2013, when the government of President Viktor Yanukovych decided to suspend the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement and seek closer economic ties with Russia, it triggered several months of demonstrations and protests known as the Euromaidan.

The following year this escalated into the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych and the establishment of a new, more Europe-facing government. However, the overthrow of Russia-friendly Yanukovych led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 and the War in Donbas in April 2014.

4. Quebec

Ignatieff is Canadian, he grew up in Ottowa where his Russian grandparents had emigrated. As a boy he knew about the Frenchies up the road but he never actually met any. Now, as an adult, he realises he has never actually visited the French part of his own nation, Quebec. He thought he knew Canada, but realises now it was only a Canada of his imagining. Which leads him to realise that all nations are, in a sense, imaginary.

You can never know the strangers who make up a nation with you. So you imagine what it is that you have in common and in this shared imagining, strangers become citizens, that is, people who share both the same rights and the same image of the place they live in. A nation, therefore, is an imagined community.

But now he realises that during his young manhood he completely failed to imagine what it felt like for the other community in Canada. He recaps his definitions of nationalism, in order to go on and define federalism, for this chapter will turn out to be an investigation of the strengths and weaknesses of federalism. First nationalism:

Nationalism is a doctrine which hold (1) that the world’s people are divided into nations (2) that these nations should have the right to self-determination, and (3) that full self-determination requires statehood. (p.110)

Federalism is the antithesis of this idea of nationalism, for it holds that different peoples do not need a state to enjoy self-determination. Under federalism two different groups agree to share power while retaining self government over matters relating to their identity. Federalism:

seeks to reconcile two competing principles: the ethnic principle according to which people wish to be ruled by their own; with the civic principle, according to which strangers wish to come together to form a community of equals, based not on ethnicity but on citizenship. (p.110)

But federalism is not doing so well. He lists the world’s most notable federal states – Canada, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India, the former USSR – and then points out that all of them are in deep trouble. The Czechs and Slovaks couldn’t live together; Yugoslavia collapsed in a welter of wars; India struggles with regional separatism. The very concept of federalism is in trouble around the world and so his long chapter on Canada treats it as a kind of test bed or laboratory to assess federalism’s long-term prospects for survival.

He gives a lot of detail about Canadian history, and the dawn of modern Quebecois nationalism in 1960, none of which I knew about. But out of this arises yet another definition or aspect of nationalism:

Nationalism has often been a revolt against modernity, a defence of the backwardness of economically beleaguered regions and classes from the flames of individualism, capitalism, Judaism and so on. (p.116)

Yes, this makes sense of the aggressive over-compensation of so many nationalists, who all speak a variation on the comic stereotype of the English provincial: ‘You come down here with your fancy London ways, with your multicultural this and your cosmopolitan that. Well, people round these parts live a more simple life, see, a more honest and authentic life than you la-di-dah city types.’ They flaunt their backwardness.

But this leads Ignatieff into a paradoxical development which he spends some time analysing. In the Canada of his boyhood the Quebec French really were discriminated against, weren’t served in shops unless they spoke English, were perceived as small-town bumpkins with a lower standard of education, dominated by an authoritarian Catholicism and with extravagantly large families (ten children!).

So, Ignatieff says, surely as these very real obstacles have been overcome, as Quebecois have become more urban, progressive, women’s liberation has led to much smaller families, they’re all less in thrall to the church, surely they would abandon their nationalism and become modern urban cosmopolitans like him? But no. Contrary to everything Ignatieff would have expected, Quebec nationalism has grown. The paradox is exemplified by a French Canadian Ignatieff interviews who is president of a very successful bank.

I had assumed that global players cease to care about nationalism. I was wrong. (p.115)

Historical grievances are never forgotten. The British won the Battle of Quebec in 1759 and Quebec nationalists are still unhappy about it. He talks to modern journalists and a group of students. All of them are proudly nationalistic and want their own Quebec. There’s a division between those who want an actual independent state with its own flag and seat at the UN, and those who just want almost complete autonomy. But they all see Quebec as not a part of Canada or a province of Canada but a separate nation and a separate people.

But the problem with nationalism is it’s infectious. If Quebecuois want a state of their own so they can be a majority in their own state and not a despised minority in English-speaking Canada, what about two other constituencies?

1. Ignatieff goes to spend time with a native American, a Cree Indian. There are about 11,000 of them and they reject all the languages and traditions and legal concepts of the white people from down south, whatever language they speak. The Cree think of themselves as a people and they want their own protection.

2. Then Ignatieff goes to spend time with some of the English-speaking farmers who live in Quebec, have done for hundred and fifty years. No-one tells their story, the history books ignore them, Quebec nationalists have written them out of their narrative.

Nationalism spreads like the plague, making every group which can define itself in terms of language, tradition, religion and so on angry because it doesn’t have a nation of its own. You could call it the Yugoslav Logic. Smaller and smaller nations become shriller and shriller in their calls for ethnic purity.

And, of course, increasingly anxious about all the outsiders, non-members of the language group, or religion or whatever, who remain inside its borders. Read about the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian  and Ottoman empires to see what happens next. Insofar as the Sudeten Germans found themselves in the alien state of Czechoslovakia, the Second World War was caused by the collapse of the Austrian empire into impractical ethnic nation states.

Ignatieff doesn’t state this explicitly but I see this nationalism as a malevolent virus which, wherever it goes, creates antagonism at best, sporadic violence, if you’re not too unlucky or, given enough economic collapse or social stress, war.

Ignatieff visits Dennis Rousseau, a working class guy who works in a local paper mill and plays ice hockey in Trois Rivieres which is, apparently, the working class neighbourhood of Quebec. In a long conversation Rousseau won’t budge from his position that he wants Quebec to be independent because Ontario (capital of English-speaking Canada) isn’t doing enough for the struggling papermill industry, for his town and his peers. No amount of evidence to the contrary can shift his simple conviction and Ignatieff wonders whether nationalist sentiment like Rousseau’s is, among other things, a way of avoiding the truth about the changing economic situation.

All round the developed world businesses are being exported and once prosperous communities are getting poor. This is a function of the super-charged neo-liberal global capitalism which has triumphed since the collapse of communism, all those manufacturing jobs going to China and India.

Apart from all its other appeals (the very deep psychological appeal of belonging, of having a home, having people around you who understand your language, your religion, your music, your jokes) this kind of nationalism provides simple answers to intractably complicated economic realities. Twenty years after this book was published Donald Trump would reach out to the tens of millions who live in those kind of communities where life used to be great and now it isn’t with his brand of whooping Yankee nationalism.

Update

Kurdistan

There are perhaps 40 million Kurds. The territory Kurdish mostly inhabited by Kurds and which Kurdish nationalists would like to be an independent Kurdish state straddles four of the fiercest nations on earth: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Following the defeat of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, the Kurds in Iraq rose up against his rule in the Kurdish intifada of March 1991. Hussein unleashed the full might of his army against them, driving hundreds of thousands of men, women and children up into the northern mountains until the Western allies intervened and set up a no-fly zone, preventing Saddam massacring any more of them.

It is this enclave which Ignatieff visits in 1993. With his typically intellectual perspective, he points out that it is something new: the first ever attempt by the UN to protect a people from the genocidal attacks of their national ruler. The enclave was far from being a state, but the Kurds had done as much as they could to make it like one, raising their own flag, holding elections. As in Ukraine among the Crimean Tartars, he realises how much the land, the actual soil, means in the mythology of nationalism:

At its most elemental, nationalism is perhaps the desire to have political dominion over a piece of land that one loves. Before anything, there must be a fierce attachment to the land itself and a sense that there is nothing else like this, nothing so beautiful, anywhere else in the world. (p.149)

Ignatieff travels and meets: representatives of the democratic party, the KDP, which has been run by the Barzani family for generations; then up into the mountains to see the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, one of the last doctrinaire Marxist guerrilla groups in the world.

He is taken on a tour of Halabja, the town Saddam ordered his jets to fly over and bomb with a cocktail of chemical gasses, resulting in at least 5,000 dead. It is, of course, a horrific sight but, as always, with Ignatieff, he not only notes and records touching, moving, terrifying details: he also extracts interesting and useful points about nationalism and death. First is the way nationalist ideology gives a meaning to life and death, especially the latter:

Nationalism seeks to hallow death, to redeem individual loss and link it to destiny and fate. A lonely frightened boy with a gun who dies at a crossroads in a fire-fight ceases to be just a lonely frightened boy. In the redeeming language of nationalism, he joins the imagined community of all the martyrs. (p.148)

Thus the roads of Kurdistan are marked by portraits of killed peshmerga fighters staring down from the plinths which once carried portraits of Saddam. He goes on to make a point about genocide. He doesn’t phrase it like this, but you can think of genocide as the dark side of nationalism, the demonic brother. If a nation is defined entirely by ‘the people’, defined as one ethnic group, who occupy it, then anyone outside that ethnic group should not be there, has no right to the land, is a pollutant, a potential threat.

Before the experience of genocide, a people may not believe they belong to a nation. Before genocide, they may believe it is a matter of personal choice whether they belong or believe. After genocide it becomes their fate. Genocide and nationalism have an entwined history. It was genocide that convinced the Jews and even convinced the gentile world that they were a people who would never be safe until they had a nation state of their own. (p.151)

The Turks have been waging war against their Kurds since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923. Its leader Kemal Ataturk envisioned Turkey as a modern, secular nation with a civic nationalism. Logically, therefore, there was no room for tribes and ethnic nationalism which destabilised his vision of a secular state. Hence the aggressive attempts to ban the Kurdish language in schools, erase their traditions and songs, even the word Kurd is banned; officials refer to the ‘mountain Turks’. To quote Wikipedia:

Both the PKK and the Turkish state have been accused of engaging in terror tactics and targeting civilians. The PKK has historically bombed city centres, while Turkey has depopulated and burned down thousands of Kurdish villages and massacred Kurds in an attempt to root out PKK militants.

For the only place in the book Ignatieff loses his cool when he is assigned a 24-year-old Turkish special forces agent who carefully chaperones him around the ‘pacified’ region of south-east Turkey, where the local Kurds obviously go in fear of their lives, and the agent carefully monitors everyone Ignatieff speaks to, while another spook photographs them all. The agent’s name happens to be Feret and this leads Ignatieff into the borderline insulting use of the word ‘ferret’ to refer to all such spooks and spies and security force agents and repressers and torturers (pages 158 to 161).

You can’t compromise when the very unity of the state is at stake. There is no price that is not worth paying. Pull the balaclava over your face; put some bullets in the chamber; go out and break some Kurdish doors down in the night. Pull them out of bed. Put a bullet through their brains. Dirty wars are a paradise for ferrets. (p.161)

Update

A lot has happened to the Kurds in the 28 years since Ignatieff visited them. The primary fact was the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 which led to the break-up of Iraq during which Iraqi Kurds were able to cement control over the territory in the north of the country which they claim. A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, was even elected president of post-Saddam Iraq (2005 to 2014). Kurdish fighters were also involved in the Syrian civil war (2011 to the present) and involved in the complex fighting around the rise of Islamic State. And low-level conflict between the Turkish-facing PKK and Turkish security forces continues to this day.

Northern Ireland

Like most English people I couldn’t give a monkey’s about Northern Ireland. I was a boy when the Troubles kicked off around 1970 and Irish people shooting each other and blowing each other up was the wallpaper of my teenage years and young manhood, along with glam rock and the oil crisis.

Decades ago I was hit by flying glass from a car showroom when the IRA blew up an army barracks on the City Road in London. Like the Islamist terrorists who drove a van into tourists on London Bridge then went on the rampage through Borough Market ( 3 June 2017) it was just one of those mad features of modern life which you cross your fingers and hope to avoid.

For the first time I get a bit bored of Ignatieff when he says he went to Ulster to discover more about ‘Britishness’. I’ve read hundreds of commentators who’ve done the same thing over the last 50 years and their clever analyses are all as boring and irrelevant as each other. Most English people wish Northern Ireland would just join the Republic and be done with it. The situation in Ulster doesn’t tell you anything about ‘Britain’, it just tells you about the situation in Ulster.

Ignatieff still makes many good points, though. He adds yet another category of nationalist conflict to his list: which is one caused – as in Ukraine, as in Croatia (as in Rwanda) – where there is a history of oppression of one community by another. The proximate cause of the Rwandan genocide was the conscious, deliberate, well worked-out plan for extermination devised by the ideologues of Hutu Power. But the deeper cause was the long period of time when the majority Hutus had been treated like peasants by the aristocratic Tutsis. Visitors to the country couldn’t tell the two groups apart, they lived in the same communities, spoke the same language, used the same currency. But deep in many Hutu breasts burned anger at generations of injustice and oppression. Breeding ground for virulent vengeful ethnic nationalism.

Same in Ulster where Roman Catholics were treated as second class citizens since partition in 1922, and were actively barred from various civil positions and comparable to the WASP prejudice against the Catholic French in Quebec, or to the much more vicious colour bar in the Deep South of America.

It is the memory of domination in time past, or fear of domination in time future, not difference itself, which has turned conflict into an unbreakable downward spiral of political violence. (p.164)

But much of Ignatieff’s discussion deals in clichés and stereotypes about Britain and its imperial decline which have been discussed to death during the extended nightmare of the Brexit debates.

He spends most of the chapter in the company of working class youths in a Protestant slum street in the build-up to the big bonfire night which inaugurates the July marching season. He notes how fanatical they are about the symbols of Britishness, pictures of the Queen, the Union Jack plastered over everything.

Which is when he springs another of his Big Ideas: Ulster Protestantism is like the cargo cults anthropologists have identified in the South Seas. The great white god arrives by ship, fights a battle, saves the local tribe and their religion from neighbours and rivals, then departs never to return. But generations of tribespeople wear out their lives waiting, waiting for that return, and turning the bric-a-brac the white man left at random into relics and cult objects to be worshipped at home-made shrines on special holy days (pages 182 to 184).

Same, Ignatieff claims, with Ulster Protestantism. It has become a weirdly deformed caricature of the culture of the homeland. While mainland England has become evermore secularised and multicultural, Ulster Protestantism has become evermore obsessed and hag-ridden by its forbidding religion, evermore furiously insistent on its ethnic purity, evermore angry at what it perceives as its ‘betrayal’ by the great white god across the water.

Apart from the historical accident of a handful of symbols (Queen, flag, crucifix) it has grown utterly separate from English culture and is an almost unrecognisable caricature of it.

Loyalism is an ethnic nationalism which, paradoxically, uses the civic symbols of Britishness – Crown and Union Jack – to mark out an ethnic identity. In the process the civic content is emptied out: Loyalist Paramilitarism, for example, makes only too clear what a portion of the Loyalist community thinks of the rule of law, the very core of British civic identity. In the end, the Crown and the Union Jack are reduced to meaning what they signify when tattooed on the skin of poor, white teenagers. They are only badges of ethnic rage. (p.185)

Update

The situation Ignatieff was reporting on in 1993 was superseded by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 and the 23 years of peace which have followed. Nowadays, there is much feverish speculation that the peace may be jeopardised by the complicated economic and political fallout of Brexit. Maybe a new generation of men in balaclavas will return and think they can achieve something by blowing up cars and shooting farmers.

The bigger picture, though, is that Ulster is now part of a United Kingdom substantially changed since Ignatieff’s time, because of the devolution of Scotland and Wales. Somehow, Scotland and Wales are still part of something called the United Kingdom but articles every day in the press wonder how long this can last.

Personally, I feel like I’ve been hearing about Scottish nationalism and Plaid Cymru all my adult life. Although they now have their own expensive parliament buildings and control over their healthcare and education systems, the basic situation doesn’t seem to have changed much – both Scots and Welsh nationalists continue to make a good living criticising the English politicians who pay for their nations to remain solvent.

I have no skin in the game. If they want to be independent nations, let them. Fly free, my pretties. According to a 2020 YouGov poll, my indifference is fairly representative of my people, the fat lazy English:

Less than half of English people (46%) say they want Scotland to remain part of the UK. Few want to see the nation pull away, however, at just 13%. Most of the rest (34%) have no opinion, saying that they consider it a matter for the people of Scotland to decide.

It seems unlikely that Scotland or Wales will ever become independent nations or that Northern Ireland will join the Republic, and for the same simple reason. Money. All three receive substantial subsidies from London and would become poorer overnight if they left. Try and sell that to your electorate.

Brief summary

Reviewing the six nationalist issues reviewed in the book prompts a simple conclusion which is that: none of these conflicts have gone away. Nationalism is like a terrible disease: once it has gripped a people, a tribe, a region, and once it has been used to set populations at loggerheads with other neighbouring groups or with the very state they find themselves in, it is almost impossible to extirpate. Nationalism is a virus which has no cure. Like COVID-19 we just have to learn to live with it and try to mitigate its effects before they become too destructive, before there’s an outbreak of another, more virulent variety.

The Cold War as the last age of empire

The Cold War was a lot of things to a lot of people but I am still reeling from one of the biggest of Ignatieff’s Big Ideas, which is that the Cold War amounted to the last phase of imperialism.

There was the early phase of Portuguese and Spanish imperialism; there was the rivalry between the French and British around the world in the 18th century; the Europeans grabbed whatever bits of the world they could bite off during the 19th century; and then the French, British, Dutch, Belgians and a few others hung onto their colonies through the catastrophic twentieth century and into the 1960s.

Then they left in a great wind of change. But they did so at exactly the same time as the spreading Cold War meant that huge areas of the world came under the direct or indirect control of the Americans or the Soviets. Although it wasn’t their primary goal, the CIA supporting their authoritarian regimes and the Soviet advisers to countless communist groups, between them they sort of – up to a point – amounted to a kind of final reincarnation of imperial police. Up to a point, they policed and restrained their client states and their opponents around the world. They reined them in.

And then, in 1990, with little or no warning, the imperial police left. They walked away. And instead of blossoming into the wonderful, democratic, peaceful world which the naive and stupid expected – chaos broke out in a hundred places round the world. The gloves were off and ethnic nationalism and ethnic conflicts which had been bottled up for decades, exploded all over.

Because this ideology, this psychology of blood and belonging and ‘kill the outsider’ – it’s easier for hundreds of millions of people; it provides a psychological, cultural and linguistic home, a refuge in otherwise poverty-stricken, war-torn, economically doomed countries.

It offers reassurance and comfort to stricken populations, it flatters people that whatever is wrong with the country is not their fault – and it offers an easy route to power and strategies to stay in power for demagogic leaders, by whipping up ethnic or nationalist sentiment and justified violence against the Outsider. Demonising outsiders helps to explain away the injustices and economic failure which somehow, inexplicably, despite their heroic leadership, continues.

Blame it on the others, the outsiders, the neighbouring tribe, the people with funny shaped noses, different coloured skin, spooky religions, use any excuse. The poison of ethnic nationalism is always the easy option and even in the most advanced, Western, civic societies – it is always there, threatening to break out again.

Concluding thoughts on the obtuseness of liberalism

Ignatieff ends with a brief conclusion. It is that his liberal beliefs have profoundly misled him. Educated at a top private school, clever enough to hold positions at a series of the world’s best universities (Harvard, Cambridge) and to mingle with the most gifted of the cosmopolitan elite, he thought the whole world experienced life and thought like him. Idiotic. The journeys he made for this book have made him realise that the vast majority of the human population think nothing like him.

This was crystallised by one particular type of experience which kept cropping up wherever he went. On all his journeys he saw again and again that most of the warlords and fighters are young men aged 18 to 25 (p.187). Until he met them at roadblocks and checkpoints he had not understood what masculinity is. An etiolated, lily-pink liberal with the impeccable manners handed down by his family of Russian diplomats, Ignatieff had no idea what men, poor men, uneducated men, out there in the world, are really like.

Until I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone fears and hates violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns. (p.187)

Only someone so phenomenally clever and immaculately well educated could be so remote from the world as it actually is, from human nature in all its appalling greed and violence. Meeting gun-toting warlords made him realise more than ever that the aim of civic society is to quell, control and channel this kind of male aggression which he had never experienced before.

I began the journey as a liberal, and I end it as one, but I cannot help thinking that liberal civilisation – the rule of laws not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence – runs deeply against the human grain and is only achieved and sustained by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. (p.189)

And the best all-round way to prevent the outburst of ethnic nationalism and the almost inevitable violence which accompanies it, is the creation and maintenance of a strong stable state with institutions which distribute and diversify power, which act as checks and balances on themselves, which are permanently capable of correction and reform, including the most important kind of reform which is the ability to get rid of your political leaders on a regular basis.

The only reliable antidote to ethnic nationalism turns out to be civic nationalism, because the only guarantee that ethnic groups will live side by side in peace is shared loyalty to a state, strong enough, fair enough, equitable enough, to command their obedience. (p.185)

The fundamental responsibility of a government is not to promote ‘equality’ and the raft of other fine, liberal values. They’re nice-to-haves. It is more profound than that. First and foremost it is the eternal struggle to build and maintain civic nationalism – because the alternative is horror.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


New world disorder reviews

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon (1974)

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 was written to be the eighth in the ‘Paladin History of England’ series. I read it at university back in the 1980s as background to the literature of the period.

A month ago I took it off my shelf to remind myself about the run-up to the Edwardian period (1901 to 1914) and insofar as it sheds light on the worldview of the noted Edwardian satirist, Saki, who I’ve been reading and whose stories often refer to social and political events of the 1900s.

This is a slightly odd, rather idiosyncratic book which I found strange but beguiling.

Shannon’s view of history – desperate men grappling with blind forces

Most histories describe the major events which took place during the period they cover, explain their origin and build-up, with pen portraits of the key figures involved in each issue, explaining in more or less detail who did what, what happened, what its after-effects were and why it matters. That’s the approach taken in, say, Crossroads of Freedom by James M. McPherson.

Shannon’s approach is strikingly different. If you know the board game Risk you’ll know it consists of a board representing the entire world, divided up into 40 or so territories. The aim of the game is for the 2, 3 or 4 players to seize all the territories and push the other player(s) off the board. Winner takes all.

Shannon applies a Risk approach to history. Key incidents from this crucial half century (for example, the rise of trade unions at home, the annexation of Egypt abroad, Britain’s response to Bismarck’s wars, the issue of educating the poor which became more pressing everywhere in the second half of the century) are mentioned only fleetingly, often only in passing, often barely explained, because they are not at all where Shannon’s interest lies. Shannon’s interest lies overwhelmingly in the Great Game played by the most senior political leaders throughout the period of winning power and staying in power.

Disraeli’s calculations logically centred on…immediate parliamentary advantage. (p.66)

Shannon doesn’t see politics as a set of logical and understandable events which can be clearly explained, which were clearly understood at the time, and to which rational solutions were offered. Instead he sees human history as the product of blind, inchoate forces – economic, industrial, financial, cultural and demographic – which propel societies forward, willy-nilly, whether planned or understood or not.

The aim of politics, in Shannon’s view, is to harness chaotic human events in order to stay in power.

From time to time Shannon does sound for a few pages like a ‘traditional’ historian. He gives a brisk summary of some of these social changes, with an appropriate blizzard of statistics, particularly in the short opening introduction which is a handy anthology of stats about population increase, migration abroad or into British cities, the rise in agricultural wages and productivity, the doubling of GNP per capita and much more, during his chosen period. It is, for example, striking to learn that during the 1860s, in the UK, agricultural workers and the labouring poor ceased to make up the majority of the population for the first time in any country, ever; for the first time in human history (p.30). All very interesting, but then he gets back to his real, underlying worldview:

These were the blind forces at work, unconscious and undirected. Conscious or directed aspects of the social system – broadly, ‘politics’ – did not relate to these blind forces in a neat one-to-one ratio. Very often indeed the relationship was at best tangential…

And:

The picture as a whole is not that of a society moving surely and confidently in self-possession of its destiny. Rather, it is the story of a society at odds with itself, the blind forces working very often at cross-purposes with the conscious wishes and efforts of those who felt it their task to define the ends, the purposes, to which the ‘movement’ would best be directed…

And:

During the fifty years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the forces of conscious purpose and design in Britain struggled to avert the threats of the blind, largely uncontrollable internal forces and of the dangerously uncontrolled external forces. (Pages 15 to 16)

And:

Domestic debate ceased comparatively to be free as the blind forces moving society imposed irresistible pressures. (p.36)

Why I mention Risk is because, for any one of the five decades his book covers, Shannon’s focus is almost entirely on the highest of high politics and on the handful of men who clawed their way to the top of the main political parties (being the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Liberal Party) only to find themselves caught up in the melée, in the maelstrom of these ‘blind’ forces and thrown into the high stakes game of risk management, opportunity and gamble, which is how Shannon conceptualises all high politics. He sees all of political history as a very complicated game of Risk. All tactics are permitted. Winner takes all.

Shannon’s fundamental idea is that people like Gladstone and Disraeli (the famous antagonists from the early part of his period) came to power with little or no idea what to do with it. They came to power by exploiting the forces at large:

  1. internationally
  2. within British society with its changing and emerging economic and political forces
  3. within British political society i.e. within the complex and often contradictory traditions and ideologies of the nation’s two ruling parties
  4. within the intensely power-hungry, jostling Machiavellian milieu of Parliament itself (made up of the very different institutions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords)

Gladstone, Disraeli and their successors were caught up in a game much more complicated than Risk, more byzantine than three-dimensional chess, a terrifyingly complex game in which the rules are continually changing and all the goalposts move overnight. Shannon makes a number of references to chess, talking about the pieces ‘on the political board’ and how those who had scrabbled into positions of power sought to move them to their best advantage.

For example, the book opens with the death of Lord Palmerston in 1865. Palmerston’s death ‘opened up the board’ after 10 years of his political dominance.

Palmerston acted as checkmate. His position on the political board was such that so long as he remained a force no other forces were either strong enough or sufficiently motivated to free the board for manoeuvres. (p.20)

And:

This situation on the political board is the key to all the complicated manoeuvrings of 1866 and 1867. (p.22)

So what makes this book unusual, distinctive and even a little odd are two things: one, Shannon’s casual disinterest in what actually happened (i.e. the events of the period) in preference for extended descriptions of the Great Game of Westminster politics.

And the second thing is Shannon’s extreme scepticism about the effectiveness of these Westminster politics, his belief that society is moved by blind, inchoate social forces which no-one understands, least of all the men who manipulate their way to the top of the greasy pole.

Shannon goes to great lengths to show that even when they get there, Britain’s politicians often had no idea what is really going on, generally act according to old fashioned ideas, out of date notions, either their own or their party’s, in the search for a correct alignment or balance of social forces which repeatedly turns out to be a chimera, a delusion.

Disraeli imagined that there was a ‘normal’ posture of things which could be got back to without too much trouble. The story of Disraeli’s great ministry is how both kinds of normality evaded him… (p.102)

Lowe’s misguided fears of 1866 were the consequences of applying middle-class intellectual calculations to working-class situations. (p.104)

They certainly take advantage of political opportunities to create new coalitions and alliances, to co-opt elements of broader society or of the seething Westminster cauldron to secure power and then try to pass laws or formulate foreign policy. Shannon describes at length the continual manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces, of conjunctions and alignments of different interest groups, he even talks at one point about ‘the Gladstonian matrix’ (p.53).

And then he tries to assess whether their ‘solutions’ are adequate to the challenges and problems thrown up by a society undergoing continual massive social and economic change. And concludes, on the whole, that no, the politicians were heirs to complex political traditions and alliances, moved in a world of sophisticated political theorists and commentators (John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot) and yet routinely failed to understand what was really going on or to solve the problems they faced. It is a chronicle of bungling and muddling through.

Like dinosaurs at the onset of a new and uncongenial epoch, the generation at its prime in the 1860s, still at the head of affairs in the 1870s and 1880s, groped about in the wreckage of their familiar landscape, already being transformed and imposing new conditions of adaptation and survival. (p.199)

Domestic versus foreign affairs

At several points Shannon distinguishes between the relative limitedness of the chaos in the domestic as opposed to the international sphere. Put simply, there was less scope for choice or disagreement about domestic policy: by 1870 something quite obviously needed to be done about educating the general population, extending the vote, regulating the power of trade unions, about providing sewerage and clean water to the unhygienic cities and so on. In the big picture, the squabbles between parties about these were often trivial.

It was in foreign affairs that there was real scope for differing opinions. As Shannon puts it, Britain was not ‘free’ to begin to lay the foundations of what later became known as the welfare state (all European nations were doing something similar; something similar obviously had to be done here) in the same way that it was ‘free’ to choose whether to go to war in  South Africa in 1899 or with Germany in 1914, in both of which we had the ability to say No right up till the last minute (p.36).

This greater scope in foreign affairs for a variety of choices and actions is one reason why the period from the 1880s to 1914 saw foreign affairs acquire a greater and greater importance and intrude its issues and decisions more and more into domestic political considerations.

A token of this was the rise of the word ‘imperialism’, which only took on its modern meaning during this period, specifically in the 1890s, and whose claims became a major dividing line between the parties, and between different factions within each of the parties (p.77).

Above all, Shannon presents the high politics of the period not as something carried out by powerful men in full command of the facts who had a well-worked-out series of policies to enact; but as the shambling attempts of men under tremendous pressure to keep their parties and supporters onside while responding to events whose significance they often didn’t understand at all.

They were almost always motivated by the quixotic attempt to restore some kind of equilibrium or political stability which they remembered from their youths, but in most instances were laughably out of date and irrelevant. Thus:

An analysis of British foreign policy between 1865 and 1885 reveals essentially the persistence of received traditions and attitudes, attempts to reassert policies based on assumptions inherited from the past… [There was] an inability to understand why policies which had hitherto appeared to answer requirements with complete satisfaction had suddenly ceased to carry conviction and credibility. (p.41)

Documenting the search by politicians of this period for this illusory balance or equilibrium is the key theme of Shannon’s account.

Avoiding teleology

The 1860s, 70s and 80s were not straining to become the 1890s and 1900s. They had no idea what the future held in store. With hindsight many things are obvious to us, now. Nobody knew them, then. Shannon’s attempt is to recreate the mindset of each decade, each year, in order to make clear the context in which the politicians fought for power.

One must above all be careful to avoid teleological assumptions about the nineteenth century… It is obvious, looking back from the twentieth century, that the blind forces at work in the nineteenth century inevitably caused profound changes in political behaviour… But this was not at all the context of consciousness in which the debate of 1866-7 took place… 1867 was not a promise to the future that happened; it was an attempt to settle questions left over from the past, and a promise in another sense to a future that aborted, that never happened. (p.59)

Their concerns are not our concerns. In fact we struggle to make sense of their concerns. The debates around the extension of the franchise in 1867 didn’t see it (as almost all of us today do) as a stepping stone to the nirvana of universal suffrage, but instead were around finding a new equilibrium which would generate the best outcomes for the ‘national interest’ and avoid pandering to narrow class interests. One recurring argument put by people on all sides was that the 1832 settlement had produced a nice balance between the interests of the landed aristocracy, the new business-based bourgeoisie, and the skilled working class. It wasn’t extending the franchise to the lower middle classes and rest of the working class they objected to, it was upsetting this delicate balance by giving too much prominence to one particular part of the population.

Shannon sheds a brilliant bolt of light on our present situation by saying that almost all mid-19th century thinkers would have been appalled at the late 20th and 21st century assumption that democratic politics is about governments bribing particular sections of the electorate with promises of tax cuts or benefit increases and so on. That would have been seen as the ultimate in political immorality.

Their debates were about how best to arrive at the best expression of the ‘national interest’, debates which, of course, clashed over the notion of what the national interest was and who was best qualified to identify it and to implement it. Disraeli knew what it was: the landed aristocracy who he had glamorised in his novels of the 1830s:

Like Palmerson, Disraeli wanted to be able to call on the support of many interests as a means of preserving the one great interest, ‘the national interest’, which he identified centrally with land. (p.68)

I was very interested to learn that the famous social philosopher John Stuart Mill (who himself became an MP) did not want universal suffrage; he wanted a limited suffrage arranged in such a way that the balance of power would shift from (what he regarded as) a limited, unintelligent and reactionary landed aristocracy to a well-educated, modern, business-minded intelligentsia.

Shannon’s warning not to think teleologically makes explicit the notion that we live amongst the countless ruins of the plans and ideas and schemes and manifestos to build a better country and a better political system which have been worked out and proposed with such passion and sincerity by so many of our ancestors, and which came to nothing. So many futures, which never took place.

Disraeli

We can illustrate Shannon’s approach in his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881; leader of the Conservative Party from 1868 till his death in 1881). Shannon paints Disraeli as a man who started his political career facing one central political challenge which was how to repair the catastrophic fragmentation of the Conservative Party caused by the highly divisive campaign to repeal the Corn Laws which reached its climax in 1846 (p.48).

Conditions…since 1847 had made a Conservative majority virtually impossible. (p.73)

The Corn Law campaign had split the Conservative Party down the middle and the chaotic political scene which ensued was exploited by Lord Palmerston who rose to become Prime Minster for the next 9 or so years. Palmerston had combined elements of different political traditions in order to create a very distinctive power base held together by the force of his personality. When he died this particular matrix of forces collapsed leaving a vacuum which presented a complex opportunity for his successors (most notably the two ‘coming men’ of the younger generation, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli) to reorganise and redefine the various political strands and traditions into new combinations.

Disraeli wanted to be a politician, he wanted to be a success, he wanted to be prime Minister, but following Palmerston’s death, he faced the huge challenge of trying to give the Conservative Party a new identity or direction whereby it could once again represent the entire ‘nation’ and represent what Shannon calls the ‘national’ policy.

Disraeli’s task was to manoeuvre the Conservative Party into the posture of natural and legitimate exponent of the ‘national’ policy. (p.52)

In the coming years, Disraeli would scavenge solutions to this challenge from anywhere; he would use any opportunity to try and repair the breaches among the ruling class opened the Corn Law debacle and create a workable majority in the House of Commons and consolidate the in-built Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

For Disraeli, and therefore for Shannon, it doesn’t matter what these issues are, whether it be the administration of India after the great rebellion of 1857, the correct line to take towards the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) or to Bismarck’s series of wars starting with Prussia’s war with Denmark in 1864.

Disraeli’s approach wasn’t about taking a consistent or principled line. It was about analysing each event or crisis and assessing what was the best outcome for the Conservative Party and for himself. What would play best among the (still very limited) electorate? How would a given policy play to the landed aristocrats in the House of Lords? Could it be reconciled with the need to win over support among the factory owners in the House of Commons?

The governing Liberals were traditionally the party of small government and non-intervention abroad. Classical Liberalism, as defined by the Manchester school of Richard Cobden and John Bright, thought that left to itself, universal free trade would connect all nations in fair and equal economic arrangements and thus war would not be required. That is why they had founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, in order to abolish the restrictive tariffs which kept the price of corn artificially high (in order to benefit the landed aristocracy) thus making the price of food substantially cheaper in order to feed the populations of the new industrial cities.

By contrast with the Liberals’ boring ideas of universal free trade, as the 1860s turned into the 1870s Disraeli realised there was a big opportunity here to position the Conservatives as the party of imperial adventure and derring-do. Thus Disraeli is most remembered for two flashy, publicity-seeking gestures, buying up shares in the Suez Canal when the owner, the Khedive of Egypt went bankrupt in 1875, and awarding Queen Victoria the title Empress of India, much to her satisfaction, in 1876. Both hugely popular, both the swift seizure of opportunities.

But none of this implies that Disraeli had a fully-worked out foreign policy. Far from it. These were mere chance opportunities which he grabbed with the instinct of a true opportunist. Only later would succeeding leaders and theorists of the Conservative Party (Disraeli died in 1881) concoct the convenient idea that Disraeli had formulated some Grand Theory of Imperialism. Disraeli had no such thing. And his heirs only did this because this fiction helped them in their times (the 1880s through the 1900s) try to make sense of the ‘blind forces’ at work in the domestic and international spheres of their era. They were looking backwards for clues and ideas, just as Disraeli had been, in his day.

Similarly, when the Liberals brought forward plans to extend the franchise (the vote) from about 1.4 million men to 2.4 million men in 1866, Disraeli again spotted an opportunity, first of all to defeat the Liberals by assembling coalitions of reactionary forces against them. And then, quite hilariously, once the Liberal government resigned after losing a vote on the  reform bill, and the Queen was forced to appoint Disraeli her Prime Minister, he brought forward more or less the same bill, this time persuading reactionaries in the Commons and Lords that a carefully defined and carefully managed extension of the vote wouldn’t hand it to the illiterate mob but would do the opposite; would win over for the Conservatives the grateful lower-middle-class and skilled working class who would benefit from it. And that is, in fact what happened, once the new Reform Act was passed in 1867.

So Victorian politics wasn’t about ‘principle’, having grand theories and manifestos. It was all about shrewdness and adaptability, and adeptness at climbing to the top of what Disraeli very aptly described as ‘the greasy pole’ – and then using any event, and harnessing whatever social forces, and rethinking whatever traditions and schools of thought necessary, to stay in power.

A propos the 1867 Reform Act I was a little staggered to learn that in the election which followed, in 1868, only about half the seats were contested by both parties. We are talking about in which the interest of the Conservatives in country constituencies and of the Liberals in urban constituencies, was so definitive, that it wasn’t even worth contesting half the seats (p.73). Although it later came to be seen as highly symbolic that the high-minded, if eccentric, Liberal John Stuart Mill, lost his Westminster seat to W.H. Smith, the news agent, a harbinger of the rise of the new suburban middle and lower middle class vote which was to become a mainstay of Conservative elections and flavour much of national culture going into the 1880s and 1890s (p.73).

Power politics

Hopefully this example gives you a flavour of the way Shannon’s book takes you right into the heart of power, assessing how leaders like Gladstone and Disraeli (and later on, Lord Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman and the rest) struggled to:

  1. understand what was going on
  2. fit events into the framework of their own personal ‘beliefs’
  3. fit events into the framework of the ideologies and traditions of the parties they purported to lead (often at odds with their own personal beliefs)
  4. and then try to manage coalitions and constituencies of voters out there in the country, and their representatives in Parliament, in such a way as to a) take meaningful action b) all the time ensuring they remained in power – in a process of endless risk and gamble

That is what this book is about; it is less about the actual events of the period than how the successive leaders used these events to claw their way to power and then how they manipulated the traditions and ideologies, assembled and broke coalitions, recruited this or that member of the party into their cabinet, kept important players onside by offering them this or that reward, and so on.

Gladstone himself, in a note written at the end of his life, in 1896, tried to analyse what it was that distinguished him from the other politicians of his time. He wrote that what it boiled down to was the way Providence had endowed him with a special gift of being able to see, to analyse, right into the heart of situations.

It is an insight into the facts of particular eras, and their relations to one another, which generates in the mind a conviction that the materials exist for forming a public opinion, and for directing it to a particular end. (Quoted p.71)

This book focuses exclusively on the highest of high politics, which explains why there’s little or no social history, very little about people’s lived experiences, little or no gossip about kings and courtiers, very little about new technologies or food or sport or fashion, very little about the regions, or even Scotland or Wales (although Ireland bulks large for obvious reasons).

Instead, the focus is very narrowly on Westminster and the power politics played out between a tiny handful of men at the top, detailing their schemes and strategies to gain and hold on to power. So if you’re looking for any kind of social history or lots of colourful anecdotes this is emphatically not the book for you. To give a fashionable example, in the Edwardian section of the book, there is almost no mention of the suffragettes or any kind of portraits of their leaders or their cause; the emphasis is entirely on the how they were just one of 3 or 4 social and political issues which Edwardian leaders were trying to assess and juggle in order to pursue the endless quest to stay in power.

Preserving the balance

So little or no social or economic history, then. What the book is good on is political theory. At what you might call the academic end of the spectrum, Shannon gives accounts of the political thought of Liberal ideologues such as John Bright and John Stuart Mill, showing how the latter in particular derived from his Utilitarian mentors and then evolved to reflect the times (not least in Mills’s powerful defences of women’s rights).

Shannon refers to the at-the-time well-known collection Essays on Reform, published in 1867 as ‘part of the propaganda of the “advanced party” for a “more national Parliament”‘. In the Essays leading political commentators made suggestions about how to improve the franchise and the voting system. Shannon dwells on the contribution of John Morley (1838 to 1923), nowadays a forgotten figure, but who was not only an influential journalist and editor but went on to be a reforming politician in his own right from the 1890s through to the 1920s, and who in the 1880s consciously positioned himself as the heir to Mill (who had died in 1873) as chief ideologue of classical Liberalism (p.98).

Some of the writings in Essays on Reform turn out to be disconcertingly relevant today, 150 years later. Shannon quotes Lesley Stephen, in his essay on reform, proposing that England is an essentially conservative country with an instinctive liking for the established order of things which led all the upper classes, a lot of the middle classes and a surprising number of the working classes instinctively deferential and reluctant to change. This leapt right off the page and spoke to me now, in 2021 as I read endless articles about why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly and why so many people continue to support the Conservative Party despite it so obviously being led by corrupt fools and incompetents. Reading Stephen’s words suggest the short answer is because it’s always been like that; because that’s what England is like.

But theorising and essay writing wasn’t only done by intellectuals and the higher journalists. Politicians also made speeches or wrote articles, and thus Shannon liberally quotes from speeches or articles by the likes of Disraeli, Gladstone and their heirs, to indicate what they said they believed and what they thought they were trying to do.

The thing is, though, that Shannon rarely takes them at face value. In line with his basic credo about the ‘blind forces’ driving society, Shannon is not shy of pointing out when these figures got it completely wrong.

In practically every respect Gladstone’s assumptions about the shape of the future were belied by events, just as were Disraeli’s assumptions about the possibilities of perpetuating a traditional Palmerstonian past. (p.70)

It would take nearly twenty years for Gladstone to reconcile himself to the inadequacy of his assumptions of 1868. (p.79)

The politicians of the period were engaged in what Shannon calls:

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

Or, more likely, were writing articles and making speeches not to convey eternal political truths, but to play the game and position issues or ideas in such a way as to maximise the author’s appeal, not necessarily to the bulk of the population (who couldn’t vote), but to key stakeholders or constituencies or even to specific individuals whose support they need.

As well as 1. intellectual ideas and 2. the strategic ideas promoted by politicians for political gain, there is a third category, 3. underlying commonplaces and beliefs.

These are the ideas which aren’t necessarily articulated in their own day and yet exist as widely accepted commonplaces and traditional values in all political parties (or social organisations such as the Anglican Church). Shannon is very good at  bringing these underlying Victorian beliefs out into the open and so helping you understand not just what the Liberal and Conservative leaders said they stood for, but what the crusty old supporters of both parties actually believed they stood for, which was often very something completely different.

Put more simply, Shannon is a really interesting guide to the ideologies and values which underpinned not only high politics but also the political culture of the times, and which was often not very well expressed at the time.

For example, I found his summary of Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, very useful. Arnold, Shannon explains, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t want to leap forward into a radical future, he wanted to preserve the best elements of the past in troublesome times.

Arnold’s fear was that Britain was moving away from reliance on the disinterested morality of the landowning aristocracy and at the same time losing its religious faith, and that this collapse risked the triumph of the Philistines, the name he gave to the rising middle classes, the factory owners and entrepreneurs who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Arnold’s solution was that literature, art and culture should be promoted as the way to defeat the tide of philistinism and preserve the ‘sweetness and light’ of traditional culture, which he defined as ‘the best that has been thought and known’. In effect, ‘culture’ was to replace religion as the great binding glue and underpinning ideology of society (p.33).

This notion was to have a phenomenal impact and arguably to hold sway across the arts until well into the 1960s. I think it affected the way I was taught my literature degree in the 1980s. But reading it in the context of Shannon’s hard-headed exposition of power politics gives it a whole new meaning.

Arnold is just one of many Victorians who were looking backwards, who were trying to preserve what they idealised as a kind of balance or equilibrium between forces in society, which they hoped would solve all social issues and return life to the idyllic days of their youths.

Shannon shows in detail that Gladstone and Disraeli were, in this way, just the same, both men trying to return Britain to an imagined land of peace and plenty of their youths. Both men only promoted supposedly ‘radical’ policies (such as extending the franchise or extending state support for education in the 1870 Education Act) because they thought it would shut down dissent, end the debate, and restore this mythical equilibrium.

The essence of the question of reform [in 1867]…was a problem of striking a settlement that would satisfy the country and provide the point of rest and stability for a reconstituted Victorian equilibrium. (p.62)

The second stage of the Liberal effort to create a new Victorian equilibrium in the Liberal image fulfilled itself in the great programme of reforms between 1869 and 1873. (p.76)

The essence of the conduct of affairs in the decade 1874-85 was the effort of both Conservative and Liberal governments to operate on the basis of a desired and assumed Victorian equilibrium. Conservatives interpreted this equilibrium to mean a return to ‘normal’ procedures as defined in Palmerstonian pre-1867 terms… Liberals of most strains interpreted the equilibrium in terms of a revised dispensation required by the country to fulfil the potential of 1867… (p.101)

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

Maybe ‘theory’ is too grand and French a word to use for British political thinking, which has always been pragmatic, ad hoc and short term. As I read some of Shannon’s summaries of Victorian schools of thought, it crossed my mind that it might be useful to list and briefly summarise them:

Matthew Arnold

Arnold believed religion had been wounded by science, old aristocratic ideals damaged by democracy. He suggested replacing them with a new national ideology based on Culture which he defined as the best which has been thought and written, meaning, essentially, English literature.

John Stuart Mill

Mill helped define the ‘harm principle’ of freedom, namely that citizens should be free to do just about anything so long as it doesn’t harm, or cause harm to, others. He strongly defended complete freedom of speech on the basis that society could only progress if all ideas were freely expressed and openly discussed, confident that good opinions would defeat bad opinions. (p.32) Under the influence of his wife he became a fervent advocate of women’s rights, and spoke in favour of votes for women in the 1860s.

But Shannon takes us beneath the popular image of Mill as champion of modern human rights, to show how odd and of his time much of his thought was. For Liberals in the 1860s the issue wasn’t about steering the country towards universal suffrage: the pressing concern was to wrest power from the landed aristocracy, the estimated 10,000 or so families who essentially ran Britain, not in order to create a mass democracy, but to relocate power to the Most Intelligent people in the nation who Mill, not surprisingly, identified with himself and his friends.

In other words, Mill didn’t want to abolish the mindset of deference as so many Radicals did. He simply wanted to shift the focus of the population’s deference from the (in his opinion) worthless aristocracy, to the forces of liberal industry and economy and intelligence.

Leslie Stephen

Stephen believed that occult and unacknowledged forces kept England a predominantly aristocratic society, the majority of the population liking to keep things as they are and to defer to their betters. (p.28) (If you wanted to think big, you could say this attitude goes back to the Norman Conquest and the establishment of a two-tier society which, in many occult and unacknowledged ways, endures to this day. Being able to speak French or drop French tags into conversation, for example.)

Whig aristocrats

believed that only possession of land could guarantee independence and freedom. A tenant is forced to vote the way his landlord tells him. The owner of vast acres can, by contrast, stand up against almost any authority (including, back at the origin of the Whig Party, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the king himself). English freedom therefore depends on the existence of a well-educated and independent aristocracy, and their existence depends on respect for property. From this perspective, any attempt to tax, confiscate or redistribute someone’s land represents not an attack on them or even the propertied class, but on the entire basis of English freedom and this explains the attitudes and speeches of most MPs and ministers from the landed aristocracy (p.26).

The Manchester School

The Manchester school of economic and political theorists, led by John Bright and William Cobden, believed that free trade between nations would maximise everyone’s wealth and guarantee peace, because eventually every nation would be so tied  together by international trade that war would wreck their own economies. After the death of Palmerston in 1865, the Manchester School thought that Britain’s foreign policy should be one of complete non-intervention, showing the rest of the world by the example of how free trade led to prosperity. The Manchester School passively supported the attempts by peoples across Europe to liberate themselves from foreign (generally reactionary) oppressors, such as the struggle for Italian Unification, completed by 1871, because this would lead them all, in time, to have a constitution and economy as glorious as Britain’s, but we must on no account intervene in those struggles (p.43)

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

The Conservative view looked back to the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when Britain had a vested interest in never letting a continent-wide dictator arise again, and so was active in creating and supporting a supposed ‘balance of power’ in Europe, creating a ‘concert of powers’ between France, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia, without ever actually joining sides. (pages 43 and 47).

Unfortunately, the illusion of this concert was seriously damaged by the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) in which a lot of Britons were surprised to find themselves fighting with Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia. And then Bismarck definitively wrecked this model by defeating Denmark, Austria and France in order to create a unified Germany in 1871, from which point the old theories became increasingly irrelevant and British leaders, both Conservative and Liberal, had to cast around for a new model and a new role for Britain in Europe (p.45).

Beneath the surface of a general retraction of diplomatic initiative following the Denmark fiasco, the phase from 1865 to 1874 is characterised by a great deal of manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces… (p.53)

The Crimean System

The Crimean War was fought to contain Russian expansionism, to prevent Russia extending its control right through the Balkans to threaten Constantinople and the Straits i.e. the Bosphorus, where the Black Sea joins the Mediterranean.

If Russia attained control of the Straits it would allow her navy to enter the Mediterranean at will and hugely shift the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Therefore Britain found itself fighting alongside Turkey and propping up the Muslim Sultan against a Christian European power. Many people at the time thought it was a mistake in principle and the actual mismanagement of the war confirmed their worst expectations.

The war ended with the 1856 Treaty of Paris and this goal of propping up Turkey in order to contain Russia became known as the Crimean System, which British politicians then tried to maintain for decades, way after it had become irrelevant to the changing realities on the ground.

Shannon’s theory of drag – the way politicians look backward, trying to maintain or recreate the systems and equilibriums they fancy existed in their youths – explains why, 20 years after the war, Disraeli, when Turkey carried out a brutal suppression of Bulgarians seeking independence in 1876, could only conceive of maintaining the ‘Crimea System’ and so continued to prop up a Turkey which had become notably more feeble and maladministered in the interim. Which in turn gave Gladstone the opportunity to score a massive public hit with his speeches giving gruesome details of the Turkish massacres of Bulgarian villagers, the so-called ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’, and decrying Disraeli’s immorality in defending them.

Politics isn’t about principles. It is about attacking your opponent at their weakest point until they collapse. It is about seizing opportunities for political gain.

Liberalism

One of the fundamental ideas of Liberalism, of the classical kind advocated by Cobden and Bright, was that different social groups and forces can, ultimately, be reconciled, not least by the growing science of society – sociology – by the use of reason and good will. It is optimistic about society’s prospects for eventually finding balance and peace (p.31), and the same belief in extends into a foreign policy which believes that free trade between nations is the best way of ensuring peace.

Nonconformism

It is difficult for many moderns to grasp the importance of religion in British politics until relatively recently. Certainly it was of vast importance in the Victorian period. The religious scene still bore the marks of the civil wars and the 1688 revolution which followed it. Basically the Church of England was the settled theological and organisational basis of the Establishment, of most of the landed aristocracy, of Oxford and Cambridge and the elite professions it produced.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 an Act of Uniformity and a series of Test Acts were put in place to ensure that nobody could hold any formal office or take a degree unless they swore to uphold the theology of the Anglican church and enforcing episcopal appointment of all ministers of religion.

Now the civil wars of the 1640s and 50s had brought out into the open, and into public life, a large minority of devout Christians who could not swear to the theology of the Anglican Church. They either disagreed about the entire idea of an ‘established’ church, or disagreed with the fact that its leaders, the bishops, were appointed by the civil power i.e. the monarch, or disagreed on a wide range of theological points. Before and during the wars they were known as ‘Puritans’ but the wars’ freedom to debate and define their positions led to a proliferation of sects then and in the decades after 1660, including Presbyterians and Congregationalists, plus Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and (originating in the 18th century) Methodists.

Because they refused to ‘conform’ to the Act of Uniformity and the various Test Acts they became known as the Nonconformists and came to form a distinct element of British society, large in England, probably a majority in Wales. There’s a lot of ongoing debate about whether the Nonconformists caused the industrial revolution, but there’s no doubt that, because they were excluded by law from holding civil posts (in local or national government) or entering any of the professions, Nonconformists were forced into business and into the worlds of science and industry.

The Test Acts were repealed by 1830 in what amounted, in its day, to a social and political upheaval, alongside Catholic Emancipation i.e. the removal of similar restrictions from Roman Catholics.

The point of all this for our period is that the Nonconformists, despite being split into various sects and subsidiary groupings, by and large formed a large part of British society.

A census of religion in 1851 revealed Nonconformists made up about half the number of people who attended church services on Sundays. In the larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England. (Wikipedia)

And this large body of Nonconformists constituted a bedrock element of the Liberal Party which they hoped would continue to remove obstacles to their full legal rights, many of these hopes focusing on the (utopian) wish for the disestablishment of the Church of England, so that it would become merely one more religious grouping among many.

But their presence in large numbers meant that the Liberal leader who emerged after Palmerston’s death, Gladstone, had to always take the Nonconformist vote into account when devising his policies and strategies.

You might have thought the Nonconformist influence, like religious belief generally, was slowly declining during the nineteenth century, but it was the opposite. The 1868 general election led to an influx of Nonconformist MPs, the largest cohort ever, who from now onwards had to be taken into all political considerations, and added a substantial layer of complexity to a host of policies, especially regarding Ireland, the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland and then all the discussions about Irish Home Rule.

With the result that 40 years later the coming man in the Liberal Party, David Lloyd George, still had to cultivate and maintain Nonconformist support in the 1900s.

I was really surprised to learn about the tremendous complexity of passing the 1870 Education Act which was caused because of the conflict between the Church of England which ran the majority of state schools and the Nonconformists who wanted more state schools to be set up but not run by the Church and certainly not funded from local rates, a very English, very muddled situation which led to an unsatisfactory and patchy solution, the establishment of ‘Board schools’ which ‘became one of the great shaping factors of later nineteenth century society’ (pp.86 to 92).

In summary, it is impossible to understand a lot of political events between 1868 and the Great War unless you have a good feel for the importance of the Nonconformist interest in politics and in Britain’s broader cultural life.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

Although famous as a vigorous defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Huxley was solidly on the side of the angels and made speeches and wrote articles (notably Evolution and Ethics) pointing out that just because nature works through violent competition and extermination, doesn’t mean that humans have to. In fact humans have the capacity to do the exact opposite and use the reason evolution has handed us in order to devise rational and compassionate solutions to social problems which transcend the whole vulgar notion of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.

Gladstone

Shannon credits Gladstone with realising that politics had to move on from the old notion that it was about balancing categories of ‘interest’ (for example, trying to frame policies which reconciled the landed interest and the industrial interest, and so on) to categories of ‘morality’ (p.55).

In making this shift of the basis of politics the essential task of the Liberal party Gladstone made it into a vehicle of political moralism. (p.55)

Hence the intensely moralising tone Gladstone adopted as he came to political prominence from the 1860s onwards, the increasing emphasis on judging government policies and bills on the grounds of social morality and hence Gladstone’s long, high-minded lectures which many found inspiring, but many (including, famously, Queen Victoria herself) found patronising and infuriating. Maybe Gladstone was the first mansplainer.

Reasons for losing

The Liberal government, convinced of its own virtue and its mission to reform and rebalance society, was flabbergasted when it lost the 1874 general election badly. Lots of commentators and the Liberal leadership itself were deeply puzzled why this had happened. Gladstone took it very personally and resigned the Liberal leadership in 1875. Journalist and soon-to-become politician John Morley wrote a book, On Compromise, giving his explanations for the defeat:

  • the example of French demagogy i.e. populism; appealing to the vulgar mob
  • the intellectual trend of the ‘historical method’ which had undermined the moral authority of the Bible
  • the corruptions of the popular press
  • the influence of the reactionary Church of England

But the deepest cause, Morley thought, was the material prosperity which had mushroomed during these years and had impaired ‘the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation’ (p.98). A generation later, the Liberal commentator Charles Masterman would attribute Tory victory to flag-waving jingoism and imperialism which rallied the uneducated masses to the Conservative cause.

Sound strangely familiar don’t they, these excuses for losing an election, 150 years later. No reflection on your own policies: instead, blame the electorate for being uneducated, venal and easily corrupted.

The Victorian balance unravels

Between 1865 and 1915 a devil of a lot of things happened, but from Shannon’s narrow focus on power politics, he places almost everything within the context of one overriding thesis.

This is that the High Victorian period (1850 to 1870) had been characterised by balance, by a synthesis of opposing forces, by what you could call the Liberal conviction that conflicting beliefs, ideas, ideologies, policies and political movements would, in the end, be reconciled, and the less interference by government, the quicker these solutions would come about.

Thus in the realm of culture, even critics of traditional Christian theology thought that the shocks of the Higher Criticism originating in Germany academia and, in a later generation, the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the geologists, could be absorbed by society, maybe into a new science of society, maybe into the new ideas of positivism articulated by August Comte. Scientific optimism.

In society at large the rise of working class militancy (the Chartists) was largely contained, an extension of the franchise in 1867 drew the sting from anti-establishment protest, a new education act in 1870 looked set to address long-running concerns about the shameful illiteracy of the underclass.

In foreign affairs Britain’s navy had unparalleled control of the seas, underpinning British possession of a huge range of colonies, while affairs on the continent of Europe remained mostly peaceful (apart from the relatively small skirmishes surrounding Bismarck‘s campaign to unify Germany under Prussian control) and the blundering shambles of the Crimean War which didn’t take place in Europe.

The entire worldview was underpinned by the immense pomp and circumstance surrounding Queen Victoria who was made empress of India by a grovelling Disraeli in 1877.

But by the 1880s this optimism was under strain in every direction. Working class militancy increased. Journalism and charitable work exposed the appalling poverty in Britain’s cities.

Abroad, trouble in the Balkans as the power of the Ottoman Empire declined led to flashpoints at the meeting points of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Britain watched and then became involved in various attempts to set up alliances and pacts to ensure security, all of them unstable.

The colonies grew restive. There was a religious uprising against British rule in Egypt led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah in 1881. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885.

The really big colonial issue was on Britain’s doorstep as the pressure for Irish Home rule grew relentlessly, and this brings us to a really big theme of the period, which is, the splitting up of the major parties by huge political issues.

Even more than the first half, the second half of the book views all the political developments through the lens of attempts to retain or restore this mythical social and political ‘balance’.

Shannon’s view is that social and political events presented a challenge and that the two main political parties, and their successive leaders, struggled to address these challenges. It explains the structure he gives to the last three parts of his book as he first of all enumerates the problems facing later Victorian society and then weighs the responses of, first the Unionist Party, then the Liberals, and finds them both, in the end, inadequate to the task.

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

  • Social dynamics 1886 to 1895
  • The politics of Unionism and Home Rule 1886 to 1895
  • New directions in external problems 1886 to 1895
  • Victorianism and Modernism: cultural themes and variations in the 1880s and 1890s

Part IV: The search for adequate responses: the Unionist version 1895 to 1905

  • The Unionist domestic bid 1895 to 1902
  • Unionist efforts to save the external situation 1895 to 1905
  • The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905

Part V: The search for adequate responses: the Liberal version 1905 to 1915

  • The Liberal domestic bid 1905 to 1911
  • Liberal responses in foreign affairs 1905 to 1911
  • The Liberal impasse 1912 to 1915

As the Victorian equilibrium and Liberal confidence that social problems would, basically, sort themselves out, both unravelled in the 1880s, two really major themes come to dominate the book, namely the ruinous impact of trying to conceptualise and implement Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards, and the equally divisive attempt led by Joseph Chamberlain to create an Imperialist party and policy, which coalesced around the policy of tariff reform in the early 1900s.

The really striking thing about both issues is the extent to which:

  • they dominated political discussions and calculations from the 1880s through the 1900s
  • they ended up fatally dividing existing political parties, with the Liberals splitting over Home Rule and the Conservative party splitting over tariff reform
  • and that both issues ended in abject failure

The failure of Liberalism

The 1885 general election resulted in a parliament where Home Rule MPs from Ireland held the balance of power. This helped crystallised the great leader of Liberalism, William Gladstone’s, conviction that Ireland deserved home rule, in effect a revision of the terms under which Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom since the merger of the kingdoms in 1800. Gladstone made Irish Home Rule a central policy of the Liberal Party.

But a large number of traditionalist Liberals disagreed and, in 1886, broke away to form the Liberal Unionist Party which soon found a leader in the charismatic figure of Joseph Chamberlain. Eventually, the Liberal Unionists formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long coalition Unionist Government 1895 to 1905 but were swept to defeat by a Liberal landslide in the 1906 general election.

But not only did the precise nature of Home Rule stymie Gladstone in the final years of his political career (he died in 1898) but it returned as a major political crisis at the end of the Edwardian era and it is always striking to be reminded that, as Europe rushed towards war in August 1914, the British cabinet was far more concerned about the possibility of real civil war breaking out in Ireland between the nationalist majority and the Protestant die-hards of Ulster.

In other words, long and very complicated and tortuous as the issue of Irish Home Rule was, the liberal Party failed to solve it.

The failure of Unionism

The Conservatives successfully positioned themselves as the party of the British Empire during Disraeli’s leadership (mostly, as we have suggested, out of sheer opportunism). Imperial ambition reached its peak with the attempt from the turn of the century by Joseph Chamberlain to promote a policy of Tariff Reform designed to bind together the major Anglo-Saxon colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) into a protectionist trading bloc.

The policy had a rhetorical or branding appeal to the imaginations of many, but it hit at least two very big rocks which were:

  1. It would almost certainly lead to higher prices for basic foodstuffs for most Britons; hence its opponents could set up lobbying groups with names like the Free Food organisation.
  2. Chamberlain organised a series of conferences attended by the Prime Ministers of the Anglo colonies, but they never got anywhere near agreeing trading terms – it was a nice idea, but never fleshed out in practice.

A third aspect was the disastrous showing of the British army in the Boer War, 1899 to 1902. This had the effect of discrediting the Unionist government which was in power at the time and, although Britain ultimately defeated the Boers on the battlefield, in the years that followed, the Boers won back all their political rights and more. It was a colossal moral defeat.

Obviously there’s a lot more detail, but overall it was widely felt, by 1906, that the Imperial project of the Unionists had failed. This is what is explained in detail in Shannon’s chapter, ‘The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905’.

High numbers

The naive and simple minded think that democratic politics is about ideals and principles. This is why they are continually disappointed by actual political events, because what politics is really about is numbers.

From 1885 to 1915, Shannon’s history shows how a huge amount of political energy went into detailed political calculations about how to win and maintain power and that these boiled down again and again to the numbers: will you get enough votes in a general election? (GEs were held in 1885, 1886, 1892, 1895, 1900, 1906 and twice in 1910). Will a high enough percentage of voters turn out?

Is it necessary to do deals with other parties, as the young Labour Representation Committee did in the 1906 election when the LRC won 29 seats because of a secret pact between its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote between Labour and Liberal candidates?

If you extend the franchise (as the UK did in 1867 and 1884 and 1918), how will it affect your vote? This was one of the elements in the government’s calculations about whether to bow to suffragette pressure and extend the vote to women. If so, which women and how many and what would be the impact on the balance of power? It wasn’t about principle. It was about calculating the numbers.

Would the growth of trade unions affect the working class vote? Would legalisation of trade unions garner support for the party (Liberal or Conservative) which did it, or would it lead to the creation of a new radical party?

And you may be able to form a government, but do you have a big enough majority to pass all the laws you want to? Will you have to make alliances with other parties (as the Liberals did with Irish Nationalists and the small Labour Party in 1910 to get is social policies and radical budget passed)?

If the House of Lords refuses to pass laws which have been approved by the House of Commons, will having a second general election (as there was in 1910) increase or decrease your majority? Will you be able to persuade then king to create so many new Liberal peers that they will swamp the House of Lords and guarantee the passage of your bill (as the Liberal government threatened to do in 1910 to get its contentious Finance Bill past an obstructive House of Lords)?

And within so-called parties, will you be able to win round some groups or elements in an opposition party to your way of thinking, without alienating too many members of your own party?

High finance

Another way in which politics is obviously all about numbers is the finances and the basic, entry-level question: how are you going to pay for your fancy policies?

This is why almost all policies are, in the final analysis, subject to the control of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and why there often end up being such fierce rivalries between the Prime Minister, who is in charge of policy and strategy and creating alliances and support for policies; and his Chancellor who has great power to wreck all these plans if the figures don’t add up.

If you plan mighty new policies who is going to pay? Take the famous naval rivalry between Britain and Germany which took a leap in intensity after Britain launched its first Dreadnought class warship in 1906. The initial dreadnoughts cost £1,783,000, compared to £1,540,000 for the previous largest ships, but eight years later the new Queen Elizabeth class was costing £2,300,000 each. Who was going to pay for them?

In 1909 David Lloyd George wanted to complete the Liberal agenda of tackling poverty in the shape of caring for the elderly and for the unemployed, so he introduced the so-called People’s Budget. Half the attention given to it by historians concerns the way its provisions began to lay the foundations for what, a generation later, would be called the Welfare State. But Shannon is more interested in the numbers, namely who was going to pay for this new state largesse? A central point of the budget was that it introduced unprecedented taxes on the lands and incomes of Britain’s wealthy (it introduced higher rates of income tax, higher death duties and a 20% tax on increases in value when land changed hands).

No wonder the members of the class very obviously targeted by these changes, who populated the House of Lords, rejected it, which led to a great constitutional crisis, which pitted the House of Commons and ‘the will of the people’ against the representatives of the landed elite.

Déjà vu all over again

One of the pleasures of reading history and, in particular, fairly recent history (i.e. not medieval or ancient history) is to read the past through the prism of the present, or read the past with the issues and pressures of the present in mind. In this respect, it never fails to amaze me how some things never change. Thus we read that:

1. Why did we lose?

The high-minded Liberals just couldn’t understand how they could lose the 1874 election to the elitist, land-owning and greedy and reactionary Conservative Party. The best reasons they could come up with was that the voting public had been corrupted by a new, more aggressively populist press and by a new and unprecedentedly high standard of living. They were wallowing in luxury and had forgotten their high-minded responsibility to build a better, fairer society, instead the sustained prosperity of the 1850s and 60s had caused:

‘a general riot of luxury in which nearly all classes had their share…[in which] money and beer flowed freely.’ (p.97).

Which sounds to me very like the excuses the Labour Party made about losing three successive elections to Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and, again, about their thumping defeat in the 2019 election.

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

As Shannon is at pains to demonstrate, the Liberal Party had only recently been founded – the conventional date for its establishment is 1859 – and was made up of a diverse coalition of forces: the traditional land-owning Whig aristocracy; urban Radicals; Irish nationalists; high-minded Anglicans like Gladstone but also a very large number of Nonconformists who Gladstone conscientiously courted. During its ministry from 1868 to 1874 the Liberal government had achieved much but also alienated many of these key constituents.

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

I was fascinated to read that in his landmark speech at Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli attempted some political positioning and branding, by accusing the Liberals of being elite and out of touch with the ordinary voter, but in particular of being ‘cosmopolitan‘, meaning too quick to truckle to foreigners, not willing to defend the ‘national’ interest, which, of course, Disraeli strongly identified himself and the Conservatives with (p.53). The Conservatives had lost touch with the people and ‘cosmopolitan’ doctrines had been imported from the continent and foisted on the innocent British public under the guise of ‘Liberalism’. The Liberals had tried to ‘substitute cosmopolitan for national principles’ (p.95).

During this period Disraeli tried to reposition the Conservatives as the party which would defend a) the constitution and the great historic institutions of England, b) our national interests, our place as a Great Power, and combine these with c) a comprehensive programme of social reform.

The combination of flag-waving patriotism with the promise of robust reform and prosperity for all sounds very reminiscent of the 2019 Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, another unprincipled but eerily successful chancer.

4. Working class conservatism

Shannon emphasises that British trade unions didn’t want to overthrow the system, they just wanted a greater say in the fruits of the system and a share in its profits for their members (p.29). The majority of the great unwashed just wanted to be left alone, without a nanny state sticking its nose in their business and insisting they were ‘improved’, whether they wanted to be or not (p.103).

Again, resentment at the tendency of high-minded Liberals to poke their noses into people’s private affairs and educate and inform them and force them to become more progressive sounds eerily similar to the resentment in at least some parts of the 2019 electorate towards the urban, college-educated cadres of the modern Labour Party who want to force everyone to be more aware of racial issues and feminist issues and transgender issues and LGBTQ+ issues and take the knee and defund the police and fight for justice for Palestine. Many people, then as now, just want to be left alone to get on with their lives and not be continually hectored and lectured, thank you very much.

5. The sorry state of English education

In the 1860s education in England lagged far behind standards on the continent, especially by comparison with Germany, especially in the area of technical education. Lots of committees wrote lots of reports. Lots of commentators agonised (including the wordy school inspector, Matthew Arnold) (pages 86 to 95). 160 years later, has much changed or does the UK still languish behind the best in Europe in its maths and literacy and technical education?

6. Ireland

Obviously Irish nationalism evolved throughout the 19th century, taking many forms, and characterised by different leading elements from Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association and Repeal Association of the 1840s to the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood led by Michael Davitt.

It is a vast subject with a powerful mythology and huge literature of its own which I don’t have any space to go into. I’m just making the point that I’m reading about Gladstone’s attempts to solve the Irish Question in the 1870s and 1880s in July 2021 at the same time I am hearing on the radio about the issues caused by Brexit, the Northern Irish Protocol and its possible breaches of the Good Friday Agreement. In other words, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘Irish Question’ will be with us (and the Irish) forever.

Credit

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon was published in 1974 by Hart-David, MacGibbon Books. All references are to the 1976 Paladin paperback edition.


Related links

A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603 – 1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996) 2

The reign of James I

Queen Elizabeth I died aged 70 on 24 March 1603. She had resisted marrying a husband or bearing an heir throughout her reign and now died childless. King James VI of Scotland was chosen to inherit the crown of England, ascending the throne at the age of 37, having himself ascended the Scottish throne while still a child aged 13 months, after his mother, Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate in his favour.

James had been brought up by four regents and umpteen guardians, and had survived the poisonous faction-fighting of the Scottish court for 20 years since coming of age.

Kidnapping Scottish kings was almost constitutional practice and James himself was abducted twice. (p.79)

Upon hearing he’d inherited the throne of England, James hastened south to Scotland’s rich, sunny neighbour and never went back. Unfortunately, he brought quite a few Scottish aristocrats and dependents with him, who he awarded key posts in his private council and chamber – although wisely continuing most Elizabethan officials in their posts.

The Scots incomers were unpopular not only with English officials whose jobs they took, but with the man in the street. An ordinance had to be passed against ‘swaggerers’, who were beating up Scots in the streets of London.

James wanted peace and unity, Beatifi Pacifici was his motto. He came in with a promise to make a clean sweep and a new start after the increasingly frozen and paralysed years at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. To this end:

Spain James negotiated an end to the war with Spain, which had been rumbling on for 20 years, with the 1604 Treaty of London, and thereafter tried to curry favour with Spain, widely thought to be the most powerful Catholic power in Europe. He tried to arrange a Spanish marriage for his eldest son, Henry; and in 1618 he had the old Elizabethan hero Sir Walter Raleigh executed, after he’d led an abortive expedition against Spain in South America. This did nothing to impress the Spanish but upset many of James’s new subjects.

Religion James was petitioned about reforming the Church of England before he’d even arrived in London. He called a conference in 1604 at Hampton Court to address religious issues, the most practical outcome of which was a new translation of the Bible into English, which was published in 1611 and became known as ‘the Authorised version’ or ‘the King James Bible’ (pp.72-3).

James managed to adjust and renew Elizabeth’s ‘middle way’ (between Catholicism on the conservative wing and Calvinism on the radical wing), not least by his wise appointment of the best theologians or churchmen for the job – the moderate George Abbott as archibishop of Canterbury, John Donne and Lancelot Andrewes as preachers.

But religion proved to be an intractable problem. The remaining Catholics (including some very influential families) and the fringe of extreme Puritan groups both hoped for greater toleration of their beliefs, and even within the established Church of England there was a broad range of opinion. It was impossible to please everyone and James found himself forced to reinforce the outline of the Elizabethan settlement.

There were Catholic plots from the start. The Pope had long ago established a parallel Catholic church hierarchy waiting to be imposed on England once the Protestant king was liquidated and powerful Catholic members of the aristocracy had risen up to place a Catholic claimant on the throne.

There were two minor Catholic plots within a year of James’s coronation and then the Gunpowder plot of November 1605 – a plan to blow up the king and all the members of the Houses of Parliament before imposing a Catholic regime – and even after the exemplary torture and punishment of the Guy Fawkes conspirators, other plots followed. Taking the long view, the country was still subject to Catholic scares and even hysterias, into the 1670s and 80s.

Royal finances But the real problem of James’s reign was money. He spent money like an oligarch’s wife – he renovated the royal palaces, paid for his predecessor’s state funeral and his own coronation, then had to set up his wife (Queen Anne of Denmark) and his sons (Henry and Charles) with their own establishments.

And then James became notorious for having a succession of ‘favourites’, handsome young men who he lavished money and titles on. Most unpopular of all was George Villiers, raised from obscurity and showered with titles and responsibilities to become the most powerful man in the country, the Duke of Buckingham.

Kishlansky very casually mentions that Buckingham became James’s lover (p.98). The impact of this on the king, the court and his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, is not at all explored.

As James got deeper into debt, a succession of ministers and officials (notably the Earl of Salisbury, Lord Treasurer from 1608) were tasked with extracting more money from the country. Taxes and customs were increased, old forms of extraction revived, James sold monopolies of trade and discovered he could fine people if he offered them a knighthood and they refused to accept. James’s increasingly mercenary sale of titles, and his creation of a new rank in the peerage, the baronetcy, prompted widespread mockery, particularly in Jacobean plays.

James was used to the Scottish style of politics, to a face-to-face form of government, where you sized a man up and manipulated him accordingly (p.79). He struggled to understand or manage the infinitely more complex ways of English government, with its obstinate Parliament and maze of committees and officials.

His frequent exasperation explains the lengthy and sometimes angry lectures he was wont to give English officials and sometimes Parliament as a whole. Witness the failure of the so-called ‘Addled Parliament’ which met for just nine weeks in 1614 but refused to concede any of James’s schemes to raise money and so which he angrily dismissed.

Divine Right of Kings James was a noted scholar and had written several books on the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, so he struggled to understand how the entire English ruling class claimed to agree with him about this but then presented him with a never-ending stream of precedents and liberties which had the practical effect of completely stymying and blocking his divine wishes.

Scotland James hoped from day one that his old kingdom and his new one could be united. He was king of both and he wanted it to be, so it would happen, right? No. Once again the legal complexities of the situation escaped him but not the hordes of constitutional lawyers and advisers who explained why it couldn’t be done. Plus the visceral fear of many English aristocrats and officials that if the two countries were legally united, then the flow of Scots finding office in the south would turn into a flood.

Ireland The advent of a Scottish king on the throne of England opened the way for the settlement of Ulster i.e. lots of poor Scots had wanted to emigrate to Ireland but been prevented when it was run by the English crown. James’s advent unlocked the floodgates. Thousands of emigrants settled along the coast of north-east Ireland then moved inland, settling land seized from the Irish owners.

Much of it had belonged to the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell who forfeited it when they absconded to the continent in 1607 in a bid to work with Spain to raise an army, invade Ireland, and restore the Irish aristocracy to the lands and powers it had enjoyed before the Elizabethan conquest.

The Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell Their plan was never carried out for a number of reasons:

  • the Spanish government of King Philip III didn’t want to rock the boat, wanted to maintain the new peace with the new Stuart dynasty (established in 1604) in order to focus its energies on its long-running war with the Dutch Republic. In fact discussions had opened about marrying Prince Henry to a Spanish royal bride
  • Spain had recently [1598] gone bankrupt – again
  • the Spanish fleet had only just been destroyed by a Dutch fleet at the Battle of Gibraltar, 25 April 1607 and so wasn’t in a position to mount any kind of invasion

Instead the net result of what became known as ‘the Flight of the Earls’ was a watershed in Irish history. They set sail on a ship to France and thence to Spain but neither they, their heirs or any of their ninety or so followers ever returned. As such, the Flight of the Earls represented the moment when the ancient Gaelic aristocracy of Ulster went into permanent exile. And this opened the way for the settlement of Ulster by Presbyterian Scots – the Plantation of Ulster – and the creation of the Ulster problem which has bedevilled British politics for over a century (pp.70-71).

The Thirty Years War In Kishlansky’s account the outbreak of war in the Holy Roman Empire in 1618 changed the tone of James’s rule. Having just read Peter H. Wilson’s vast account of the war, I found myself disagreeing with the way Kishlansky tells the story. He leaves facts out, his summary feels incomplete and a bit misleading.

In Wilson’s version, Protestant nobles in the Kingdom of Bohemia, worried by the pro-Catholic and anti-Protestant trend of recent policies of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, raised a rebellion against him and sought allies among the Protestant leaders of the Empire’s scores of independent states. Ferdinand was titular King of Bohemia, but the rebels rejected his kingship and offered the crown to a solidly Protestant prince, the Count Palatine of the Rhine (i.e. ruler of the territory know as the Palatinate) Frederick V – not least because he was the leader of the Protestant Union, a military alliance founded by his father.

Frederick accepted, was crowned King of Bohemia in 1619, and led the military struggle against the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor – but he lost. The Bohemian army was crushed at the Battle of White Mountain just outside Prague on 8 November 1620. Frederick and his wife fled. Because he had only reigned for one calendar year he and his wife became known as the Winter King and the Winter Queen.

Following the Battle of White Mountain the Emperor’s Catholic army seized Prague, the Emperor was reinstated as King of Bohemia, and then his forces, along with a Spanish army led by the Marquis de Spinola, went on to seize the Palatinate, Frederick’s original territory, as well as engaging the Protestant states who had allied with the Bohemians. The Emperor took the opportunity of his victory to impose tough new pro-Catholic policies on all the conquered territory.

The Winter Queen Why did this have an impact in faraway Britain? Because Frederick had been married to Elizabeth Stuart, James’s daughter, in 1613. The marriage took place in London, in the Palace of Whitehall, and was attended by a vast mob of British aristocracy. John Donne wrote a poem about it. Thus it was the British king’s daughter and son-in-law who were violently overthrown by a Catholic super-power and went into exile (in the Hague in the Dutch Netherlands).

From that point onwards King James, and then his successor, King Charles, were pestered by advisers and commentators and pamphlet writers begging the king to intervene, to send money or, preferably, an army.

Protestants of all stripes saw the war – which didn’t end with the capture of Prague but spread into a number of other Protestant states of the empire, and was destined to rumble on for generations – as an attack by the Catholic Habsburgs on all their Protestant subjects.

When you added in the resumption of the long war between Catholic Spain (also ruled by a branch of the Habsburg family) to suppress the rebels of the Protestant Dutch Netherlands, it wasn’t difficult to claim there was a vast Catholic conspiracy to defeat and exterminate Protestantism.

If you add in memories of the Gunpowder plot a generation earlier, or the attempt by the Irish Earls to persuade Spain to reconquer Ireland for Catholicism, you can begin to enter into the embattled, paranoid state of mind of many British Protestants – and to understand their growing frustration at the way James refused to become embroiled in the war, but tried to position himself as some kind of arbiter for peace (pp.102-3).

(A book like this, taking things from the British point of view, makes all this seem like a plausible strategy. Peter H. Wilson’s book, looking from the European perspective, emphasises how laughably grandiose, inept and ineffectual James’s peace initiatives appeared to the participants in the war. The Brits spent a lot of money on pompous embassies which achieved nothing.)

1621 Parliament In 1621 James called a Parliament to provide funds for some kind of intervention in the Empire and, sure enough, member after member rose to pledge their lives and fortunes to the cause of restoring the king’s son-in-law to his rightful kingdom of the Palatinate. But Parliament and king could not agree on the best strategy. The subsidies Parliament voted James were inadequate to finance serious military operations in aid of Frederick, while MPs went on to inflame the situation by calling for a war – not in Germany – but aimed squarely against Spain. They went on to raise a petition demanding that Prince Charles marry a Protestant, and for enforcement of existing anti-Catholic laws.

James was scandalised and warned Parliament that intrusion into his royal prerogative would trigger punishment. This announcement scandalised Parliamentarians, who issued a statement protesting their rights, including freedom of speech. Egged on by the Duke of Buckingham, James ripped this protest out of the Parliamentary record book, dissolved Parliament and imprisoned five of its leaders.

The Spanish match All this time negotiations with Spain for Charles to marry the Spanish Infanta Maria Anna dragged on, with the Spanish King (Philip IV) putting endless obstacles in the way.

Eventually, in 1623 Charles, Prince of Wales (aged 23) and the Duke of Buckingham (aged 31) set off on an epic journey to Spain, crossing the Channel, resting in Paris, then riding south to Spain. The Spanish king and his adviser, Duke Olivares, were astonished at their unannounced arrival, but proceeded to delay things even more.

Amazingly, six months of delay and obfuscation prevented Charles even meeting the intended bride more than a handful of times, while the Spanish negotiators put all kinds of barriers in his way, insisting that Charles convert to Catholicism and allow the bride to freely practice her religion, and lowering her dowry (in part to pay for the Spanish occupation of the Palatinate).

1624 Parliament Eventually, Charles and Buckingham realised they were being played and left in high dudgeon, Buckingham especially, because members of the hyper-formal Spanish court made no effort to conceal their contempt for him, due to his originally humble background.

(Maria Anna eventually married the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, a much better choice.)

Charles and Buckingham returned to London determined to take revenge for this humiliation, and Charles persuaded his father to call another Parliament. This assembled and renewed its enthusiasm for war but, once again, didn’t vote nearly enough money to create a realistic military force. Buckingham was now sounding out the French about an alliance with them and a French princess for Charles to marry.

Death James died on 25 March 1625. He had lavished a lot of education and hopes on his eldest son, Prince Henry, but Henry died in 1612 aged just 18, of typhoid, so the crown now passed to the next eldest son, Charles, who became King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Summary

James became unpopular because of:

  • the crude and greedy Scots he brought with him
  • his rapacious, novel and sometimes legally debatable ways of raising money
  • his failure to settle the (insoluble) religious problem
  • his alleged pro-Catholicism and his sustained failure to support the Protestant, Bohemian cause in Europe
  • his angry confrontations with Parliament
  • his association with the deeply unpopular Duke of Buckingham

Related links

A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996)

Mark Kishlansky (1948 – 2015) was an American historian of seventeenth-century British politics. He was the Frank Baird, Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University, editor of the Journal of British Studies from 1984 to 1991, and editor-in-chief of History Compass from 2003 to 2009.

Kishlansky wrote half a dozen or so books and lots of articles about Stuart Britain and so was invited to write Volume Six of the Penguin History of England covering that period, under the general editorship of historian David Cannadine.

I think of the history of Britain in the 17th century as consisting of four parts:

  1. The first two Stuarts (Kings James I & Charles I) 1603 – 1642
  2. The Civil Wars and Protectorate (Oliver Cromwell) 1642 – 1660
  3. The Restoration (Kings Charles II & James II) 1660 – 1688
  4. The Glorious Revolution and Whig monarchs (William & Mary, then Queen Anne) 1688 – 1714

Although obviously you can go by monarch:

  1. James I (1603-25)
  2. Charles I (1625-42)
  3. Wars of the three kingdoms (1637-53)
  4. Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1660)
  5. Charles II (1660-1685)
  6. James II and the Glorious Revolution (1685-88)
  7. William & Mary (1688-1702)

I appreciate that this is an English perspective, and Kishlansky is the first to acknowledge his history tends to focus on England, by far the largest and most powerful of the three kingdoms of Britain. The histories of Scotland and Ireland over the same period shadowed the English timeline but – obviously – had significant events, personnel and continuities of their own. From the start Kishlansky acknowledges he doesn’t have space to give these separate histories the space they deserve.

Why is the history of seventeenth century Britain so attractive and exciting?

The seventeenth century has a good claim to being the most important, the most interesting and maybe the most exciting century in English history because of the sweeping changes that affected every level of society. In 1600 England was still a late-medieval society; in 1700 it was an early modern society and in many ways the most advanced country on earth.

Social changes

  • business the modern business world was created, with the founding of the Bank of England and Lloyds insurance, cheques, banknotes and milled coins were invented; the Stock Exchange was founded and the National Debt, a financial device which allowed the British government to raise large sums for wars and colonial settlement; excise and land taxes provided reliable sources of revenue for the government
  • empire the British Empire was defined with the growth of colonies in North America and India
  • feudal forms of government withered and medieval practices such as torture and the demonisation of witchcraft and heresy died out
  • media newspapers were invented and went from weekly to daily editions
  • new consumer products domestic consumption was transformed by the arrival of new products including tobacco, sugar, rum, gin, port, champagne, tea, coffee and Cheddar cheese
  • the scientific revolution biology, chemistry and physics trace their origins to discoveries made in the 1600s – Francis Bacon laid the intellectual foundations for the scientific method; William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood; Robert Boyle posited the existence of chemical elements, invented perfected the air pump and created the first vacuum; Isaac Newton discovered his laws of thermodynamics, the composition of light, the laws of gravity; William Napier invented logarithms; William Oughtred invented the multiplication sign in maths; Edmund Halley identified the comet which bears his name, Robert Hooke invented the microscope, the quadrant, and the marine barometer; the Royal College of Physicians published the first pharmacopeia listing the properties of drugs; Peter Chamberlen invented the forceps; the Royal Society (for the sciences) was founded in 1660
  • sport the first cricket and gold clubs were founded; Izaak Walton codified knowledge about fishing in The Compleat Angler; Charles II inaugurated yacht racing at Cowes and Queen Anne founded Royal Ascot
  • architecture Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh created wonderful stately homes and public buildings e.g. Jones laid out the Covent Garden piazza which remains an attraction in London to this day and Wren designed the new St Paul’s cathedral which became a symbol of London
  • philosophy the political upheavals produced two masterworks of political philosophy, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which are still studied and applied in a way most previous philosophy isn’t
  • non conformists despite repeated attempts to ban them, Puritan sects who refused to ‘conform’ to the Restoration settlement of the Church of England were grudgingly accepted and went on to become a permanent and fertile element of British society – the Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians

Political upheaval

At the centre of the century sits the great 20-year upheaval, the civil wars or British wars or Great Rebellion or the Wars of Three Kingdoms, fought between the armies of parliament and the armies of King Charles I, with significant interventions by armies of Scotland and Ireland, which eventually led to the execution of the king, the abolition of the House of Lords and the disestablishment of the Church of England – achievements which still form a core of the radical agenda to this day. These revolutionary changes were- followed by a series of constitutional experiments under the aegis of the military dictator Oliver Cromwell, which radicalised and politicised an entire generation.

Soon after Cromwell’s death in 1658, his regime began to collapse and elements of it arranged for the Restoration of King Charles II, who returned but under a new, more constitutional monarchy, restrained by laws and conventions guaranteeing the liberties of British subjects and well aware of the mistakes which led to the overthrow of his father.

But none of this stopped his overtly Roman Catholic brother, who succeeded him as James II in 1685, making a string of mistakes which collectively alienated the Protestant grandees of the land who conspired to overthrow him and replace him with the reliably Protestant Prince William of Orange. James was forced to flee, William was invited to become King of England and to rule according to a new, clearly defined constitution or Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all kinds of liberties including of speech and assembly.

All of these upheavals meant that by 1700 England had the most advanced, liberal and open society in Europe, maybe in the world, had experimented with a wide variety of political reforms and constitutions, and developed one which seemed most practical and workable – which was to become the envy of liberals in neighbouring France, and the basis of the more thoroughly worked-out Constitution devised by the founders of the American republic in the 1780s.

Studying the 17th century combines the intellectual excitement of watching these constitutional and political developments unfold, alongside the more visceral excitement of following the dramatic twists and turns in the long civil wars – and then following the slow-burning problems which led to the second great upheaval, the overthrow of James II. There is tremendous pleasure to be had from getting to know the lead characters in both stories and understanding their motives and psychologies.

Key features of 17th century England

The first two chapters of Mark Kishlansky’s book set out the social and political situation in Britain in 1600. These include:

Britain was a comprehensively patriarchal society. The king ruled the country and his word meant life or death. Le Roy le veult – the King wishes it – was the medieval French phrase still used to ratify statutes into law. The monarch made all political, legal, administrative and religious appointments – lords, ministers, bishops, judges and magistrates owed their position to him. In every locality, knights of the shires, justices of the peace administered the king’s laws. The peerage was very finely gradated and jealously policed. Status was everything.

And this hierarchy was echoed in families which were run by the male head of the household who had complete power over his wife and children, a patriarchal household structure endorsed by the examples in the Bible. Women might have as many as 9 pregnancies, of which 6 went to term and three died in infancy, with a further three children dying in infancy.

The family was primarily a unit of production, with all family members down to small children having specified tasks in the often backbreaking toil involved in agricultural work, caring for livestock, foraging for edibles in woods and fields, producing clothes and shoes. Hard physical labour was the unavoidable lot of almost the entire population.

Marriages were a vital way of passing on land and thus wealth, as well as family names and lineages. Most marriages were arranged to achieve these ends. The top responsibility of both spouses were the rights and responsibilities of marriage i.e. a wife obeyed her husband and a husband cherished and supported his wife. It was thought that ‘love’ would grow as a result of carrying out these duties, but wasn’t a necessary component.

Geography 80% of the population in 1600 worked on the land. Britain can be divided into two geographical zones:

1. The North and West The uplands of the north-west, including Scotland and Wales, whose thin soils encouraged livestock supplemented by a thin diet of oats and barley. Settlements here were scattered and people arranged themselves by kin, in Scotland by clans. Lords owned vast estates and preserved an old-fashioned medieval idea of hospitality and patronage.

Poor harvests had a catastrophic impact. A run of bad harvests in the 1690s led to mass emigration from Scotland to America, and also to the closer ‘plantations’ in Ulster.

It was at this point that Scottish Presbyterians became the majority community in the province. Whereas in the 1660s, they made up some 20% of Ulster’s population… by 1720 they were an absolute majority in Ulster, with up to 50,000 having arrived during the period 1690-1710. (Wikipedia)

2. The south and east of Britain was more densely populated, with villages and towns instead of scattered homesteads. Agriculture was more diverse and productive. Where you have more people – in towns and cities – ties of kinship become weaker and people assess each other less by ‘family’ than by achievements, social standing and wealth.

The North prided itself on its older, more traditional values. The South prided itself on being more productive and competitive.

Population The population of England rose from 4 million in 1600 to 5 million in 1700. There were maybe 600 ‘towns’ with populations of around 1,000. Big provincial capitals like Norwich, Exeter or Bristol (with pops from 10,000 to 30,000) were exceptions.

London was unlike anywhere else in Britain, with a population of 200,000 in 1600 growing to around 600,000 by 1700. It was home to the Court, government with its Houses of Lords and Commons, all the main law courts, and the financial and mercantile hub of the nation (Royal Exchange, Royal Mint, later the Bank of England and Stock Exchange). The centre of publishing and the new science, literature, the arts and theatre. By 1700 London was the largest city in the Western world. Edinburgh, the second largest city in Britain, had a paltry 40,000 population.

Inflation Rising population led to a squeeze on food since agricultural production couldn’t keep pace. This resulted in continuous inflation with foodstuffs becoming more expensive throughout the century, which reduced living standards in the countryside and contributed to periods of near famine. On the other hand, the gentry who managed to hang onto or increase their landholdings saw an unprecedented rise in their income. The rise of this class led to the development of local and regional markets and to the marketisation of agriculture. Those who did well spent lavishly, building manors and grand houses, cutting a fine figure in their coaches, sending the sons to university or the army, educating their daughters in order to attract wealthy husbands.

Vagrancy The change in working patterns on the land, plus the rising population, led to a big increase in vagrancy, which the authorities tackled with varying degrees of savagery, including branding on the face with a V for Vagrant. Contemporary theorists blamed overpopulation for poverty, vagrancy and rising crime. One solution was to encourage the excess population to settle plantations in sparsely populated Ireland or emigrate to New England. There were moral panics about rising alcoholism, and sex outside marriage.

Puritans Leading the charge to control immoral behaviour were the Puritans, a negative word applied to a range of people who believed that the Church of England needed to be further reformed in order to reach the state of purity achieved by Calvinists on the continent. Their aims included:

  • abolition of the 26 bishops (who were appointed by the king) and their replacement by Elders elected by congregations
  • reforms of theology and practice – getting rid of images, candles, carvings etc inside churches, getting rid of elaborate ceremonies, bells and incense and other ‘Roman’ superstitions
  • reducing the number of sacraments to the only two practiced by Jesus in the New Testament
  • adult baptism replacing infant baptism

Banning Closely connected was the impulse to crack down on all ungodly behaviour e.g. alcohol (close pubs), immorality (close theatres), licentiousness (ban most books except the Bible), lewd behaviour (force women to wear modest outfits, keep their eyes on the ground), ban festivals, ban Christmas, and so on.

Trans-shipping The key driver of Britain’s economic wealth was shipping and more precisely trans-shipping – where goods were brought in from one source before being transhipped on elsewhere. The size of Britain’s merchant fleet more than tripled and the sized of the cargo ships increased tenfold. London’s wealth was based on the trans-shipping trade.

The end of consensus politics

The second of Kishlansky’s introductory chapters describes in detail the political and administrative system in early 17th century Britain. It is fascinating about a) the complexity of the system b) its highly personal orientation about the person the monarch. It’s far too complicated to summarise here but a few key themes emerge:

Consensus Decisions at every level were reached by consensus. To give an example, when a new Parliament was called by the king, the justices of the peace in a county met at a session where, usually, two candidates put themselves forward and the assembled JPs discussed and chose one. Only very rarely were they forced back on the expedient of consulting local householders i.e. actually having a vote on the matter.

Kishlansky explains how this principle of consensus applied in lots of other areas of administration and politics, for example in discussions in Parliament about acts proposed by the king and which needed to be agreed by both Commons and Lords.

He then goes on to launch what is – for me at any rate – a new and massive idea: that the entire 17th century can be seen as the slow and very painful progression from a political model of consensus to an adversarial model.

The entire sequence of civil war, dictatorship, restoration and overthrow can be interpreted as a series of attempts to reach a consensus by excluding your opponents. King Charles prorogued Parliament to get his way, then tried to arrest its leading members. Cromwell, notoriously, was forced to continually remodel and eventually handpick a Parliament which would agree to do his bidding. After the Restoration Charles II tried to exclude both Catholics and non-conforming Protestants from the body politic, imposing an oath of allegiance in order to preserve the model of consensus sought by his grandfather and father.

the point is that all these attempts to purify the body politic in order to achieve consensus failed.

The advent of William of Orange and the Bill of Rights in 1689 can be seen as not so much defining liberties and freedoms but as finally accepting the new reality, that political consensus was no longer possible and only a well-managed adversarial system could work in a modern mixed society.

Religion What made consensus increasingly impossible? Religion. The reformation of Roman Catholicism which began in 1517, and continued throughout the 16th century meant that, by the 1620s, British society was no longer one culturally and religiously unified community, but included irreducible minorities of Catholics and new-style Calvinist Puritans. Both sides in what became the civil wars tried to preserve the old-fashioned consensus by excluding what they saw as disruptive elements who prevented consensus agreements being reached i.e. the Royalists tried to exclude the Parliamentarians, the Parliamentarians tried to exclude the Royalists, both of them tried to exclude Catholics, the Puritans once in power tried to exclude the Anglicans and so on.

But the consensus model was based on the notion that, deep down, all participants shared the same religious, cultural and social values. Once they had ceased to do that the model was doomed.

Seen from this point of view the entire history of the 17th century was the slow, bloody, and very reluctant acceptance that the old model was dead and that an entirely new model was required in which political elites simply had to accept the long-term existence of sincere and loyal but completely different opinions from their own.

Political parties It is no accident that it was after the Glorious Revolution that the seeds of what became political parties first began to emerge. Under the consensus model they weren’t needed; grandees and royal ministers and so on managed affairs so that most of them agreed or acquiesced on the big decisions. Political parties only become necessary or possible once it had become widely accepted that consensus was no longer possible and that one side or another in a debate over policy would simply lose and would have to put up with losing.

So Kishlansky’s long and fascinating introduction leads up to this insight – that the succession of rebellions and civil wars across the three kingdoms, the instability of the Restoration and then the overthrow of James II were all necessary to utterly and finally discredit the old late-medieval notion of political decision-making by consensus, and to usher in the new world of political decision-making by votes, by parties, by lobbying, by organising, by arguing and taking your arguments to a broader political nation i.e. the electorate.

In large part the English Revolution resulted from the inability of the consensual political system to accommodate principled dissension. (p.63)

At a deep level, the adoption of democracy means the abandonment of attempts to repress a society into agreement. On this view, the core meaning of democracy isn’t the paraphernalia about voting, that’s secondary. In its essence democracy means accepting other people’s right to disagree, sincerely and deeply, with what you hold to be profoundly true. Crafting a system which allows people to think differently and speak differently and live differently, without fear or intimidation.


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