Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.

 

*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.

 

Reflections on the UK House of Commons vote to “trigger” Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty

The UK is in a 27-1 situation. The EU is big enough to carry on without it, despite its own problems.
Perhaps the UK is in a Walter Mitty situation.
The UK only survived (“won”) the World Wars because of alliances, not on its own.
Continental countries were all invaded during these wars and suffered immensely, with the possible exception of Spain and Portugal. But Spain had a civil war, with foreign interventions.
So, continental countries see the value of European co-operation, almost instinctively.
The USA is big enough to survive more or or less OK, even if its reduces trade with Mexico and China (say). The UK is tiny by comparison – a speck on the horizon. With the ‘America First’ policy, any UK-USA trade deal is likely to be unequal. And of course, UK-EU trade is huge.
The UK will need to apply to rejoin the EU.  The terms will be strict.

Dulness, deceit and dunces; populism, priorities and prophecy

Populism and priorities

I used to think that populism was a good thing – the will of the people.  Now I have doubts.  It seems that populism represents a series of reactions to single issue problems.  It is likely to result in inconsistencies – trying to have your cake and eat it.  Object to wind turbines but still expect a cheap, reliable supply of electricity, for example.

“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism” – Aneurin Bevan (1949).  One could say, indeed, that the language of priorities is the language of politics.  But the present UK government chooses to underfund and to undermine public services.  Its priorities lie elsewhere – the maximisation of private profit.  The result is the concentration of wealth in a few hands.  (Trickle-down economics does not work.)

The world in 2017

I move on to British trade and foreign policy.  HM Government aims to abandon close ties with our European neighbours on our doorstep and to seek trade with countries far away.  The promises of success appear very dubious.

Today, Europe (including the UK) finds itself situated (sandwiched) between two powerful countries – Russia and the USA – between Putin and Trump – populist leaders.  Shouldn’t this be a factor in UK policy making?  Isn’t the UK safer, anchored in Europe?

Satire and prophecy

Satire appears inadequate to tackle this situation.  Over the centuries, satirists have bent their bows and let arrows fly.  Their admirers smile.  The people in power, targeted, ignore them or retaliate.  As time goes by, later readers fail to understand the context of the satire unless supplied with explanatory notes.

Despite this, I feel moved to draw upon satire – in particular, that of the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744).  I see parallels between his world and ours.

I refer to Pope’s long polemical and satirical poem, the Dunciad, where Pope creates a mock anti-goddess, who he calls “Dulness”.  She represents trends in society, politics and the media towards obscurantism, selfishness, greed, cliquishness and monopolisation of power – a dystopic vision of a world governed by dunces.

I associate ‘Dulness’, indeed, with certain 21st century trends, for example, “post-truth” and “fake news” (also known simply as lies).

The poem

Here I quote from the beginning and end of the final version of the Dunciad (1743), which depict first the return and then the ultimate triumph of Dulness, in 18th century London:

                            In eldest time….

Dulness o’er all possessed her ancient right,

Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night:

Fate in their dotage this fair Ideot gave,

Gross as her sire, and as her mother grave,

Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind,

She ruled, in native Anarchy, the mind.

Still her old Empire to restore she tries,

For, born a Goddess, Dulness never dies.

 

[Book I, 9-18]

 

         She comes! She comes! The sable Throne behold

Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!…

Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!

         Lo! Thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;

Light dies before thy uncreating word:

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And Universal Darkness buries All.

 

[Book IV: 651-656]

 

Evaluation

 

In my study of the writings of Alexander Pope, I rely largely on a slim volume of literary criticism (1989), produced by David Fairer, now professor of 18th century literature at Leeds University. In his chapter on the Dunciad, he comments: “In the world of Dulness there are no objective standards, no structures of ideas against which to measure the truth” [page 154].  (Does this sound familiar?)

 

David Fairer concludes his chapter with a warning:

 

Increasingly, we are coming to understand how the mad visions of the few, combined with the passive mindless of the many, could conceivably bring the end of the world.  The prophecies of The Dunciad are coming close to us, and it is becoming easier to discern a relationship between a pacifying mass culture (….), the growth of mass movements (….), and the concentration of power in the hands of a few charismatic leaders (….).  The pseudo-energy of Dulness, with her flagrant appeal to selfish instincts in the guise of freedom….is a principle which is still alive, and still threatens us. [Page 158]

 

Conclusion

 

David Fairer’s book was published in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the old Cold War was coming to an end, and optimism pervaded the world.  See where we are now!

 

Pope’s and Fairer’s words are prophetic, indeed, and worth heeding.  We ignore them at our peril.

 

References

 

Butt, J (ed) (1963), The Poems of Alexander Pope (one-volume), London: Routledge.

 

Fairer, D (1989), The Poetry of Alexander Pope, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

 

 

 

 

King John died 1216, Shakespeare died 1616 – the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it.

It must be acknowledged that King John is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  (Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.)  It portrays the rise and fall of King John, who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  (Compare and contrast Richard III.)  He is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge.

It is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  But the women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.

(This aspect was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Other characters display their pursuit of “commodity”, to the detriment of others.

 

Do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?  And dangerous!

[the short version]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Militarism, pacifism, Christianity

Events in the UK in 2016 make me think – particularly Brexit (a horrible new word) and the vote in Parliament in favour of a replacement for the current Trident submarine system.

Brexit means a sovereign nation state disentangling itself from an international alliances – against the worldwide trend.

Trident replacement also means a sovereign state trying to assert itself as a global power – in a changed world.

One excuse for Trident replacement is the assertion that it forms a UK contribution to NATO.  However, whatever the UK provides is dwarfed by the US contribution.

The building, testing and maintenance of nuclear weapons systems is extremely expensive – billions of pounds.  (Will the cost go up?)

This policy has been kept up since the end of the Second World War.

I would argue that the costs associated with nuclear weapons has distorted the UK economy all this time.  Compare the more prosperous Germany, which has no such weapons.

(The economic record of West Germany and subsequently the reunited Germany has been far superior to the UK’s.  The UK has suffered successive devaluations of its currency, with no visible long term benefit, whereas West Germany periodically revalued – upwards – the Deutsche Mark.)

UK policies are characterised by militarism – they rest on the belief that war, and preparedness for war – is an acceptable way of solving conflicts.

I wish to step back in time for a while.

In the 1930s, in the UK, success stories include the defeat of home grown fascism and the acceptance of refugees (many of them Jewish, many of them children).

In the 1940s, after long struggles and much shedding of blood, fascism was defeated in Germany, Italy, Japan, etc.  A case can be made that here, militarism worked.  Once defeated, resistance by the fascist elites crumbled; and democracy was installed (with a great degree of success).

The nature of war has changed.  Recognisable front lines have gone; guerrilla tactics and terrorism are prevalent; that the great powers rely heavily on air strikes (bombing both the armed and unarmed on the ground).  The world is flooded with so-called “small arms” and indeed BIG arms too.  So if a former imperial power, like the UK, or a current economic and military power, like the USA, invades a country, they run great risks of being confronted by Kalashnikovs and more.

The practicality of militarism is called into question.  (Have we realised this yet?)  As for Trident, is it really a cold war weapon?  Is it a useful response to the threats we all face, in 21st century?  In particular, does it help us counter terrorism?  I think not.

It is fair to recognise that governments have the responsibility to use ‘reasonable force’ (UK courts pay attention to this) to maintain law and order (‘the Queen’s peace’) at home.  Indeed, many people who work in the public sector play some role in this (eg social workers, myself included).

The picture, beyond the borders, is less clear.  For example, one of the duties placed on the UK’s Royal Navy is the protection of British trade, ie that carried by the Merchant Navy – this can be a long way from home.

So much for practicalities.  What about the ethics of militarism?  Is it compatible with (for example) Christianity?

To go to the root of Christianity: the teaching of Jesus is pacifist.  Consider the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew and Luke).  We should allow for the fact that the Gospels do not provide a political manifesto, nor (in my opinion) a clear answer to every detailed moral problem that arises today.

One aspect of Christianity is other-worldliness.  Militarists constantly argue that we have to live in the “real world”.  (A counsel of despair.)  In other words, war will be abolished when all lay down their weapons.  Till then, “if you seek peace, prepare for war.”  An excuse or a reason?

If militarism is essential to the maintenance of “law and order” between nations, then the corollary is that Christianity, as it has been handed down to us, is imperfect – idealist and not realistic.

One can argue that when Christians were a minority, in the Roman Empire, governance was not an issue for them – they were the governed.  (And they had to decide when to conform to Roman rule and when not to.  Saints Peter and Paul tried to give guidance on this.)

Eventually, of course, Christians (genuine or nominal) found themselves in positions of power, in many countries, and in many times.

This is the point where I need to refer to the conventional wisdom that the first duties of the State are to safeguard its population, internally and at its borders.  I also need to refer to the idea, concocted by theologians, of the “just war”.

It is virtually impossible to wage a “just war”, especially today.  No state or alliance can be sure that a display of its fire power will result in a conclusive military victory.  Recent history differs significantly from that of the 1940s (see above).

I worry that, once one steps into the arena of governance, backed up by force and the threat of force, it is not clear where one should stop – where the line should be drawn.

I also fear that, if one possesses military might, then one may be tempted to use it.  (Every challenge is like a nail; and the military response will be like a hammer.)

Self-restraint on the part of a government is required. Sometimes, members of the public, media moguls and populist politicians will demand the opposite.  I do not see the development of Trident as an example of self-restraint.  And I have grave doubts about other systems too.

Self-restraint is the watchword.  It is the best concept I can offer at present.

United Kingdom and European Union

Britain and the European Union – the future

Well, the future remains uncertain.  (I remain dismayed by the referendum result.)

The background.

Many UK voters have been expressed worry about, even opposition to, high levels of immigration.   (Many live in areas of low immigration!)  Some politicians have responded to this by supporting the worried voters.   The alternative approach is to deal with social needs vigorously.

Are we witnessing the result of long-term scapegoating of non-Britons and the EU?  Doesn’t nationalist populism rise in times of economic depression?

What have immigrants done for us?  Well, the Huguenots, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, etc, etc, have helped to build Britain and make it what it is, eg by starting businesses, working in the public sector, etc.

Surely, the shortages in social goods (access to General Practitioners, social housing, etc) are the result of government policies (bad decisions), continued over many years.  These policies should be reversed.

“Affordable” housing = rented housing- well, it should be.  Build, build – fund, fund.  A good investment, a social good.  Make renting respectable, a genuine alternative to buying with a mortgage.

The private rented sector has grown exponentially.  Rents are high and going higher.  The public bill for rent support climbs too.  The money that goes into landlords’ pockets could be put into bricks and mortar.  And the quality of private sector properties varies a lot.

Another social evil is 21st century poverty.  The job market has changed.  Many jobs nowadays are insecure.  Many people draw benefit payments while working hard in low-paid jobs.  Much pay goes on rent, which makes for a low disposable income.

UK and EU

At the moment, the British Government is on the horns of a dilemma: access to the single market versus control over immigration (ie from the EU and non-EU countries).  We can’t have one without the other.

The options.

1 Parliament delays UK departure from the EU, to such a point where the idea fizzles out.

2 The UK rejoins the European Free Trade Association and stays in the European Economic Area, and negotiates with the EU and third parties, as required.

3 Chaos: uncertainty, decline, divisions in society.

Conclusion

We in the UK have been badly led and poorly served by our elected representatives.  The school report reads: “Could do better.”