Books, TV and Films, April 2021

3 April

I avoid opening Amazon’s emails telling me what their omniscient algorithms think I should be buying and I never even look at the latest fiction and non-fiction charts so, other than skimming the Guardian’s Review magazine on Saturdays, I am always rather in the dark about new book releases. Now that bookshops are open again — well, they will be in a few days — it’s an opportunity to start paying more attention to new writing in history, biography and politics. (Though I remain loath to buy books about the contemporary political scene, which almost by definition date very quickly, I will probably make an exception for Peter Oborne’s The Assault on Truth, a favourite topic of mine these days.)

More than ever this last year I have been drawn back to old favourites — books that first made an impression on me years ago, or that have outstanding literary merit, or that are recognised as classics. High up on that list is the three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher. Volume I is called The Prophet Armed and covers the years up to 1921.

Deutscher is widely recognised as one of the outstanding Marxists of the time (he was active from the late-1920s until his death in 1967) — a highly influential activist, historian and journalist. The Prophet Armed is beautifully written. Though its scholarship will now of course be superseded, at the time (it was published in 1954) it made extensive use of previously unavailable material. And, although Deutscher is very much associated with the Trotskyist wing of world communism, his biography is by no means hagiographic, paying due attention to Trotsky’s flaws, mistakes and misjudgements.

Trotsky has always struck me as — even more than Lenin — the towering figure of the Russian Revolution. He was a more charismatic leader than Lenin, a more engaging public speaker, a more gifted writer and to my mind (though this is certainly arguable) a more daring strategist and effective organiser and administrator, certainly in the period from 1917 to 1921. It was Trotsky who was at the centre of events in 1905, as chair of the Petrograd Soviet. It was Trotsky who masterminded the seizure of power in October 1917. And it was Trotsky who created the Red Army from virtually nothing and ‘saved’ the revolution from defeat in the ensuing civil war. 

Much writing about the Russian Revolution itself — perhaps most notably in recent years the work of Robert Service, formerly professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford — comes from historians whose work is influenced by their hostility to communism, perhaps involving the conviction that the later horrors of Stalinism and the broader failings of the Soviet state were/are an intrinsic part of the communist package, or who assume that the revolutionaries were all along motivated largely by cynical, violent and base urges. The sympathetic pen of Deutscher, on the other hand, reminds the reader of what the revolutionaries themselves believed they were fighting for — the introduction of true equality between all peoples and the flourishing of genuine freedom and democracy through the eradication of all forms of exploitation.

All of which gives the closing chapter of Volume I in particular —entitled Defeat in Victory — the air of Greek tragedy: the opponents of imperialist war waging aggressive war against Poland; the emancipators of working people introducing forced militarisation of labour and the widespread use of terror; the proponents of true democracy instituting a one-party state, banning dissent even within the Communist Party itself and crushing rebellion at the previously loyal Kronstadt naval base.

5 April

Not being a telly addict I have missed out on a huge amount of quality television over the years. Take your pick from the last thirty-five years – Our Friends Up North, 24, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad: a mouth-watering smorgasbord of highly acclaimed drama and I haven’t seen any of them.

Part of the problem is that by the time a programme becomes a bleep on my radar, it’s already too late: the series is underway, plots and characters are established, threads are busily interweaving and knotting. Okay, I am exaggerating. DVD box sets have been around for ever (though it’s an expensive mistake if a programme turns out to be a turn-off rather than a turn-on) and cable/satellite TV, catch-up TV and TV on demand mean that, unlike in the old days, I can make the effort if I really want to. Plenty of ‘classics’ repeated from the very beginning. Take The Eagle’s Nest, for example, the first ever episode of The New Avengers from 1976, which I watched (again) recently. Who can resist a Hitler-didn’t-really-die-in Berlin-in-1945 plotline?

To quote The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn, let’s ignore the fact that I arrived at the party late and celebrate the fact that I have turned up at all. I first watched both Friends and The Office about a decade after they initially aired. The ten series of Spooks filled much of the first lockdown, and I have watched all bar the first series of Unforgotten during the current one.

Which brings us to Line of Duty. Mother of God, it’s good. There’s the (admittedly rather daft) ‘Who is H?’ story arc, the Arnott–Fleming partnership (though the serious overuse of ‘mate’ is starting to grate) and then there are the Ted-isms. Now we’re sucking diesel.

Best of all are the set-piece extended grillings in the interview room: the cat and mouse, the shifts in the power balance, the perfectly cued-up evidence, the beautifully timed interjections — all apparently with no pre-interview preparation time from AC–12’s finest. Wonderfully executed dramatic licence. No doubt the reality is far less slick; try listening to any of the US president’s press secretaries (even the articulate ones) after watching a CJ Cregg monologue in The West Wing (again).

12 April

From Line of Duty and Unforgotten back to detective fiction; this time John Rebus rather than another Poirot. I first started collecting Rebus after noticing that they are a charity shop staple. My intention was/is to read them in chronological order. The first Rebus novel (written by Ian Rankin) was Knots and Crosses, published in 1987. I am up to the seventh in the series, 1996’s Let It Bleed.

I have a memory of Rankin saying that it was with this novel — or perhaps it was the next one, Black and Blue, which is considerably longer — that he felt that his writing really improved. There is a definite sense here of the two things for which the Rebus novels are perhaps best known: the city of Edinburgh itself, and the many backstreet dives that Rebus frequents — and loses himself in — both socially and professionally. The title, a reference to a Rolling Stones song (Rebus is a big fan), describes both the malfunctioning heating in Rebus’ flat and a painful gum abscess. It also serves as a metaphor for the corruption among Edinburgh’s elite that Rebus is investigating.

Let It Bleed is certainly an enjoyable read, excellently plotted and structured. One thing that slightly puzzles me about Rankin’s writing is that it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the narrator’s voice, which is infused with humour, irony and sarcasm, from that of Rebus himself. A couple of examples. The DCI has been seriously injured and the station talk is all about who will step into his shoes: “The rumours piled up faster than the collection money”. Then there’s a photo of a kidnapped girl “which somehow the media got their paws on”.

18 April

Don’t be fooled into thinking that McDonald & Dodds, one of ITV’s more recent detective dramas, is set in the city of Bath. The real location is the same alternate universe (© American Sci-Fi) as Midsomer Murders, where the sky is perpetually blue, the rolling countryside is liberally splashed with bright greens and yellows, and life rolls along at a sedate, self-satisfied pace. Swearing, litter and graffiti don’t exist. Even the mass murderers are considerate enough not to upset the idyll with anything as vulgar as a gore-splattered crime scene. The viewer is left wondering whether a body that has been hacked to pieces even bleeds.

The writers have managed to conjure up one more permutation of the ‘mismatched partners’ trope — this time it’s a dull, plodding but really quite sharp old hand (think Inspector Columbo) paired with an ambitious, brash but likeable woman of colour from the Big City. It’s all good cartoonish fun, an enjoyable antidote to the darkness typical of most crime drama. Chief Superintendent Houseman, however, is a caricature too far. Imagine a younger and (much) slimmer version of Chief Superintendent Strange from Inspector Morse. This comment (to DCI McDonald) made me laugh though: “You tick boxes that haven’t been invented yet.”

30 April

The odd thing about reading Leninism Under Lenin by Marcel Liebman (another thinker who, like Isaac Deutscher, was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks but not blind to their mistakes and failings) is that I was less clear in my understanding of how to define Leninism at the end of the book that I was before I began it. That’s not a fault of the book — for a work focusing as much on political theory as on actual historical events it is admirably clear and accessibly written.

I might previously have said that Lenin’s main contribution to the development of Marxism was the idea of a tightly knit group of professional revolutionaries held together by iron discipline. Yet Liebman shows that — both during the long years of Lenin’s exile before 1917 and even more so in the first years after the revolution — Lenin was regularly outvoted and his views opposed or ignored by various factions within the party (and I don’t mean the Mensheviks).

Or I might have said that the idea of the party as the elite vanguard of the working class, its historic role being to develop the revolutionary consciousness of the broad mass of workers who thought only in terms of economic wants, was the essence of Leninism. Yet the revolutions of both 1905 and February 1917 were essentially spontaneous uprisings, the Bolsheviks failing on both occasions to predict, still less to lead and direct, the flow of events — in the Bolsheviks’ own terms, the masses were ahead of the party in their consciousness.

At other times, however, the idea of the party acting in what it claimed was the objective interest of the workers — regardless of what the workers themselves wanted or believed at a particular moment — left the Bolsheviks open to accusations of ‘substitutism’, a charge levelled not least by Trotsky before he joined the party on the eve of the revolution. By 1921 (say) this charge carried real force and brought into question the legitimacy of the entire regime: with the collapse of industry and after years of civil war there hardly was a working class left in Russia and yet the Soviet government justified its single-party rule and its extreme measures in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Books, TV and Films, March 2021

1 March

Having just watched the recent Elisabeth Moss film The Invisible Man, I am reading the original novel, written by HG Wells and published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I have never been scientifically minded but two film adaptations of HG Wells novels — The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) — made a huge impression on me as a child, which perhaps explains why I found remakes of both films (one with Tom Cruise and the other with Guy Pearce) disappointing.

Another childhood memory is a TV series called The Invisible Man, with David McCallum, who was already a hero of mine from his role in Colditz (which I was watching even at the age of about eight). Henry Darrow, perhaps best known for his role as Manolito in The High Chaparral, played a plastic surgeon who created a synthetic skin. At about the same time there was also a series called The Gemini Man, starring Ben Murphy (yet another childhood hero of mine from his role in Alias Smith and Jones), who could control his invisibility with a latest-thing-at-the-time digital watch.

But I always avoided the original Wells novels after my childhood self was intimidated by the very first line of The Time Machine:

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.

The Time Machine, HG Wells

9 March

The opening chapters of The Invisible Man read almost like a piece of comedic writing. Gradually, however, the story moves to a much darker place as more and more of the invisible man is revealed to us. At first Griffin is brusque and bad tempered. Soon he becomes aggressive and violent. Eventually he is revealed as unhinged and completely amoral.

He steals to get much-needed cash. Then he matter-of-factly reveals that he robbed his father, who subsequently killed himself. Finally we learn of Griffin’s deranged vision: to be the autocratic ruler of a new society founded on a reign of terror, with punishments meted out by an unseen hand.

He [the invisible ruler] must take some town … and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways — scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.

The Invisible Man, HG Wells

I have always unthinkingly bracketed Wells as a champion of science, but in passages such as this he is surely exploring the darker places that the misuse of science can take us, thus foreshadowing some of the horrors of the twentieth century.

10 March

Channel 5 made a marvellous job of rebooting All Creatures Great and Small, but their latest attempt to muscle in on the world of Agatha Christie — Agatha and the Midnight Murders — is much less successful. Making Christie herself the focus is Channel 5’s way, so I read, of getting round the problem of having none of the rights to her books. This effort is set during the Second World War. Short of money, Christie is selling off the rights to her final Poirot novel (in which she kills off Poirot) to a private buyer, a superfan who will thereby keep Poirot alive. (I needed that last bit confirmed online because it wasn’t at all obvious from the script.)

It isn’t just Christie who is short of money. The whole production screams ‘low budget’. Much of the action takes place in a single location, the cellar area of a hotel; despite the confined space, the murderer seems to have no trouble bumping off his victims without being seen.

12 March

The Decline of British Power, written by Correlli Barnett, was published in 1972. It was the first of three books he wrote — the others were The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation and The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities 1945–50 — that set out a ‘declinist’ thesis, basically that Britain experienced a catastrophic collapse in its political, economic and military power and standing in the twentieth century.

Though the focus of The Decline of British Power is the period between the world wars, the first part of the book makes clear that, in Barnett’s view, the roots of Britain’s decline stretch back into the nineteenth century. He targets a particular way of thinking, a dominant culture — what at one point he calls ‘romantic liberal idealism’. He is particularly scathing about the triumph of evangelical moralism which he says was responsible for a spiritual revolution that affected and infected the elite public schools in the high Victorian era, the formative years for many of those in positions of power after the First World War.

Instead of the suspicious minds of pre-Victorian statesmen, there was trustfulness; instead of a worldly scepticism, a childlike innocence and optimism. And instead of a toughness, even a ruthlessness, in the pursuit of English [sic] interests, there was a yielding readiness to appease the wrath of other nations … Whereas the pre-Victorian Englishman had been renowned for his quarrelsome temper and his willingness to back his argument with his fists — or his feet — now the modern British, like the elderly, shrank from conflict or unpleasantness of any kind.

The Decline of British Power, Correlli Barnett

His criticisms of a supposed anti-science and anti-technology bias in school curriculums, a major explanation (he says) for Britain’s subsequent chronic economic underperformance, are one reason that Barnett’s books were popular on the Thatcherite right in the ’80s and ’90s. The irony is that Barnett also identified free trade (central to the Thatcherite economic model, of course) as a cause of, rather than a solution for, Britain’s dismal economic record. Barnett was much more of an advocate of an active, interventionist state than the laissez-faire zealots.

The Decline of British Power includes plenty of footnotes. Nevertheless, at the back of the reader’s mind must be the concern that Barnett was presenting a very one-sided argument. The infamous Amritsar massacre of 1919, for example, when General Dyer ordered troops of the British Indian Army to fire into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians, killing at least 379 people and injuring over 1,200 others, is described as being the result of “unfortunate decisions”. That’s one way of phrasing it. The deaths and the calculated humiliation of the local population led to “a spasm of moral indignation and philanthropic emotion in Britain”. To be clear, moral indignation and philanthropic emotion are bad things in Barnett’s worldview. He spits out phrases like “tender-minded”. There is no place for values like compassion or even duty (India, for example, should have been abandoned as a drain on the empire), still less for what we would now call an ethical foreign policy.

His ‘declinist’ thesis is a startling one: Britain achieved global pre-eminence when its strategy was dictated by ruthless self-interest. The reader is thus left with a second problem: was Barnett simply looking back fondly to the world of the eighteenth century or was he seriously advocating a return to such a nakedly amoral grand strategy?

16 March

Yet another new detective drama comes to the screen — Grace, based on novels by Peter James which to be honest I wasn’t aware of. It was a good idea to base this ‘pilot’ episode on the first book, as it nicely interweaves the storyline about a man who suddenly vanishes with a life-changing incident from Detective Superintendent Roy Grace’s own past. As with Unforgotten, I liked the portrayal of easy, informal relationships between the investigating team; the hostile, unsympathetic assistant chief constable, on the other hand, felt like something of a cliché.

20 March

The publication this week of the government’s integrated review of foreign and defence policy brought me back to thinking about the work of Correlli Barnett (see above). With all the caveats about Barnett’s approach to writing history, he nevertheless made a convincing case that Britain was woefully unprepared for the strategic challenges posed by Germany, Japan and Italy that arose in the 1930s.

Governments faced huge financial pressures, even before the Great Depression led to swingeing cuts in public spending; it was convenient economics as well as convenient politics to focus on disarmament and collective security through the League of Nations. Even when a programme of rearmament was belatedly introduced in the mid-1930s, it was not on the scale required. Nor were the opposition parties any more clear-sighted. The Labour Party, in particular, was all over the place in its thinking about defence, uttering pieties about collective security and yet repeatedly refusing to support the increases in defence spending required to make collective security credible.

Fundamental disagreements about foreign and defence policy between the political parties are not common. There is usually a basic consensus about Britain’s strategic requirements. That’s why, for all the political mudslinging, it almost invariably feels like politicians reading from pre-prepared, oft-repeated scripts. Regardless of which party is in government, increases in defence spending routinely attract criticism, especially if any other departmental budget is being reduced; cuts in defence spending or shifts in the balance of spending within the overall defence budget, meanwhile, are always cited as evidence of weakness on defence or of a lack of strategic thinking.

However, just as in the ’30s when there was no consensus about how Britain should defend itself and the ’80s when Labour adopted a policy of supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament, the current debate about the integrated review feels different, perhaps because so much of what is in it — particularly the so-called ‘pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific region — inevitably follows from the historically divisive decision to implement a hard Brexit and turn our focus decisively away from Europe.

21 March

The Sixth Lamentation is a book I picked up from a charity shop. Its title intrigued me, with the promise of some kind of religious, possibly supernatural theme (as in things like ‘The Ninth Gate’). I always enjoy starting a novel with no idea what it is about. Based on the opening twenty pages or so, it seems to be a historical mystery going back to Paris during the Occupation of the Second World War. If so, this is territory that Sebastian Faulks explored more recently with Paris Echo.

28 March

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Get Carter, regularly voted as one of the most important British films of all time (the equally good The Long Good Friday is forty years old). It is gripping viewing not just because it redefined the gangster film genre but also as a piece of social history, capturing a community in the grip of economic and cultural decline.

Much of the action takes place amid Newcastle’s working-class community. The backdrop of dilapidated housing and grim back-street locations, the use of documentary-style footage of the city’s pubs and clubs, and the depictions of brutal violence all combine to give the film a gritty and menacing authenticity. Sometimes it is the incidental details that stick in the mind: when Jack Carter is disturbed from his bed by two thugs and tumbles to the floor, there is a chamber pot next to the shotgun that he is reaching for under the bed.

29 March

It isn’t often that I immediately want to re-read a book I have just finished: The Sixth Lamentation is an exception.

The author, William Brodrick, was a monk who left his order and became a lawyer and then a writer. His background is reflected in the storyline: it is set partly in a priory in the ’90s, where a Nazi war criminal has claimed sanctuary, and is in part also about the ensuing court case. At its heart is a mystery surrounding the betrayal and break-up of an organisation in Occupied France in the Second World War that was smuggling Jewish children to safety.

Part of the reason why I want to re-read The Sixth Lamentation is because it is such a multi-layered novel, with literary allusions and spiritual insights interwoven into an already complex storyline. There is too much going on to sum it up adequately in a few sentences; suffice it to say that the themes of love, duty, sacrifice and forgiveness loom large. The book occasionally threatens to keel over under its own weight — references to Bedivere, one of the Knights of the Round Table, are a bit clunky, for example — but for intellectual daring it brings to mind The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, though the puff-quote on the front of the book says ‘Worthy of le Carré at his best’. Either way, it’s no mean comparison.

It isn’t made clear but the title is a reference to the book of Lamentations in the Bible, which (as best as I can gather) contains five laments for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. It seems reasonable to assume that ‘the sixth lamentation’ is a reference to the Holocaust.

Books, TV and Films, February 2021

1 February

Age of Empire 1875–1914 is the final part of Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy about what he called ‘the long nineteenth century’, beginning with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending with the outbreak of war in 1914. I bought this book at university when it was first published in 1987. It follows the same broad approach of the first two volumes, opening with a general economic survey, thus emphasising the centrality in Marxist thinking of economic developments to any understanding of history, before moving on to the social and political scene, culture and ideas etc.

One change, however, is a chapter specifically focusing on women. I remember Hobsbawm commenting on this in interviews at the time, an admission of sorts that the Marxist left had hitherto failed to give due weight to women’s struggle for equality in its historical and political analyses. This lacuna was one aspect of a more fundamental weakness. By the mid-1980s the traditional class-centric perspective was very much under threat from newer voices on the left who could see how capitalism was evolving — particularly the decline of the heavy industrial sector and the shift towards globalisation — and who were keen to embrace conceptions of identity based not just on the workplace but on gender, race and sexuality etc.

Their intellectual home was a remarkable magazine called Marxism Today which, despite retaining its old tagline ‘the theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist Party’, championed a radical new agenda at odds with the (very) old guard of the CPGB and their house newspaper, the Morning Star. Interviewees included the Labour leader Neil Kinnock and even the brash Tory politician Edwina Currie. Despite his seeming indifference to feminism, Eric Hobsbawn was one of the intellectual heavyweights influencing Marxism Today. Even before the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, he had given a seminal lecture called The Forward March of Labour Halted? which described how the traditional working class was fracturing.

3 February

The 2020 film The Invisible Man is a very up-to-the-minute take on the classic HG Wells story. The plot revolves around the idea often referred to as ‘gaslighting’, everybody’s favourite insult these days, especially when hurled in the direction of politicians. It is used to mean manipulating someone psychologically so that they end up doubting themselves and even, in extreme cases, reality and their own sanity. The film stars Elisabeth Moss, who seems to have achieved A-list celebrity status following her success in The Handmaid’s Tale, though I know her from twenty years ago as Zoe Bartlet, one of the president’s daughters in (probably) my all-time favourite series, The West Wing.

4 February

Speaking of people doubting reality and their own sanity, Marcella is one of the few drama series that I have watched in real time (as opposed to months or years after it was initially shown). Its central conceit — a highly capable police detective with extreme mental health issues — made for a compelling first series, though, inevitably, the follow-up stretched credibility up to and beyond breaking point.

It seems an age since series two was broadcast. Marcella is now in Northern Ireland, having been rescued from the streets by a shadowy police intelligence unit keen to make use of a talented officer officially registered as dead. I binge-watched the eight episodes over four days, enjoying the drama rather than worrying too much about implausible plot developments.

One wonders how the Maguire family, sufficiently sophisticated, ruthless and well connected to become the pre-eminent crime family in an area with a long and tragic history of troubles, manages to implode within a matter of weeks; or, indeed, why they would allow such a suspicious and manipulative character as ‘Keira’ to live in the family home, the nerve centre of operations, when they clearly have no compunction about bumping off anyone who seems to threaten their status.

Fellow ex-Brookside regular Amanda Burton joins Anna Friel in the cast. Amanda was a primetime regular in Silent Witness in the ’90s but I remember her as the middle-class Heather when Brookside first started in the ’80s. Her performance in the final two episodes of Marcella, following a significant plot twist, is the acting highlight of the series.

10 February

The Odessa File (starring a very young-looking Jon Voight) is one of those ‘classics’ — like Ice Station Zebra and The Heroes of Telemark, both of which I watched recently — that pop up fairly regularly on television, usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The film is overlong and underwhelming but it’s the novel that I remember, written by Frederick Forsyth, who made his name with the thriller The Day of the Jackal. I read both books probably as a sixth-former, just becoming aware of page-turning novels as an enjoyable way to learn about historical events. Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins were other writers I read a lot — books like Partisans and The Eagle Has Landed, both set during the Second World War.

12 February

“Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” This description appears on page 1 of Call for the Dead, the first chapter of which is entitled A Brief History of George Smiley. It was John le Carré’s first novel, published in 1961. The announcement of his death seems as good an excuse as any to read more le Carré.

For some reason I was under the impression that Smiley is only a fleeting presence in this first novel; he is, in fact, its central character. Le Carré didn’t start writing full-time until after the huge success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold; in Call for the Dead he is still finding his way and perhaps reveals a little too much. What I liked so much about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People was their depiction of an inscrutable, enigmatic Smiley, at home in the shadowy world of espionage.

13 February

The film Lady Macbeth reminded me of Fanny Lye Deliver’d. Both are good low-budget productions, both are set during key moments in England’s past — the Industrial Revolution and the period of Cromwellian rule respectively — and both explore class and gender relations in times when society was rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal. The main difference is that, in the case of Lady Macbeth, I gradually lost my initial sympathy for the female lead, who is locked (almost literally) in a loveless household with her weak, drink-sodden husband and his dour and domineering father. The clue was in the title, I guess.

14 February

A few years ago the art historian and TV regular Janina Ramirez promoted her BBC Four documentary England’s Reformation: Three Books That Changed a Nation by encouraging her Twitter followers to post pictures of the three books that have most influenced them. I chose The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, the first book I remember being read to my class at school, when I was about eight; the Complete Sherlock Holmes, which got me through a not very enjoyable school exchange visit to France when I was fourteen; and Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock, the first full-length history book I read, when I was a sixth-former.

I have been tempted recently to re-read either the Hitler biography — a true classic — or Bullock’s later Parallel Lives, a joint biography of Hitler and Stalin. Both, however, are huge books and I need to read The Third Reich at War, the final part of Richard J Evans’s Nazi Germany trilogy.

20 February

Two more films.

The Rhythm Section starts promisingly. Stephanie is a bright young woman whose life has fallen apart after all her family were killed in a plane crash; we later find out that she should have been on the plane as well and that they were only on that particular flight because of her. An investigative journalist tracks her down to a brothel and reveals that the crash was actually the result of a terrorist bomb. Unfortunately, The Rhythm Section starts to lose its rhythm at this point. Stephanie locates a ruthless and highly secretive ‘off-the-grid’ MI6 agent by typing a postcode into Google Maps. He then trains her to impersonate a dead assassin and soon she is commanding $2 million per hit. Villanelle in Killing Eve does it all with a lot more panache.

I realised after about 20 minutes that I have already seen Child 44, a film about a hunt for a child killer. The selling point (for me) is that it is set in the old Soviet Union, predominantly in 1953 (the year that Stalin died). The film’s hook is that, as the party line was that murder (or indeed any crime) was a capitalist disease and therefore impossible in the socialist paradise, to even conduct a serial-killer investigation was potentially a treasonous act.

It is too simplistic to say that the Stalinist state tried to somehow abolish crime. What was common was criminal behaviour explained away as the result of mental illness or counter-revolutionary activity. Some have also criticised the stodginess of the film and particularly the Russian accents. I found it a convincing depiction of a workers’ anti-paradise in which state power had grown to monstrous proportions, ordinary working people lived lives of fear, often in conditions of abject squalor, and the most active and ruthless criminal of all was the state itself.

26 February

Imagine being a rock music fan just discovering Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. One of the benefits of never having been a telly addict is that I get to pick and choose from an inexhaustible supply of seriously good programmes from years gone by. The police cold-case drama Unforgotten, for example. Based on the lavish praise heaped on it ahead of the new series, I decided to give it a go. And it is terrific. Each episode is about 45 minutes long. I watched almost a complete series in one Friday evening binge.

They’re up to series four. I can access series two and three from ITV Hub but series one is currently only available via Netflix (which I would have to pay for). That seems annoyingly arbitrary. If ITV are promoting past series of a currently running drama via their on-demand platform, it surely makes sense to make the whole thing available.

So, series two it is. Fortunately, there is no story arc overhanging from the first series. I immediately warmed to the two central characters, DCI Stuart and DI Khan. It’s their ordinariness — the lack of glamour, the absence of power politics, their basic decency and humanity. How refreshing to see them working as a team and treating colleagues with respect, rather than endlessly pulling rank, shouting at subordinates and flying off the handle when an investigation doesn’t go exactly to plan or yield instant results.

28 February

The Third Reich at War has reached 1945. It is still impossible to read about the Second World War without feeling sickened by the enormity of what took place, particularly in eastern Europe — the wanton destruction, the sadistic cruelty, the mass slaughter. Much of it (though not all) was carried out in the name of Germany and, as Richard Evans makes clear, perpetrated by regular soldiers as well as by fanatical Nazis, though to nothing like the same extent. And as Evans also points out, it is inconceivable that millions of ordinary Germans back home were unaware of what was happening, at least in broad terms, once the systematic extermination of the Jews was underway.

The savagery began not with the death camps but as soon as the German army invaded Poland in September 1939 — looting, burning and pillaging, large-scale summary executions, mass killings and so on, carried out not just against Jews but against all those the Nazis deemed inferior. And yet Hitler was never more popular in Germany than in 1940. How quickly and easily a civilised nation, drunk on victory and seduced by lies, had succumbed to barbarism.

In 1943, according to Evans, the Luftwaffe general Adolf Galland reported to Hermann Goering (in overall charge of the Luftwaffe) that he had proof from shot-down pilots and plane debris in Aachen that the Americans had managed to develop fighter planes with added-on fuel tanks, increasing their range. This meant that fighters would now be able to escort bomber planes further into Europe, thus increasing the devastation to Germany’s cities. Goering, who had boasted at the start of the war that not a single enemy bomb would fall on Germany, replied: “I herewith give you an official order that they weren’t there!”

On 6 March 2021, footage circulated on Twitter with the caption: ‘Parents encouraging kids to burn masks on Idaho Capitol steps’. This may or may not be an isolated incident, but there is no doubt that we are once again living in the West in an age when cranks, firebrands and demagogues are no longer on the forgotten fringes but part of mainstream political debate. Millions of people are again prepared to follow leaders who have little or no regard for science, objective truth and reasoned argument; who attack the pillars of an open, just and tolerant society such as free and fair elections, an independent judiciary and investigative journalism; and who peddle conspiracy theories and preach bigotry and intolerance.

Books, TV and Films, July 2020

1 July

Some thoughts, to begin with, on Philomena and On Chesil Beach, two films I watched last week on the BBC and thoroughly enjoyed.

I was already aware of Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book on which Philomena is based, from his time as a foreign correspondent at the BBC in the ’90s; it’s probably why I also vaguely remember his involvement in a bust-up with the Blair government a few years later. In Philomena the part of Sixsmith is played by Steve Coogan. He (Sixsmith) is not a particularly sympathetic character in my eyes: he is reluctant to take on the investigation at first (having been approached by Philomena Lee’s daughter to write about her mother who, as a young unmarried mother, was forced to give up her son by the Catholic Church in Ireland) and comes across as somewhat self-absorbed. His portrayal in the film carries the same sense of an exaggerated version of reality that is the central conceit of The Trip, the series in which Coogan stars with Rob Brydon.

The character of Philomena, played by Judi Dench, is satisfyingly multilayered. Initial impressions of her as merely eccentric, unworldly and frankly not very bright are quickly dispelled. She is quick to realise — and, despite her faith, to accept — that her son was gay and died of Aids. And despite the despicable way in which she had been (and, in the film version at least, continued to be) treated by the Catholic Church, she also comes across as dignified and remarkably forgiving. Sixsmith, on the other hand, is reduced to outbursts of impotent rage. Forgiveness is a central teaching of Christianity; but how many Christians would be able to find it in their hearts to be as forgiving as Philomena, I wonder.

I watched this just a few weeks after watching Spotlight, also based on a true story, about the work of a special investigations unit attached to the Boston Globe to expose the systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church, over a period of decades, of sexual abuse of children by priests. Both are powerful, disturbing and moving films, laying bare how innocent lives have been blighted by powerful institutional forces. And then I watched On Chesil Beach, which features malign influences of a different kind.

I read Ian McEwan’s novella a couple of years ago. I was particularly keen to watch the film adaptation because (a) McEwan himself wrote the screenplay and (b) it features Saoirse Ronan, a huge talent among the current generation of young actors.

It is set in 1962 but it might just as easily have been 1963, the year that sexual intercourse began, at least for Philip Larkin. Though the title references a place, I see this more as a story about a time — Britain after postwar austerity but before the so-called Swinging Sixties, when supposedly we never had it so good (yes, I am being a little unfair to Harold Macmillan with that misquote) — and about the dominant attitudes and mores of the era, not least with regard to sex.

This tale is a searing indictment of how we thought and behaved and preached and moralised and condemned, not really all that long ago: people’s lives — in this case Florence and Edward, but how many in reality, heterosexual as well as homosexual? — constrained, deformed and ultimately ruined by society’s prudish, repressive and in many cases hypocritical attitudes to sex.

Though much of the background story is told in flashback, the main setting for the film is the honeymoon suite of the couple’s hotel. The sniggering pageboys providing room service convey the immature, schoolboy-ish mentality that the Carry On series later so successfully lampooned. The couple are both virgins but their first night (well, afternoon) together is not a blissful consummation of their love; it is an ordeal to be overcome.

Edward is a fumbling, bumbling wreck, unable even to take off his pants. Florence has been reduced to taking tea with the local vicar and reading cold, mechanical sex manuals (think John Cleese classroom sketch in The Meaning of Life) to try and learn about sexual intercourse. She is clearly traumatised at the prospect of having sex. The film doesn’t make clear exactly why, but McEwan leaves us enough clues to suggest that it is as a result of childhood abuse from her father.

I interpreted the wild and unspoiled terrain of Chesil Beach itself as standing in stark contrast to the way in which the natural instincts of Florence and Edward have been repressed, controlled and restricted.

Great stuff from McEwan, as always. I seem to remember the ending of the book is different. It’s definitely on my shortlist to reread.

10 July

Richard J Evans’ The Third Reich in Power is turning into a mammoth undertaking. It’s a big book anyway (712 pages, not counting the extensive end-notes) and I have a lot of work on at the moment. I was hoping to read 50 pages a day but most days I’m only managing about 40.

I say this often but, in these benighted times when experts are widely distrusted and the meaning of words like ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ are seemingly up for grabs, it needs saying over and over again: what a joy it is to read a book like this, written by an acknowledged expert on the subject. There are the broad judgements he makes, of course: I particularly enjoyed the ‘revolutionary or reactionary’ discussion that ends the book. Sometimes, though, it’s little details and anecdotes. This one, in particular, caught my attention: on the morning after the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been announced the front garden of Nazi Party headquarters was covered in party badges thrown there by disgruntled party members.

One thing about this book that really stands out is the way it is organised. It is divided into seven parts, each with four chapters and each of roughly similar length. This is clearly an artificial contrivance and yet it all fits together so beautifully. At no point does it really feel as if content has been placed in a certain section merely to fit the framework, though inevitably there is a lot of potential overlap between Mobilisation of the Spirit (propaganda, arts and culture) and Converting the Soul (religion, school, universities, the Hitler Youth).

19 July

A huge birthday treat — the latest Robert Harris novel, The Second Sleep, is just out in paperback. I have been waiting for this for ages. I think publication of the paperback edition may have been delayed because of the coronavirus emergency. I really like Harris anyway, but when I first read the synopsis I was genuinely excited because it covered favourite ground — time travel or, to be absolutely precise, playing around with history.

On Twitter someone asked what kind of stuff Harris writes. It took me a while to think of what to reply because, though all his books are rooted in history and/or politics, it ranges from ‘alternate reality’ (Fatherland) to novels that stick fairly close to actual events (An Officer and a Spy; Munich). I eventually answered: ‘Mainly well-plotted thrillers, often tied in with real historical events. Superbly researched.’

24 July

I finished the last 100 pages of The Second Sleep this morning. It certainly lived up to my expectations, ranging across several of my favourite fictional genres — mystery; thriller; history-twister (is that a genre?). It is brilliantly structured and genuinely gripping; we’re talking Robert Harris, after all.

I will need to go back and re-read the final 50 pages or so, I think. There are twists and turns aplenty, as you would expect with any good novel of this type. I was turning the pages so quickly by the end that there is much I doubtless missed. Nothing was quite as it seemed. I also found it to be refreshingly thought-provoking. Others have commented that it is an urgently needed ‘wake-up call’; it’s certainly hard to miss the many references to plastic.

As someone long interested in the science and reason versus faith and religion debate — and associating myself very clearly with one side of the argument — I found that the book added some welcome hues to my monochromatic thinking, illustrating the value and strengths as well as the dangers and weaknesses of both sides.

28 July

I repeatedly find myself drawn back to the world of left-wing politics and political ideas — specifically the heyday of the so-called New Left in the ’60s and ’70s and its precipitous decline in the ’80s. I am re-reading Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left by Paul Blackledge, which I first read three or four years ago probably.

I find this milieu endlessly fascinating. It’s the discussion of ideas that draws me in, encompassing political theory, philosophy, history, sociology and economics. No doubt it’s partly the challenge. Left-wing thinkers, in particular, seem to delight in abstruse theorisation. An appropriate level of abstraction, they might say; gobbledegook, others would doubtless counter. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton excoriates them mercilessly in his brilliant Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Sometimes you really do have to wonder if Scruton has a point:

John Roberts has criticised [them] for what he argues is a systematic confusion in their work between “the end of the avant-garde as the positivisation of the revolutionary transformation in action … and the avant-garde as the continuing labour of negation on the category of art and the representations and institutions of capitalist culture.”

from end-note 73 of Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left

Putting this sort of tripe to one side, I find that, as I widen and deepen my reading, I am understanding more each time, especially as my very sketchy grasp of philosophy improves. Perry Anderson himself is a fascinating figure. Astonishingly well read, he was a leading left intellectual by his mid-20s, taking over the editorship of New Left Review at an extraordinarily young age and using it as a vehicle to introduce new left-wing thinking from continental Europe.

The history of the New Left, especially in the ’60s, is as much about generational divides and personality clashes as it is about theoretical arguments. Two interconnected threads of the story are of particular interest. The first is the debate, with Anderson at its centre, over why Britain never developed an indigenous Marxism, a debate that focused in part on rival interpretations of key moments of British history, especially the English Civil War. The second is the attempt, particularly associated with the historian EP Thompson, with whom Anderson repeatedly clashed, to articulate a socialist humanism in contradistinction to the mechanical, ‘scientific’ Marxism that was in vogue particularly in the ’70s.

Books, TV and Films, June 2020

6 June

After seeing a tweet from the great Steven Pinker a few days ago, I decided to reread Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace by Hans J Morgenthau.

It was a book that I used a lot at university. My own copy of it means a great deal to me. As I was constantly borrowing it from the library, I asked my parents to buy me a copy one Christmas way back when. This was long before Amazon and online shopping, of course. My parents would have been reluctant to go to a major city to visit an academic/university bookshop that might stock a copy, and so they ended up ordering a copy from a local bookshop. It arrived weeks later, beautifully bound but costing something like £25 — an awful lot of money for a book back then.

It is a classic of political science, not a work of history. Though half of my degree was in international relations, I consider myself a historian, certainly by inclination: I had originally chosen to do a joint degree with international relations because I was worried (with good reason at the time) that the history syllabuses would stop in or around 1945.

I quickly realised that I was far more comfortable with the contemporary history elements of the international relations course than with the analysis of contemporary systems and structures. Most of the books on the reading lists were American (like this one), and the pseudo-scientific, theoretical approach used to get on my nerves (I suppose that’s why it’s called political science … doh!). Sometimes it seems like they are just stating the obvious. Take this quote:

When we say that the United States is at present one of the two most powerful nations on earth, what we are actually saying is that if we compare the power of the United States with the power of all other nations … we find that the United States is more powerful than all others save one.

Hans J Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace

Well, blow me down.

13 June

I finished the Morgenthau book today. It was originally published in the late-1940s (as the Cold War was kicking off). It was groundbreaking and highly influential in its day, not just on university campuses but in political and diplomatic circles. It went through several editions over the years. My copy (the sixth — and final? — edition) was published after the author’s death, with updating done by a professional colleague.

Leaving aside discussion of the ‘realist’ perspective that Morgenthau adopts, two thoughts about the book come to mind.

It is a long book, No doubt the process of preparing a new edition requires a great deal of time and effort, but the ‘joins’ between the original and newer sections of the text are glaringly obvious. Some of this sixth edition, published in the mid-1980s, seems to be the original, unaltered text written in the ’40s. Then there is the briefest of discussions of Nato and the ‘European Communities’, which clearly dates from the ’50s. In the section on the United Nations, meanwhile, statistical information stops abruptly at 1965 — presumably when that portion of the book was last updated. Other parts of the book, on the other hand, talk in some detail about Reagan and developments in the 1980s. I’m not sure that I noticed it at the time but now it strikes me as rather unsatisfactory.

The main takeaway, however, is how much the international scene has changed. Even my sixth edition was published in a ‘bipolar’ world that assumed a global struggle for supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union. China was an impoverished minor actor on the world stage, taking its first faltering steps on the road to industrialisation. The environment is mentioned occasionally — though nothing as specific as climate change — and, according to the index, there is just a single reference in the whole book to terrorism.

15 June

As a longtime history teacher, I am listening in some despair to the ‘statues’ debate that has erupted following the death of George Floyd in the USA and to the discussion that surrounds it about the teaching of history. I was troubled by two comments from activists quoted in the Guardian in the last few days:

That history [of the nineteenth-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes] will never be erased, it’s a lived reality for people in southern Africa, but it needs to be contextualised, it needs to be accurately represented and not glorified in the way it is today.

Decolonising the curriculum means providing an accurate portrayal of history …

I instinctively find phrases like “accurately represented” and “accurate portrayal” alarming. What worries me is that, other than those on the right with their own small-‘c’ conservative agenda, nobody seems to be picking this up. Before commenting further, I want to go back over a few things in my head, so I am rereading In Defence of History by Richard J Evans.

18 June

I am not quite sure why I thought the Evans book would be particularly helpful. It was written in 1997, primarily in response to the rise of postmodernism and the threat to what most people would think of as history. My main takeaway from the book is what utter drivel many of the so-called ‘intellectual historians’ and philosophers of history — people who focus on the theory and writing of history, not on the events of history itself — write. They do themselves no favours. Time and again they express their ideas in overblown, pretentious language, — or, as they might say, ‘at an appropriate level of abstraction’. It is as if they believe that writing in a way that is deliberately abstruse and impenetrable somehow proves how profound and worthy it is.

I suppose the book reinforces my conviction that there is no single, universally agreed, true story of the past ‘out there’ waiting to be told in the correct way. Talk of “an accurate portrayal of history” is therefore less than helpful. Accurate — according to whom? Who gets to decide?

23 June

I headed to my local Waterstones again today. If anybody is reading this years in the future, a visit to a bookshop is indeed noteworthy because all the shops have been shut for months due to the coronavirus pandemic and are only slowly, tentatively, reopening their doors.

I don’t have the second volume of Richard Evans’ history of Nazi Germany (I am working my way through the three volumes), so I thought I would go into the shop to buy it and show my support. Surprisingly, neither their large-ish Preston branch nor the smaller Wigan branch stocked any of the three volumes. Anyway, I ordered it and it arrived within two working days. Well done, them.

Mooching around the ‘buy one get one half-price’ tables, I picked up the latest Ian McEwan novel, Machines Like Us, and a book I have been itching to buy for some time: How to Be Right by James O’Brien. It feels like the perfect time to get a bit of clear thinking from O’Brien. The online clips from his radio phone-in show really are essential listening.

In a media world dominated by right-wing newspapers, loudmouth columnists and shock-jocks, O’Brien’s is a rare voice of the moderate centre-left. He is hated by those on the opposing side in our ever more visceral culture wars. Of course I am biased but he really does strike me as a voice of reason, with a refreshing willingness (in the book at least) on things like wearing a burqa in public to say: ‘I’m not sure’.

30 June

Well, the James O’Brien book was a quick read — just two days — though it is one I will doubtless dip into again and again. The paperback edition includes a short afterword and is another reminder of why I very rarely buy ‘current affairs’ books. It was written in April 2019 and is about Brexit. But the political landscape is changing so quickly that, already, it feels completely out of date. Much journalistic commentary — however insightful the writer — is inevitably contingent and quotidian, quickly superseded by events. Tomorrow’s chip paper. That’s why, though very tempted, I have resisted buying any of the books published about the Trump presidency.

That’s also why I no longer buy biographies of serving prime ministers or other new faces suddenly propelled into the limelight. I think the first one I ever bought was Hugo Young’s biography of Thatcher, One of Us, written I think in 1989. She was defenestrated a year later. Such books — another one I bought in the mid-’80s is Mrs Thatcher’s Revolution, written by another Guardian columnist of the time, Peter Jenkins (late husband of Polly Toynbee) — are best read now as historical texts, offering an insight into the mindset of the times in which they were written, rather than as reliable, in-depth accounts of what happened.

And finally this month, a quick mention of two films that I have just caught up with: Philomena and On Chesil Beach. Both absolutely delightful. Both unbearably sad. Both wonderfully acted. More thoughts on these and other things next month.

British Politics and Failures of Leadership

Photo: Getty. Retrieved from https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/elections/2019/01/who-ll-blink-first-stand-between-jeremy-corbyn-and-theresa-may

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there

Robert Browning

Well, almost there. At time of writing, the end of March beckons. Our gardens and open spaces are reawakening, the evenings are stretching their limbs, the weather is more friendly. Time to look forward to summer? Alas, no. Like an evil sorcerer, Covid-19 has cast its malignant spell over us all, playing tricks with our perceptions of time itself. We are in a race against time to hold back and then defeat the disease, but rarely has time seemed so relative. For those on the front line, under-resourced and overworked, time must be a blur. For the rest of us, meanwhile, confined to our homes for much of the day practising self-isolation or social distancing, time is slowing.

We are currently in partial lockdown. Everything not directly coronavirus-related seems like an irrelevance. But politics and the political process do not stop (though parliament itself has now risen for four weeks). The government still governs and, perhaps more than ever, MPs of all parties have a duty to fulfil one of their key functions — scrutinising those in power and holding them to account.

Our government — like all governments around the world — is being tested like never before in peacetime history, led by a prime minister only months into the job. What follows is not about the government’s handling of the current crisis, but it is a reminder that, when we make our choice at the ballot box — or when we don’t bother, for that matter — we have no idea what perils await those we elect. Events, dear boy. Events.

It is a sobering thought, one that suggests an interesting question: which UK administration ranks as the worst of modern times — ‘worst’ in the sense of ‘dysfunctional, not up to the job’?

The Eden government (1955–57) made a calamitous error of judgement over Suez, and Eden was out of office before really getting his feet under the prime ministerial table. The short-lived Douglas-Home government (1963–64) is but a footnote in the history books. The 1970s was a troubled, tempestuous decade but — though we might argue all day about strategic direction and individual policies — it is less easy to make the case for gross incompetence. Rather the opposite, in fact.

For a long time, my answer to the question would have been the government of John Major. For someone who first took an interest in politics in the Thatcher era — with its endless refrain of ‘competent Conservatives / incompetent Labour’ — it was hard to resist at least a frisson of schadenfreude watching a Conservative government taking ineptitude and mismanagement to new levels — the Black Wednesday debacle, in-fighting over Europe (the prime minister characterised fellow cabinet members as “bastards”), the citizen’s charter, back to basics.

A sorry list of mostly self-inflicted woe.

So the award used to go to John Major’s government … until, that is, Theresa May came along in 2016, picking up the pieces of David Cameron’s twelve-month-long “strong and stable” government. She played a fiendishly tricky hand badly, like a poor poker player on a run of rotten luck. Brexit brought paralysis; like dementors in Harry Potter World, it sucked up all the government’s energy and left devastation in its wake.

To switch metaphors, May charted an impossible course with her ridiculous red lines and appointed hardline Brexiteers to steer the ship. Parliament was treated with utter disdain until the government lost its majority and was forced to concede ground in one area after another. Inflexibility was the watchword, her lack of even basic interpersonal skills brilliantly captured by John Crace’s Maybot caricature in The Guardian.

For nearly three years May’s government tacked to the right rather than seeking a viable way forward, a parliamentary compromise around which elements of all parties might coalesce. This sorry chapter will figure prominently in future histories of the Conservatives — the party of Stanley Baldwin, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath shunning pragmatic, moderate centrists such as David Gauke, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve and instead embracing the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Francois and Priti Patel, blinkered, ludicrous and repulsive in equal measure.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — elected, and then triumphantly re-elected, by an unprecedented number of party members, many of them recent recruits — failed to lay a glove.

For a lifelong protester, Corbyn is a surprisingly poor public speaker. He is leaden and flat-footed at the Commons despatch box. With Prime Minister’s Questions the only bit of parliament that many voters see, this matters. Time and again he had May’s hapless front bench at his mercy; time and again he proved incapable of delivering a decisive blow. It was backbench heavyweights who hit hardest — the likes of Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper. The single most electrifying contribution of the last parliament was arguably Margaret Beckett’s speech of 4 December 2018 during one of the many, many Brexit debates.

I have argued elsewhere that Brexit confronted Labour with an impossible conundrum, but Brexit alone did not undermine Corbyn. The fact is, he has proved to be a poor leader. Corbyn is a campaigner, a maverick, an outsider; the march, rally or hastily assembled protest meeting is his comfort zone. He thrives on berating others for their lack of ideological purity but is deeply uncomfortable making the hard choices that leadership requires. To (slightly) rework an old saying, to lead is to choose.

The 2019 election result was neither shock nor surprise: despite nine years of austerity, the implosion of Cameron’s government and three years of utterly shambolic Brexit negotiations, the Labour Party consistently scored badly in opinion polls. The election campaign itself was awful — flat and uninspiring, as wet as the late-autumn season. We read of resources directed to the wrong seats, of poor campaign coordination. We can point to ill-judged policy announcements like broadband and WASPI women, and of a car-crash interview with Andrew Neil. But this runs the risk of deflecting the blame onto party officials or his de facto deputy, John McDonnell. The stark reality is that, in this highly presidential campaign, Corbyn wasn’t up to the job.

With so much hindsightery, it’s worth quoting a tweet from the excellent political journalist Steve Richards. It was written on 17 November, four weeks before election day:

Historians will wonder with good cause why J Corbyn and J Swinson gave B Johnson an election on the date he wanted and at the height of his prime ministerial honeymoon. They were leaders in a hung parliament with considerable powers to determine an election timing and much more.

Steve Richards, political journalist, 17 November 2019 (on Twitter)

Historians will also speculate on what led them to take the fateful decision.

Perhaps it was hubris — pride, arrogance, excessive self-confidence — which, as the ancient Greek playwrights worked out, always ends badly. Facing the pitiful May government in parliament, rarely a speech or intervention seemed to end without an impassioned demand for an immediate general election. But like Bernie Sanders predicting the “beginning of the end” for Trump after the New Hampshire primary in January 2020, it was empty rhetoric, nothing more than bluff and bluster, the cut and thrust of parliamentary swashbuckling. Along came Johnson and called their bluff.

The Liberal Democrats’ support for an election at least made some kind of sense: the party had a clearly articulated (if controversial) position on the central Brexit issue; they were for a time polling above 20% and had performed well in the earlier European elections; and they seemed genuinely to be on a surge, their tally of MPs growing by the week due to regular defections from the two main parties.

Add to the mix a sprinkling of groupthink. All leaders surround themselves with like-minded thinkers and ‘yes’-people. But the Corbyn phenomenon has been something else, more akin to a cult. Consider the signs: a devoted band of followers; a narrative setting out simplistic explanations for what is wrong with the world and equally simplistic solutions; intolerance of dissent and excoriation of non-followers. How ironic, then, that another of the features of a cult — a charismatic, supposedly omniscient leader — is something that Corbyn most assuredly is not.

The takeaway from the 1992 election was that it was John Major’s soapbox ‘wot won it’ for the Conservatives, an unlikely victory when defeat seemed on the cards: good old John, man of the people, doing things the old-fashioned way etc. And so, right on cue on the first day of the 1997 election, there he was on his soapbox, as if this would somehow make a 20-point poll deficit magically disappear. The strategy had spectacularly failed to differentiate between cause and correlation: A followed by B does not necessarily mean that A caused B.

Fast-forward to the 2019 election. The thinking seems to have gone something like this: Corbyn had a good campaign in 2017 (let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that Labour lost) so just do the same thing this time around. Let Corbyn be Corbyn, to borrow an idea from The West Wing: set him free on the campaign trail, meeting real people, generating a sense of momentum (sic) and all will turn out for the best. In other words, ignore the clear signs of popular disillusionment after years of parliamentary paralysis, ignore the polling evidence, ignore the catastrophic impact of the antisemitism charge on the leadership’s credibility, ignore the time of year — the short days and long, dark evenings, the cold, the rain. All will turn out for the best. Except, it didn’t.

In a few days — voting ends on 2 April — the Labour Party membership will have chosen a new leader and deputy leader. An election campaign that feels like it has been going on forever, without at any point igniting the interest of the wider public, seems like an irrelevance in the midst of a global emergency. It is, in fact, anything but. As was noted in the opening few lines, politics and the political process go on, and there is important work to do in holding the government to account. But there is another reason too. In the 1920s the Liberal Party went through a catastrophic status update — from one of the two great parties of government to third-party irrelevance. The next Labour leadership team may well determine whether the Labour Party goes the same way in the 2020s.

Click to read some thoughts on Brexit, the 2019 election and the state of British politics.

Brexit, the 2019 Election and the State of British Politics

For someone who locates himself somewhere on the political left, the outcome of the 2019 general election was shattering and sobering, though surely not entirely unexpected: a substantial Commons majority for the Conservatives — memo to self: look up the definition of ‘landslide’ — and, what is worse, talk of ‘powerful’ mandates, ten years of Conservative rule and a ‘Boris revolution’. Note: this is the sole reference to ‘Boris’ and deliberately placed in inverted commas.

Unfortunately, election promises — especially Johnson promises — are, like many Christmas toys, cheaply made and easily broken.

Diogenes

It is possible that Johnson’s large parliamentary majority and the largesse promised to, and seats secured in, formerly solid Labour areas will free him of the urge to tack to the right in order to satisfy the whims of erstwhile ERG allies. Unfortunately, election promises — especially Johnson promises — are, like many Christmas toys, cheaply made and easily broken. We will know more after Javid’s next budget (expected in February 2020) and the forthcoming multi-annual spending review, but the early signs do not augur well.

The revised EU Withdrawal Agreement largely stripped away previous guarantees of workers’ rights, regulatory standards compliance and parliamentary scrutiny. Meanwhile, though a New Year’s Eve announcement of a 6.2% increase in the minimum wage is welcome, earlier promises to increase the minimum wage to £10.50 over five years now come with a small-print caveat — “provided economic conditions allow”.

The Labour Party in 2019 faces a threat to its existence as grave as that of 1979-83. The loss of heartland seats such as Bolsover is historic …

Diogenes

Chapter 22 of (probably) my favourite set of political memoirs — Denis Healey’s The Time of My Life — covers the years after Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979: he called it Labour in Travail. The Labour Party in 2019 faces a threat to its existence as grave as that of 1979–83. The loss of heartland seats such as Bolsover is historic, though we don’t of course yet know if this represents a permanent shift in the political tectonic plates.

The facts and figures are not encouraging for Labour supporters. Since Harold Wilson’s 98-seat majority in 1966 — 53 years ago, at the time of writing — Tony Blair is the only Labour leader to be elected with a parliamentary majority. Assuming that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is repealed, Labour’s next realistic chance of forming a majority government is likely to be 2028 at the earliest, 23 years after Blair’s last victory in 2005. How we lefties hooted in 1997 when the Conservatives were wiped out in Scotland, with Labour winning 56 of the 72 seats. In 2019, Labour won just a single seat out of the available 59.

The first time I didn’t vote Labour — I usually do, with a greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm — was my first general election in 1987. A student at Reading University (which is actually in the Wokingham constituency), I voted tactically for the SDP–Liberal Alliance candidate, defiantly denting John ‘Vulcan’ Redwood’s 20,000-ish Conservative majority by one.

December 2019 was the latest time that X didn’t mark the spot. I certainly wasn’t the only wandering voter, though I doubt too many people joined me in spoiling my ballot paper by scrawling None of the above. Bring back Tony Blair across it.

The influence of the media

Anti-Corbyn or anti-Labour media bias as an explanation for Labour’s defeat — the term ‘media’ used here to refer to the highly regulated broadcast media, the privately owned print media and social media, which is largely unregulated — lacks plausibility.

It is platitudinous to argue that howls of anguish from both sides means that the BBC has ‘got it about right’. Equally, the claim of overt broadcaster bias is risible …

Diogenes

For every complaint about an anti-Labour agenda or a bias against Corbyn, the attack-dogs of the right make exactly the opposite charge about the broadcast media — though not, of course, about the print media — particularly about the BBC. It is platitudinous to argue that howls of anguish from both sides means that the BBC has ‘got it about right’. Equally, the claim of overt broadcaster bias is risible, from whatever quarter it comes.

Andrew Neil’s skewering of Corbyn needs to be seen alongside the same broadcaster’s no-holds-barred interviews with other party leaders and particularly his five-minute empty-seating of Johnson. Andrew Marr’s fussy interview with Johnson generated 12,000 viewer complaints (some, at least, no doubt submitted at the behest of CCHQ).

For all the accusations of an institutional liberal-left bias at the BBC, we should remember that there are plenty of former Conservative Party personnel who hold key positions in the organisation. I wonder what Sarah Sands and Nick Robinson — both formerly prominent Conservative supporters — think of the (probably) Dominic Cummings-inspired boycott of the Today programme by senior ministers.

Perhaps doubters from both sides need to be force-fed an hour of Fox News.

The print media, meanwhile, has always been overwhelmingly anti-Labour in modern times. When, in 1992, a Sun front-page headline requested that the last person to leave Britain in the event of a Labour victory switch off the lights, the paper was selling around 4 million copies per day compared to around 1.4 million in 2019. Newspapers and their owners still wield influence, of course — it is a worry, for example, how much the daily television news agenda is influenced by newspaper headlines — but influence in what circles?

Social media feeds on our algorithmically determined preferences and prejudices, generating sensationalist soundbites and clickbait headlines, devoid of context or even of meaning. Lies are peddled as fact; ludicrous assertions are left unchallenged, bouncing around the echo chamber.

Diogenes

Many ‘ordinary’ voters — as opposed to political geeks and those who inhabit the Westminster bubble — increasingly consume their news via social media rather than from newspapers or TV news. Sadly, this is almost certainly damaging our political culture. Social media feeds on our algorithmically determined preferences and prejudices, generating sensationalist soundbites and clickbait headlines, devoid of context or even of meaning. Lies are peddled as fact; ludicrous assertions are left unchallenged, bouncing around the echo chamber.

But there is no reason why this development — good or bad — should disadvantage the Labour Party over and above their rivals: if anything, social media demographics ought to work in Labour’s favour. An excellent media analysis in the Guardian quoted Dr Richard Fletcher of the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute: “One of the clearest differences is that most of those on the left prefer to get news online, and most of those on the right prefer to get it offline.”

But social media benefits those with the best lines, and in 2019 the best line of all consisted of just three words: Get Brexit Done.

Brexit

One Friday evening sometime during one of Theresa May’s parliamentary debacles — it’s impossible to pinpoint the specific one; there were so many — a brief pub conversation with a friend of a friend about the dismal performances of our local football team somehow strayed into Brexit territory. That I should be discussing politics at the bar of my local with someone I barely know is itself an indication of the extent to which Brexit weaves its malign magic.

And yet this shameless hyperbole was offered up so calmly, so matter-of-factly, as if pointing out a plain, unremarkable, common-sense fact along the lines of night following day, Saturday following Friday.

Diogenes

I was dumbfounded to hear him — an ordinary, unassuming chap in his seventies: friendly, mild-mannered, level-headed — assert that we (the British people) have been slaves for 40 years — yes, slaves. Stunned by this, my immediate reaction was ridicule, to mimic walking around as if lugging a ball and chain. And yet this shameless hyperbole was offered up so calmly, so matter-of-factly, as if pointing out a plain, unremarkable, common-sense fact along the lines of night following day, Saturday following Friday.

The issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe has obsessed the political classes since the days of ‘splendid isolation’ and long before; most ‘ordinary’ people, on the other hand, have been completely uninterested except, obviously, in times of war. An Ipsos MORI poll conducted during the 1992 general election campaign — the year of the Maastricht Treaty — asked voters to identify their top two or three issues of concern: 4% cited Europe and 1% cited immigration. As recently as 2010, an Ipsos MORI analysis of that year’s general election suggests that, though 14% cited asylum / immigration as a key issue, Europe was not one of the sixteen issues that registered at least 3%.

… the impact of Brexit on the Conservative Party has in some respects been at least as transformative, not to say revolutionary, as the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Diogenes

The Europe question has bedevilled both main political parties — it was Labour’s Harold Wilson who called the referendum in 1975, suspending collective cabinet responsibility for the campaign’s duration in an attempt to keep the party together — but the impact of Brexit on the Conservative Party has in some respects been at least as transformative, not to say revolutionary, as the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Anti-EU zealots, long in the wilderness, now wield significant influence at the highest levels, including in Cabinet. The Conservatives’ Brexit strategy over the last three years has placed severe strains on our constitutional arrangements and conventions. Moderates such as Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve have effectively been cast adrift, some even expelled from the party. Astonishingly, during the election campaign, a former Conservative prime minister and deputy prime minister — John Major and Michael Heseltine respectively — urged voters to vote tactically against official Conservative candidates, with Major earlier threatening to take the Conservative government to court.

Listening to the government’s repeated insistence on the need to leave the EU single market in order to forge new trade deals around the world, it is worth remembering that Conservatives’ Euro-scepticism (as it used to be termed) was always political in origin and nature rather than economic — hostility to what they saw as the federalist project of ever-closer union. It was, after all, Margaret Thatcher who negotiated the Single European Act in the 1980s that paved the way for the single market and, though this is seldom mentioned in Thatcherite circles, monetary union.

In an interview with Sky News as recently as 2013, Boris Johnson said: “I’d vote to stay in the single market. I’m in favour of the single market.” In the same year, arch-Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom said that leaving the EU would be “a disaster for our economy and it would lead to a decade of economic and political uncertainty at a time when the tectonic plates of global success are moving.”

Suddenly, any such ‘Norway-style’ arrangement keeping Britain in or closely aligned to the single market has become a betrayal. This post-referendum Conservative and Unionist government — to give the party its full title — has also agreed a Withdrawal Agreement that puts in place separate customs arrangements for Northern Ireland. This is despite Johnson specifically and unequivocally denouncing the idea at the DUP annual conference in 2018.

Without doubt, the government’s Brexit policy has already severely weakened the Union and could potentially lead to its break-up. The Conservative Party of old used to accuse the left of constitutional vandalism: they, by contrast, posed as guardians of the integrity of the United Kingdom.

No longer, it seems. According to a YouGov poll in June 2019, a clear majority of Conservative Party members are prepared to countenance the break-up of the Union in order to achieve Brexit — 63% with respect to Scotland and 59% with respect to Northern Ireland. Extraordinary stuff.

From nowhere, Europe — more specifically our relationship to it — has become an existential issue for the general public, as bizarre and irrational in the visceral reactions it generates as arguments over religion in days of old …

Diogenes

But Brexit has spread its poison far beyond the Conservative Party. From nowhere, Europe — more specifically our relationship to it — has become an existential issue for the general public, as bizarre and irrational in the visceral reactions it generates as arguments over religion in days of old, when disagreements over such arcana as consubstantiation and transubstantiation, and justification by deeds or by faith alone, were often literally a matter of life and death.

Rather than healing divisions, as David Cameron had naively hoped, the legacy of the referendum has been three years (and counting) of anger, frustration and bitterness and, if claims that this was ‘the Brexit election’ are perhaps overstated — at least to the extent that issues such as health, the climate crisis and leaders’ trustworthiness were also widely debated — there seems little doubt that Brexit swayed many people’s vote.

… ‘Brexit’ stands, at least in part, as a proxy for other issues — from concrete concerns about immigration, about job insecurity and poverty, and about haves and have-nots to less tangible feelings of displacement and disconnect, of unease in changing times and of dissatisfaction with our political institutions.

Diogenes

On the reasonable assumption that people don’t deliberately vote to make their country poorer, ‘Brexit’ stands, at least in part, as a proxy for other issues — from concrete concerns about immigration, about job insecurity and poverty, and about haves and have-nots to less tangible feelings of displacement and disconnect, of unease in changing times and of dissatisfaction with our political institutions.

Concerns such as these resonate above all in poorer communities, particularly the former industrial heartlands that have largely missed out on the benefits of economic modernisation and globalisation — in other words, Labour-voting communities. Here was Labour’s Brexit conundrum: an instinctively Remain party whose traditional base largely voted to leave. It is one that the party leadership singularly failed to solve.

The question of Brexit quickly became the unilateral nuclear disarmament issue of our times, exposing a key fault line in the party’s cross-class coalition of support. Like unilateralism in the 1980s, opposition to Brexit was a policy espoused passionately and instinctively by Labour’s middle-class membership — young, university-educated, city-based, cosmopolitan in outlook and lifestyle — but largely alien to its traditional working-class base.

But Brexit alone cannot explain Labour’s catastrophic election …

Click here to read more thoughts about British politics and failures of leadership.

Enlightenment Now: Book Review

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world – fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy.

Diogenes

Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker (2018 edition)

I agree with Bill.

Gates, that is. Bill Gates. The front cover of the paperback edition of Enlightenment Now boasts a striking quote from the co-founder of Microsoft, multi-billionaire and philanthropist: “My new favourite book of all time”. Hyperbole? Well, perhaps, but Enlightenment Now is good, very good — an absolute must-read for progressives in these benighted times.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

Steven Pinker first appeared on my radar about six years ago when I took a chance on The Better Angels of Our Nature, the ‘other’ book in a Waterstones ‘Buy one, get one half-price’ offer. Something of a punt in the dark, this impulse purchase demonstrated the influence the high-street chain exerts through its store layout choices and promotional campaigns. Would I have selected the book in any other circumstances? Almost certainly not. Knowing nothing of the author (of whom, more below), the book was shouting ‘trendy’ (to be clear, that’s a bad thing), but I was intrigued by its self-stylisation as “a history of violence and humanity” as well as its breathtaking ambition. It wasn’t always like this.

By way of background, a mea culpa: I plead guilty to years of appalling narrow-mindedness. From sixth-form days way back when, my reading interests extended little further than modern British and European history and politics. One shelf after another filled up with books drawn from a narrow circle of academic historians, political biographers, politicians, broadsheet journalists — or some combination of the above, people like Michael Foot. Hidebound by conservatism, I indulged year after year in comfort reading, to the extent even of skipping the arts and culture surveys to be found in most general histories.

The rigid compartmentalisation condemned in CP Snow’s Two Cultures (which Pinker references) — the one scientific, the other literary — ensured that I neglected even to entertain the notion that a science-grounded book could be read for pleasure. This was less intellectual snobbery (Snow’s charge) and more the absence of three key intellectual attributes on my part: a solid grasp of basic science and mathematics, confidence and — most important of all — curiosity. Reluctant to sail beyond the near horizon, seasickness struck whenever I dared venture out of sight of the calm, comforting shores of modern political history.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

My own enlightenment — if that is not too grand a word — came achingly slowly, beginning with the occasional history of some earlier time or place; my interest in Marxism led me to the English Civil War, for example. Peter Ackroyd’s felicitous prose was a sure guide through the byways of early England, having chanced upon the initial volume of his planned six-volume history from a shop specialising in remaindered books (volume five came out recently). The Shield of Achilles by Phillip Bobbitt was a challenging but rewarding introduction to multi-disciplinary writing. By the time I picked up Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History about ten years ago, I was sold: an ambitious, sprawling ‘intellectual history’ of just about everything — from the beginnings of civilisation, language, religion and writing to the turn of the twentieth century and Freud, Nietzsche and modernism. Watson’s A Terrible Beauty is equally good on modern times.

I credit the incomparable Richard Dawkins with curing my myopia, enabling me to see that the scientific community is equally capable of writing in an elegant and arresting manner. The God Delusion combined an impressive knowledge of religion and ethics with science, history and philosophy. Now I read the likes of Climbing Mount Improbable and The Ancestor’s Tale for pleasure, even if the science quickly passes over my head (though Dawkins’s more recent The Magic of Reality — written for young people but great for buffoons like me — is a splendid introduction to the mysteries of the scientific world). A Damascene conversion of sorts.

Better Angels, then, chimed with my new-found interest in culture and ideas, principally science, philosophy and religion, and sprawling thematic histories. It delivered in spades. A Harvard professor, Pinker’s field is cognitive science, which (as best as I can narrow it down) involves the study of the use of language, the workings of the brain and psychology, the mind and human nature. But Pinker’s writing is a polymathic tour-de-force: he seems equally at ease with history, philosophy, political science, linguistics and statistics. He writes with utter believability, supporting his arguments with a staggering array of empirical evidence, regularly citing up-to-date research and effortlessly deploying pithy quotes from thinkers old and new.

His recent Enlightenment Now picks up the same central argument as Better Angels that — notwithstanding your everyday impressions and assumptions — the world is in fact becoming a better place. Not perfect, note, but better. Not the smallest achievement of the book is the reproduction of 88 graphs, carrying data on everything from calorie intake and childhood stunting to retirement, life satisfaction and loneliness, in order to demonstrate in visual form his core argument about human progress.

At first read, his thesis feels counter-intuitive and simply wrong, at odds with the news that confronts us every single day (he has a convincing theory about this too, of course). Just in the last few days, for example, we have read of an appalling massacre in Sri Lanka, of civil war in Libya, of unrest in Algeria and Sudan, of continuing austerity, cuts and rising debt, of rising knife crime, of air pollution, of species extinction and of other climate-change perils. A typical newsweek, in other words.

The sceptic might choose to start with Pinker’s thought experiment. Ask yourself when in history you would want to be born, assuming that you had no control over where in the world you were born, your economic and social circumstances, your gender, your skin colour, the state of your mental and physical health and so on. The answer, he says, is an emphatic one: you would want to be born now.

Pinker focuses not on the ephemeral, the quotidian or the blip — the stuff of the daily headlines — but on longer-term patterns and trends. The core of the book is a demonstration of his belief that human progress is an empirical hypothesis that can be tested. In one scintillating chapter after another, he does exactly that, examining everything from personal safety and war to education, health, longevity and so on.

Pinker is clear-sighted about the enemies of progress: intuition, religious faith and scripture, authority and unquestioned obedience. Too often, we deny the very fact of progress, and he outlines a variety of fallacies and cognitive biases — the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, negativity bias and so on — to which we are all prone. This is gripping stuff, our all-too-human flaws and failings. We are often unreasoning and irrational, generalising from anecdotes, seeking to confirm prior beliefs, reasoning from stereotypes, ignoring evidence that disconfirms and so on. Nevertheless, his case is that, since the Enlightenment two hundred years ago, we have used reason and science to improve our knowledge and understanding, to overcome our cognitive weaknesses and thereby enhance human flourishing.

He rejects the idea of any kind of ‘Grand Plan’, a cosmic force of God, nature or history propelling us inexorably forward. Progress has been hard-won and must not be taken for granted. We have learned to use the tools of reason to combat unreason and irrationality: free speech and open criticism, fact checking, empirical testing and sober, logical analysis. Pinker is a champion of science and scientific reasoning, and of humanism, the belief that the ultimate moral purpose is to enhance the flourishing of individual human beings (as opposed to the tribe, race, faith etc). He argues that forces of cosmopolitanism — education, art, mobility, urbanisation — have helped develop what he calls our ‘circle of sympathy’, our sense of compassion, our ability to empathise and our concern for the welfare of others. I remember a similar point being made about the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century by, I think, Sebastian Faulks.

Pinker is difficult to categorise. It would certainly be far too simplistic to pigeon-hole him as a ‘lefty liberal’. He believes in the efficacy of free trade, market-based economics and free enterprise (though not of unregulated, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism), detests ‘political correctness’ — something else that he believes inhibits progress by feeding the false narrative of populists and anti-progressives — and espouses a variety of policy positions anathema to many on the left. He is sanguine about developments in artificial intelligence, adopts a moderate position on climate change (in a nutshell, we have serious problems but it’s not all doom and gloom, and extreme solutions are not the answer) and supports nuclear power and genetic modification of crops.

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world: fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy. Michael Gove famously claimed during the 2016 Brexit referendum that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”. Pinker loudly and proudly proclaims the value of learning and of experts. He offers hope, but it is hope grounded not in faith but in reason and in evidence, welcome sustenance for even the most Panglossian of optimists.

Darkest Hour: Film Review

‘Darkest Hour’ offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains. In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision — his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb.

Diogenes

The year is 1940 and Britain is in dire straits. Abroad, the German army is sweeping across western Europe, a defeatist mentality paralyses the French top ranks, and the British army faces imminent annihilation at Dunkirk, probably to be followed by the invasion of Britain itself. At home, Churchill must negotiate a fragile coalition government, a divided Conservative Party, and rebellious and ambitious cabinet colleagues.

Darkest Hour, the 2017 film starring Gary Oldman that deals with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, inevitably resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst: the UK’s relationship with the European continent is currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, with not a little hyperbolic talk about existential threats to our freedom and independence.

An example of a meme circulated on social media during the Brexit debate.

These tumultuous events of 1940 and Britain’s survival were, of course, exhaustively mined by Britain’s wartime propaganda machine, turning calamitous defeat and near-disaster into a form of national triumph. Ministry of Information shorts, such as Channel Incident (starring a young Peggy Ashcroft) and Neighbours Under Fire, trumpeted the indomitable will of the British people – the ‘Very Well, Alone’ mood of popular defiance also captured in David Low’s cartoons of the time and the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ in the face of the Luftwaffe’s aerial onslaught.

Widely circulated on social media in October 2018

I have discussed elsewhere the issue of ‘fake history’ and film — questions of historical accuracy and fidelity to the facts, the portrayal of people and events from the past, and the inevitable trade-off between historical ‘truth’ and entertainment. What makes Darkest Hour compelling viewing — beyond undeniable echoes in our current political travails — is the knowledge that those wartime propaganda lines about defiance and British exceptionalism have now been resurrected and shamelessly peddled by cheerleaders in the diehard Brexit camp to support their views about the Brexit negotiations, the opportunities and threats posed by a no-deal outcome, and our current crop of political leaders.

Darkest Hour includes virtually no scenes of actual fighting, though the reality of Britain’s perilous strategic position casts its shadow across virtually every scene. The focus of the film is essentially Winston Churchill, hailed by many — especially on the right — as our national saviour. In 2002 (Golden Jubilee year, of course), he was proclaimed the greatest Briton in a BBC poll, and ‘he’ featured prominently in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. To be fair, and perhaps in an indication of our changing national temper (or maybe just a reflection of the BBC2 audience), he lost out to Alan Turing and others in a 2019 BBC poll of the twentieth century’s greatest icon.

Churchill is arguably the most instantly recognisable figure from our past: the huge cigar, the V-for-Victory salute and the wobbly jowls delivering soaring oratory are etched into the popular consciousness. One effect of biographies and biopics (the good ones, anyway) is to flesh out and ‘humanize’ distant figures, uncovering something of the real person behind the myth. In Darkest Hour, we see glimpses of the husband and family man, the man of privilege baffled by the Tube map, the playful man giggling with the secretarial staff and (crucially) the man of doubt. His eccentricities and larger-than-life character are fully on display, dictating memos from his bed (and from the bathroom), consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, berating his personal staff for the slightest of errors.

One cannot help but feel that aspects of Churchill’s personal conduct, long dismissed — perhaps even applauded — as quirky, eccentric and idiosyncratic, would in today’s #MeToo climate be condemned as unacceptable bullying and sexist behaviour. Films about personalities and events from the past nevertheless reflect the mood, norms and expectations of the times in which they were made. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges for director and scriptwriter.

The secretary Elizabeth Layton is assigned a key role in the script.

In the film, a key role is therefore assigned to a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary, the script manoeuvres her close to the action and the locus of power, often involving her in intimate, one-to-one situations with Churchill (intimate in the sense that both can reveal hidden worries and doubts). Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

Darkest Hour offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains (with, in this case, Neville Chamberlain perhaps somewhere in the middle). In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision — his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb. He becomes forgetful and — the ultimate catastrophe for a politician feted for his ability to communicate — struggles to find the words, before rediscovering his mojo with the help of the great British public in the controversial ‘Underground’ scene — controversial in the sense that it is purely fictional.

The George VI portrayed here is very different from the vulnerable king in The King’s Speech

The George VI presented to us is also of interest. Though the icy relationship between Churchill and the king thaws somewhat as the film progresses, the viewer will struggle to reconcile this monarch with Colin Firth’s portrayal in The King’s Speech. In the latter, he is warm, vulnerable and all-too-human. Here, he is remote, cold, bigoted and snobbish. The scene where he surreptitiously wipes his hand behind his back after it has been kissed by Churchill is particularly telling. Later, in an ironic turn, it is the king who urges the prime minister to listen to the voice of the people, precipitating Churchill’s journey of rediscovery on the Underground.

The role of arch-baddie is, however, reserved for Lord Halifax, the king’s confidant and political puppet-master, pulling Chamberlain’s strings in a bid to engineer a compromise peace with Hitler, thus preventing a German invasion and safeguarding the British Empire. He is calculating and scheming, refusing to take on the role of prime minister after Chamberlain’s resignation as the time is ‘not yet right’. The England (sic) he cherishes and seeks to preserve is that of the upper-class gentleman and country estate, a land of strict social division, of privilege and entitlement. Compare this with the portrayal of the ordinary Englishman and Englishwoman: patriotic, decent and resolute.

Films recreating events from the past must find imaginative ways to contextualise events, plugging gaps in the viewer’s historical knowledge and ensuring that the storyline makes sense. Here, for example, Churchill explains to someone who would have known the situation perfectly well that the king disliked him because he (Churchill) supported his (George’s) brother’s desire to marry Wallis Simpson. To establish the reasons for Churchill’s unpopularity with many Tories, we are offered a montage of politicians in whispered discussion, each with a gripe against Churchill: it is a ‘greatest hits’ of his errors and failings — serial infidelity to the Conservative Party, Gallipoli, India and the return to the Gold Standard.

The House of Commons as theatre

The scenes in the Chamber of the House of Commons are pure theatre — the bear-pit atmosphere and the dramatic lighting, as if a solitary spotlight were picking out the speaker at the despatch box, with the surrounding benches (front and back) almost in darkness, the more so to accentuate order papers furiously batting the air.

The debates themselves do not (inevitably) ring particularly true. For example, the two-day debate that led to Chamberlain’s resignation is here shortened to about five minutes. Labour’s Clement Attlee is forensic and withering, far too much so, if the recent biography by John Below is to be trusted. Crucially, the damning verdict of backbench Conservative MP Leo Amery, invoking Cromwell to the Rump Parliament — “In the name of God, go!” — is expunged from the record, as it wouldn’t serve the narrative, namely that Churchill did not have the Tory backbenches behind him and that his support came from the Labour benches. To the end, Chamberlain appears to command the loyalty of the Conservative MPs, a surreptitious wave of the handkerchief his signal to the backbench troops whether or not to show their support for the new prime minister.

Some of the points made in this article were also made in the article ‘Fake History’ and Film.

Ralph Miliband Biography Review

A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles — not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

Diogenes

Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left by Michael Newman

Twenty years on, I can still vividly recall scanning the shelves of the university library — me, an eager second-year history/politics undergraduate — in search of a Marxist critique of fascism and happening across a book by Nicos Poulantzas. Three hours, one much-thumbed dictionary, two headache tablets and five pages later, I gave up. My next encounter with the World of Marx was Professor David McLellan’s 1973 biography of Marx himself: well researched and worthy, to be sure, but dense and daunting for the uninitiated. Finding Ralph Miliband was something of a revelation, therefore, for here was a academic — what’s more, an avowedly Marxist academic — with both the ability and the willingness to elucidate Marxist ideas in an accessible way.

Miliband’s most influential book — The State in Capitalist Society — transformed the political sciences in the 1970s and provoked a famous debate with the aforementioned Poulantzas, in part concerning the role and importance of abstract theorising. Poulantzas championed an ultra-theoretical school of Marxism that shunned empiricism and seemed to glory in abstruse theorisation. For these ‘Althusserians’, Marxism had its own discourse, purposely distinct from much of the terminology and assumptions of ‘bourgeois’ debate and thus intelligible only to those who could decode its arcane meanings. Miliband, on the other hand, always sought to test even the most basic of assumptions within the Marxist tradition with reference to the ‘real world’. Moreover, Marxism was much more than a theory for Miliband: it was a guide to action.

As Michael Newman’s book shows, Miliband was an academic, a teacher but, above all, a committed socialist, happiest when he felt he was contributing to the advancement of the left. Thus, in Parliamentary Socialism — the book that secured his international reputation in 1962 — by analysing the reasons for the Labour Party’s failure to implement ‘socialism’, he was implicitly offering a guide to future action. Apart from a brief flirtation with the Bevanites in the 1950s and the Bennite left in the 1980s, Miliband kept his distance from the Labour Party, highly sceptical as he was of its efficacy as an agent of socialist change. He spent his adult life in the ultimately fruitless search for a suitable vehicle to secure a political breakthrough, wedded to the belief that only a class-based political party could do so.

Born in 1924 into a Jewish home, Miliband’s political consciousness was awakened by the Nazi menace in the late-1930s. Though the death camps cast a dark shadow over his childhood and youth, Miliband was one of a number of European refugees who escaped the clutches of the Nazis, finding sanctuary in Britain and going on to form the nucleus of a radical intelligentsia that helped shape the cultural, academic and — to an extent — political landscape of the 1960s and early-70s. Indeed, Miliband lived through a remarkable, if turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful, period for the left. This book is in part, therefore, also a history of the British left from the twin crises caused by de-Stalinisation and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 through the upheavals of 1968 to the challenge of Thatcherism and the collapse of Soviet-type communism.

In writing the book, Newman had access to family, friends and Miliband’s own letters and papers, including a diary and notes made in 1983 for a planned but never completed autobiography. Newman uses this impressive selection of primary source material to paint a convincing portrait of the ‘private’ man as well as the more familiar public figure. His style is — like Miliband’s own — both accessible and, on the whole, eminently readable. A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles, not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

On the other hand, given the breadth of Miliband’s interests and concerns, judicious editing might have resulted in a more balanced book. Several extracts from Miliband’s work are quoted verbatim and at excessive length. Elsewhere, 13 pages are devoted to ‘the troubles’ at the LSE in 1968 and an entire chapter to his involvement in a campaign for academic freedom. This particular reader frankly hoped for less description and rather more in the way of reflection on matters such as Miliband’s position on academic freedom (which was somewhat inconsistent), his widening disagreements with others on the New Left vis-à-vis the nature and role of the working class by the 1980s and the wisdom of his wish to see a Marxist party of a non-dogmatic nature filling the void between the Labour Party and the Leninist CPGB (which he held in little short of contempt). Tightly written summaries of Miliband’s ideas and actions and relevant narrative would have given Newman more space for his own analysis, commentary and judgements.

This review relates to the edition published in 2002 by Merlin Press. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.