Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

For anyone reading this I hope that Father Christmas brings you everything that you asked for tomorrow morning.

A touch of empathy

Accustomed as we are to being reviled in the media and held in low esteem by the public, we politicos can do with such crumbs of comfort as are offered to us.

I am currently reading Understanding the British empire, a collection of essays by the eminent imperial historian Professor Ronald Hyam. Whereas historians often display a studied detachment or even mild cynicism towards the politicians they study, Professor Hyam comments:
...government is about taking almost impossibly wide perspectives, and it is an extremely difficult business. Historians should respect that fact, at least when they are assessing intelligent men [sic] of goodwill and sound mind.
He quotes the imperial proconsul Lord Cromer as writing:
More than forty years experience behind the scenes of poltiical life has led me to be a very indulgent critic on the faults of political men [sic again]. I have come to the commonplace but very true conclusion, stated by Taine in the preface to his great work - namely, that the government of human beings is a very difficult task, and that in dealing with them it is far easier to go wrong than to go right.
Even leaving aside Professor Hyam's empathy with the difficulties confronted by those who have to make difficult decisions, this is an excellent book, both scholarly and accessible and the culmination of a lifetimes work. No doubt it will not sell as well as books by more famous and less knowledgeable authors, but it deserves to reach a general audience.

Perhaps to help shift units, the publishers should highlight the essays that  deal with Hyam's preoccupation with sexuality and empire, including one entitled 'Penis envyand "penile othering" in the colonies and America'.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Controversialists should not sue for libel

Historian Niall Ferguson's threatened libel suit over a negative review of his latest book is discussed on David Allen Green's excellent New Statesman blog (if only his articles appeared in the magazine I might have renewed my subscription).

The moral of the story is that those who make a living from the expression of controversial opinions (and for that matter Bloggers and the like who do it as a hobby) really shouldn't run to the libel laws when they find themselves criticised (however unfair the criticisms might seem).

Last year when Professor Orlando Figes got himself in a spot of bother over anonymous reviews he posted on Amazon, the problem was less that he posted the reviews at all, but rather his threat to sue when (correctly) accused.

Ferguson is always likely to arouse the ire of those who disagree with his neo-Thatcherite take on history and a hostile review in a small-circulation publication is hardly likely to damage his reputation. Figes' trashing of fellow historians' books would have been little more than an amusing curiosity if he hadn't tried to silence them when they rumbled him.

It might be a different matter if, like poor Christopher Jefferies, they were wrongly accused of a vile crime. But for the most part anyone who courts contoversy has to be able to take it as well as give it. The best way to deal with unfair criticism is to rebut it in print. Those tempted to sue would be better taking a couple of aspirin and having a lie down until the mood passes.

Green's article is worth reading in full, but I was rather taken with one quote in it. When A.J.P. Taylor's The origins of the second world war was savaged by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who said it would harm his reputation as a serious historian, Taylor replied:
The Regius professor's methods of quotation might also do serious harm to his reputation as a serious historian, if he had one.
As far as I am aware, Trevor-Roper didn't sue.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Are the Lib Dems really pro-European?

I was planning to get my head round this whole Euro row thing so that I could post something vaguely coherent on here. But Jonathan Calder (Small row in Europe, not many hurt) has pretty much summed up my view, so why say the same thing again when one can just post a link?

It seems to me that the reaction of Lib Dems to the Cameron veto has been relatively restrained. I don't really find this surprising. Lib Dem attitudes towards Europe reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's The man who was Thursday. In this novel, the members of an anarchist cell are one-by-one revealed to be undercover policemen. In a similar way, Lib Dem activists, often portrayed in the media as starry-eyed pro-Europeans, are more often than not undercover Eurosceptics. Time and again I let slip in conversation to a Lib Dem colleague that I don't quite share the party's zeal for the European project only to be told that neither do they.

Genuine Euro-enthusiasts seem to me relatively thin on the ground in the Lib Dems, although one did tell me during the 2005 general election that the campaign was a useful building block for the referendum on the European constitution. But such sentiments are relatively rare. I am not of course saying that there are many Lib Dems who are Eurosceptic in the Tory sense (obsessive about sovereignty and regulations). It's just that it wouldn't surprise me if the Euro-doubters are actually a majority in the party, but have simply assumed we are in a minority and not felt strongly enough ever to put up a fight on the issue.

I suppose the next few days and weeks will show quite how brightly the Pro-European star burns within the Lib Dems.

Monday, December 05, 2011

On Hislop and the bankers

My critique of Ian Hislop's recent BBC documentary When Bankers Were Good appears on the History & Policy website. It begins:
... although entertaining and informative, Hislop's programme could also serve as a warning against using history to advance a contemporary policy prescription on the basis of very thin evidence.
Among the aims of the website are to: 'demonstrate the relevance of history to contemporary policy making and to increase the influence of historical research over current policy.'

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Halfway to New York: Out of time

From my stepson travelling in South America I receive a text telling me that a friend he used to be in a band with, is now in a new band and they have a single out. Would I download it from iTunes?

I did so more as a favour than anything else, imagining I might give it a perfunctory listen before reverting to better things.

But it is actually very good indeed, outstanding even - in a kind of indie/rock/pop style. It is called Out of time by Halfway to New York. When they are famous I will be able to say: 'My stepson used to be in a band with the guitarist, you know'. So listen to it via the youtube link and if you like it download the song.

Friday, December 02, 2011

When the left could still laugh, or when a New Statesman article endorsed cannibalism

In my possession I have a reprinted copy of article* taken from the New Statesman arguing that as part of a programme of national recovery:
Surplus 'students' of both sexes should be sold to Arab sheikhs for their harems, thus preserving our university art treasures...
Surplus car-workers, politicians, steel-workers etc. should be eaten on a 'natural wastage' basis.
So far as I know no one from the New Statesman apologised for what might be considered a deeply offensive article that is at once racist, homophobic and insulting to students and members of the working class.

It's a bit late for an apology, actually, since the article was published in 1975 and both its author, Auberon Waugh, and the editor who published it, Anthony Howard, are sadly no longer with us. It was clearly intended to by funny - indeed it was part of an extended joke whereby Waugh, whose satire was based on expressing outrageous reactionary views for comic effect, wrote articles for a magazine largely known for its earnest high-minded socialism. Waugh's views were, even in 1975, clearly beyond the pale and meant to be so. They were intended to wind up the magazine's lefty readers.

Of course I mention this in the light of today's controversy over Jeremy Clarkson's use of offensive reactionary views as a humorous device. (Clarkson, though, is nowhere near in Waugh's league as a satirist). My New Statesman example suggests it is not merely dew-eyed nostalgia to think that there was once a time when the liberal left could recognise that views expressed by a humorist might be intended to amuse, and not attract po-faced condemnation and demands for apologies.

* The article is from the New Statesman 23 May 1975 and reprinted in In the lion's den, a collection of Auberon Waugh's New Statesman articles.