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April 14, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: Wrong on many things, but right on the one thing that mattered - or so argues Christie Davies

Posted by Christie Davies • Category: Historical Thoughts

Margaret Thatcher was a great Prime Minister because she was right on the one issue that mattered in her time - the need for socialism to be defeated both in Britain and in the World. The views expressed here are those of Christie Davies, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

The late Lady Thatcher, the great Mrs Thatcher, was wrong about most things but she was right, relentlessly right, about the central problem of her time – the menace of Socialism. She will always be remembered as the woman who destroyed Socialism, much as we remember Churchill as the man who stood up to Hitler. Churchill was wrong about India, about the economy, about most things but on the one big issue he was right. Today we are also free of the spectre of Socialism that haunted the 20th century. That is Mrs Thatcher's legacy.

It is difficult now to remember how close Socialism came to victory in the 1970s. The Soviet Union was steadily advancing its control over the world, notably in Africa and in South East Asia. Latin America was threatened with subversion. The release of the KGB files has shown how many people, including Allende in Chile and senior politicians in India, had been under their control. The Brezhnev doctrine decreed that no country which had ever come under socialist rule could return to democracy. East Europeans feared that their slavery would last for ever.

It was to change. Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1981. Between them they defeated the evil empire. The Soviet Union went from world domination to downfall in ten years, the ten years of the woman the Soviets called the Iron Lady. Where other British leaders had been timid, she was bold. Where they had been silent, she was vocal. Where they had been shaky, she was resolute. She understood exactly what the Soviet Union was and meant.

In 1979 Britain was on the verge of economic collapse. The Labour governments of 1974-1979 had been the servants of the trade unions, as well as of their own ideology. Britain was close to being a socialist economy. A large section of industry was owned and run by the State - coal, iron and steel, gas and electricity, telephones and railways. A large part of the country's housing stock was council-owned.

Other important sectors, such as car manufacturing and shipbuilding, depended on government subsidies and were the subject of government directives. The combination of trade union power and lax monetary policy had led to high inflation. Governments sought to deal with this through the state regulation of prices and incomes. Marginal tax rates were very high. The very bases of capitalism -the price mechanism, incentives to earn, save and invest, and rapid change and innovation - were undermined and rendered inoperative.

March 11, 2013

The British Empire will outlast the European Union - argues Lincoln Allison

Posted by Lincoln Allison • Category: Historical Thoughts

Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - believes the British Empire has more of a future than the European Union.

I have two granddaughters called Ava and Sylvie. Their other grandparents were born in Kenya and the Punjab. My brothers-in-law live in Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Western Australia, offering a rather neat set of stop-offs on a round-the-world trip. More of my primary school class from Colne, Lancashire live in Toronto, Canada than live in Colne. My wife has cousins in the United States and there is a branch of my mother's family which lives in New South Wales. When I worked at the University of Warwick I was, among other things, the "South Asia Liaison Officer" and regularly visited India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In both England and California I have played for predominantly South Asian cricket teams.

These facts might be described as the autobiographical consequences of Empire and I may be an extreme case. I am bound to look at things a bit differently from, for example, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who has a Dutch mother and a Spanish wife, but I wouldn't want to stress the contrast too much because I believe that both of our connections exemplify globalisation and the place of our country at the absolute forefront of the process.

Yet you can see why I might get a little bit cross when described as a European and asked to show solidarity and cohesion with people who neither play cricket nor speak English. The issue came up in my youth when a Polish girlfriend's mother assumed that I would be in favour of Polish immigration to the UK and against Caribbean immigration and it comes up when European politicians (most recently, Angela Merkel) try to insist that our European connections are more important than any others. Solidarity with those who have offered us the Inquisition, the Napoleonic code and the Gestapo and not with those who have offered us curry. I don't think so! That would have to be racism, wouldn't it?

December 17, 2012

When the (Fairy) Dust has Settled: Lincoln Allison assesses what the long-term impact of the London Olympics will be

Posted by Lincoln Allison • Category: Sport

Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton - was very sceptical of the London Olympics, asking before they started, Are the Olympic Games the biggest con on the planet? Has the success of London 2012 caused him to change his mind?

My own magic moment - and everybody was, surely asked about their own best moment? - was Mo Farah's second gold medal, in the 5000 metres. It just so happened that all twelve members of our immediate family were present and we were able to share the common illusion, remarked by no less a figure than the Mayor of London, that we were yelling and willing his acceleration from the pack and over the line. But the magic moments came thick and fast: the goddess Jessica storming home in her final event, her fellow Yorkshirewoman Nicola Adams winning the first women's boxing medal, a horse dancing it's way to dressage victory to patriotic music. Not to mention the constant evidence that British cyclists are faster than French . . . or than anyone else for that matter.

The "feelgood factor" of a home Olympics was surely at a level never experienced at any event before in this country. As the fairy dust descended cynical journalists rolled over and became patriotic puppies. This was "us" as we had always wanted to be: charming and eccentric, but efficient and victorious as well. It was the cosmopolitan, global-imperial us, the Britain of a hundred ethnicities. Mo arrived from Somalia, Jess's dad from Jamaica and the genius behind British dressage gold was a German immigrant, Dr Wilfried Bechtelsheimer.

In fact a kind of millenarium optimism began to flavour the news coverage of the Olympics. Nothing would ever be the same again. This was our redefinition as a nation. Fat, lazy people would be stirred into action. Footballers and other professional sportsmen would be shamed by the nobility of Olympians into behaving decently. Women's sport would finally be recognised as the equal of men's. Nobody would ever sell off a playing field or cancel a games lesson again. If we could only make the gold medalists the cabinet we would be able to live in peace and prosperity for a thousand years. If you weren't part of this level of enthusiasm you weren't in spirit with the times.

December 14, 2012

How to Handle a Witch (or Several): The Daylight Gate - Jeanette Winterson

Posted by Lincoln Allison • Category: Reviews - Books

The Daylight Gate
by Jeanette Winterson
Pp. 208. London: Hammer, 2012
Hardback, £9.99

About twenty five years ago our family, a married couple and three sons, set off at the end of October on a routine trip to the Pendle area of Lancashire where I grew up. The purposes of the visit were shopping in the mills, watching football and walking, though meeting with friends and relatives in pubs and a slap-up version of fish and chips were also part of the tradition. But on this occasion we had difficulty getting to where we wanted to go because of a police cordon at a five mile radius around Pendle Hill to prevent a vast "Hippy Convoy" - an estimated 5000 people - which was expected to converge on the area for Halloween.

During this period the Pendle District Council was discussing proposals to create a "Witchcraft Theme Park" though they were held up by fundamental differences of interpretation and purpose. At one end of the spectrum were local businessmen who wanted to cash in on broomstick rides, Halloween masks and lots of appropriate tat; at the other were feminist Labour councillors who wanted the park to educate its customers about the grim history of proto-feminists and free thinkers tortured and murdered by patriarchy in the name of religious orthodoxy. The figure of 20 million such martyrs in Europe as a whole was often bandied about, though serious scholarship sees this as an exageration of geometric proportions.

The project was never going to get off the ground and it didn't. At the same time an evangelical minister from Blackburn was getting himself a lot of publicity by claiming that there were far more practising witches than practising Christians in East Lancashire. In short, it was the case that in the place I called home witchcraft was not only the main topic of debate, it occupied second and third place as well. There was an interesting irony to all this: the textile industry of the area was part of the early industrial "revolution", the sort of thing considered jolly important by the likes of Karl Marx, but it had now been and (more or less) gone and we were back to talking about witches again.

December 06, 2012

Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword is a great story, bravely told, but it leaves Richard D. North longing for old fashioned academic pedantry: In The Shadow Of The Sword - Tom Holland

Posted by Richard D. North • Category: Reviews - Books

In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World
by Tom Holland
Pp. 544. London: Little, Brown, 2012
Hardback, £25

Tom Holland's account of the fall and rise of empires and imperial religions in Late Antiquity is really rather wonderful. It is big and bountiful. It remembers to celebrate the remoteness and glamour of the peoples of the Near East in the first three-quarters of the first millennium. In my ignorance, this was my first encounter with Himyarites and Hephthalites and with Jewish kings who hammered Christians and Saracens who converted to Christianity, and I am grateful that Holland largely fulfils his claim to bring us their stories from the evidence of their contemporaries.

So here we have a grand narrative: the eastern Roman Empire follows its western cousin into decline; Persia's immemorial greatness crumbles; and all sorts of marauding types on the fringes of the ordered world – they are more or less scruffy and uncivilised – find themselves rather ahead of the game. But one lot, the Arabs, do far, far better than anyone had any right to expect. So far, so exhilarating, and even larky: the prose is by turns occasionally demotic and Gibbonesque). But Tom Holland succeeds on a much higher plane, and also fails there.

As well as exotic, this very courageous book aims to be intellectual. It has three great themes. Theme #1 is the role of monotheism. Holland says that it is important that the empires of Late Antiquity, whether on the way down or the way up, embraced the idea of a single, universal god who allies himself with the powers-that-be and in particular the monarch and his imperialism. Theme #2 is the Arab embrace of this habit, caught as it were, from Zoroastrians, Christians and (less comprehensively) Jews. Theme #3 is the wider, continuing Muslim self-deception as generation upon generation fails to notice that the story of their religion is importantly and maybe mostly an ordinary 9th Century invention and that it imitated other Abrahamic religions of the book.

I have laid the themes out in that way because that is the way they are laid out in Tom Holland's introduction. But it is the last claim which grabs one's attention; which takes up most space in the introduction; and which Channel 4 made more famous when they had Holland make a documentary.

It is, on the face of it, a spectacular claim. To repeat it: as to the life of the Prophet there is no Arab evidence from his own time and precious little from any other sources. Indeed, we know nothing beyond anecdote about his revelations or his role in leading the military, religious or political developments of his time. We do know a good deal about the process by which later Caliphs caused a narrative to be built, and their work seems to have plenty of expediency mixed in with devotion to the faith or truth. There may, though, be something in the remarks of Richard Miles in his Financial Times review of the Holland book to the effect that the Islamic tradition may be more squarely built on a 7th and 8th Century oral tradition than In the Shadow of the Sword allows.

November 09, 2012

Those who support European integration should support British separation from Europe - argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms • Category: International Relations

Britain's separation from Europe would strengthen the European project - argues Brendan Simms, Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge.

Britain is once again at odds with Europe over the budget which Prime Minister David Cameron is effectively threatening to freeze at current levels. There is, of course, a long history of such confrontations, beginning in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher negotiated the famous "rebate" which led to a substantial net reduction of Britain's contribution to the Community.

The renewed tension has revived concerns among British Europhiles, already aghast at Cameron's previous use of the veto late last year on the issue of fiscal union and taxes on financial transactions, that the country is "isolated" in Europe. It has also led to another push from Berlin this week to woo London. This too, is nothing new in itself, and reflects a longstanding German desire to have the British on the inside, not least to balance the French.

Today, however, the context is very different, and depending on what she meant Chancellor Merkel's remarks either point to a solution of the crisis now facing the continent, or reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how Britain can and should fit into the polity which must emerge from the ruins of the past three years. The German leader has announced that she

does not want a Europe without Great Britain. That would be historically and economically unthinkable.
She has also proclaimed that the current crisis must be used to deal with
the founding errors in the architecture of the economic and currency union.
This, she argued, must mean a common finance, budget and economic policy for the future

Taken separately, both of these statements are absolutely correct. Britain's historic engagement in Europe is so obvious as to need to further explanation. She has always been a major European power, and is today the most formidable military player on the continent after the USA. So long as the European Union was a Confederation of free-trading and politically cooperating sovereign states, the benefits of membership far outweighed the (sometimes considerable) irritations.

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