The Today Programme's theme on its Who Runs Britain? poll on Tuesday 20th December was history. Yes, I know. One can't really say that history runs anything, let alone a major nation state. But I think they intended to get at the issue of whether we are bound, or ruled, by our history.
Perhaps that was apposite on a day where Tony Blair, up against some hostility in the European Parliament, faced down the very anti-European UKIP MEPs with this stinger:
Turning in particular on the group's leader Nigel Farage, he branded him a reactionary. "You sit with our country's flag, but you do not represent our country's interest," he declared.
"This is the year 2005 not 1945. We are not fighting each other any more".
In the sense that it's ever necessary to say things like this, then I suppose one could say that the running of Britain needs eternally to be justified by references to what are perceived of as key moments in history...maybe. But then surely the champion at this was Margaret Thatcher. She managed to keep referring to the glories of Britain's role and making Britain great again, while signing up to ever increasing transfers of decision making to the European Union.
Antony Seldon, a biographer of both Blair and Major, one of the two selected experts to make the case for or against history running Britain, came across as a Hegelian idealist of the first order. Ideas rule everything, he said. Unfortunately, he had little to offer in the way of proof of this sweeping statement, though he did argue that the influence of World War I and World War II continue to impact comprehensively on Britain. And the Tony Blair exchange seems to underpin that. But like so many of the contributors in this series, Seldon never tried to disprove or even balance his own theory. Like, sure, the idea of the Germans as a "traditional" enemy dies hard, as Blair's speech shows. But actually, we have more trade with Germany, more integration of businesses and ownership than we could ever have dreamed of either at the start of the twentieth century, or at any period till the UK joined the EU in 1972.
And however responsive the British public appears to be to Sun anti-German headlines when it comes to football matches, it doesn't prevent them buying German cars, kitchen machinery and beer in enormous quantities. And as far as I can see, British workers who work for German-owned companies seem to be perfectly happy with their lot. The fact that both Rolls-Royce and Bentley, two supremely iconic British marques, are now German-owned, which in 1945 would have seemed utterly horrific and unthinkable, goes unremarked.
The more interesting contributor for me, though was Linda Colley.
The significance of Captives is the contribution it has made to the continuing historians' critique of British imperialism in the period she deals with. The originality of her approach is that she based her study on an analysis of captivity narratives, that is, accounts by British soldiers and others, including women, of long periods lived whilst held as prisoners of the peoples the British supposedly ruled, such as rebel regimes of the Indian subcontinent. These narratives include accounts of quite horrendous brutalization, including repeated rape, forced cohabitation and a range of spine-chilling indignities. They also show that many of the captives responded by embracing the religions and the cultures of those who made them captive. It seems it was the soldiers who made the strongest effort to resist, by maintaining some rituals they regarded as British, however long the period of their captivity. Now, all this suggests to me that the Stockholm syndrome, in which captors come to identify with those who capture and abuse them, is a very long established phenomenon.
But Linda Colley's stated purpose for her much-acclaimed study is altogether grander and arguably more politically-motivated than the voyeurism and schadenfreude my account suggests.
I wanted to write about the British Empire, but not in the usual way. The standard narrative of the empire involves Brits going abroad, taking various countries captive, invading them, and being dominant until they are forced out. I wanted to alter that picture. Britain was a small country with a limited army, its forces stretched very thin over the world as its empire grew bigger and bigger. Between 1600 and 1850 tens of thousands of Britons were taken captive by foreigners. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise: if you intrude violently into another person’s territory, captive-taking is one of the results. I thought that by exploring what happened to these people I could construct a rather more nuanced picture of what the empire was like, and I could show the weakness and vulnerability of the British, not just the strength and aggression. I looked at cases of captivity in the Mediterranean and North Africa, in India, in Afghanistan, and in North America. I also wanted to revise standard imperial history in another way. Histories of the British Empire have generally focused on elite groups--"generals, politicians, the major merchants and investors, and so forth. The big people. In fact, the majority of the people involved in making the empire were poor whites, and their experiences have hardly been written about. I also showed that a surprising number of these individuals were not involuntary captives. Some crossed over to the other side deliberately. A lot of the people I was writing about had been driven into the army or navy against their will. Many decided after being captured that their new circumstances were an improvement over the old. There were Brits who joined Native American communities in North America. In North Africa quite a few British captives converted to Islam and some married local women. There were British soldiers in India who ended up serving Indian princes. These kinds of stories had tended to be brushed under the carpet when the empire was still in existence--"this wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted in the history books.
If you read reviews and discussions of Captives, you will be struck by the meticulousness of the research behind it, and the sheer range and scope of the literature she studied. But Colley doesn't limit herself to her field of historical expertise. She regularly writes mainstream press articles on current politics. And what's so striking about these articles is the way she makes the crudest analogies between some of her meticulously researched studies and contemporary events, for which she offers only cherry-picked crude analogies without any consideration of counter-evidence. For example, she represents the USA as self-evidently an imperial and imperialist power. And she did so in this article in The Guardian on 17th December, just days before her Who Rules Britain broadcast. Here's one of her more eyebrow-raising statements:
The US has no conventional colonies and may be in trouble in Iraq. But it retains military and naval bases in some 130 countries, and consequently the potential for influence over and intervention in them; and it possesses - as every mighty empire has done - a network of supportive and tractable client states, including, arguably, Britain.
And here's her similarly crude view of the situation of Tony Blair, written for The Guardian in 2003, where she argues
For Blair, the past is irrelevant, because this is a new world facing entirely new dangers. Globalization and WMD mean, in his view, that all freedom-loving peoples must necessarily unite under American leadership to defeat the “virus” of terrorism. Individuals at home, and foreign countries such as France, which analyze the world and its dangers differently, are briskly dismissed as anti-American. Yet it could simply be that their understanding of the past — and consequently of the present — is rather better than his.
Globalization is not remotely new; it has been occurring, at differing rates and with differing degrees of scale, for centuries. But in the past, as now, it has not always produced a community of interests. To employ this phenomenon as a reason for freezing Britain into the role of battered Boy Wonder to America’s global Batman is therefore distinctly questionable. Much of the British public’s alienation, not just from Blair, but from politicians in general, stems from a sense that, as one man put it to me: “We’ve been sold.” There is deep resentment that politicians have proceeded so far with the European Union without consulting the public. And there is anger that so much British policy — as over Iraq - seems to be determined in Washington, and not always for obvious national interests.
This failure to carry the people along is in part due to Labour (and Conservative) politicians’ arrogant and self-serving notion that voters don’t care about foreign affairs. But the more fundamental reason, once again, is structural and historical. Over the past century, Britain has moved from being a “disguised republic”, as Walter Bagehot called it, to having a barely disguised and insufficiently provided-for presidency. Many of Blair’s current problems are due to the fact that he is much more than a prime minister, without being an acknowledged, full-blown president.
At one level, this means that he can disregard large sections of Parliament and the public and embark upon a deeply controversial war, and that, unlike the Americans, we lack the means to interrogate him and call him to account. But the insufficient transformation process from prime ministership to presidency also means that Blair is desperately overstretched and unable to govern as well as he might. His ravaged face, as well as his uncertain record of reform in his second term, makes this point. Were he to have a proper vice president, and the massed ranks of expert advisers a president can command, Blair might be more able to make the trains run on time at home, and perhaps be less inclined to embark on messianic adventures abroad.
However satisfying it may be to some to shower criticism on him, we badly need a deeper, longer view.
Clearly, the "we" she declares herself to be part of here isn't the Historical Association or the assembled academics of her university. Maybe she imagines herself to be speaking for the British people. That's the same people who elected Tony Blair, albeit with a reduced majority, for an fourth term as Prime Minister, unprecedented for any Labour administration. Or maybe the "we" she speaks for is the comfortable liberal left anti-Blair, anti-Iraq war consensus which stretches all the way from the Guardian to the Independent to ... the Today programme and the rest of the BBC news media.
So with this track record, it was hardly surprising that the Today programme chose her to be one of their experts. And, not surprisingly, she delivered the goods with her unevidenced but quick passing references to supposed reason for supporting the US as
giving us a vicarious imperial role that we've lost for ourselves.... There is an American empire and we ride on it.
And of course, she vigorously disagreed with Tony Blair's speech to the US congress which had stated that our historical past was no longer a determinant of our present. Because that was in the context of a discussion of the Iraq War. It was clear that her intention was to show that not only was Britain involved in the Iraq war for reasons of vicarious imperialism, but that Tony Blair denies what she chooses to present as the historical truths behind it.
She also discussed her view, currently argued in the Fabian review, that we should be representing black people on English banknotes, because since the eighteenth century, we have arguably had the largest black community in Europe. This might be a quite reasonable view if the intention of representing images on our banknotes was to reflect the make up of the UK population at any one time, or even over historical time. In which case, we might be looking at what her classification of "black" involves. Does it mean people of African and Afro-Caribbean origin? Does that include people from north Africa who might describe themselves as Arabs? People from the Indian subcontinent? South-East Asia? Do they all see themselves as being of this one category of "black", rather than members of the nations and cultures they use to describe themselves? These issues seemed not to trouble Professor Colley, the meticulous historical researcher.
But our banknotes in any case commemorate people who have made great contributions to the UK and the wider world. And it's difficult to see why she should privilege the group "black people" (undefined) over other major groups who have also great contributions to the wider world. We don't, for example, currently have a single Welsh person on our banknotes. Yet it's arguable that David Lloyd George or Dylan Thomas have made as great contributions as Elizabeth Fry or Edward Elgar, who do feature on our current banknotes.
Charles Krauthammer invented the term "Bush derangement syndrome" as an elegant and amusing way to describe the process whereby left wing critics of the US president seem to dig themselves into ludicrously paranoid explanations of the reason for US involvement in the Iraq war, based around the supposed madness/idiocy/in thrallness of Bush to this, that or the other conspiracy.
Listening to the Today programme's Who Runs Britain slots almost every day this week, I've detected a similar Iraq Derangement Syndrome. The scientists on Thursday 22nd managed to steer clear of it. But almost every other day, whatever the supposed locus of Who Runs Britain, up popped the Iraq War, as the key example to prove that we are not governed rationally or in our own real interests, but by other interests and forces who take control of us, whether that's Rupert Murdoch, or the simultaneously supposedly mentally-challenged but somehow all-powerful George Bush, or the various hidden hands thought to be manipulating him.
Something else struck me about the accounts of Linda Colley's work that I've been reading. Implicit in her research is a critique of the weakness and vulnerability of British rule and British imperialism. But paired with that is something that seems curiously like admiration for or perhaps lack of condemnation for the whole process of captive-taking and forced conversion. Or at the very least, detached acceptance of it. Now I am not an adherent of the critique of naive admiration of militant Islamism that has become labelled as "dhimmitude". But it does seem to me that Colley's work provides easy ideological justification of the they-had-it-coming kind for captive-taking and hostage-holding, even she does explicitly condemn what she acknowledges to be the "horrible ways" of Al-Qaeda.
All this reminds me once again that, however eminent academics may be in their own field of expertise, once they speak about fields in which they are not expert researchers, their analysis is no better than that of anyone else.
Iraq Derangement Syndrome? You decide.