Tolstoy in ironic mode

Most people have not read War and Peace; most that do probably skip Tolstoy’s extended rants about the meaning of History. Which means that relatively few will have read the following amusing parody of 19th century historiography that is contained within one of them, which is a real shame as it is excellent…

‘Louis XIV was a proud and self-confident man: he had such and such mistresses and such and such ministers and he ruled France badly. His descendants were weak men and they too ruled France badly. And they had such and such favourites and such and such mistresses. Moreover certain men wrote some books at that time. At the end of the eighteenth century there were a couple of dozen men in Paris who began to talk about all men being free and equal. This caused people all over France to begin to slash and drown one another. They killed the king and many other people. At that time there was in France a man of genius – Napoleon. He conquered everybody everywhere – that is, he killed many people because he was a great genius. And for some reason he wanted to kill Africans, and killed them so well and was so cunning and wise that when he returned to France he ordered everybody to obey him, and they all obeyed him. Having become an Emperor he again went out to kill people in Italy, Austria and Prussia. And there too he killed a great many. In Russia there was an Emperor, Alexander, who decided to restore order to Europe, and therefore fought against Napoleon. In 1807 he suddenly made friends with him, but in 1811 they again quarrelled and again began killing many people. Napoleon led six hundred thousand men into Russia and captured Moscow; then he suddenly ran away from Moscow, and the Emperor Alexander, helped by the advice of Stein and others, united Europe to arm against the disturber of its peace. All Napoleon’s allies suddenly became his enemies and their forces advanced against the fresh forces he had raised. The Allies defeated Napoleon, entered Paris, forced Napoleon to abdicate, and sent him to the island of Elba, not depriving him of the title of Emperor and showing him every respect, though five years before and one year later they all regarded him as an outlaw and a brigand. Then Louis XVIII, who till then had been the laughing-stock both of the French and the Allies, began to reign. And Napoleon, shedding tears before his Old Guards, renounced the throne and went into exile. Then the skillful statesmen and diplomatists (especially Talleyrand, who managed to sit down in a particular chair before anyone else, and thereby extended the frontiers of France) talked in Vienna, and by these conversations made the nations happy or unhappy. Suddenly the diplomatists and monarchs nearly quarrelled, and were on the point of again ordering their armies to kill one another, but just then Napoleon arrived in France with a battalion, and the French, who had been hating him, immediately submitted to him. But the Allied monarchs were angry at this and went to fight the French once more. And they defeated the genius Napoleon and, suddenly recognizing him as a brigand, sent him to the island of St Helena. And the exile, separated from the beloved France so dear to his heart, died a lingering death on that rock and bequeathed his great deeds to posterity. But in Europe a reaction occurred and the sovereigns once again all began to oppress their subjects.’

And The There Were None

It has finally happened: the last deep pit has closed. Somewhat inevitably given the history of the coal industry its closure was bitter and its closure was political; government policies were directly responsible and the government refused to save it. Probably they are delighted as the Tories always did hate the coal industry and its radical workforce and hated it even more after the NUM helped to topple the Heath government in 1974.

Contrary to some media reports the closure of Kellingley Colliery does not actually mean that British coal production has ceased (there are opencast mines up and down the country and still something of a drift mining industry in South Wales) although it does mean that the last remnant of the old industry is gone.

Mixed feelings are sometimes the right feelings, and that is how we should feel about the coal industry. Environmental issues aside, it was horrible to work in and over the centuries it killed a staggeringly high proportion of its workforce – not through pit disasters as horrific as they were, but through pneumoconiosis – and yet it also provided secure, skilled and relatively well paid employment for generations. And did so because of the efforts of the miners themselves. The old pit communities had rich cultural lives and were essential to the development of trade unionism and socialist politics in this country.

A sad day.

Not knowing the country in which they live

A by-election earlier this month saw the Labour Party hold an overwhelmingly working class constituency in the North of England with a substantial majority. This came as a great surprise to most political commentators, who had managed to convince themselves that a very different result was likely: a very close result and perhaps even a UKIP win. Given the first sentence of this post you might well wonder how this could be possible – surely anyone with a basic knowledge of British politics would be dismissive of the idea that Labour would have much trouble in a by-election in Oldham West whilst in opposition absent a really, really bad local scandal? – and you would be right to wonder given that political knowledge is what most of the people in question are employed to provide. After giving the matter a small amount of thought, I have come up with an explanation: most British political commentators, journalists and so-called ‘experts’ do not actually know or understand the country in which they live in at all well. I shall demonstrate this with a few choice examples.

Let us begin with one of the most absurd examples. Rafael Behr – who I strongly suspect would have difficulty finding Oldham on a map – claimed that Labour is in crisis in Northern England (a curious assertion given Labour’s continued electoral domination in the region in the General Election: but why let pesky facts get in the way of grand narrative, eh?) because the people of the North believe that Labour has become “poncified”. I have never heard this word before in my life and probably neither have you. I suspect that no one in Oldham has ever used it either and certainly did not when speaking to Behr. In fact almost all of the top hits for the term on google either link or reference Behr’s article. Presumably Behr used the (can we call it a word?) because he assumes that’s what Northerners think, because apparently they are all obsessed with manliness (even the women) and say ‘ponce’ at least three times every hour. This means that they obviously prefer UKIP to Labour because Farage drinks vast quantities of beer and is therefore not a ponce. This is lazy stereotyping (presumably every other voter in Oldham also owns a whippet?) masquerading as serious analysis and is utterly contemptible.

I’m not quite done with Behr yet, as he also claims that:

If defeat is averted, it will be down to McMahon’s local record and support in the constituency’s south Asian population. Around a fifth of the electorate is of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage, and Labour canvassers say their vote is holding up best in areas where that community is concentrated. Local elections in May point to a stronger turnout in those wards.

Pity that the general tendency in Oldham is for voters from Asian ethnic backgrounds to vote at about the same rate as the rest of the population (there are also substantial differences in the voting habits of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, who do not live in the same parts of the town and who certainly don’t view themselves as forming one solid block of the population), and it would in any case be impossible to win a 70% white constituency without winning the votes of a lot of white people, but why let facts get in the way of poisonous pseudo-psephology? Once again we see the fruits of ignorance paraded around as if they were facts.

Did someone say ‘poisonous pseudo-psephology’? Enter arch bullshit meister Ian Warren! I won’t focus too much on the statistical ‘analysis’ upon which this article of his was based as it has been discredited enough by the election results themselves, but on some of the commentary that he attached to it:

Unfortunately for Labour, both these white working-class groups have reasons to despise Jeremy Corbyn, which is what they are expressing on doorstep after doorstep. Blue-collar households think he’s soft on immigration and welfare and a republican pacifist. Disaffected voters either don’t know who he is, in which case he’s “just another politician”, or hear him speaking about socialism and solidarity and wonder what he’s blathering on about. Both groups will know full well what his and John McDonnell’s views on the IRA are. Both groups aren’t shy in hanging St George’s flags from their windows, as Emily Thornberry might note.

This bizarre screed has little relationship with the reality of working class political attitudes in Oldham or elsewhere – though doubtless tells us a great deal about Warren’s views – and on reading it for the first time I was perplexed that it was published; surely baseless rants have no place in ‘analytical’ articles? Alas the answer here is fairly clear: the relevant people at the Grauniad probably think that Warren was writing an accurate summary of the views of White Working Class people in The North (who are apparently are not individuals but a vast hive mind) rather than writing pernicious rubbish. Isn’t that a depressing thought? Similar assumptions can be found in this absurd chin-stroking thinkpiece from The Economist, whic probably deserves to win a prize for comical overanalysis.

Of course an awful lot of pre-poll nonsense about the by-election was written from another perspective entirely, one that wanted to see evidence of a structural crisis for Labour in Northern England because this would be great news for the Tories. A good example of that can be found here. I may be wrong and engaging in gross stereotyping of my own but I suspect that Sebastian Payne is not terribly familiar with working class Northerners and their political priorities.

How to conclude? Perhaps by noting that it is not actually that hard to familiarise yourself with places that you have no personal connection to, but that in order to do this it generally helps to avoid assumping that crude stereotypes are the wellspring of all useful knowledge.

Denis Healey

There is always a temptation when the last figure of a particular era in any field dies to assert that they were the last of their kind; that people of their sort (in that field at least) no longer exist and that things are all so very different now. There can be no room for such mawkish faux-reflection in the case of the now (alas) late Denis Healey, as there have seldom been political figures as entirely unique and as thoroughly themselves as him. Politics may well have had more ‘personalities’ in the Post War era than it does today, but it was never exactly overflowing with sharp-tongued intellectuals with a propensity for the theatrical (this is a man who sometimes played the piano – whilst pulling silly faces – at election rallies), ecclectic interests outside politics and a total disregard for the artificial chumminess that has often characterised British public life. And on top of that he was actually good at his job. The only comparable figure who comes to mind, Paul Keating, was of a later generation and from another country.

And let us not forget those eyebrows. Let us never forget those eyebrows.

Year Zero



We should not just be concerned about the destruction of ancient sites in Syria (both the country and the historic region) because of the loss of cultural heritage and the archaeological record (although these are bloody good reasons in their own right) but because such cultural vandalism* is a clear and terrifying signal of intent. This is because the desire to utterly eliminate the past is always and inevitably linked to the desire to utterly eliminate all those who do not fit in with the new order. We have seen this before, most frequently due to the actions of Asian Communists, and so we know exactly what to expect: no wonder people flee in their hundreds of thousands.

This is a disturbing subject and I’ve thought about it a lot recently (a matter on which I suspect I am not exactly alone). Where does this impulse – the desire for Year Zero – come from? Why was it so frequently associated with Asian Communism and why has it more recently been associated with some of the more extreme versions of Islamism? It is not enough to suggest that it is an inevitable by-product of Utopianism-via-violence: the Soviet Union committed many and terrible acts of cultural vandalism and political murder in the name of Utopia, but never attempted to eliminate all traces of the past. It is not enough to point to mere iconoclasticism (in fact doing so often reeks of desperation) either. There have to be answers to this, but for now I’m drawing as much of a blank (hah) as everyone else.

*Although the use of this term to describe current events is more than a little unkind on the Vandals…