Odds and sods part 2

‘Great’ Britain, the reckoning and the innovation

Brexit may be a tragedy for Britain but the blog finds it difficult to feel much sympathy for those who voted to follow Boris, Jacob Rees-Mogg (although in his case it is probably preferable to follow his politics than his style in attire), Nigel Farage et al.

The Economist Bagehot columnist (13 December 2018) analysed the impact of it all on foreign perceptions of the UK. He wrote: “Before Brexit a striking number of foreigners had a benign view of Britain……This view has been shattered by Brexit. Foreigners increasingly talk about Britain in the way they would talk about an admired relative who has gone stark raving bonkers.”

“The biggest worry is not that the world’s view of Britain is changing. It is that this darker view is more realistic than the previous one,” he said. He then concludes with a list of “long-festering problems” from amateurism to the promotion of “pompous mediocrities” suggesting that the damage from Brexit is less that “it is not just a mistake. It is a reckoning.”

Now the blog tends to avoid thinking about Britain rather than England in this context – after all the Scots were obviously sensible about all this in the Brexit vote and for centuries before when they emigrated (albeit many of them driven out by the landlord class and clearances) to settle in countries around the world making them all better places as a result.

And one can’t deny the English a record of innovation. As the blog has mentioned many times before, they invented concentration camps, germ warfare and aerial bombings of civilians. There is a view that the US invented the first during the Civil War by starving POW’s in makeshift prisons but the British camps in South Africa are probably the real precursor. Geoffrey Parker’s, Global Crisis, about the Little Ice Age of the 17th century does give some examples of primitive forms of germ warfare around the globe but not even the Spanish were quite as systematic as the efforts in British conquered ‘new’ lands.

An article in History Today (November 2018) by historian James Crossland from Liverpool John Moores University argues for another possible British innovation – fake news – directed towards Nazi Germany through the Political Warfare Executive and a series of fake radio stations. The blog thinks, however, that fake news is as old as humanity itself – it is only the methods of dissemination which have changed.

However, it must be admitted that there are still some British innovations which would be very good to follow today.

Such as an important British policy innovation – given the damage neo-liberalism has done to economies in the Howard-Abbott-Tory-US Anglosphere –  the use of state intervention, protectionism and immigration (think of the Huguenot refugee impact on the textile industry) to promote manufacturing and the economy. A new book, The Industrial Revolution: The State, Knowledge and Global Trade by William J. Ashworth sees off many of the myths about free trade and markets in the Industrial Revolution and subsequent development. Indeed, where would the US economy and multinationals (see Vice, Cheney and Halliburton earlier in the odds and sods blog) be without huge transfers from the State to industrial, service and agricultural companies?

Knights and pawns

In a development which would warm the hearts of Tony Abbott and James I the British are once again resorting to a tactic to win support from MPs and others – handing out knighthoods. James I  handed them out after selling them although the Australian historian and monarchist, Paul de Serville, once justified this in a University of Melbourne debate by arguing that James only sold them to gentlemen.

Anyway, The Economist (1 December 2018) has calculated that, while in 13 years of the Blair-Brown Governments only a couple of sitting Labour MPs were made Knights or Dames, in the eight years since the Tories came to power at least 35 Tory MPs have received such honours. Another Tory was awarded one in the latest honours list – needless to say a Brexiteer. So Tory party Whips might just be expecting something in return given the tendency of many MPs to defy the Whips in parliamentary votes.

However, given the state of the Tory party since Bonar Law’s time Paul de Serville would probably not find the latest ones fit James I’s criteria.

Collective memory

Much is made of collective memory and the best-selling The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell is a brilliant example of why it is important and how it works. But while historians have looked at the phenomenon there is not so much scientific study of it.

Anyway four people: Cristian Candia, C.Jara-Figueroa, Carlos Rodriguez-Sickert, Albert-László Barabási and César A. Hidalgo have published a paper – The universal decay of collective memory and attention – in Nature Human Behaviour .

They open the paper by quoting Pablo Neruda saying: “In what is probably Pablo Neruda’s most famous poem, ‘Poema 20’, he wrote: ‘Es tan corto el amor, y tan largo el olvido’ (Love is so short, forgetting is so long). Neruda’s words express elegantly the fact that, when people are in love, they are constantly thinking of their loved ones, but once love fades, memories fade too. Inspired by Neruda, we ask whether society also experiences the two phases of memory: an initial phase of high attention, followed by a longer and slower phase of forgetting. In fact, there is a vast literature suggesting that this might be the case, as collective memory is acknowledged to be a combination of two distinct processes: communicative memory, normally sustained by the oral transmission of information, and cultural memory, which is sustained by the physical recording of information.”

The authors studied data “on the citation of academic articles and patents, and on the online attention received by songs, movies and biographies, to describe the temporal decay of the attention received by cultural products.” They propose a universal solution to this collective memory “by proposing a mathematical model based on communicative and cultural memory (which) reveal(s) that biographies remain in our communicative memory the longest (20–30 years) and music the shortest (about 5.6 years).”

The paper is densely mathematical – far beyond the blog – but it does  also raise the question of the extent to which memories are manufactured and maintained by ourselves and/or  by those whose interest it is to do so for commercial reasons.

Factional warfare

Probably nothing can save Scott Morrison and the Liberals. But if they were a tad less ‘fair dinkum’, more authentic and more reflective they might get some sources of possible salvation (not from a god as Morrison believes) but from some guides to, and analysis of, the genuine state of politics today and some lessons from the past.

In a Guardian review (21 June 2018) of David Runciman’s new book How Democracy Ends, the historian Mark Mazower, says: “The real erosion of democracy comes when it falls into the hands of attention-grabbing narcissists who turn it into a constant struggle for advertising space. The problem of the Trump presidency is not that there is an evil plot to take over America; it is that nothing is being done to tackle all the very real policy issues confronting the country, as policy-making is drowned out by the frenetic pace of the news cycle.” (An issue of which more in a later blog).

Meanwhile Runciman himself has some apposite advice for Scott Morrison in an article in The Guardian (23 November 2018). “Most modern politicians are familiar with Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, still the go-to guide for political intrigue more than 500 years after it was written. But Machiavelli’s other great work, The Discourses, is where he spells out the particular perils of governing in the name of the people. Factionalism and in-fighting, he says, are the price we pay for the pursuit of national glory: someone will always think they can do it better than the person in charge. He also devotes a lengthy section to dissecting how political conspiracies work. Long story short: they are easy to start, but very hard to finish.” (Emphasis added)

Runciman, by the way, is the great nephew of the remarkable historian, Steven Runciman, who wrote wonderful popular historical works such as The Sicilian Vespers and A History of the Crusades; the son of Garry Runciman a political scientist who the blog and many others studied in the 1960s; the grandson of a prominent UK Liberal politician; and someone brave enough to give Nassim Nicholas Taleb a scathing review – and everyone knows the consequences of that.