Thursday, February 18, 2016

Euston Ten-Year Anniversary Open Thread

From what I can gather, Nick's eulogy for Euston is a proper knee-slapper, full of the usual wails and screams but at a particularly piercing pitch and tone.

Tragically however, it's paywalled for me, and I'd rather have my wisdom teeth replaced and then pulled all over again than pay the Spectator for the privilege of perusing it.  So I'll just have to wait until it appears somewhere else.

Going by past experience, I'm betting that it's mainly some mixture of  

The wars that we demanded have left half the planet in flames and have - incredibly - elevated our bitter political foes to power, and this is definitely somebody else's fault, and  

Our political project was an abject failure, but that had nothing at all to do with the godawful behaviour of the people who promoted it. 

Still, I know some of you have read it and that you, like me, have many fond memories of the era.  For those of you who want to pick over the rubble or to discuss any notable departures from universal values, consider this an open thread. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

We're No' Like Thame

Some thoughts on Scottish patriotism and nationalism here, starting with a seemingly irrelevant digression into football.

Back in the seventies, Scottish football supporters were viewed in much the same light as football fans everywhere else in the UK were - basically, as scum thugs in need of merciless baton-charges.  That's why Scottish football stadiums got fences and cages, just the same as the ones south of the border did.

But a funny thing happened to supporters of the national team as the eighties progressed.  Gradually, Scotland fans came to view themselves as a bunch of cheerfully drunken reprobates, almost as ambassadors for the nation, spreading merry tartan larks wherever they went.  They began to police themselves for bad behaviour, shouting down any supporters who might be inclined to fight other fans or throw things.

To put it mildly, this was an unexpected turn of events.  I'd put it down to a single cause - the appalling behaviour of some English football fans, whose violent rioting was so consistently extreme that it got the entire nation, rather than just a few clubs, banned from European competitions.

In reaction, Scottish fans seem to have decided en masse that We're no' like thame.  Thus, for the last thirty years, the Tartan Army has mostly spent its time responding to our constant failures with good humour and fraternal bevvy-sessions with rival fans, priding itself on its good-natured banter.

And, you now, it's all good.  The aggressive friendliness and mugging up to the cameras can be a bit toe-curling at times, but it creates a far more pleasant atmosphere at and around games.  If you have to be known for something, far better that it's for thirstiness and ingratiating patter, than hurling bottles and fighting with coppers.

Nonetheless, a glance at our domestic league will tell you that our garrulous bonhomie is largely an act, an assumed role.  Despite the cheery chumminess of the national team's fans, we can be just as riotous and violent as supporters south of the border.

Further, the statistics on violent crime* in Scotland make for depressing reading, showing that we're the most savage and stab-happy nation in the First World.  Adults quickly forget this, but when you're a guy aged between about fourteen and twenty one, just walking down a high street in an unfamiliar town can be a seriously risky enterprise.  People in Scotland would view e.g. the Americans as heavily armed, violently-inclined and trigger-happy, but the kind of constant, needless post-pub group batterings that are commonplace in Scotland astound tourists from across the Atlantic.

And still, when we invoke our national self-image, it's far closer to the Tartan Army's view of ourselves as endlessly friendly banter-merchants, than it is to the reality of an average Friday night in Kirkcaldy.  And this remains true, even though many of us see that reality up-close and personal on a regular basis.

Now, I'd say that all of this is fairly unremarkable, and that people in nations all over the world see themselves in a similar light.  No doubt, there's a geezer in Moscow right now chibbing a stranger through the lung, then getting teary-eyed over the wit and candour of an imagined Russian national character.  And yet, Scotland games are testament to the fact that ideas really can make us better people, at least for ninety minutes.  If that seems trite, I suspect that a visit to one of Russia's World Cup qualifiers might bear the proposition out.

And you should bear all this in mind, when observing the current upsurge in Scottish nationalist sentiment.  My guess is that a large part of it is the result of looking south of the Border at the comical bastardry of the Tories and UKIP, and declaring - We're no' like thame.

But of course, we are like them.  Popular opinion may be a bit less vicious towards migrants and benefits claimants and the European Union, and it may currently be ridiculous to imagine any serious Scottish equivalent of the English Defence League sprouting up here.  Still, this is a matter of degrees rather than a singular, special difference in our national character.

And yet, the current political landscape in Scotland is largely sculpted from this one idea - that there's a unique and precisely Scottish cameraderie that, presumably, stops exactly north of Berwick Upon Tweed.

Let's just say that I find this belief difficult to credit.  We may be less prone to boo-hoo about foreigners than our English cousins, but that's mainly because much of our boo-hoo is directed at our English cousins.  We are more open to socialist views than people in other parts of the UK but even so, there's a damn a good reason why our current government makes lots of noise about its left-wing credentials, while noticeably never doing anything that so much as smells like redistribution.

This notional Scotland, these stories that we tell ourselves about our collective amiability as a stark dividing line between ourselves and others, have now moved from a fun fantasy for football supporters to something approaching a national myth, and who knows?  Perhaps if we all believe it hard enough, it'll make us a better people and a better country, much as the Tartan Army's conviction in its own essential good-spirits have made watching Scotland games more pleasant - or at least less dangerous - for everyone.

A passing acquaintance with reality, however, suggests that we'll remain the same flawed and impulsive people that we've always been, much like everybody else is, and that no amount of self-congratulation or back-slapping is likely to effect any material change in that situation.

*Note that those two reports about Scotland as the developed world's most violent country are ten years apart, which suggests a level of consistency, if nothing else.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Thou Shalt Not

Let's return to the Rhodes statue debacle, which has now ended with a decisive victory for the forces of major financial donorship.

To recap quickly: A small group of students at an Oxford college felt that the on-campus presence of a statue dedicated to Cecil Rhodes, one of the British Empire's more rapacious exploiters and infamous thieves, is anachronistic at best and actively offensive at worst.  They demanded that the college remove the offending sculpture, mainly for symbolic reasons.

A terrific rammy then ensued, in which the national press hurled a series of astonishing insults and accusations at these students.  The row finally ended when the college's big money donors threatened to withdraw their funding if the statue was removed.  And so now, the statue will stay. 

I've left it a few days before responding to these events, to allow for reaction to this hilarious decision to play out.  Having done so, I think we can draw a few lessons here:

Threats are fine, provided they're financial 

It's amusing to note the contrast in the treatment that the people involved in this row have received.  

 In the pages of the UK's quality press, the students were repeatedly accused of dictatorial attempts to throttle free enquiry and open debate, and were denounced over and over for trying to delete or sanitise history.  The hacks joined with noted academics and former statesmen in issuing fiery accusations at a few students for iconoclasm and intellectual thuggery, even going so far as to angrily compare the students' actions to ISIS's destruction of antiquities.

And yet, when the issue was resolved by a couple of very wealthy geezers issuing actual blackmail, the very same people were either silent, or openly celebratory.

The lesson here is this - When a plurality of punditry and former politicians agree that some trifling squabble represents an unacceptable threat to our most treasured abstract concepts, they're usually pulling a fast one.

It's difficult to tell from the muted reaction, but I think we can now conclude that many of the students' detractors may have been arguing in bad faith.

After all, it is possible to argue that a request to remove a statue constitutes an outrageous attempt to throttle debate, while also believing in the rectitude of actually throttling the debate with financial threats.

It's just not possible to do both, without also being an outrageous bullshit-merchant of the first water.

Let's note here that it was the students that were repeatedly accused of being "hysterical"; of "throwing tantrums" and so on, and yet it was their opponents who e.g. deployed the ISIS comparisons.  It was the students who were accused of "throttling debate", but it was the donors who issued the threats that won the day.

For me but not for thee 

In the United States, they've been pulling down Confederate banners and statues for months, as they damn well should do and should've done decades ago.

In Ukraine, the removal and defacement of Soviet iconography is routine.  Statues and flags have been torn down all across the Middle East for years, and all of these terrible acts of iconoclasm have happened to the sound of loud celebration in the UK press.

And yet somehow, when the action is moved closer to home, far milder forms of the same behaviour are treated as an unacceptable national outrage.  The mere suggestion that Cecil Rhodes might meet the same fate as, say, Confederate officer Nathan Bedford-Forrest - a roughly comparable historical figure, IMHO - is met with screeches and wails of terror. 

No doubt you can imagine how the UK press would've responded to similar controversies involving likenesses of Che Guevara in South America, or Kemal Ataturk in Ankara.  I suspect that a press-room whip-round for pick-axes might not be out of the question.

But one may not sully the Great British imperialists of yore.  It's worth noting that, had the Americans reacted to anti-Confederacy objections as our own academics and scribbling classes have done with the empire, most of those Stars-'n'-Bars would still be flying today.

You mess with Oxford at your peril

A fairly obvious one, this - I think we can all agree that a row along similar lines wouldn't have attracted a fraction of the vituperation, if it had instead broken out at e.g. the University of Dundee.

One of the many comical and undeclared undercurrents of all the recent campus controversies is that of old boys getting riled by the suspicion that they might not be entirely welcome at their former stomping grounds.  And indeed they might not be, and I'm sure that you're all just as concerned about that prospect as I am.

Thou shalt not fuck with the Empire 

And here, I think, we reach the fundamental issue.  This was a debate about the Empire - about the industrial-scale theft and wanton cruelty that is part of any imperial project, be it British, Roman or Soviet.  The students, not unfairly, regarded the likeness of one of the imperial era's more prominent plunderers as an affront, not simply because of his racism, but because of his conduct.

The response from our pundits, academics and former politicians was very telling, I think.  Almost all  chose to interpret this instead as a debate about racism and political correctness, and issued exculpatory statements about Rhodes' philanthropy, and how Rhodes was no more racist than his contemporaries.  The Times - incredibly - allowed one of its columnists* to claim that Rhodes wasn't that racist, since he believed that Africans could be trained to become civilised.

And this has always been the standard British response to any complaints about the undisputed savagery of our former Empire - to emphasise the good manners and good breeding of our empire-building forebears, as a partial excuse to ignore their profound lack of good character or even good behaviour.

The hysterics and amateur dramatics that this row has inspired suggest to me that it's touched a raw nerve.  I get the feeling that Rhodes is the wobbly brick at the bottom of the wall.  If we question him, then that surely calls into question all of the participants and beneficiaries of empire.

And let's be clear: if we do that, then we'd have to question most of the people and institutions that make up our great national self-image - family members of famous and wealthy people, historical figures, great schools and universities, businesses, maybe even kings and queens.

That's why almost every opinion piece on the Rhodes row has contained some variation upon the following question - If we're going to disown Rhodes, then wouldn't we have to look again at e.g. Queen Victoria, or even Winston Churchill, with a critical eye?

The ludicrous nature of this entire incident - with its near-deranged tone, its almost entirely one-sided insults and its hilarious, slapstick outcome - strongly suggests that, well, maybe we should.

*Nigel Biggar, Message to students: Rhodes was no racist, The Times, 22 December 2015