Jun 242016

So, the people have spoken. Or rather they have mumbled, because nobody knows what they really voted for, because the Leave offer was all about passion and sentiment, not detail. In the end we have had the biggest by-election in our history that has garnered the most massive protest vote ever seen. Good-bye EU, and probably UK too.

Is Farage the new messiah? Or just a careless, irresponsible gadfly who has amused himself for years without threat of responsibility. I hate to think that he is really the man most in tune with the mood of modern Britain. We should be careful what we wish for.

We must now live with our new freedom, and maybe some good will come of it. But what, and how? What if the 52% do not actually get what they want out of this? In voting for greater security and higher living standards, they may well have made both less likely. Smashing up the UK and the EU might not look like such a good idea in a minute. And if they do not get what they want, what will they pull down next?

 Posted by at 10:14 am
Jun 222016

The one we are having, and will have for a while – either way.

Referendums are not a good thing on the whole , and they are awful if they are close. A close vote and no one is happy. Plus we may well be in a position where we have a House of Commons that is pro Europe and an electorate that isn’t. Commons versus people. Where does that leave our lovely sovereignty then?

I am also troubled by the whiff of consumerism here. We the voters have been given a switch and told that if we press it we get what we want. No mediation, no grey areas. In out. us them, freedom slavery – whatever. But the world is not like that. Politics gives us our world, and allows us infinitesimal adjustments and adaptations to circumstances. Referendums don’t do this. Governments – human beings, that is – do.

Worse, the current divide is posited on the idea that we, the British, would be better off spared the need to interact with foreigners – they are unreliable, malign – and all in collusion against us, led by this weird unelected Illuminatariat in Brussels. Well, our bureaucrats aren’t elected either. Nor are our judges, and they sometimes strike down the decisions of our government. Just ask Michael ‘Sovereignty’ Howard.

My point is that we are all condemned to a life dominated by politics, unless we opt for dictatorship. And this whole referendum scenario has assumed that we are not.

I am not sure that the exit camp will actually get anything like what they want. I would cheer if the EU reformed itself. But if it does so without us in it, or breaks up into nation states again, how will we be more secure? And do they want to kiss Ireland and Scotland goodbye on their way to a new, freer future?

Exit say the world has moved on, that the EU is outdated and restrictive. Perhaps. It is certainly protective, but so will we be if we get out. Outers just want a smaller circle to defend. History may not be on the EU’s side, but I find it hard to believe that every serving British Prime Minister for fifty years – that means people who actually exercised responsible power – are all wrong and Nigel Farage, a man with no responsibility to anyone or anything, is right.

Personally I believe that we need small political units for democracy and large units for peace. Farage claims that it is NATO that has kept the peace, but with the EU in place it is inconceivable that there could be war in Europe.

We will have to do politics, among ourselves and with our neighbours. We can do it in a club, or out. But it is a very bad idea, historically, to antagonise one’s neighbours. I said it about Scotland, and at least for the sake of consistency I have to say it about Europe. I fear that both local and long-distance politics will be a lot harder after leaving.

 Posted by at 9:39 am
Jun 202016

This has all become a terrible mess. We are having a referendum for no particularly good reason, it has hit democracy on all of its weak spots and degenerated into such a cavalcade of misrepresentation that it is hard to see anything good coming out of it.

Its origins lie in the run-up to the last general election, and it has continued as a knife fight among the present cabinet. Most obviously it is the child of a serious split on the right of British politics, and it is more about the deep fissures between capitalism and nationalism than anything else.

As a result we are essentially having a general election by proxy, and the British public appear to be about to elect the hardest right government we have had in generations, something it would never do at any national poll. The issues have been skewed so badly that the moderate right pitch about prosperity has been entirely swept away by the hard right fear of immigration. Well done boys, break my country why don’t you?

Referendums are a very mixed blessing. They should be about simple issues, like the voting system, where arguments can actually sway people, and office is not at stake. Here we have a disproportionate amount of passion on one side and a limp hope for the better on the other. That’s not clever in politics. It’s also dumb to put up an issue that doesn’t need to be decided now, and is of such complexity that it should be taken by a government. All the other decisions about the European project have been taken by Prime Ministers in cabinet – all of whom since Macmillan have been pro-European, and none of them stood for election on that specific issue. The European project has never been a high priority for any of Britain’s voters, except those at the fringes of left and right who have always seen it as a conspiracy of some kind.

Now in the middle of a global revolt against elites, we are asking an apparently simple question to an electorate that is so riled up that it can’t disentangle entirely unconnected issues, and is being encouraged to conflate them by deliberate spin-doctoring – so that the NHS and Premiership football have moved into questions about international relations.

So, the reasoning, the question, the timing, and the conduct of this campaign are all bad in their ways. And we can see again, exactly as in the Scottish event of two years ago, that the whole idea of optimism is being abused. One person’s optimism is another’s delusional, hyperventilating fantasy. As with Scottish independence, leaving will solve almost nothing. We will recover economically either way. But what will be lost is harder to see, as is persuading people of its value.

Last thing. If Brexit wins, if the optimistic, confident, patriotic pitch is persuasive, if we smash up so many things at once, is it reasonable to assume that all the pieces will fall where we want them to?

 Posted by at 6:23 am
Jun 032016

There is an intelligent debate to be had about Britain and the EU. Unfortunately it’s not the one we are having.

Take back control! What a good slogan – and one that is difficult to get past to consider anything else. But we should ask: control of what, and from whom?

Instead of a debate about issues we are now locked in something very like an election, where each side is making its ‘offer’. But we are not electing a government. The same Prime Minister, leading the same government, will see the sun come up the day after we stay or leave. Point being – realistic or fantastical, can Johnson and Farage, neither of whom holds office, deliver any of their promises about anything? Furthermore, this is a constitutional debate about the functioning of our legal system and democracy at least as much as it is about short-term economic goodies.

Democracy is a blessing and a curse, in that it winds people up and inflames passions sometimes to little good effect.

 Posted by at 7:41 pm
Mar 082016

I haven’t been writing much, but I intend to change that. Events have conspired, and timetables have aligned to permit me a little more time and energy for thoughts that might fit here.

We are certainly at an interesting point in time. A lot has changed in the last seven years, and people have been scrabbling round for explanations. Some new bad guys have appeared, often in pairs – Assad and ISIS, Trump and Mexican rapists – or as odd singletons – Putin, Farage, Erdogan. I have some ideas about all this, and I will be putting some of them up here, soon.

But although the world seems a bit crazy right now, people are actually much the same. And that is both a comfort and a worry.


 Posted by at 5:54 pm
Sep 092015

I am slightly surprised, but nevertheless delighted, that this site appears to rank No. 1 for search terms surrounding ‘Divide and Rule’. I am surprised because ‘Divide and Rule’ is such a widespread cliché and it appears almost everywhere in casual writing about Indian history. So why here? I have only mentioned it in one article. But I am most surprised because I have long considered the whole ‘Divide and Rule’ explanation within Indian history as a broad myth, adopted for modern convenience by several sections of the Indian public and intelligentsia. My view is then, perforce, a minority opinion. If more people come here to read about it, then surprise must yield to frank astonishment.

This discovery has led me to look at some of the other material across the web on this subject, and further surprises awaited. I found two serious articles, written coherently and with accurate supporting detail, also arguing that the supposed British policy of Divide and Rule is/was a myth. One, here, takes a Muslim point of view, and maintains that belief in a supposed Divide and Rule policy serves to discredit the reality of the demand for Pakistan, and underplays the degree of Hindu/Congress intransigence about concessions to minorities. Another, here, is written from an Indian nationalist stance and does not seem to support any obvious agenda, despite appearing in a publication that supports right wing Hindu opinion.

My own chief objections to the Divide and Rule idea is that it ignores all the relevant information against the existence of such a policy and invents a good deal of the evidence used to support its alleged reality. It is a simple imputation of malice against the British, in a rather unrealistic way. Why? My guess is that it is simply to mask the chief weakness of the Indian National Congress’s campaign for independence, which was a pervasive lack of unity among the population of India. This lack of (political) unity was actually a long term factor, which originally aided the British intruders, and remained a debilitating weakness in all attempts to be rid of British rule.

It is a straightforwardly political historical point of view, closely allied to Congress ideology and interests. It comes freighted with the idea that India has always been a unified entity, and that the arrival of the British destroyed this. Two myths right there, in a row. A valid counter-argument might be that when the British finally left, various strands of disunity remained, and did not disappear, as the main Congress ideologues had promised. But here the self-perpetuating ability of conspiracy theories comes to the fore. Of course the division was so effectively done that it has proved irreparable, and the fact that various divisions still persist is conclusive proof that the original policy not only existed but was brilliantly effective.

Crediting one’s enemies with superhuman powers often goes along with ascribing inhuman vices to them too, but neither is ever a very credible approach, and both risk producing potentially damaging consequences among those willing to believe them. Impotence is the most obvious, but an inability to see plain realities is another.

At another level, Divide and Rule sloganeering might be countered by saying that the degree of unity in pre-colonial India has always been greatly exaggerated for political reasons, and that this often coincides with a similar willingness to exaggerate the degree of division in contemporary India. As such the Divide and Rule myth looks rather like an unfortunate amalgam of misplaced historical national consciousness coupled with populist pessimism about modern India. Both seem quite unwarranted, and surely neither can be of any real help to Indians today.

 Posted by at 11:47 am
Aug 302015

Having seen off my third book, The Great Indian Rope Trick, I have taken a break from writing here and elsewhere. It was hard work, but I learned a great deal. One lesson is that it is very difficult to write a book that deals with really current affairs, something that should probably be left to journalists. I am proud of what I wrote, and it has been well enough received by enough people to make me think it was worth the effort.

I am now moving on to thinking about my fourth book, which has been around in draft for quite a while now – I am ashamed to say for several years.

Bur before I do I need to tidy up one small thing. One review of Rope Trick was so bad, and so unfair, that I cannot let it pass entirely without comment. I won’t link – it’s not hard to find; the writer has managed to get two versions of it up online, in separate publications. Which seems provocative. Such fervent desire to reach the public is certainly an odd response to a book he considers so irredeemably awful.

They say that a bad critic is often in error but never in doubt. Very true here, where the writer must have decided to hate the book before he read a sentence. He was so desperate to find fault that he singled out individual words, took phrases out of context, and even criticised my writing style. Rather hilariously this included attacking me for ‘tautology’, but also for ‘errors and solecisms’ (emphasis added). If you use long words you should, ideally, be aware of what they mean.

If that were all, it might not greatly matter: I have been attacked by biased and ignorant people before, and I dare say I will be again. But more seriously, he missed some very central points in the book, and I do care about that, because he gave an entirely misleading impression of the book’s scope, and its major thrust. He claims that I did not understand the propensity of democracy to generate violence, or its impact on India. Not true. I addressed exactly these issues, and directly explained, in my view, why India has had relatively non-violent politics, particularly when compared to her neighbours. See Part 3, especially pages 250-262. But I dare say he never got that far, or was more concerned to impress his think-tank seniors with his ferocity than give the public an accurate picture of the book.

A poor effort, but the writer has ‘previous’. Elsewhere a much higher authority than me found Srinath Raghavan guilty of ‘selection bias’ and of pervasive ‘lack of theoreti­cal reflection’.

I concur.


 Posted by at 12:38 pm
Jun 132015

I have recently been reading a book worthy of a short review: ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. It is not exactly a gripping read, because it is very detailed and couched in a kind of journalese that doesn’t really allow a reader to wander off. In other words it makes certain demands of its readers that mean, in my case, that I have to keep putting it down. But in most other ways it is a brilliant book, because it tackles head-on all the questions a general reader might want to have answered about ISIS – where did it come from, why has it been successful, how does it work, who joins it and why etc.

The level of detail and knowledge it displays is impressive, and I would certainly use it as a reference for any serious writing I might want to do about ISIS. Anyone who is interested in the ISIS phenomenon, and especially anyone seriously concerned that it is about to conquer the world, should read this book. It sets out very thoroughly how ISIS is a local phenomenon, partly related to Islam but also very heavily connected to the political, diplomatic. sectarian and criminal history of the modern Middle East.

It also forcefully brought home to me how Islamic societies are socially very stable but politically very fragile, which means that the disruption both caused and exacerbated by the intrusion of an ISIS-style organisation can create such mayhem. Politics in Islamic cultures is often very closely related to coercion; the triumph of the West, in one way, is that Western societies can be politically stable without recourse to either violence, or notions of God.


 Posted by at 12:59 pm
Apr 202015

A great article in the Times of India here. Well done Anvar Alikhan – humorous, subtle and apposite.

Counterfactual history is always good fun, and it is a fairly democratic sport, in that most people can have a go at it. The downside is that, of course, the conclusions are always provisional and sometimes outright insane. Most obviously what happens is that people use the technique to reinforce their existing prejudices; no one’s mind is ever changed. So articles like the above serve less to stimulate elevated historical discussion than to act as barometers of current popular opinion. And this one has unleashed the residual admiration, even yearning, for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a man who never ruled India and did very little for anyone apart from himself throughout his life. His ego was fragile and his judgement poor. But many Indians to this day forgive his failings and his failures because he was indisputably, in their eyes, a patriot.

And here he contrasts very favourably in the popular imagination, as expressed in the scores of comments that the subject of Netaji always provokes, with the figure of Jawaharlal Nehru, who stands accused of lack of patriotism, corruption, the imposition of English education, wrecking the economy, inventing dynastic politics, permissiveness etc. etc..

Here we immediately see the contrast between a man who never had to deal with the practicalities of government and one who did, between a man who strode around in uniform claiming he could solve all India’s problems – by his very being – and one who actually wrestled with the daunting task of governing a cash-starved country full of conflicting interests. Bose dodged all the difficult decisions, and instead repeatedly backed losers, yet for his patriotism alone he is stll revered as a figure somewhere between King Arthur and Santa Claus.

Nehru’s own patriotism, which was subtler, was nevertheless sufficiently deep and sincere to drive him to spend over three thousand days in prison, not being saluted by anyone. That is forgotten, and the sins of his daughter have been held against him.

It should also be pointed out, as I seek to do in my latest book, that it was not Nehru that imposed English on India. He was keen to be rid of it in favour of Hindi, and only the reaction of the non-Hindi-speaking states ensured its preservation as a link language. It was not Nehru that instituted corruption; it was a combination of long-term factors that led a small, over-powerful bureaucracy into the heart of commerce. It was not Nehru that turned the Congress into an organ of patronage; that was the result of the stampede of India’s existing social elites into the party for their own purposes. At most he can be reproached for doing too little to stop any of these things from happening; he did not actively connive in any of them.

If Indians are glad they live in a democracy, they have more to thank Nehru for that they ever would have had reasons to be grateful to Bose.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should have written Rope Trick. At times like this I am glad that I did.

 Posted by at 8:31 am