Sunday, 22 March 2009

Bits and pieces I've been reading

As I indicated a few posts back, I've started reading the Financial Times on a regular basis, as it has Serious News for Serious Times. I noticed a piece about Britain's coal industry (or what's left of it) on March 12th entitled 'Mining recovery needs longer-term aid' (p.4, bye-lined Ed Crooks) which quoted Nye Bevan's observation that Britain is an island 'made mainly from coal' (Bevan also said Britain was an island 'in a sea full of fish' or words to that effect. The running down of the British Isles' fishing industry is another national scandal). The article then said:

'Estimates from the now-defunct National Coal Board in the 1980s suggest the UK has now enough mineable reserves to meet demand at current levels for about 4,000 years.'

To waste this natural resource is criminal to me. I fully support investment in renewable energy, but to run down the coal industry when we are importing oil and gas (which are hardly environmentally friendly...and what happened to North Sea oil? On the same page of the FT: 'Almost 5,000 platform wells and subsea wells in the North Sea will have to be decommissioned, most of them over the next 15 years, UK Oil and Gas said.' What is going on?!) and are talking about expanding the most dangerous power source of all ie nuclear (think it's safe? Would you live next door to a nuclear power station if you had the choice?). When we have the likes of James Lovelock, George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and other self-righteous eco-doomsters saying we should go nuclear (state-subsidised capitalism par excellence) rather than invest in clean coal technology, I think sections of the environmental movement have gone off the rails entirely.

The FT's review of the coal industry comes on the 25th anniversary of the Miners' Strike. The fact that the miners were badly led by Arthur Scargill does not take away the fact the wrong side lost and the country is still living with the consequences. Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, would disagree with this, but he is far from a Thatcher-worshipper:

Meanwhile history is silent on the downside of the Thatcher era. The command structure she created to crush her foes became unrestrained, over-centralised and inefficient. Her evisceration of local democracy bred a cynicism among Britons towards political participation that remains unique in Europe. It also led to her downfall through the poll tax.

Thatcher was one of the great "nationalisers" of all time, taking control of the public housing stock, the rating system, a previously devolved hospital service, the universities, the courts, crown prosecution and, during the miners' strike, the police. It was Thatcher who turned Whitehall from an elite administrative corps into a demoralised, politicised officialdom which, under Blair and Brown, became besotted with targets, initiatives and useless IT systems.

Thatcher removed former nationalised industries from the state. But ask any doctor, farmer, lecturer, engineer or victim of the health and safety executive if, as a result of Thatcher, they feel less or more liberated from state interference. You will get a sick laugh.

The portrayal of Thatcher as libertarian St Joan in the fight against big government is nonsense. When I once suggested to her that a policy she was proposing was hardly laissez-faire, she exploded: "Never accuse me of that ghastly French word. I believe government should be strong in what it does."

Next time some Thatcher-worshipper gives you the full 'Oh, she believed in freedom' spiel to you, quote this back at them. Personally I think Thatcher-worshippers are largely cut from the same intellectual cloth as Western Stalin-worshippers back in the 1930s! That is, secular worshippers of the idea of a Strong Leader who kicks people (not themselves of course!) around...

The LRB has a bookshop: 14 Bury Place, near the British Museum...

I've also bought the London Review of Books for the first time in ages. I gave up subscribing back in late 06, partly on budgetary grounds, partly because although it has some very good articles, I could sometimes go through an edition without finding anything of worth to read. However, the latest edition (12th March- Volume 31 Number 5) had a fair few articles I wanted to read at leisure at home, as opposed to snatching 20 minutes in the local bookshop.

Amongst the articles I found of interest was a review of Harriet Harvey Wood'sThe Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England written by Tom Shippey, who I know as one of the leading scholars in the field of Tolkienology. He notes that Wood is very much of the view (which I share) that the Norman victory in 1066 was an absolute disaster for England, one which we as a country are still trying to recover from (the idea of a class system comprising 'us' and 'them', with 'them' very much in charge through a modified 'Norman Yoke'). Shippey notes that:

'she comes close to repeating the claim, made many years ago by R.W. Chambers, that in 1065 England looked as if it would skip the Middle Ages altogether and go straight into a Renaissance....While there was admittedly a class system based on weregilds, it was a relatively flat one, with only two main male classes....It was a fairly porous system: there were established procedures for churls to become thanes, with written laws and a system of open-access courts at every level from the hundred, the unit of local government, upwards. Women were also well protected by medieval standards, with legal rights to a share of the property on divorce, no bar to remarriage, and freedom to own and dispose of land, a situation...not reached again until the passing of the Married Women's Property Act of 1882. Sentiments in the gnomic poems, she says, 'were positively advanced even by 20th-century standards', and she quotes in support the poem Maxims I, with its advice (putting it in 20th-century terms) to encourage the self-esteem of the young. Rich, stable, liberal and progressive; why did they lose to a bunch of pirates?' ('Why did they lose?', p.25)

Shippey says 'Wood's view, in short, is that the results of Hastings was a mix of good luck for William with some forgivable bad judgement from Harold; but really, the Normans didn't deserve it.' (ibid, p.26) Shippey suggests there was more to it than that. However, he admits that 'even in the 11th century there was a strong reservoir of national feeling' in England, but it was squandered by the country's ruling and administrative elites, and so the 'Norman Yoke' was imposed, and everyone (not least women) knew their place.

Richard Cobden: outside Mornington Crescent tube station!

There is also a review in the LRB by Miles Taylor of The Letters of Richard Cobden, Vol. I, 1815-47 ('Dig, Hammer, Spin, Weave' pp.27-28). I've got quite a lot of time for Cobden and John Bright, who are often called the founders of the 'Manchester School' of economic thought. They were anti-imperialist and anti-war at a time when it was extremely unpopular; they had no time for the landed aristocracy (and, as genuine believers in free markets, I think they would have had little time for the rise of the corporation); no time for the Corn Laws (the Common Agricultural Policy of their day); and were supporters of cheap newspapers and the penny post (would they be supporters of a free internet today?). Taylor's review of the collection edited by Anthony Howe stresses how much Marx and Engels (in the 1840s the latter lived in the same city as Cobden, who was Stockport's MP; Manchester's Free Trade Hall is very much a monument to Cobden) saw Cobden as the leading voice of Britain's revolutionary bourgeoisie against the aristocratic ruling class. However, after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1845, it was not to be...

Other articles in the LRB which I also found worth reading was an overview of Italian politics by Perry Anderson (who is always worth reading, not least because he writes so well); a review by Neal Ascherson of a new biography of Robbie Burns (The Bard by Robert Crawford), which explains his diverse political views on Burn's love of 'anybody who bravely rose against established power...It was the means-the act of rebellion-rather than the motley ends which made his heart thump.' ('How Does it Add Up?', ibid, p.3); a review by Hal Foster of Guy 'Society of the Spectacle' Debord's Correspondence: The Foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957-60); and an overview by Katie Thumpener of several books on cinema under the Nazis. In short, well worth splashing £3.20 for!

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