Monday, 31 October 2016

An American view of Brexit

There is an interesting sidelight on the Brexit vote in the “New York Times Review of Books”. The Brexit triumph is seen as a howl of rage on the part of the poor white working class in the old declining industrial areas, who were given the opportunity of venting their frustrations on a single target: Europe. Parallels are drawn with Donald Trump’s success in appealing to the same socio-economic groups in the so-called “rust belt” and the backwoods rural districts of America. Trump himself is aware of the parallels, and encourages his supporters by pointing out how Brexit was able to triumph, against all predictions and against the advice of almost all political and business leaders.

   None of this can be explained by traditional class-based theories. Contrast an area I know well: Stoke-on-Trent: rock-solid Labour; the home of traditional heavy industries (ceramics, coal and iron: all in decline for many years), with its own proud local traditions, and strongly Brexit; with another area I know: Richmond-on-Thames: rock-solid Tory, with some of the highest house prices in the country, and over 70% for Remain. To add to the confusion, the Stoke M.P.s backed Remain, but the Richmond M.P.backed Brexit!

The clearest divisions are in education. In America the majority of college graduates traditionally voted Republican, whereas blue-collar workers voted Democrat. This could well change: probably not many graduates are likely to support Trump, but on the other hand he could do well in a state like Pennsylvania, which is full of rust belt industrial towns (Does anyone remember Billy Joel's classic song "Allentown", about the decline of the steel industry there?). In our referendum, an overwhelming majority of people with university degrees voted for Remain, as did the inhabitants of London and the academic centres, Oxford and Cambridge.

Monday, 24 October 2016

A Psychopathic Emperor, and What Followed

The young general Alexius Comnenus, who seized power in Constantinople in 1081, at the age of just 24, founded a dynasty that ruled the Byzantine Empire for a century. His exploits are recoded in a biography written by his daughter, Anna Comnena. He and his successors faced formidable problems.
   In 1071 the Seljuks, a Turkish people coming originally from Central Asia, had defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert, which proved to be one of the most important battles in world history. Soon vast numbers of Turks were flooding westwards across Anatolia, almost reaching the coast. They destroyed the farms to make pasture for their sheep, and many towns were abandoned. The empire at a stroke lost one of its main sources of food and also of soldiers for its armies. At the same time a pagan nomad tribe from the Ukraine, the Pechengs ( or Patzinaks), crossed the danube and raided right up to walls of Constantinople.
    Could Alexius save the empire?  His early problems came not in Asia and the Balkans but in the west. In the same year as Manzikert, the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy, Bari, fell to the Normans under Robert Guiscard. Norman knights under the terrifying warlord Robert Guiscard landed in Albania in 1081, slaughtered Alexius's army and prepared to march on Constantinople; but Alexius, probably by judicious bribery, was able to stir up trouble back in Italy and the expedition abandoned. But the wildly ambitious Normans probably always had eyes on ultimate prize: the Empire. In 1085 Robert died, and the subsequent struggle for power between his sons and his brother Roger ended the Norman threat  for the moment. In 1091 the Pechens were roundly defeated, and the Danube frontier remained secure for a long time.
There remained the problem of  the Turks, now controlling all Asia Minor apart from a few ports. But even this threat now diminished. The Sultan Malik Shah died in 1092, and the vast Seljuk territory disintegrated into petty states ruled by Seljuk chieftains or local warlords. Even so, Alexius felt obliged to appeal to the west for help; and appeal which famously resulted in the First Crusade and the formation of Christian states in Palestine. We can be certain that this was not what Alexius had intended, and he would have been particularly alarmed when Bohemond, the son of Robert Guiscard, established himself as Lord of Antioch.

There was uneasy peace around the diminished Byzantine Empire for the next century. Alexius was succeeded on the throne by his son, John II (1118-43) and grandson, Manuel I (1143-80). Meanwhile a rich and powerful Norman kingdom had been established in Sicily and sounthern Italy; and in 1182 William II of Sicily thought he saw a dramatic opportunity for further greatness.
          When the Emperor Manuel Comnenus died, he left only an 11-year-old son, Alexis II, as his successor. He seems to have been an unpleasant boy, and his mother Mary of Antioch, who was a scion of the crusaders, was unpopular. Distrust of the Latins was increased by the fact that young Alexius was married to Agnes, daughter of the King of France.
      Into this fluid situation there now stepped Andronicus, a grandson of Alexius I. In 1182 he was 64 years old; a tall, handsome, charismatic man who had enjoyed a distinctly chequered career as a result of his constant changes of allegiance and reckless womanising. For some years he had been living in internal exile in a remote castle on the Black Sea. Now, hearing of the troubles in Constantinople, he set out to march on the city. Forces sent to stop him promptly changed sides, and in the capital itself mobs rose up and massacred large numbers of the hated Latins. Alexius, his mother and their supporters were arrested, and Alexius was compelled to sign his mother's death-warrant. In September 1183 Andronicus was crowned co-Emperor, and two months later young Alexius himself was strangled and his body thrown into the Bosphorus. Andronicus then married the boy's 12-year-old widow Agnes. It had been a swift, efficient coup d'etat.

Andronicus was an energetic ruler, who worked hard to stop corruption and improve government efficiency. Unfortunately he also began to show signs of paranoid suspicion, which quickly led to the mass arrest, torture and execution of suspected opponents. Instead of  ensuring stability, this only made things far worse. Soon the Serbs were rising in revolt against the empire, and on Cyprus a distant cousin, Isaac Comnenus, declared himself independent. Other relatives fled to the west, and a mysterious youth turned up in Sicily, claiming to be Alexius II himself.
     Whether King William believed him or not, he saw a golden opportunity in prospect. Ever since days of Bohemond in the First Crusade, the Normans of Sicily had always held visions of themselves as rulers of Constantinople; so in 1185, William assembled an enormous force of 80,000 soldiers and 300 ships, for an invasion. (He didn’t lead it himself , having never commanded in battle, showing how un-Norman the family had become. The army was led by a certain Baldwin, about whom little is known)

The army landed unopposed at Durazzo in modern Albania and marched to Thessalonica, the second city of the empire. Andronicus seemed incapable of organising resistance: five different armies he sent to stop the invaders merely camped at a safe distance, His response was to order the execution of the families of everyone suspected of treason. In August Thessalonica fell, with appalling scenes of murder and looting: perhaps 5,000 civilians were killed. Eventually the soldiers moved on eastwards, and the.fleet sent ahead, to wait off Constantinople for the arrival of the army. But the army never got there! In September, even as the fleet was lying offshore, the citizens of Constantinople decided they had had enough of Andronicus. A nobleman by the name of Isaac Angelus was proclaimed Emperor in his place, and a rampaging mob stormed the Great Palace. Vast quantities of bullion and artistic treasures were plundered, and the city's most revered holy relic; a letter said to have been written by Christ himself, vanished without trace. The Byzantine Empire never recovered from this spoilage. As for Andronicus himself; he was caught trying to flee the city in disguise, and was taken to the Hippodrome, where he was mutilated and tortured to death.
   The Byzantine army now unexpectedly bestirred itself into activity, and having first checked to advance of Baldwin's army, it lulled him into a sense of false security by arranging a truce and then caugt him by surprise with a counterattack in November. The Sicilian forces were routed and driven back in disorder. Few of them survived the winter retreat through the hostile Balkan mountains.

Coincidentally with these events, the Crusader states were overcome with disaster. The great Kurdish warlord Saladin, having unified Syria and Egypt under his rule, now destroyed the crusader army at the Battle of Hattin in July 1187, and then three months later took Jerusalem itself. It was never to be recovered by the crusaders, who were now confined to a narrow band of territory along the Palestinian coast. It is said that the Pope, Urban III, died of shock on hearing the news, but his successor, Gregory VIII, was quick to summon the kings of Europe for the Third Crusade.
   The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, was the first to respond, despite being almost 70 years old. He led his German contingent down through the Balkans, and threw the Emperor Isaac into panic as he approched Constantinople. As it happened, his army was ferried across the Bosporus without any untoward incidents; but Barbarossa died before reaching Palestine.
   Richard the Lion-heart of England came by sea. As everyone knows, he failed to recover Jerusalem; but he achieved one long-term change when he seized Cyprus (arresting Isaac Comnenus and imprisoning him in chains), and set up a crusader kingdom there. The island remained under Latin control for several centuries.

Meanwhile in 1189 King William of Sicily died childless. His kingdom was claimed by Barbarossa's son, the Emperor Henry VI, by virtue of his marriage to William's aunt. Henry seized the kingdom by force in 1194, plundered it thoroughly, executed any barons who opposed him, and then died three years later, leaving only a baby son. The richest and most spectacular western state in the Mediterranean had gone for ever, and in a few decades the island began its long descent into poverty and insignificance.

The decline of the Byzantine Empire was sudden and catastrophic. For all his faults, Andronicus had at least been energetic in his attempts to root out corruption. Isaac Angelus, by contrast, quickly turned out to be a completely useless emperor. In 1195 he was deposed, blinded and imprisoned by his own brother, who succeeded him as Alexius III; and who, against all probablilities, proved to be evn worse at the job. The once-proud Byzantine fleet was allowed to rot whilst naval stores were sold off by corrupt officials for their personal profit. The consequences were soon to lead to disaster.
   In 1198 Pope Innocent III proclaimed yet another crusade, the fourth, to cope with the parlous situation in Palestine. This time no monarchs were involved. The crusaders, who were mostly French barons and knights, set sail down the Adriatic in late 1202 in Venetian ships that they had not yet paid for. At Zara they encountered one Alexius Angelus, the son of the deposed Emperor, who promised them that if they helped restore his father to his throne, then Byzantine money would finance the expedition.The crusaders accordingly diverted towards Constantinople.
      Alexius III had plenty of warning of their approach, but, characteristically, took no steps to defend his capital. He duly fled the city and Isaac was duly restored, but then a series of mistakes and broken promises, on top of the longstanding mistrust between Greeks and westerners, led to the crusaders storming the city in April 1204. Constantinople was thoroughly sacked, with appalling scenes of death and destruction; and the great city, which for centuries had resisted Persians and Avars, Arabs and Turks, finally fell to a Christian army. Amidst the carnage the Venetians were the only people to keep their heads, and carried off a magnificent collection of art treasures, many of which can be seen in Venice today.
   A Latin Empire was established in Constantinople, but Serbia and Bulgaria took the opportunity to establish themselves as independent kingdoms. The Greeks did eventually regain Constantinople, but the Byzantine Empire was henceforth only a feeble shadow of its former glory.

So in little more than twenty years, the whole balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean had been irrevocably changed. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily was no more, the Balkans fragmented and the Crusader states and the Byzantine Empire irredeemably weakened. The way was open for the advance of the Ottoman Turks, whose conquests, beginning in the 13th century, would eventually extend through Palestine and Iraq, through Egypt and all along the North African coast, and through south-eastern Europe all the way to the gates of Vienna.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal ...." These mighty words begin the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence, in 1776. But what do they actually mean? And what message do theyhave for us today?
   I shall ignore such questions as how the American Founding Fathers reconciled these words with the existence of slavery, or whether they viewed women as being equal with men (we can be fairly certain that they did not). To avoid confusion on this latter point, I shall use the word "men" to mean "males", and "people" to indicate both genders together.

The concept of equality is closely linked with that of Democracy (as in "one person, one vote"), and also with that of Justice, which Aristotle defined as "treating equals equally"; anything else being inherently unjust. It can also be linked with the concept of Human Rights, and also, more questionably, with that of Liberty. It also forms the basis of most generally-accepted views of Fairness.

So: in what sense are people equal, and should be treated as equal? And what should, or can, the state do about it?
   One fundamental point is that we are clearly not equal by nature. Men, considered as a class, are bigger, stronger and faster than women considered as a class. Some people are much stronger or cleverer than others. Some have wholly different talents. I am no good at music, and not particularly good at games, though I enjoy playing them. My sister is good at music, but disliked compulsory games at school and has never played them since. We were both of us good at schoolwork and passing exams, where many teenagers have struggled.
   Almost all modern political creeds, however, argue that none of these differences are very important: that most people are so nearly equal in nature that the similarities outweigh the differences, and therefore most deserve equal rights and treatment. There are only a few exceptions: for instance, it would not be just or fair to treat infants in the same way as adults, or the mentally disturbed or handicapped in the same way as sane people, particularly with regard to criminal responsibility. (John Stuart Mill, writing in the mid-19th century argued, more controversially, that pre-literate savages could not be treated in the same way as civilized people). This notion of fundamental equality forms the basis of Liberalism, Socialism and modern Conservatism. It is rejected only by such creeds as Fascism, Nazism and various forms of racism, where it is argued that whole groups of humans are so inherently inferior that they cannot be accorded equal treatment. 

It follows from this that there should be equality before the law: that with just a few exceptions (infants, lunatics etc) no groups should enjoy privileges or face discrimination under the law. The abolition of slavery was a vital step forward here, as was the abolition of apartheid in South Africa.

Political equality; that is, "one person, one vote", was always more problematic, because voting gives a degree of power; and it was always argued that many people were simply not intelligent or well-informed enough to vote responsibly. Opponents of democracy, from Plato onwards, feared that the mass of the people were always in danger of voting for demagogues who made wild and irresponsible promises. (The rise of Hitler in 1932-33 might seem to confirm this fear) Anti-feminists joked that women would simply vote for the handsomist candidate, regardless of any other considerations. (This does happen, but is certainly not exclusive to women voters!) Mill thought that in principle everyone should have a vote, and was the first person to propose the enfranchisement of women in Parliament, but thought it best if the most educated people had more than one vote. He also stressed that democracy was unlikely to work effectively unless voters realised that some people might understand the issues better than them, and were prepared to be guided in decision-making.

The main problem arises when we consider equality of possessions. Plainly, people is not equal in wealth, and never have been. Marxists and other socialists have always argued that inequalities of wealth make nonsense of other forms of equality. How can everyone be equal before the law when only rich people can afford the best lawyers? Why should some people be able to buy better healthcare? How can there be equality of opportunity when the children of rich people can gain access to a superior education? And what about democracy? Mr Rupert Murdoch does not even have a vote, not being a British citizen, but has enormous power to influence politics through his ownership of newspapers. So, ought the state try to bring about more meaningful equality through the redistribution of wealth? When I discussed this with my students, someone at this point would intervene to say, "But surely if you've worked hard and made some money, you should be allowed to keep it?" Now if hard work was all that was involved, wealth would not be a controversial issue at all. In reality, however, both wealth and poverty have a strong tendency to be hereditary. Furthermore, some people work hard all their lives and never make significant money at all, whereas others seem to earn large sums for very little effort: media celebrities, for instance. In any case, redistribution of wealth by the state would involve massive interference in individual liberty; and here liberty and equality come into conflict. Conservatives would also argue that property redistribution would tend to undermine personal initiative and ambition, and thus damage the economy as a whole. What is wrong, they would say, in making money to provide your children with a better start in life? Surely this is a natural and laudable instinct?

Closely linked with wealth is equality of outcome. Why should some people get paid much more than others, and should the state do something about it? Certain aspects of this issue are now accepted without dispute: no-one now doubts that women and men should be paid the same money for doing the same job. But inequalities of innate ability come in at this point: it makes sense that a brilliant fooballer should be paid more than one who is less gifted. 
   But why should a footballer be paid vastly more than, let us say, even the world's best badminton player? Or what determines whether a policeman is be paid more than a teacher, or vice versa? In actual fact, such questions are determined by a combination of market forces and state intervention. Sevety years ago, professional sportsmen were paid wages approximately equal to that of a skilled craftsman, and they almost all came from the working classes. That some earn very much more today is largely due to money coming in from television coverage. Ultimately the state determines the wages of its employees, though it also needs to pay attention to market forces: if more policemen are needed, a simple solution is to raise the pay in order to attract more recruits.
   Bernard Shaw once said that everyone should be paid the same, because any other system was just as unfair, and far more difficult to administer. Lenin once proposed that Bolshevik ministers should be paid no more than the average worker's wage, but this idea was soon abandoned, and under Stalin it was announced that equal wages had never been part of communist teaching.
   In general terms, we agree that talent and hard work should be rewarded, and that skilled work should be better renumerated than unskilled; but it's where we go from there that the problems arise.

Most debate occurs around the vague but vital question of equality of opportunity: that all should have an equal chance to succeed. In some cases the meaning is quite straightforward. For instance, if we say that everyone should have an equal chance of becoming an Olympic athlete, it is quite obvious that at least 99% of the population have no chance, because of lack of the necessary talent. The same applies to senior judges, or brain surgeons. What we mean is that there should be no discrimination or exclusion on the grounds of, for instance, race. So far,so good. But here we come up against the problem of inequality of wealth, which gives a huge advantage to the children of the well-off. Not only do they have better access to professions like the law, but the top independent schools even provide wider musical and drama opportunities and better sports coaching. Also, contacts are established giving better access to future careers. So, effectively, inequality becomes entrenched from generation to generation; and even if there is no overt discrimination, children of the rich and well-connected have a huge inbuilt advantage over others. What can, or should, be done about this? 
   The obvious answer would be the provision of an equally excellent education for every child, but exactly how to provide this remains an unsolved puzzle. Clearly the state needs to provide a major role. But what else can the state do to ensure greater equality of opportunity? "Positive discrimination" in favour of people from disadvantaged groups? The imposition of quotas in admission to the universities and professions? These would be a major interference in liberty, and would be greatly resented by those who felt unjustly excluded.

All forms of discrimination begin by arguing that human inequalities outweigh the similarities; the most important underlying assumption being that of different levels of innate ability, deriving from race, gender, class or some other cause. From this, it is argued that political equality and equality of outcome are highly undesirable, and equality of opportunity largely meaningless. Even equal access to education is questionable: giving me an opportunity to learn a musical instrument could well be a waste of time. All discriminatory philosophies maintain that the "best" deserve superior treatment and the "rest" are ignored or regarded with fear or contempt.

(A typical question on all this might be "How should the government be attempting to bring about greater equality", or a more complex one, " 'We may prefer equality to liberty, but we should never confuse equality with liberty'. Discuss")  

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


We visited Poitiers in September for the wedding of our godson. The weather was glorious, and we had time to explore the town.

The region of Poitiers was the scene of three important battles. In 507 Clovis, King of the Franks, defeated and drove out the Visigoths under Alaric II, thus establishing the borders of France. According to legend, Clovis was assisted by a miracle performed by the local cleric St. Hilaire, since the Visigoths were Arian heretics. The church of St. Hilaire, in the south of Poitiers, was founded soon afterwards.

An even older church is the Baptistery of St. John, which dates back to the 4th century, with frescoes from the 12th and 13th centuries.

One of the most important battles in European history took place nearby in 732. Moslem forces had overrun Spain and crossed the Pyrenees to Toulouse, but their progress northwards was now stopped by Charles Martel, “Mayor of the Palace” of the French Merovingian kingdom. Never again was there to be a major Moslem invasion of France. Finally the “Black Prince”, the son of Edward III of England, defeated and captured King John II of France just south of Poitiers in 1356. More about this later.

   Poitiers was under English rule for most of the Middle Ages, thanks to the spectacular career of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
   The province of Poitou, of which Poitiers is the capital, formed part of the Duchy of Aquitaine, a vast and immensely rich domain in the south-west of France. This was the time of the great "Twelfth-century Renaissance", when it was increasingly no longer sufficient for noblemen to be illiterate warlords, and the ducal court at Poitiers was a home for troubadours. The Dukes of Aquitaine could trace their ancestry back for many generations, and tended to regard the Kings of France as uncultured provincial upstarts. Some of the most magnificent churches of Poitiers date from this period, such as Notre Dame-la-Grande in the city centre.

The west front has been restored. Inside there are frescoes and elaborately painted columns.
   The best colours are to be found at the church of St. Radegonde, rebuilt in the 11th century to replace an earlier church destroyed in an earthquake.

Eleanor was born in 1122, the eldest daughter of Duke William and the granddaughter of a crusader. She was taught to read, and her father wrote poetry. When she was 15, her father died. He left no son to succeed him, so Eleanor became the heiress to the province of Aquitaine. The King of France, Louis VI, (known as “Louis the Fat”), saw the dynastic possibilities, and was quick to arrange a marriage between Eleanor and his own son, another Louis, who was just a year older, thus bringing this region, amounting to as much as a quarter of present-day France, under direct royal control for the first time. The young couple had only been married a few weeks when King Louis died, and Eleanor found herself Queen of France.
   The marriage proved to be disastrously unsatisfactory for both parties. Louis was ineffective both as a ruler and a war leader, and Eleanor failed in her principal duty as Queen: after several years of marriage, she had not produced a son and heir, having given birth only to a daughter. Matters came to a head when the young royal couple led the French contingent on the Second Crusade, which proved to be a disastrous fiasco. Under pressure, the Pope gave his consent to an annulment of the marriage in 1152. Under the terms of the arrangement, Eleanor regained her vast inheritance of Aquitaine, which thus passed outside of the control of the French crown.
   Less than two months later, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, a claimant to the throne of England. She was 29 and the mother of two girls, he was only 18; and although a glamorous and exciting figure, he seemed at first sight a youth of very limited prospects, for King Stephen ruled England. But then, sensationally, his luck changed. In 1153 Stephen’s son Eustace died (with Eleanor giving birth to her first son on the very same day), and Stephen recognised Henry as his heir and successor. Then next year Stephen himself died, and in December 1154 Henry and Eleanor were crowned King and Queen of England in London. Suddenly they were far richer and more powerful than the unfortunate King Louis, since Henry also ruled William the Conqueror’s homeland of Normandy and his father‘s homeland of Anjou, and thanks to Eleanor they also held the vast fief of Aquitaine.

   One of my few regrets from our visit to Poitiers was that the palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine, where Eleanor held court, was closed to the public, and I was only able to view the outside.

Despite her advancing years, Eleanor and Henry had eight children, of whom Richard became the most famous of English kings, and John the most infamous. They quarrelled bitterly in later years; Eleanor encouraged her sons to rise in rebellion against their father, and in consequence spent several years under house arrest at Salisbury in England, while Henry spent most of his time in France. Eleanor was only freed when Henry died in 1189 and their eldest surviving son, Richard "The Lion-Heart", always his mother’s favourite, succeeded as king.
    The soaring gothic arches of the Cathedral of St Peter date from this era, and it was here that Eleanor and Henry were married.

 The magnificent stained glass window at the east end was the gift of Eleanor and Henry, and shows Henry and his four sons adoring the crucified Christ.

Aquitaine continued to be contested between England and France for many centuries. Much of it was lost by King John before 1216. The Black Prince’s stunning victory in 1356 secured the whole of south-western France for England, but in the 15th century the English position declined rapidly. In April 1429 the Dauphin of France had Joan of Arc questioned by eminent theologians to establish her credibility. They were cautiously supportive, and soon afterwards Joan led French forces to raise the siege of Orleans, generally seen as the turning-point of the Hundred Years’ War.

Today much of the centre of Poitiers is pedestrianised, and the old churches are within easy walking distance of the centre. On Saturdays there is a superb indoor market.
 Our godson’s wedding was held in the 19th century baroque splendour of the Hotel de Ville.

Here is a view over the city from near the statue of Notre Dame-des-Dunes, on the eastern bank of the river. The spire of St. Radegonde is prominent on the left, with the cathedral behind and to the right. Notre Dame-la-grande is in the distance.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Eve and the Serpent

The story of how the serpent tempted Eve used to puzzle theologians. How did it speak to her? And when God cursed the serpent to "crawl on its belly" in future, did this imply that it originally had legs? This mediaeval illustration answers one of these problems, by giving the serpent a human face: a rather feminine one, with long hair and a magnificent crown. Why?

"Eve's tempter thus the rabbins have expressed,
 A cherub's face; a reptile all the rest"
    (Alexander Pope: "Character of Sporus")