Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart

This book records the walk which Rory Stewart took in 2002 across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. The Taliban had only recently been overthrown, and he wanted to take the opportunity of extending his walk through Asia, and also finding out about the situation on the ground.
    The walk took him several weeks, often through deep snow. He dressed in Afghan costume and spoke the language well enough to make himself understood, though he sometimes thought it best to conceal the fact that he was British, and not a Moslem. At one point he pretended to be Indonesian, guessing correctly that his hostile interrogators would no nothing about the country. On more than one occasion he wondered whether he would be shot.
         For parts of his journey Stewart followed in the footsteps of Babur, the descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, who in the early sixteenth century came from Uzbekistan and through Afghanistan to Delhi, where he established the Mughal Empire. Stewart read Babur's diary as he walked, noting the tribes Babur encountered and trying to locate landmarks like the legendary "turquoise mountain".
      Very few of the villagers Stewart encountered could have known anything about the New York Twin Towers outrage, and it became increasingly clear to him that their ignorance of the outside world was closely matched by the ignorance of their lives shown by the politicians in Washington, and by the newly-imposed government and their foreign advisers in Kabul. The village people had lived through, and to some extent were still living through, a background of violence: fighting perhaps against the Russians or against the Taliban, but often against the people from the next village. Now they had to cope with armed "security guards", who were in many cases no more than the arrogant private militias of some local boss. Stewart heard dreadful stories of massacres, villages laid waste, and the appalling torture of prisoners.  During the course of his walk he acquired a dog, but since Moslems considered dogs unclean beasts, this led people to treat him as a man of very low status, and in some villages the boys threw stones at him.
      Despite the fact that many of the people Stewart encountered were desperately poor, living in what were no more than mud huts in villages that had often been ravaged by war, they were almost always ready to provide him with food and shelter in their homes, or in the village mosque, and to accompany him on the road to the next village.

I met Rory Stewart briefly, because he has been since 2010 the Member of Parliament for my father's constituency of Penrith, up in the Lake District. He is a seriously intelligent man, and I would have every confidence in his ability to be a cabinet minister.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The General Election and Scotland

David Cameron appears to be playing, as his last card in the election campaign, the visceral dislike of English people for the Scots. This is a bit rich, since his ancestors were clearly not only Scots, but notorious Jacobites: if Donald Cameron of Lochiel hadn't led out his clan to support Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Jacobite revolt of 1745 would never have happened.
      Furthermore, Cameron said it was "unprecedented" that a minority nationalist party should hold the balance of power in Parliament. This was completely incorrect. Gladstone's last two governments in 1886 and 1892, and Asquith's government from 1910, saw the Liberals dependent on the support of the Irish Nationalists. This did not lead to governmental chaos: the price the Irish Nationalists demanded for their support was, of course, Home Rule for Ireland, and they were certainly not going to bring down the government until this was safely on the statute book. It is important to realize that Home Rule was not full independence: it was merely a form of devolution, not too dissimilar to that enjoyed by Scotland and Wales today.
      There was a continuous constitutional crisis after 1910, but this was the fault of the Conservatives (then more generally called the Unionist Party). There was some disquiet amongst Irish Protestants at the prospect of Ireland being ruled by the Catholic majority. The Conservatives could have calmed such fears by pointing out that Home Rule was no big deal, since the Westminster Parliament could still prevent any Home Rule government from doing anything too drastic, but instead they were so keen to get rid of Gladstone, and then of Asquith, that they deliberately exacerbated Protestant anxieties, with the famous slogan, "Home Rule means Rome Rule". As the Conservative leaders said, "The orange card is the one to play", and the Orange Order in Ulster, which had been moribund for decades, was now revived with Conservative encouragement.
          Gladstone's two Home Rule bills were duly killed, after 1910 things went much further. The Conservatives held up Asquith's Home Rule bill in the House of Lords for as long as possible, and implied that it was in some undefined way "unconstitutional" for the Liberals to maintain their Parliamentary majority through Irish support (we shall see whether Cameron will develop a similar argument in the future). Some of the more extreme Conservatives even accused Asquith's ministers (who included that strong supporter of Home Rule, Winston Churchill) of "treason". But if anyone was guilty of treason, it was the Conservatives, because they deliberately encouraged Protestant Ulster to prepare for an armed revolt against Home Rule, even importing arms from Germany with the connivance of the local police. By 1914 civil war looked likely.
       Britain was saved from civil war by the outbreak of the First World War, when Home Rule became law but was postponed until peace should be restored. Many Irish were disappointed, and the consequence was the Easter Rising of 1916 and the violence that followed. A very large proportion of the blame for this must be placed on the Conservatives and their deliberate sabotage of moderate Home Rule proposals. The leader of the Ulstermen, Sir Edward Carson, said in his embittered old age that the Conservatives had never really cared about Ulster at all: they merely wanted to make life difficult for the Liberals. One can only hope that David Cameron will act more responsibly than his predecessors! 

A Conservative spokesman recently argued that they were the party of opportunity, citing the fact that they had been led by Disraeli, a Jew, and Bonar Law, the only Prime Minister to have been born outside the U.K. (he came from Canada). But this should be approached with caution. Disraeli was very proud of his Jewish ancestry, but he was technically a baptised Christian (without which he would not have been allowed to enter Parliament at the time), and he appears personally to have had no religious beliefs at all. He was a charming and charismatic personality, but without any clear political principles. Bonar Law was chosen as Conservative leader in 1910 solely because of his intransigent opposition to Irish Home Rule. He encouraged the Ulster Protestants to arm themselves to fight against it, and even suggested that the British army should refuse to obey if ordered to coerce Ulster. He is not a good example to be followed. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

1848-49: The Aftermath of the Year of Revolutions

My last essay gave a brief summary of the events of the great revolutionary year of 1848, when throughout France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire mobs came out on the streets, governments collapsed and there were attempts to set up popular assemblies and liberal constitutional governments. It all bore more than a passing resemblance to the "Arab Spring" of our day; not least because by the end of the year autocratic regimes had regained their grip everywhere except Hungary and parts of Italy. This essay deals with what then followed.

France had led the way in revolution, and then in counterrevolution, in 1848, and had ended the year with a strongly conservative and Catholic assembly and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte elected President by an enormous majority. He now worked hard to establish his credentials with the political Right, helped by the fact that the monarchists in France were hopelessly divided. His foreign policy we shall investigate shortly. His Presidency was supposed to last four years, but in December 1851 he staged a well-organised coup, in which he was made President for life, and supported this with a successful referendum. Next year he proclaimed himself Emperor, with the title of "Napoleon III". To guard against any trouble, martial law was proclaimed and around 27,000 potential opponents were arrested.  Historians have debated ever since whether he should be considered an old-fashioned monarch or the first of the modern dictators, basing his power on the manipulation of public opinion.

The government of the Austrian Empire was meanwhile regaining the initiative. In March 1849 the new Prime Minister, Schwarzenberg, overthrew the newly-installed constitution and dissolved the Austrian Reichstag. Any opposition was brutally suppressed forces under General Haynau. The only permanent result of the failed Austrian revolution had been the abolition of serfdom throughout the Empire, (including the compulsory labour service which gave the world the word "robot"). The Austrian army was forced to withdraw from Budapest, where the Hungarian Parliament declared the Habsbug Emperor deposed, and their own leader Kossuth the Governor of an independent Hungary. But Kossuth faced opposition from the racial minorities within Hungary: Slovaks, Romanians and Germans; who feared Magyar domination more than they feared the Habsburgs. Furthermore the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia was alarmed that the spirit of revolt should spread to his own empire, particularly to the perennially discontented Poles. He sent a Russian army to invade Hungary, and in August the Hungarians were forced to surrender, and Kossuth fled to England. On the face of it, Habsburg rule had been restored throughout the Empire. Meanwhile Prussian troops put down disturbances in Baden, Bavarian and Saxony; and as a last desperate bid for German unity, the Frankfurt Parliament offered the imperial crown of Germany to King Frederick William of Prussia. The offer was contemptuously rejected. Germany remained disunited.

The most dramatic events occurred in Italy. At the end of 1848 the situation was still fluid. In the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south, King Ferdinand had regained the initiative when he sacked his liberal government, crushed any resistance on the mainland and prepared to invade Sicily. He accomplished this with the aid of shelling from his artillery, which earned him the nickname of "King Bomba". Palermo finally surrendered in May 1849, but bitter resentment continued to simmer throughout the island. In 1851 Ferdinand arrested the men who had recently been his liberal ministers.
    In the north of Italy King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia had been badly defeated by the Austrian general Radetzky, but in March 1849 he decided to have another go. This time his war lasted no more than a week before Radetzky crushed the Piedmontese army at Novara. Charles Albert, defeated and humiliated, abdicated his throne and retired to Portugal, where he soon died. His son Victor Emmanuel took over. The young monarch could do nothing as Radetzky put down resistance in Milan and prepared to move against Venice, but, greatly to his credit, he resisted heavy hints from the Austrians that he should cancel the liberal Parliamentary constitution which his father had granted the year before. He bided his time and hoped for further opportunities.

Rome was the focus of everyone's attention. Following the flight of the Pope in autumn 1848, to place himself under the protection of King Ferdinand, a Roman Republic was proclaimed in February, with an elected Constituent Assembly. The dominant personalities were the republican nationalist propagandist Mazzini, and Guiseppe Garibaldi, fresh back from South America where he had learnt the art of guerrilla warfare. Louis Napoleon had been sympathetic with the Italian cause in his younger days, but he knew that he relied on the conservative Catholic element in France for his support, so he now joined with the monarchs of Austria, Spain and the Two Sicilies in working together to restore the Pope. The campaign that followed has been brilliantly described by G. M. Trevelyan. Garibaldi and his volunteers beat off the first French attack on Rome on April 30th, and then moved south to defeat and drive away forces advancing from Naples. The Austrians meanwhile occupied Bologna and compelled the Florentines to admit back the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who had fled the city a few weeks earlier.
    A renewed French attack on Rome by 30,000 troops (including heavy siege guns which shelled the city, doing considerable damage) was held at bay for the whole of June, but at the end of the month the city was forced to surrender. Mazzini fled, and the British and U.S. governments granted passports to a number of rebels, enabling them to escape. A purely clerical government was restored, with no trace of the 1848 liberal constitution; and Pope Pius IX, for the remainder of his very long pontificate, was now the most reactionary of pontiffs.
    But this was only the start of the Garibaldi legend. He retreated from Rome with some 4,000 followers, fooled the French as to his intentions, and then marched north into Austrian-held territory. He kept excellent discipline amongst his men, forbidding looting even when short of food. Any stragglers who fell into Austrian hands were shot out of hand or savagely flogged, which only intensified the contempt he felt both for the Austrians and the Papacy. Only 1,500 were left when they found sanctuary in San Marino, the only surviving independent mediaeval city republic left in Italy (as it still is,of course). But the tiny state could not long withstand Austrian threats, so Garibaldi disbanded his army and they scattered, He himself with a couple of hundred followers retreated northwards towards Venice, where Daniele Manin was still holding out. But Venice had been under siege and bombardment from June, and Manin surrendered to the Austrians in August, to save his city from further destruction. Garibaldi's beloved wife Anita died in the marshes near Ravenna on August 4th, but after more adventures he finally escaped from Italy, vowing to return and fight again.

British opinion changed considerably during these events. At first the press treated Garibaldi and his supporters as mere terrorists, but as British tourists in Rome (who included Elizabeth Barrett Browning) reported that there was nothing to fear from the republicans, and as France, always of course the national enemy, entered the fray, British press coverage became much more sympathetic.
       In 1851 King Ferdinand arrested his former liberal ministers. They were convicted in a ludicrous trial and sentenced to 24 years' imprisonment, chained up in dungeons. William Gladstone, then a rising young cabinet minister, was on holiday in Naples at the time. After witnessing the trials and visiting the prisons, he wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, denouncing the proceedings as "A negation of God erected into a system of government". It is impossible to imagine any of our current leaders using such stirring language.
     Kossuth and Garibaldi were both hailed as heroes when they visited England. By contrast, the Austrian general Haynau was attacked by a group of draymen when he visited a London brewery. Queen Victoria was horrified, but Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister, made only the most perfunctory of apologies and took no further action. The humorous magazine "Punch" was entirely on the side of the draymen. All this helps to explain later British policy towards Italy.

Why had the revolutions of 1848 all failed so dismally? Marx analysed the events in two of his most brilliant pamphlets, "The Class Struggle in France" and "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon", and historians have debated the question ever since. Bismarck, who had observed the pointless debates of the Frankfurt Parliament with contempt, drew the conclusion that Germany would only be unified by "blood and iron". It did seem clear that the middle-class liberals represented on-one except themselves, and shrank from the use of force. The urban working classes could revolt, but lacked any direction or leadership. The peasants of the countryside, who made up a large majority of the population in all the states involved, were extremely conservative, and above all loyal to the Catholic church. The armies, whose rank and file consisted of peasant conscripts, followed orders and had no empathy with the urban poor. All these factors enabled the monarchies to survive - except in France, where a new monarchy replaced the old one.

By the end of 1849, therefore,it appeared that nothing had changed. Old governments had been restored and the map of Europe was exactly as it had been. But in fact the next 30 years were to see the biggest political changes for many centuries. The Crimean War saw Britain and France unexpectedly allied against Russia.  The Turkish Empire receded in the Balkans and new states emerged: Romania and Serbia, later Bulgaria. The Russians, with their ambitions in the region thwarted, turned instead to the conquest of Moslem Central Asia: particularly Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Napoleon III inexplicably changed sides and sent his armies to drive the Austrians out of northern Italy, leading to the unification of the country. Austria, under pressure,conceded home rule to the Hungarian half of her empire. Finally and most importantly, Bismarck organized the unification of Germany under William I of Prussia and comprehensively defeated the French. From 1871 the new German Empire was clearly the dominant power in Europe, reversing almost three centuries of French predominance. The events of 1848 can therefore be seen as sparking off a generation of major changes; though hardly the ones that Marx envisaged.

    At the start of my essay on the revolutions of 1848, I suggested certain resemblances to the "Arab Spring" of our own time. We can but wait and see whether the next few decades witness a comparable turnaround.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

1848: The Year of Revolutions

For a generation after the defeat of Napoleon, there were no significant frontier changes in western Europe. The map remained the same as it had been established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The Russian Empire had grown to include Finland and most of modern Poland, and the Balkans was still part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, though southern Greece managed to become independent in the 1820s. Belgium broke away from Holland to become an independent kingdom in 1830. But Germany and Italy were still not unified. Central Italy was still directly ruled by the Pope, and the rest of the peninsula was a collection of small states, mostly dominated by the Austrian Empire, which directly ruled Milan and Venice. Germany consisted of more than thirty states, grouped together in an invertebrate body called the German Confederation, with the more powerful Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire partly in and partly out! Most of Europe was ruled by reactionary monarchies, anxious to suppress the rising movements of nationalism, liberalism and democracy. The dominant politician was Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor, who famously dismissed Italy as no more than a mere "geographical expression". But 1848 was the great "Year of Revolutions", in which Metternich's system appeared to collapse, before the status quo was eventually restored: though in a few decades this restoration was to prove an illusion.
   Even before 1848 there were danger signs. France had overthrown its reactionary monarch in a revolution in 1830, and replaced him with a more liberal successor. In 1846 there was a new Pope, Pius IX, who appeared to have liberal leanings. The words "socialism" and even "communism" were becoming current, and in 1847 a short-lived body called the Communist League commissioned two young radicals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, to write a policy statement which was published next year as the "Communist Manifesto". The 1840s were a time of bad harvests and high food prices; always likely to lead to disturbances. What followed in 1848 bore a striking similarity to the "Arab Spring" in our own times: riots spreading from country to country, governments collapsing before them; but then in almost every case the hopes of the radicals failing.

Trying to follow the events of 1848 by strict chronology only leads to confusion: it is better to look at events country by country. Some can be dismissed straight away: there was little or no trouble in Spain, the Netherlands or Russia, Britain saw only an unsuccessful demonstration by the Chartist movement, and in Ireland, prostrated by the potato famine, there was only a feeble attempt at armed revolt which was easily suppressed with a minimum of force. The big events of  1848 were concentrated in France, Italy and Germany.
    Although the first revolt was in Sicily (as will be described later) the central country for what followed was France. Despite the defeat of Napoleon, France remained the strongest power and the dominant cultural leader of Europe. Events in France in 1848 set the trend for other countries, since they appeared to be sudden, spontaneous, and unplanned by any particular leaders.
      Since the 1830 revolution, France had been ruled by King Louis-Philippe, the "Citizen King",with a conservative Prime Minister, Guizot. In February 1848 the government attempted to ban an anti-government "banquet", and Paris crowds erected barricades on the streets. The King dismissed Guizot but trouble continued, troops shot and killed demonstrators, the middle-class National Guard turned against the government, and on February 24th Louis-Philippe abdicated and sought refuge in England. Suddenly and without warning, France was left without a government.
   Into this gap stepped an entirely self-appointed provisional government of liberals and socialists, none of whom had the slightest administrative experience, headed by the romantic poet Lamartine. They committed themselves to elections for a Constituent Assembly, and in the interim enacted various pieces of social legislation, including a 10-hour maximum working day and "national Workshops" for the poor and unemployed.
    All men over the age of 21 were to have the right to vote for the Constituent Assembly, which would result in an electorate of 9 million, the overwhelming majority of whom had never voted before. This caused disquiet on the Left, for most of the new voters would be peasant farmers, many of them illiterate, and it was feared that they would vote as their priests and nobles told them. When the votes were counted, it was found that these fears were more than justified: the 100 or so socialists from revolutionary Paris were swamped by a huge majority of monarchists and conservatives from the countryside. There was immediate confrontation: on May 15th Paris mobs invaded the Assembly, but the National Guard drove them out. The socialist leaders fled or were arrested.
   On June 21st the National workshops were closed, and Paris immediately rose in revolt. This seems to have been an entirely spontaneous rising, since the most prominent socialists were no longer on the scene. The army under General Cavaignac crushed to rising over the next few days, with great slaughter and many summary executions. About 1,500 people were killed and 12,000 arrested, of whom 5,000 were deported to the colonies.
     Elections were now held for an executive President. One of the candidates was a certain Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the great man. His previous career had been limited to two entirely unsuccessful attempts to stage coups d'etat, and he had not even been in France earlier in the year. I have always had this vision of a French peasant in some remote rural area puzzling over a ballot paper containing a list of names of whom he has never heard, until he comes across the name "Napoleon", when a dawning light of recognition creeps across his features. Louis Napoleon duly secured two thirds of the votes cast. The British media treated him as no more than a joke figure. The political Right was now securely in power in France, and the attempt to create Parliamentary liberalism had clearly failed.

It is hard to avoid the assumption that the events that followed in Germany had a copycat element to them. The crowds on the streets might not have been aware of what was happening in Paris, but the middle-class liberals certainly did, and so did their rulers. In mid-March there were big demonstrations in Vienna, and then in Berlin, and in each case the government tamely caved in. King Frederick William I of Prussia accepted a liberal government and an elected Constituent Assembly, as did the Emperor Ferdinand of Austria, following the resignation of Chancellor Metternich. In Budapest the Hungarians demanded home rule, which was quickly granted. At the end of  March an assembly claiming to represent the whole of Germany met in Frankfurt, and arranged for pan-German elections. In May the Austrian government withdrew to Innsbruck, and in July assemblies were elected in Vienna and Budapest. The Austrian Empire was further weakened by revolts in its Italian territories, which will be covered later.
     However, as in Paris, these events proved to be the high water mark, and from this point revolution steadily ebbed away. This was seen most clearly in Frankfurt, where the elected "parliament" had no executive power and was little more than a middle-class talking-shop. What is more, it quickly ran into intractable nationalist problems. Where exactly should the frontiers of "Germany" be drawn. Was Prussia in or out? Was the Austrian Empire in or out? What about the racial minorities within these states? The Czechs quickly decided they did not want to be ruled by Frankfurt, and in April called a "Slav Congress" in Prague, attended by Slovaks, Serbs, Croats and Poles as well as the Czechs. Many Germans considered the Slavs to be too racially inferior to merit any attention, a view endorsed by Marx and Engels. There were similar conflicts in the Hungarian part of the Austrian Empire, where the assembly elected in Budapest faced revolts from Serbs and Croats.
   The armies were still loyal to their governments. A revolt in Prague was violently crushed in July, and in September a new Austrian Prime Minister, Schwarzenberg, put down risings in Vienna and engineered the abdication of the inept Emperor Ferdinand, replacing him with his 18-year-old nephew, Franz Josef, who was to rule the empire through to the First World War. As a final indignity for the parliamentary liberals, there was a rising in Frankfurt itself,against the assembly there, which had to be put down by Prussian and Austrian troops.

The credit for being first off the mark in the year of revolutions goes to Palermo in Sicily. For more than a century it had been joined with Naples and southern Italy in the "Kingdom of the Two Sicilies". Sicily was one of the poorest regions of Europe, and its people had been living under what was effectively foreign occupation for centuries. During the Napoleonic Wars the royal family had fled from Naples to Sicily, where they were protected by the British navy,and under British pressure had enacted a fairly liberal constitution for the island. Napoleon had redrawn the map of mainland Italy, but after his fall the old states were restored, with the exception of the two ancient Republics of Genoa and Venice; the former being given to the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia; the latter to the Austrian Empire. The Austrians now ruled the north of Italy, centred on Milan, and dominated the little duchies further south. Only Piedmont-Sardinia was free of Austrian influence.
     In 1820 there had been a revolt throughout the Two Sicilies, and the King was forced to grant a constitution. But it did not last long: quarrels broke out between Sicily and Naples, and in 1821 an Austrian army marched south and crushed all resistance.
     The King from 1830 to 1859 was Ferdinand II. His wife was Austrian, and he ruled a corrupt, tyrannical and economically primitive state. The vast majority of his subjects were poverty-stricken peasants, and even at the end of his reign there was not a single mile of railways in his kingdom.
     On January 12th Palermo rose in revolt. In a few days the whole of Sicily had been liberated, and King Ferdinand was declared deposed. When the revolt spread to Naples, Ferdinand quickly promulgated a liberal constitution for his kingdom, with a free press and guarantees of individual liberty. This example was was soon followed in Rome, Tuscany and Piedmont. In March, Milan rose in revolt, and after five days of street fighting the Austrian general Radetzky retreated from the city. At the same time, Daniele Manin proclaimed the restoration of the Venetian Republic. King Charles Albert of Piedmont appeared genuinely sympathetic to the new movement, and led his armies to Milan against the Austrians. Even in Rome Pope Pius IX conceded an elected assembly in the "Fundamental Statute". Hopes were high for a liberal, united Italy, free of Austrian domination.
      But from here, as elsewhere, it was downhill all the way for liberal hopes. Men from Tuscany, Naples and the papal States had joined the Piedmontese in the war against the Austrians, but at the end of April Pius XI denounced the war in a document called the "Allocution". In mid-May King Ferdinand regained control of Naples, immediately suspended the new constitution, sacked his short-lived liberal ministry and prepared for the reconquest of Sicily. Then in July Charles Albert of Piedmont was decisively defeated by Radetzky at Custozza and was forced to sign an armistice with the Austrians. In Rome, however, things appeared to be moving in the opposite direction: following the assassination of the moderate reformer Rossi in mid-November, the Pope fled to Gaeta and the protection of King Ferdinand. Rome was left under the control of the radicals: the republican Mazzini and the guerrilla warrior Garibaldi, who had just arrived from South America.

So by the end of 1848 the revolution was in full retreat everywhere, with the exception of parts of Italy and in Hungary, where the nationalist leader Kossuth was now dominant. What followed will be covered in my next essay.