Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Accrington Pals

July 1st is the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. On that first day, almost 20,000 British and Empire troops were killed and twice as many wounded. For many of them, this was their first experience of combat.

    This is one of the saddest stories of that day.
This monument is the Valhalla of the "Accrington Pals" (officially the 11th battalion of the East Lancs Regiment) at Serre, near the northern end of the 16-mile front. The battalion was raised in the small Lancashire town as part of Lord Kitchener's appeal for the creation of a "new army" in the autumn of 1914. Every man was a volunteer: there was no conscription yet. They were trained and saved up for the big offensive of summer 1916. About 25 officers and 800 men of the battalion would have gone into attack "over the top" on that first morning, and 21 officers and 564 men were lost. No ground was gained. Back in Accrington the rumour spread that all their men had been killed, and angry crowds besieged the town hall, demanding to be told the truth. 
   A few miles to the south, near Thiepval, the 36th (Ulster) division fought an epic battle when some units fought their way through the German front-line trenches only to be cut off and slaughtered by a counterattack. The "Ulster Tower" now stands on the site as a memorial.
This happened just a few weeks after republicans in Dublin staged the Easter Rising in the hope of receiving German weapons and support, and Ulstermen have not forgotten it.
     More than thirty other battalions also suffered more than 500 casualties on July 1st 1916. Popular attitudes towards the war, the military high command and the governing elites at home changed irrevocably as a result.

(The folksinger Mike Harding has recorded a song, "The Accrington Pals", which can be found on youtube) 

Friday, 24 June 2016

Democracy and Representation

(Written in the immediate aftermath of the vote to leave the EU)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book "The Social Contract" (1743) argued that the whole principle of democracy was the hope that a majority of the people, when consulted, would always reach the right decision: the one which was best for the country. If the popular majority reached the wrong decision, he said, then the whole system collapses. Rousseau was writing about what is nowadays called "direct democracy", where the people are consulted about all important decisions, as in the recent referendum. He called the British political system "elective aristocracy", meaning that every so often we choose what leaders we want, and then send them away to make decisions on our behalf until the next election. He did not think such a system was as good, but believed direct democracy could really only work in a small, homogenous community.
      Until the current spate of referendums, Britain did not have direct democracy; instead we had government by elected representatives. The great conservative political thinker, Edmund Burke, writing half a century after Rousseau, discussed the vexed question of whether an elected M.P. was under any obligation always to follow the wishes of his constituents. His answer was a strong "No". His argument was that an M.P. was not a mere delegate or mouthpiece: his job was to exercise his judgement to choose a policy which he believed was in the best interests, not only of his constituents, but of the entire country. Should his constituents object to his decisions, they reserved the right to chuck him out at the next election. He could also have added that an M.P. is probably more intelligent than most of his constituents, and is certainly better informed about the issues!
    The philosopher Roger Scruton (a philosopher with whom I am not often in agreement!) gave an interesting talk on the radio last week in which he attacked the whole idea of holding a  referendum. It was, he argued, an abdication of responsibility by those elected to lead us. What, after all, is a Prime Minister for, if not make decisions on our behalf to the best of his ability? If he insists on holding a referendum, with a promise to abide by the result, then he is abandoning his decision-making role and reducing himself to a mere functionary or mouthpiece, and may well, as has befallen David Cameron, find himself having to commit to a policy which he believes to be wrong for the country. That is no way for a serious leader to behave! I'm reminded of a story told by the historian A.J.P.Taylor about the 1848 revolution in Paris, where a man was seen running after a crowd of demonstrators, shouting "I'm their leader, I must catch up with them!"  

The only reason for a government to hold a referendum is if it expects to win it, thus strenthening its ability to carry through a contentious policy. De Gaulle in France was successful at this, and Hitler was even more so: his more outrageous actions, like the assumption of the Presidency, the remilitaization of the Rhineland and the Anschluss with Austria, were promptly supported by enormous referendum majorities from the populations involved, thereby making it difficult for other countries to take action. The unfortunate David Cameron, by contrast, called a referendum solely to try to paper over a split in the Tory party. He miscalculated severely, and serve him right! Do you recall the A. A. Milne story where Winnie-the-Pooh digs a trap to catch a heffalump, only to fall into it himself? Cameron as Pooh! 

Postscript: A friend has pointed out to me that inthe end De Gaulle called one referendum too many, lost it, and had to resign. We could say the same about Cameron. The difference is that De Gaulle's proposal was then abandoned, whereas Cameron has left his successors to implement a policy which all party leaders, all former prime ministers and a large majority of MPs believe is bad for the country. Bizarre!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Bologna and Parma

Bologna is known as "il rosso": the “red city”, partly because it is actually red in colour; built of brick rather than marble, with even modern buildings often being plastered in red stucco. The other reason is that it was traditionally run by the Communist party: I found the party newspaper being sold on the streets even today.
   Ever since the Renaissance this region of Italy, the Emilia-Romagna, was part of the Papal States, ruled from Rome; it rebelled unsuccessfully in 1848, and the Pope’s troops were only expelled when Italy was unified in1861. The city was damaged by Allied bombing in the Second World War, but was rebuilt in the traditional style, and the centre is still a tangle of mediaeval buildings and confusing little streets.

These are views from the campanile tower of S. Petrino church on the Piazza Maggiore; the heart of the old city. The redness of the old city is very clear, but note the spectacular towers: some of half-a-dozen remaining from the Middle Ages. Reaching the top of the tallest one, the Asinelli Tower, involves climbing almost 500 steps, and I’m afraid I chickened out of making the attempt. Near the towers are the old Jewish quarter and the student quarter.

 Bologna boasts of having one of the most ancient universities in Europe, though some other Italian cities dispute this priority.
    Everyone assumes S. Petrino is the cathedral of Bologna, but it isn’t. Its unfinished state is very noticeable.
In the 14th century, when the Popes lived in exile at Avignon in France, the city fathers of Bologna planned to build for their city the biggest church in the world, but when the Popes returned to Rome they were quick to put a stop to the project; and what survives is only a fraction of what was planned. The church has a mediaeval fresco of Heaven and Hell, which includes a scene of Mohammed being devoured by Satan: this has led to a heavy presence of armed police in the area, for fear of Islamic outrage. The piazza facing the church is surrounded by fine mediaeval municipal buildings, 
though unfortunately the famous statue of Neptune was surrounded in scaffolding on our visit.
   Wandering through the old city centre, we came across more mediaeval buildings, like the Grassi Palace
 and a great many churches, which were mostly in totally over-the-top Counter-reformation style. A noted exception to this is S. Stefano (actually a collection of chapels and cloisters)
 which features a reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre,
 Pilate’s courtyard (complete with a basin for washing his hands) and a Column of the Flagellation, in black marble. All this was built from the 5th century onwards, in a praiseworthy attempt to save the pious the trouble and expense of having to make a pilgrimage all the way to Jerusalem to see the real things! I also visited the town's mediaeval museum, but there was far too much to see in a single visit, and unfortunately no photographs were allowed.

   Bologna is also known as the “fat city”, since its cuisine is said to be the best in Italy. Our guide (a very nice young lady called Antonia) impressed on us that we should never, under any circumstances, ask for spaghetti bolognese in the city, this being essentially an American invention. What the locals eat is actually tagliatelli with a ragu sauce which, because it contains few if any tomatoes, is brown rather than red in colour. Local delicacies include rabbit stuffed with figs (“coniglio”: which is very tasty!) and a particular kind of veal cutlet with Parma ham and parmesan cheese. Certainly Bologna seemed full of good-looking restaurants; which made the sight of large queues at the local McDonald’s a particularly depressing spectacle.
   Our hotel, which I would recommend, was the Internazionale on the Via Indipendenza: a wide boulevard driven from the railway station straight to the heart of the old city.  It was only a short walk to the Piazza Maggiore, and impossible to get lost on the way. My window looked out on the entrance to a large park, and in the early morning the sky was full of swifts. But on Friday the streets opposite were taken over by a vast market, where many of the stalls featured great piles of cheap clothes: rummage for what you can find at 2 or 3 euros! Many of the stallholders were Asians. The streets in the centre had numerous beggars: a variety of cripples and defeated-looking old men and women, but also lots of young African men, who appeared to speak no Italian and just stood around mutely holding out baseball caps for contributions. Who were they? Refugees who had fled across the sea from Libya, perhaps?

On the Thursday we were taken on a guided tour of Parma. Unlike Bologna, this was an independent little Duchy ruled by the Farnese family. They owed their wealth and prominence to the shameless nepotism of one Alexander Farnese, who in the 16th century became Pope Paul III and dedicated himself to the wellbeing of his family. It was the Pope’s grandson, Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, the greatest soldier of his age, who in 1588 was supposed to lead his army across from Flanders on the Spanish Armada, but famously failed to do so. In the 18th century the British government went to enormous trouble to have Don Carlos, the son of Elizabeth Farnese the Queen of Spain, made Duke of Parma without causing a diplomatic crisis. (Don Carlos later became King of Spain himself, when with base ingratitude he took Spain into the Seven Years’ War against Britain – not that it did his country any good). When the map of Europe was redrawn after the battle of Waterloo, Parma was given to Napoleon’s widow, Marie Louise from the great Habsburg family, since no-one could think of what else to do with her.
   We entered Parma through the vast bulk of the Farnese palace. Between the wars it was the headquarters of the local Fascist Party, and was then badly damaged in wartime bombing, but has been restored. In front of the palace was a large area of grass, which included a random-looking collection of objects which were apparently an art installation. There was also a statue of a young anti-fascist partisan fighter, who was contemptuously turning his back on the palace.
      The centre of the old town was just a short walk away: a piazza fronted by the cathedral, the baptistery and the episcopal palace.
This picture is taken from a postcard, because at our visit the area was full of thousands of small children celebrating the start of their summer holidays, being organised and addressed by a DJ on a disco system at maximum volume. Our guide abandoned her talk and we elbowed our way through the dense crowds.
   The cathedral dates from the 12th century, with the campanile a century later. Outside it is guarded by two impressive lions (described in the guidebook with the unusual word “columniferous”),
and inside the walls are covered with frescoes in the mannerist style. Two contrasting features are a 12th-century marble carving of the deposition from the cross
and a magnificent dome painted by Correggio in 1530. 
    The baptistery, dating from the 13th century, is even better, in pale pink marble, with splendid carvings above the portals
and inside, the walls and dome covered with mediaeval frescoes. 

     We could have done with more time to explore Parma, but instead we were whisked away to encounter local foodstuffs. First we were taken to what can only be called a factory producing Parma ham. We were shown literally thousands of pigs’ hind legs, hanging up to mature in near-freezing conditions (50,000 a year were processed, we were told); the man in charge explaining to us how he pricked them regularly with a large needle made from a horse’s tibia bone, and then sniffed to make sure they were up to standard. Then it was on to Modena, where the mysteries of making balsamic vinegar were explained to us. This bears no relation at all to what we buy in the supermarkets, and since it takes 12 years to mature (25 years for the best quality) it is incredibly expensive. Although it did indeed taste very nice, I didn’t buy any. Incidentally, despite this being a rich farming region, we didn't see a single cow or pig. They are all kept indoors for the whole of their lives!

The next day we were taken on a tour of Ravenna, but there’s so much to say about this that I’m leaving it for my next blog post.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Money: The Sinews of Power

   At the end of the 17th century, an amateur statistician called Gregory King attempted to count the population of England, based on tax returns. This was the first serious attempt at such a project in any country. He calculated the population of England and Wales at about 5 ½ million, and although he did not extend his researches to Scotland and Ireland, it is guessed that the Irish population was about 2 ½ million, and the Scottish, 1 million. Britain at the time was therefore a small and rather insignificant country, next door to a much bigger one, namely France, which had a population of about 19 million, as well as a very large army and an aggressive, militantly Catholic monarch, Louis XIV. Britain’s position thus looked distinctly insecure, and under Charles II (1660-85) Britain’s foreign policy consisted of following the French lead in return for financial subsidies.
   In 1688 Charles’s brother, James II, was overthrown in the “Glorious Revolution” and replaced by his cousin and son-in-law, the Dutchman William of Orange. The next three decades saw a constitutional transformation of Britain into a system of government based on Parliament, with two distinct political parties, and, closely linked with this, a revolution in foreign policy.
   It is worth remembering that, apart from some skirmishes under Henry VIII, England had not fought wars against France since the Middle Ages. But Louis XIV launched his armies into the Rhineland and present-day Belgium (then part of the Spanish Empire), and Britain now joined coalitions to stop him. William III was not a great general, but in the Nine Years’ War (1689-97) he fought the French to a standstill and an eventual peace settlement that restored the status quo. More significantly for the future, the British Navy gained a significant advantage over the French which it never subsequently lost.
   William died childless in 1702 and was succeeded by his sister-in-law, Anne, James’s younger daughter. Anne’s reign was to be entirely dominated by war, because at the same time the old ruling dynasty of Spain came to an end, and the succession was disputed between two claimants: Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip, and Charles, the son of the Habsburg (Austrian) Emperor. This was of great concern to Britain, for the Spanish Empire included Belgium, much of Italy, and the vast Spanish colonial possessions in the Americas and elsewhere. A compromise partition between the claimants could have been possible, but Louis XIV tried to seize the lot, thus precipitating the War of the Spanish Succession, which was only ended with a compromise treaty in 1713, a year before Anne’s death.

The war was marked by the Duke of Marlborough’s four great victories, but Britain’s other lasting contribution was in its financial structure, for in these wars there came about a financial revolution. A permanent direct tax, the Land Tax, was imposed for the first time. The Bank of England was created in 1694, enabling the wars to be financed by borrowing: the beginning of the National Debt. It was accepted that henceforth no taxes would be imposed save by vote of Parliament, and that the Debt was guaranteed by stable government. Henceforth Parliament would keep control of the national finances, voting on them every year. Within a few decades this annual financial statement was to be nicknamed “the Budget”. Furthermore, there were to be regular General Elections: every three years, under a Triennial Act. From this point, although the monarch’s wishes remained paramount, it became increasingly clear that no government could survive for long without a reliable majority in the House of Commons.
   The Nine Years’ War left England with a debt of £19 million, and by the end of the War of the Spanish Succession this had risen to £52 million. The sheer size National Debt alarmed many people, and still does. The Debt was thirteen times to government’s annual income from taxation, and the interest to be paid on servicing it made up over 30% of all government expenditure. How could it ever be paid off? It never was; and wars in the future were to be fought with borrowed money. What is more, servicing the Debt and providing for defence were to make up almost the whole of an 18th century budget: all other government costs put together totalled well under £2 million.
    Where did all this money come from? There must have been plenty of money kicking around in Britain, but before this time there were no reliable and secure banks to invest it in. Foreign money must have been involved, especially from Holland and the Spanish Netherlands. These countries were always open to invasion, especially from France, when any wealth would be threatened by plunder; but Britain was an island, defended by a strong navy, and with a government that looked dependable and unlikely to default on its debts, and was therefore a safe place to invest. Around the great institution of the Bank there grew up the financial centre that soon became the “city”, where all matters of loans, investment and insurance would be handled. Britain had a much more sophisticated financial structure than France, which had neither a national bank nor a national debt. Governmental bankruptcy was to be one of the principal causes of the French Revolution.

Money has been called “the sinews of power”. How was it used? The most obvious use was to finance the armed forces. Shipbuilding yards for the Royal navy were by far the biggest industrial works of the time, and supplying munitions, weapons or uniforms or food for the troops, swallowed vast sums, to the great benefit of the contractors. A new professional army had to be created, such as had not existed since the days of Oliver Cromwell, and which led some to fear the establishment of a military dictatorship. But there was more than this. The British army, even at the height of Marlborough’s campaigns, was tiny compared with that of the French, and it was rapidly reduced as soon as peace returned. Instead, British money was used to pay others to fight on our behalf, either by subsidising allies like the Habsburgs, the Dutch and the small German states, or by directly hiring foreign mercenaries. This practice continued throughout the 18th century and beyond: Britain paid vast sums to the Austrians and Russians to enable them to fight Napoleon, and much of Wellington’s army at Waterloo consisted of Dutch or German soldiers.

The great questions of war and peace and finance helped define and separate the political parties. The Whigs and Tories had their origins back in the 1670s, and originally been divided over questions of religion. Now, as the wars continued and the debt increased, the Whigs became increasingly identified with the land war and with the City financiers, whereas the Tories favoured a “blue-water” (that is, naval and colonial) strategy, or even outright isolationism: they were suspicious of the money-men of the City and resented paying the high taxes which paid for the war, and looked like continuing indefinitely afterwards, in order to pay the interest on the National Debt. William III attempted to form all-party ministries, which only caused political instability, and in the latter part of Anne’s reign single-party governments became the norm: Whigs from 1708-10, then Tories from 1710-14. At Anne’s death the Whigs again took power, and did not relinquish it until the late 1750s, by which time the old party labels had become more or less meaningless.   

In peacetime, efforts were always made to reduce the Debt, notably under Sir Robert Walpole (1721-42) and the younger William Pitt (1783-1801), but when the next war came, once again it was financed by borrowing. By the 1760s the War of the Austrian Succession, followed by the Seven Years’ War, had pushed the Debt up to £130 million, and the War of American Independence raised it further to £244 million by the 1780s; but all this was nothing compared with the expense of the Napoleonic Wars, which led to a Debt of some £844 million, incurring interest payments that formed a staggering 58% of all government expenditure. And yet, probably thanks to the start of the Industrial Revolution, the country never did go bust!

Victorian statesmen managed to keep Britain out of expensive continental wars, and in consequence had reduced the National Debt to under £600 million by the 1890s; and this, combined with enormous expansion of the economy, meant that interest payments made up only 10% of government expenditure. But then came the First World War, which as before was financed by borrowing. When the war was over, Britain was encumbered with a National Debt of around £800 billion, the servicing of which made up over 30% of annual expenditure. Some would maintain that the British economy has never recovered from this.