Saturday, 9 November 2019

Be Like Vasili: personal reflections 30 years after the Fall of the Wall

I nearly died before I was born. I have a man I never met to thank for my life - and so do you.

It can be difficult to remember sometimes how the world has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, thirty years ago today. It is almost easy to forget what was a fixed world with rigidly set boundaries between the Communist East and capitalist West held in a perpetual state of uneasy tension by literally thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other under the appallingly apt doctrine of M.A.D. - mutually assured destruction.

The Man Who Saved The World
My Mum was pregnant with me during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, fourteen days when the world teetered on the edge of Armageddon as Kennedy and Khrushchev eyeballed each other over the Mexican Gulf. Although they eventually blinked and found a diplomatic solution, we now know that atomic war was only avoided by the personal action of Vasili Arkhipov, a Deputy Commander of a Soviet submarine that was caught in the blockade of Cuba by the US Navy.

After several days out of radio contact with Moscow, his commander and the Political Officer concluded that nuclear war had begun and wanted to fire an  atomic warhead at the American ships. A unanimous decision was required between the three of them and after a long and heated argument with his superiors, Arkhipov courageously vetoed the attack. Had he not done so, it is unlikely that I would be alive to be writing this now, and nor would you or anyone else be around to read it.

The world is probably in many ways more dangerous now that during the Cold War - but perhaps the sense of an underpinning threat of potentially imminent existential destruction that was always in the background before 1989 has at least abated. I can't quite recall when I first became aware of atomic weapons, but growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, our culture was soaked in the propaganda of the Cold War. It might seem hard to believe, but for our "Boomer" generation "Europe" stopped at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and behind the Wall and indeed the whole "Iron Curtain" lay a mysterious, closed Soviet hinterland of untold threat and misery.

Aside from the news and political line that we could be overwhelmed in days by the gigantic muscle of the Red Army or alternatively wiped out within a couple of hours in a nuclear exchange, much popular culture was founded on the Soviet Menace. Whether on the cinema screen in films like "From Russia With Love" or the publications from shadowy right-wing employers groups like the mid-70's Aims of Industry's "Reds Under The Bed" attempt to smear socialist trade unions with treason, we were to accept the need for eternal vigilance in the form of Poseidon nuclear submarines patrolling the seas from their Scottish base and American Cruise missiles deployed in the heart of England.

Bizarre booklets like 1980's "Protect and Survive" informed householders how to survive the radioactive holocaust by unscrewing an interior door, laying it length-ways against your lounge wall and then sitting behind it for two weeks with some cartons of water and boxes of biscuits. The equivalent of tens of billions of pounds poured into subterranean bunkers. There, national and local government officials and the bizarre volunteer force of the Royal Observer Corps - folk who spent their evenings and weekends watching for war - would monitor the nuclear exchange and subsequent fallout above their heads and then hilariously "re-establish normal service".

There were of course plenty of parodies of this mix of cynical propaganda and wild naivete - from the early 1960s classic "Dr Strangelove" through to the 1980s "Whoops Apocalypse" and the nauseatingly haunting "Threads". Raymond Briggs' powerful picture book "When The Wind Blows" devastatingly recounted the tragically unquestioning faith of an elderly couple in the authorities' promises of their ability to survive the end of the world. In music, Frankie Goes To Hollywood's No.1 "Two Tribes" satirised the government emergency broadcast to provide advice on disposing of your dead grandmother outside your fallout shelter.

The dark humour was pervasive, but so too was the sense that, one day, any day, it would all go so quickly and badly wrong for us.

People protested of course - the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched from the 1950s onwards and women's peace camps appeared most memorably outside Greenham Common airbase, and at a number of other military sites too. Spied on by the authorities and dismissed as troublemakers and traitors, the zeitgeist was that it was only institutions like NATO that stood between us and the plans of conquest of the Soviet Empire. And of course for freedom loving peoples, the obliteration of the planet was infinitely preferable to living under Communism.

The Soviet Empire was, of course, just like any other Empire - it exploited its vassal territories and oppressed its subjects. And yet, the idea that it sought world domination in anything other than its ideology is far-fetched. The concept of World Revolution was cast out when Stalin expelled Trotsky in 1929 and by the late 1960s the Soviet leadership was mostly about stagnant stability rather than fomenting world war. It was in this context that, again and again, they were willing to talk and make treaties - any revolutionary dynamism was long gone, replaced by a weary bureaucracy.

Tanked in post-revolution Prague, 1990
The truth lies perhaps more in what happened after 9 November 1989 rather than before it. For when the Wall came down that evening, it was like a window opening. The world got bigger for sure - by summer 1990 I was driving into former Communist Czechoslovakia with a couple of friends and photographing an overturned army tank in Wenceslas Square, scene of the "Velvet Revolution" that swept the Czech Communist regime from power barely a fortnight after their German comrades had faced their denouement.

Visiting the offices of Civic Forum, the group that had organised the crowds that brought the dissident playwrite Vaclav Havel to the Presidency, I remember buying a badge from an activist who asked me where we came from. When I told him Britain, he smiled enthusiastically and declared, "Long live the Iron Lady!", a reference to our then PM, Margaret Thatcher. He seemed a tad disconcerted when I responded with a grimace of dislike - but neither of us, I am sure, quite appreciated what was about to happen.

For what followed was the wholesale appropriation of public property in former Communist states by a handful of people, sometimes former Party officials, sometimes using violence and frequently deploying corrupt methods. Egged on directly by Thatcher and the "advisers" she sent to the East, the former Soviet block underwent massive economic dislocation that impoverished previously reasonably comfortably off citizens and left them prey to the populism and racism of the far right that has now manifested itself in places like Hungary and Poland.

Equally and notably, in a number of countries the former Communists have retained substantial followings and even occasionally have been re-elected to government. While no one would wish a return of the old Soviet Bloc, the truth is as ever not binary.

The USSR was responsible for some appalling things - just like any Imperial Power. Yet in its seven decades, it transformed a peasant state into a superpower, built homes for hundreds of millions, eradicated illiteracy, pioneered world-class, free public health systems and was the first state to put a satellite and a man and a woman into outer space. While there were queues for consumer goods (something apparently unknown in the UK!), the verified calorific intake of a Soviet citizen in the 1980s was on average higher than in the USA and Soviet leaders may have had their dachas, but they were modest affairs compared to the robber barons of the capitalist Russian mafia. By contrast, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian health indices declined substantially and average life expectancy fell by three years between 1990 and 2005 - though it has since recovered.

East Berlin misery - or my Gran's place?
Touring the DDR (East German) Museum in former East Berlin last year with my wife, we saw round a recreation of a typical Communist era flat from the early 1980s. Expecting something utterly miserable and basic, what I actually encountered was something close to, but slightly bigger, than my grandparents' ground-floor flat in Scotland around the same time.

Years earlier, visiting Prague with my friends in 1990, we lodged with a Czech family in a comfortable, well-equipped flat, one of many similar ones in the suburbs, as the father of the house lamented the "changes". We forget that the education, work and lifestyles available under Communism represented huge progress for many groups, families and individuals who would have been kept consigned to the bottom of the previous capitalist societies they had lived in. Being able to choose between Jo Swinson and Boris Johnson wasn't perhaps as important as some liberals like to think.

Freedom fries at Checkpoint Charlie (the
author did not partake!)
For we assume, of course, that because it's what we are used to, everyone wants to live like us. I remember a particularly crass 1989 British TV commentator droolingly reducing the significance of the fall of the Wall to the opportunity it now gave to East Berliners to sample the dubious delights of Big Macs and fries. Last year, travelling to look at the former crossing of Checkpoint Charlie, well, there we were: a giant Big Mac sign and restaurant gracing the former gateway to freedom.

If there is any lesson from all of this, I think it is that as in so many cases, we are all so more alike than we often understand. Much was wrong, but Eastern Europe was not shrouded in a veil of overwhelming misery for 70 years any more than Western Europe was a land of milk and honey.

And because Stalinist State Communism failed, it doesn't mean that any and all forms of socialism and communism can't work, or aren't in fact needed if we are to avoid the ruin of our world in the years ahead.

Above all, be like Vasili Arkhipov: always question the official narrative and the judgement of your would-be superiors.

One day, you might save the world.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Not The Brexit Election

Sick and tired of Brexit?
Sticking to the Tory script, Sky News is running every single new bulletin with a "Brexit Election" tagline, even when the subject doesn't feature on the news for a rare change. Similarly, the one-trick ponies that are the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats feature their respective demands on Europe prominently, if not in their actual name then at least on the side of their bus.

Yet, after almost four years of relentless debate about our EU membership, are the public really aflame and up for another five weeks of intensive debate about it? As Jo Swinson hypes her mission to save us from ourselves, Johnson bumbles about unleashing creative forces not even his grandiose imagination can comprehend and Farage drinks for England, they need to hope that everyone else is ready to squeeze into their Brexit Bubble, where nothing matters more than whether we are outside a trade block pissing in or inside pissing out.

The Green Party co-leader Sian Berry yesterday argued that "some things are even bigger than Brexit" as she declared this to be the Climate Election and outlined ambitious plans to tackle the global warming crisis with £900 billions of investment over ten years to make the UK carbon neutral by 2030. It is perhaps surprising that just a day later her party has made a deal with the Lib Dems, who, as well as accepting funding from frackers, take a much more leisurely approach to the climate crisis with a net zero target put well back to 2045. This is just a mere five years ahead of their former Tory partners' mid-century "objective". Nevertheless the Greens' core point is well-made and the urgency palpable.

Her words echoed the declaration a few days earlier by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, that "This election is our last chance to tackle the climate emergency with a Green Industrial Revolution at the heart of Labour's plan to transform Britain." Backing this up was a pledge to insulate every house in the UK to cut energy costs and carbon emissions, as well as massive investment in clean public transport and bringing the energy companies back into public control. Labour have also dwelt heavily on a range of other issues including ending austerity, redistributing wealth, ending student fees and investing in the health service.

It might be argued of course that Labour wouldn't want to talk about Brexit given their complex history on the issue. Yet Corbyn has devoted a speech to this too - reflecting on the need to talk to "the 99" rather than "the 48%" or "the 52%" he accused the other parties of focusing on to the exclusion of roughly half the UK. But it is clear that his strategy is to campaign on a much wider range of issues - the General Election should be just that, a general election on a variety of policies and initiatives stretching across the next 4 or 5 years. It should plainly not be a substitute referendum - Corbyn has made clear that Labour will hold a real one if they become the government.

So are Labour ignoring reality by moving on from Brexit to other issues?

Possibly, but probably not. Already several polls show that the NHS is seen as a bigger issue than Brexit by most votersand this is an area where Labour remain more trusted than any other party and where the Tories and Lib Dems are vulnerable given their opening up of front line services to private providers from 2012 onwards. And while it doesn't register as the highest concern, there is little doubt that climate change is a much higher priority for many voters than previously - and 56% of voters back the Green and Labour 2030 date as the zero carbon deadline. Even 47% of Tories support that compared to 16% for the official 2050 one. A YouGov survey shows that 25% of voters view the environment as one of the top three issues compared to just 8% at the 2017 election.

Similarly, crime has risen substantially as a concern with 26% rating it compared to 11% previously, and the Tory/Lib Dem slashing of police numbers back in the Coalition days make them vulnerable. So too the fallout from the initial Grenfall report has highlighted a range of concerns from cuts to fire services from austerity through slum housing, underhand contract deals and Tory elitism to the rampant inequality that stains our country.

Faced with this battery of critical issues, although it remains a key issue for now, it seems that a public that is palpably sick to death of Brexit is less than likely to want to think of nothing but Brexit for the next month and a bit. Given this, Labour have everything to play for and their slow but steady trend upwards in the polls, matched by a slow but evident decline for the Lib Dems, is evidence for this.

Heath's winter election gamble
Boris Johnson claims to be a historian. So he might want to dust down the archives from winter 1973 when one of his predecessor Tory Prime Ministers, Ted Heath (ironically the man who took us into Europe), faced a crisis when a national miners' strike left electricity power plants short of coal. Simultaneously, after the Yom Kippur war between Israel and the Arab states, oil and petrol prices were rising sharply, offering little in the way of any affordable or practical alternative to coal for much of Britain's energy.

Heath dramatically declared a State of Emergency.  His Chancellor, Anthony Barber, implemented a crisis budget just before Christmas. A three-day working week was introduced, TV stations were compelled to stop broadcasting at 1030 pm each night to reduce energy consumption and regular power cuts were implemented with householders huddling round candles to keep warm. All in the middle of winter.

In spite of the crisis, the Tories' poll ratings were generally favourable and a much-trumpeted "Liberal surge" seemed to damage Harold Wilson's Labour Party most. Enjoying as much as an 11% lead, Heath was convinced that because of Labour's close relationship with the trade unions, he would be able to sweep to victory.

So far, so familiar.

And so he went to the country in our last winter election (February 1974) believing that he could triumph on the single question he pompously put to the nation in a Prime Ministerial broadcast: "Who Governs Britain?"

The voters' answer, when it came?
"Not you."

March 1974 - Labour's Harold Wilson began his third term as Prime Minister

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Boris Johnson - A Pericles for Our Time?

The man who would be Pericles
History can teach, warn and inspire us. If we don't understand the past, how can we fathom today? And as the many times over-used phrase goes, if we don't learn from history, we are bound to relive it.

Our esteemed Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is no exception. He has penned a few histories of varying quality and sometimes at striking odds with his other pronouncements. For example, his Dream of Rome is a deeply Europhile work and the TV version concludes with an unbroadcast peroration where Johnson looks forward with great enthusiasm to Turkey joining an expanded EU as some sort of recreation of the Roman Empire.

But the locus of his historical inspiration is much earlier, and their identity is more than a little instructive as to how the ludicrous occupant of Number 10 views himself as well as his personal hero. For the hay-haired chancer apparently fancies himself as a modern day version of the 5th century BC Athenian leader Pericles, who presided for almost 40 years over what is known as the birthplace of democracy - notwithstanding the exclusion of women and slaves from the "Demos" (citizenship). He keeps a bust of him in his Downing Street office for his visual musings and even quoted him in his first PM phone-in back in the balmy days of August.

On that occasion, as on others, Johnson promoted the idea of Pericles as a cultured champion of democracy and, superficially, you can see what he means: this was after all the man who presided over the construction of the final phase of the Acropolis. This fantastic range of buildings perched above Athens symbolised the city's devotion to the Hellenic gods as well as highlighting its imperial status as the leading power of classical Greece, its powerful navy exporting its form of Peoples' Government to rather reluctant neighbours on the points of their battering rams.

The Acropolis project has echoes perhaps in some of Johnson's own doomed attempts to commission prestigiously wasteful taxpayer-funded initiatives such as the London Garden Bridge that never was or, more recently, to issue a Brexit coin tomorrow morning which has now had to be melted back down. Yet, while Pericles' project was actually completed and substantial parts remain almost two and a half millenia later, when you look at the two men what might initially seem a pompous, facile comparison with the Athenian orator by Johnson actually holds more weight than might be apparent, though perhaps not for the same self-serving reasons.

For as well as divorcing his wife of some years to live with a much younger woman, Pericles had pretty much the same cavalier attitude towards public finance as the PM. On several occasions, he and his associates were accused of wasting Athenian tax money, although there was no charge of inappropriate personal benefit - as a contemporary historian, Thucydides, noted, he was already sufficiently wealthy to not be overly concerned about his own financial gain. Prestige seems to have been the main motivation, and so accusations of unfitness for office would bite all the harder on his noble ego.

By means of deflection, Pericles was happy to launch personal attacks on his enemies and to play to the mob, claiming to be an opponent of the conservative establishment in spite of hailing from precisely that quarter (his noble-born father was an army commander and his mother the descendant of a tyrant) and even using the Athenian speciality of ostraka (ostracism) to exile his key political opponent. Johnson has often cited Pericles' alleged skills as an orator as a personal inspiration, and so it is no surprise that a contemporary of the Athenian leader, the poet Ion, described him as having "a presumptuous and somewhat arrogant manner of address, and that into his haughtiness there entered a good deal of disdain and contempt for others".

All rather familiar somehow.

Similarly, Pericles' introduction of restrictions that limited Athenian citizenship to people who could prove both their parents were Athenian-born smacks of at least the same Tory attitudes towards modern immigration - all the more so as he hypocritically made an exception for his own son by his foreign-born partner Aspasia. His policy of imperialist expansion in the name of spreading democracy again has some parallels with Tory fantasies of "Empire 2.0" floated in the wake of Brexit. Perhaps not so much of a similarity was Pericles' opening up of public offices to less affluent Athenians, while in stark contrast the new electoral identity rules Johnson is implementing for voting seem designed to make it much harder for many poorer people to exercise their democratic rights.

Pericles of Athens
Yet if that is a difference, we need to hope that it is not the only one. For Johnson's hero funded his Acropolis project by embezzling funds from the Delian League, the official term for what was in effect the Athenian Empire. Money was purloined in what Greek historian Angelos Vlachos has claimed was perhaps the largest incidence of fraud in human history and contracts were dished out to Pericles' personal friends to oversee the construction.

He courted further controversy by having a friendly sculptor, Phidias, insert a likeness of himself onto one of the friezes, drawing accusations of impiety. When he finally faced formal charges of impropriety with the public finances, the historian Plutarch claims he provoked the devastating Peloponnesian War to divert attention.

If so, it was a fatal move on several fronts. The war was to vanquish Athens and reduce it to a vassal of Sparta. The democracy Johnson claims Pericles championed was destroyed for good. His hero however did not witness the apocalyptic denouement - as war raged, refugees crowded into the city, creating cramped conditions where hunger and disease became rife. Pericles duly succumbed to plague along with a good number of his compatriots just two and a half years into what became a three decades long conflict.

So let us hope indeed that the comparison is just the fevered imaginings of Johnson's own self-aggrandising hubris. If he is indeed a modern Pericles, inspired by his ancient hero's imperialist adventurism and readiness to sacrifice his country for the sake of his own beleaguered reputation, it is  absolutely imperative that on 12 December he suffers the fate of so many of the classical politician's opponents and is firmly and permanently ostracised from office.

A vote (unsuccessfully) cast in 444BC to ostracise Pericles from Athens.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

The Time of Monsters

It's almost passe to say the world is in turmoil. And while to some degree it always has been, a glance at today's news shows just how much: mass street protests from Baghdad through Beirut to Barcelona and beyond to Chile. Governments in paralysis of one kind or another in Israel, the UK, Canada, the USA. Violent protests in Hong Kong, military conflict in Rojava,Yemen... and so on.

Underpinning all of it are two consistent factors. Extreme levels of economic inequality, often accompanied by increasingly visible poverty, and a collapse of faith in political classes seen as self-serving, corrupt and alienated from the Governed. Liberal democracy is teetering on the edge, its once universal nostrums of elected parliaments overseeing a modicum of public services in market economies with private property and supposedly "free enterprise" stripped bare and exposed for the lies that they have been.

Increasingly, we see the vast wealth accumulated by tiny, tiny portions of the population, acquired through a hypocritical combination of ripping off taxpayers through state-appointed contracts for tens if not hundreds of billions of pounds, euros or dollars and in turn corporate and personal tax avoidance. As the system slowly breaks down, no longer responding to the macroeconomic management of the past fifty or sixty years, the social contract is under ever growing pressure.

While as many as two million domestic properties are empty each night in the UK, 25,000 people sleep on the streets. While hedge fund managers speculate and earn millions betting on the future price of food, "gig" economy workers die at 53 years of age because they can't afford time off to visit their doctor - and in one recent Amazon case, they are sent back to work immediately the removal of the corpse of a colleague who collapsed and died on shift after being told to get on with his job by the company doctor.

Globally, resources once prized as being for the common good of all - such as the rainforests and natural sources of water - are seized and commodified by multinational companies with the backing of compliant governments and international agencies such as the World Trade Organisation. Trade treaties like the EU-Canada partnership allow companies to sue the taxpayer if, for example, a hospital contract is taken back into public hands, damaging the private firms profits. The whole system is stacked in favour of the wealthy becoming ever wealthier, even at the huge risk it creates to the future of life on Earth. As the Roman writer Tacitus once lamented of his own society's colonising of all it could grab hold of, "they make a desert, and call it peace."

Here there are dangers and opportunities, and both are already becoming nakedly apparent.

Unreformed, the system will stumble on, the super-rich gradually incorporating it even further to serve their own ends through funnelling public contracts and taxpayer cash into their ever deeper pockets. They will continue to extend surveillance over everyone else, initially in the name of consumer support, but already to control our thoughts, expectations and actions. In such a culture, they will continue to foster and sponsor division - between old and young, white and black, indigenous and migrant. They will fund wars and build walls. To divide is to conquer.

We can see the fruits of this just this week - a survey in the UK, divided between pro- and anti-Brexit supporters, found that a substantial majority on both sides support violence where people can be seriously injured as a valid means of achieving their respective objectives of remaining in or leaving the European Union. This includes those who claim to be anti-populist liberals, their anti-democratic prejudices showing a bit more nakedly than their leaders' spin doctors might ideally like. While actual political violence against individuals remains relatively rare in Britain, we only have to look at the 2016 murder of Jo Cox and the death threats routine received by her successor and other predominantly female MPs to sense that it doesn't lurk far beneath the surface.

Political violence in the USA has risen sharply in recent years - many of the mass shootings covered so luridly as the work of unstable loners in truth the work of politically motivated fascists and white supremacists, while a 2018 survey found that one in five Americans on both sides of the mainstream political divide felt that the country would be improved if a large number of  supporters of the other party could "just die". Similarly, 17% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans believe that is is acceptable to send threats to public officials. One in ten support violence if the candidate of their choice doesn't win the 2020 Presidential election.

In "The Common Good", the linguist Noam Chomsky wrote that The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....”

Noam Chomsky
This could not be truer than now. The poisonous Brexit debate in the UK has pitched ordinary people against each other in ways that have destroyed any faith in ballot box democracy and in each other: different groups denounce each other as traitors and morons, both sides parade guillotines and scaffolds on marches and politics have growing into a new form of sectarianism. Facts do not matter on either side: it is sheer, naked, visceral hatred and distrust. All in the name of what type of trading relationship we have with a free trade block which in truth is neither the colonising behemoth claimed by its opponents, nor the guarantor of civilisation claimed by its supporters.

Happily skating above all this, moving with some ease between both camps, is a rich elite, untouched and unmoved by whether the UK is in the EU or not, but either way continuing to rip off society on an almost unparalleled scale and quite content for the paralysis and division to continue: for as long as it does, they are unchallenged and untroubled. The real issues are ignored.

We can take on the rich and make a better future. For we already live in a world of abundance. There is already more than enough food to feed almost 50% more souls than currently walk our Earth. And just this week a study showed that offshore wind power alone could provide more energy that the world is every likely to need - clean, cheap, and permanent. Artificial Intelligence is posited to "do" almost half of current paid human work by just 2030 - a decent society could use that to give every worker 4 day weekends. A capitalist society will put half of the workforce on the dole: it won't pay a company to keep humans on where robots can take over.

The choice seems obvious, but with all the vested interests and established Power in place, change will not come easily. It will take much more than a visit to the ballot box once every four or five years. The mass demonstrations we see around the planet now have to be the harbingers of wider, deeper change.

But first, we need to make peace with each other and turn together on the real issue, the real problem before the Monsters in charge of our world finally make a desert of it and continue to charge us admission to the "Peace Experience."

Friday, 4 October 2019

In the Land of Nod - Book Review

In these difficult, anxious days, you might imagine an epidemic of insomnia, but somehow even the depths of any Backstop nightmare wouldn't compare to the premise of "Nod" a 2016 novel by Adrian Barnes published from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, of all places. It is one of the most imposing reads I have had for a while. It is dystopian sci fi at its best.

Set in Vancouver, the central premise is that one morning, nearly everyone in the world faces the rising sun having been unable to sleep all night - and over the next day or two, it becomes obvious to an increasingly panicky human race that they are unlikely to ever sleep again. In spite of this mandatory insomnia, the effects of sleeplessness ravage their bodies and over the first week, an increasingly disoriented society crumbles into despair and the apocryphal beliefs for which such times offer fertile soil. Paul, the protagonist, is a writer whose discarded manuscript of a short story about a world where no one can sleep is secretly kept by a somewhat anti-social casual acquaintance, who disseminates it to the despairing as a prophetic bible. In turn, Paul is forced into the role of a somewhat reluctant and disbelieving Messiah to an increasingly unpredictable cult. Headed by the self-titled Blue Admiral, its followers search every moment for an explanation, however bizarre, for what is happening to them, and, equally, for the assumed meaning of it all.

Paul, ironically, can still sleep - as can a handful of others he encounters, all of whom have had the same powerful dream as he has experienced each time he slumbers. Similarly, a number of suddenly mute children still sleep and hide in the forests of British Columbia as the suspicious Awakened alternately fear and blame them for their plight. The blood of Sleepers becomes prized as a possible source of a cure and Paul has to tred an increasingly impossible path between outcast and saviour.

It is beautifully written - both from the perspective of Paul as his partner withers in front of his eyes from her inability to sleep and as the paper thin social conventions of civilisation are torn in a hundred different ways each day. So also it explores the dreamier perspective of a world view dulled and giddied by its increasingly certain demise. Humans' need for purpose and reason, if only to avoid staring at the void of ultimate meaninglessness, is explored in the cult's constant, desperate search for resolution, as well as an ever growing willingness to redefine reality in search of any chance, any possible hope, even when it is so clearly hopeless. Visually striking too are the descriptions of the city landscape and the physical transformation of streets, buildings and, above all, people.

It could be a parable for our times - and the character ruminates on how people have previously denied climate change rather than face its existential threat; and how, ironically, that threat may now be removed by humanity's pending demise. The Awakened, however, do not die quietly - they kick ever more aggressively against reality, seeking solace in a round of activities and the reassuring speeches demanded of Paul by his sometime jailer/ sometime confidante, the Blue Admiral.

It would be interesting to see a film of this - if it was faithful to the book, there would be a plethora of wonderfully surreal characters and scenes to bring to life; and you'd be fairly sure to not doze off mid-tale.

Worth a read!


Tuesday, 1 October 2019

UFO - the fall of the puppets

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson are remembered for their groundbreaking children’s TV animatronics from the 1960s. Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5 (even I am not old enough to recall its first showing!) and Captain Scarlet among others opened up a universe of sci fi to young minds still young enough to think that it was quite realistic - and quite the opposite of a 2017 study, oddly but honestly now debunked by its own authors, that science fiction "makes you stupid" by commanding less attention than other genres.

The Andersons had bigger ambitions than children’s TV though and in 1970 produced UFO, a science fiction series pitched at an adult, especially American audience. Unfortunately, it did not get recommissioned although a second series was planned and instead the Andersons went on to develop the longer Space 1999 franchise with somewhat higher production values and a more expansive storyline. However, I have recently nostalgically watched the single but substantial run of 26 episodes of UFO, some of which I don’t recall seeing before at all, others half-remembered. A particular pleasure is how “1980” flashes up in the title credits to signal its amazing setting in the future!

It is a curious cross-over from puppetry to live action. It still uses scale models for many outdoor scenes, often very evidently so, though by contrast a couple of space-walk scenes are incredibly well done and would easily hold up in the digital era. But in the bunker-like headquarters of SHADO (a secret organisation protecting the Earth from alien UFOs that prey the planet sometimes to steal human organs and other times simply to cause maximum damage), real actors take the place of the Andersons’ puppets (many had notably voiced puppet characters in earlier programmes) though I do have a friend who once watched an episode almost all the way through thinking the actors were actually mannequins.

Leading SHADO is Commander Ed Straker, played by the late American actor Ed Bishop. And this is where things get surprising. Straker’s character at first seems cold and one -dimensional, but back stories about his divorce and the loss of his son, as well as a hinted drink problem, allowed Bishop to develop the role into a rather humane but tortured, dutiful but exhausted character with much more depth than immediately apparent.

Less so is the case with most of the others: Alec Freeman, Straker’s deputy, played by George Sewell is a credible foil to Straker, but beyond that the characters slip into single dimension and there are some inventive but ludicrous concepts. Inexplicably, on Moonbase female operatives wear purple wigs and shiny outfits which leave you expecting them to burst into some 1970s disco number while the crew on the Skydiver submarine are equally bizarrely togged out in string vests. Meantime, on land for some reason SHADO’s secret base is located below a film studio where Straker pretends to be a producer. When he talks into a cigar box (almost everyone smokes, even on spaceships) the whole room sinks underground to his base rather than have the Commander just use the stairs or the staff lift.

Essential 1980s Lunar gear
Although many later well known faces from British TV can be found as guest actors, the scripts are variable and sometimes include a lot of rather baffling shouting and some stormingly bad one liners. In the first couple of episodes there is a deeply off-putting welter of sexist stereotyping, while, when an African man worries about facing racist hostility when he is appointed Commander of Moonbase, Straker off-handedly dismisses the issue as having “gone out the window five years ago.” 

So that would be sometime around 1975. If only... 

It strikingly recalls just how very different the nostrums of popular culture were back then - this was the era of Man About The House, Til Death Do Us Part (Alf Garnett) and Love Thy Neighbour. To be fair (just), SHADO personnel do have a markedly greater degree of racial diversity than the norm for 1971 TV and later episodes cast some strong female characters as leaders and show male emotional vulnerability as acceptable.

Many of the storylines are rather intelligently developed and themes include a degree of ambiguity about the alien enemy: their motives are shown as desperate and survival-focused, and at times they demonstrate compassion towards the humans. The ethical limits of authority and secrecy are explored, as is the toil on individuals of constant struggle. Notably, the series cleverly anticipates the impact of later developments like electric cars and solar energy, mobile phones, voice identification and mass surveillance - although it does not question the need for the latter in fighting the alien threat.

The ambience is effectively done. Although the 1980s never looked as predicted, the detailed set designs by award-winning architect Norman Foster and fashion by Sylvia Anderson (wigs and sewage-coloured cars aside) do  provide a sense of a fairly credible alternative future. Doubtless if made now it would look even better, and while it is all too easy to reminisce and snicker at it, for its time it represented an enjoyable and thoughtful development in science fiction.

So UFO is worth watching if you are an aficionado of sci fi or if like me grew up in the 1970s and would like an affectionate stroll down the old memory lane of vintage fantasy. There’s even a very seventies soundtrack with background organ and electric guitar muzak permeating each and every episode. 

Also enjoyable are the occasional politically-oriented nuggets, apparently echoing Bishop’s progressive political views - a Green Party activist, he first met his third wife while dressed as General Pinochet when he gatecrashed an arms trade fair to protest against weapons sales. As well as many references to protecting the Earth from environmental degradation, I smiled at one of his best lines when, faced with a private mining company’s activities threatening the security of Moonbase, Commander Straker growls contemptuously, Corporations? There’s no place for corporations on the Moon!

Trailer here:UFO

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Boris and the Boys: An Eton Mess of Misogyny

He speaks for us. Seriously, he does.
Somehow each and every week seems to bring ever more bizarre unravelling of our crumbling Political Class and a deeper and deeper plumbing of new depths of appalling behaviour. Tuesday's shock becomes Wednesday's norm and on and on. Representative democracy dies before our eyes.

This week was no exception. The biggest political tremor may have been the Supreme Court's controversial finding that the reasons for the prorogation of Parliament were unlawful. Yet perhaps the most memorable moment came when the PM was challenged by Labour MPs Paula Sherriff and Tracy Brabin to moderate his language which, deliberately, invokes World War 2 tropes of "surrender" and "betrayal" in the face of the Continental enemy.

Amplifying this has been the Tory press, the Daily Mail in particular, decrying their political opponents as "enemies of the people" and "saboteurs", again language more akin to 1939 (when of the course the Mail was actually very pro-Hitler in its sympathies). The wording is calculated - they may not explicitly state it, but in the past such designations would see the recipients jailed or even executed. The permission to commit violence in the cause of the Nation is not long in coming to minds so inclined.

Sherriff, since 2015 the MP for Dewsbury, who, like many MPs and especially female ones, has been subject to literally thousands of threats and incidents of abuse, reminded Johnson of the murder of her friend and former neighbouring MP Jo Cox, stabbed and shot in the street by right-winger, Tom Mair. The last words she heard from her assassin were "Put Britain first" and in court, asked to confirm his name, he responded, "My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain."

In better times: Jo Cox and Paula Sherriff
Johnson's response to a passionate but clearly upset Sherriff was to pompously declare, "I've never heard such humbug in my life." He was equally dismissive to a follow up question from Brabin, who is Cox's successor as Batley MP, and went as far as to suggest that the best tribute to the murdered parliamentarian would be to "get on with delivering Brexit." 

Echoing him, whether as Master or puppet it's not entirely clear, his adviser Dominic Cummings, an Orc-impressionist whose grasping bitterness would put Sauron to shame, mumbled that given the failure to deliver Brexit, it wasn't surprising some voters are angry with MPs. Yes, of course, threats of murder and rape are just par for the course to these guys. 

And this is where we need to look behind Johnson's dismissal of Paula Sherriff and Tracy Brabin: two women, speaking up in a place where, deep down, it seems likely that neither our Prime Minister nor a good number of his Boys' School chums really feel women should be in the first instance - not unless they're hoovering the carpets, or perhaps polishing the Mace rather than dispensing it. Their anger at his boorish rhetoric is dismissed out of hand, just the hysteria of the weaker sex. 

Why should we expect anything better from these men? Sent to male-only schools where misogyny headed the curriculum and for the crucial period of puberty their first and longest encounters with girls would usually be in the pages of glossy porn magazines, they were inculcated with an unquestioning belief in their superior status over everyone else, women in particular. So when he casually disregards the protests of female MPs, we should not be surprised, for this is how Johnson and his ilk have always been. 

Mogg and Nanny
From the first suckle on the Nanny-proffered bottle through the rare warmth of Nursey's blanket at boarding school, women's roles have been clearly set as the silent, suffering Support, fully indulgent to the fully self-entitled Lads. The Father of the House, the languid, loping Rees-Mogg has kept Nanny ever with him from his cradle until, it would appear, at least until one of them is in the grave.Like a child's comfort rag or maybe a human teddy bear, she has been on hand through all his days, serving his needs and dutifully knowing her place. (Though, candidly, viewing an official photo of the two of them does elicit unfortunate thoughts of some Guillermo del Toro production.)

A comedian mused tonight that we shouldn't expect the Johnsonites to be kind or self-aware. Nor should we - these are the Bullingdon bullies who trashed restaurants for fun knowing Daddy would pay, the guys who set toilets on fire for a laugh, and who even today burn money in front of homeless street-sleepers. 

And in Johnson's case, he has suggested women only go to university to find men to marry, that those who do have careers have caused house prices to rise and at the end of the day don't work as hard as men. As the Mayor who hosted the London Olympics he was moved to describe dedicated female volleyball players as "glistening like wet otters" and more recently decried investigations into child abuse as w*nking money onto a wall.

Bad enough, but this, too, is the man who helped a friend plot to have a journalist beaten up, and who allegedly threatened a young woman for giving refuge to his first wife so seriously that she has remained scared of him for over thirty yearsAnd continuing the theme, this is the Prime Minister in waiting whio had a visit from the police when neighbours were concerned for the physical safety of his partner

Little wonder that, this Old Etonian views threats to women who, in his little World of Misogyny, shouldn't even be MPs as being of zero concern. As we have seen with Trump, lauded by Nazis and the KKK, when a national leader uses such belligerent language, the fascists who, like Mair, live among us feel legitimised and entitled to act. But, like his American Idol, Johnson's sociopathic behaviour suggests he simply does not care. Indeed, quite the opposite - the terrifying truth is that what may come across as unscripted and spontaneous is in fact carefully considered to raise the tempo and appeal to what he sees as his base. With our crazy voting system, that may be more than enough to see him returned comfortably at a General Election.

Army Dreaming
Politics has always had an element of bombast, of insult and metaphorical allusions between debate and conflict even. No one is asking anyone not to display passion or even anger - there is after all plenty to be angry about.

 But politicians of all parties have deployed increasingly inflammatory language that actively plays to violence, particularly against other people. Within the Brexit debate, Remainers are just as capable as Leavers of displays of aggressive hostility to those who disagree with them. Labour's Jess Phillips has talked about her fears and her office was attacked this week, but she has herself talked of "knifing (Jeremy Corbyn) in the front", while the Lib Dems' Ed Davey urged "a Remain alliance to decapitate that blond head", i.e., Boris Johnson. Invective knows no party boundaries it seems.

Yet between the leaders of the two main parties there is a sharp contrast. When Jeremy Corbyn was faced with a plot to oust him by Blairites, he made clear to some of his over-eager supporters how he wanted them to respond:There should be no bad language used, there should be no abuse used, and I don’t like the use of the word ‘traitor’ either.”  Johnson's snivelling insistence this week that he should be able to continue with his verbiage without even acknowledging the concerns raised to him are more than adequate testimony to the great difference between the two men in terms of the respective content of their characters and suitability for office.

If Clauswitz characterised war as "politics by other means", increasingly, it seems at least some of our divided legislators see politics as war by other means. 

Yet while Farage may talk about picking up a rifle and Johnson compares the EU to Hitler's Naziseagerly posing with generals to associate himself with the military, their "wars" are little more than the adolescent fantasies of self-entitled rich kids who might have got to play with guns a bit in the school cadet corps, but would run a mile at the first hint of any real trouble. Cripes chaps, scarper!

It is fairly clear who are the strong people here.

While male MPs and members of all parties receive abuse, it does need to be noted that Black Minority Ethnic and female MPs, particularly Labour ones it seems, receive far more than any other category of parliamentarian. Formal criminal incidents have almost trebled in three years and formal police protection is almost the norm for our elected representatives, a fact that is bound to deter at least some people from entering politics.

Yet they persist: Paula Sherriff continues with her parliamentary duties in spite of receiving over 200 threats (3 serious enough to call the police) in the 24 hours after she challenged Johnson, and Yvette Cooper similarly works on even as her daughter tweets about her anxieties at the sight of an anti-bomb sleeve installed in their home's letterbox. So too do many other MPs, including Lib Dem Jo Swinson, who received threats to her children this week and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot, who at times has received more threats that all other MPs combined. 

By contrast, Farage infamously refused to get off a bus to avoid milk shake throwers and Johnson ran from fifty Luxembourgers shouting anti-Brexit slogans at him. How would these brave armchair generals fare trying to dodge the real bullets and battles they slever and drool about so loosely from their wet, trembling lips? Hopefully, Nanny would be waiting in a nearby tank with a lovely flask of warm milk and a calming pacifier, ready to whisk them away to the safety of an impregnable Command Nursery.

It would be a forlorn quest to imagine that Johnson might somehow wind back from his extreme behaviours. His carefully crafted bumbling bonhomie has largely peeled away to reveal him for what he truly is. Once a Bullingdon, always a bully. For now, between the loss of his majority in the Commons, the mass protests planned for the upcoming Tory conference and his own narcissistic disintegration, we can only unite and work to ensure that his time is soon at an end.

Boris, quo usque  tandem abutere patentia nostra? Pericles si viveret, ad remum dareris!

Monday, 16 September 2019

The Magical Mathematics of Jo Swinson

If he could talk to the Liberals...
Back in the 1980s, the mythical two-headed psuhmi-pull-u creature from Doctor Doolittle was used as an allegory to lampoon the "Two Davids" leadership of the Liberal-SDP Alliance, referencing the not rare instances when Owen and Steel contradicted each other over the centrist parties' policies.

Times change, and this morning on Radio 4 Today, the now long-merged Liberal Democrats have only one head in charge, but several different faces on show.

Party leader Jo Swinson, walking, talking proof that there is nothing more irksome than an incompetent narcissist, held forth, chuntering on her party's latest "bold" decision - to cancel the UK's withdrawal from the European Union without even bothering with the fig-leaf of holding a referendum.

After all, she hubristically declared, if the country elects a majority Liberal Democrat government with cancelling Brexit as its major (some might say only) policy, "then that's what they'll get." PM Swinson would have a mandate to cancel.

It may seem a fanciful scenario, to say the least, but nonetheless galling coming as it does from the party that has spent decades decrying how our first-past-the-post voting system routinely returns parliaments that do not represent the views of voters. As she well knows, and must be banking on in her delusions of grandeur, if the other parties' votes split fairly evenly, a lead party can win outright power with as little as one in three of the votes cast - Tony Bliar achieved his third and final win in 2005 with just 35% of the poll.

So Ms Swinson has somehow executed a mathematical miracle whereby something slightly less that 35% could conceivably count for more than the 52% vote to Leave in the 2016 referendum.

Not so democratic Democrats, it would seem to most rational observers, though with Swinson somehow squaring this with her party supposedly championing liberalism against authoritarianism, reason may not be a word to lightly associate with this band of chancers.

Swinson was not finished though. As the BBC's Justin Webb asked her to confirm in that case that she was now against a so-called People's Vote rerun of the referendum, she changed tack. Not at all - it is party policy after all the have a new vote (perhaps with only one box to tick to approve Remain) before any General Election. It would only be different afterwards and meantime, shame on Jeremy Corbyn, just because... well, shame on him!

So, if you don't want a second referendum, vote Lib Dem.
And if you do want a second referendum, vote Lib Dem.

Ok, said Webb - his eyes rolling even on the radio - what about Scotland? Why is she against a second referendum on Scottish independence but apparently in favour of a second one on Brexit?

Ah, totally different, she opined. The best way forward for Britain was to be united but in the European Union.

Fine, so if she wins power at Westminster and that is a mandate to cancel Brexit without a referendum, presumably if the SNP win at Holyrood, that is a mandate for them to declare independence without a referendum.

Of course, you already know her answer was "No."
Essentially, a referendum is only a good thing if you promise to agree with Jo.

And so what we are left with is what we have always known - liberals are not democratic. Their idea of democracy is that the great unwashed turn up every few years and confirm their right to govern at their patronising best. Public votes are fine as long as they go the right way. If they don't, well, time for some of Jo's incredible, liberally illiberal Magical Mathematics.

These are testing times for our society. It was the market-liberal consensus, developed on from Thatcherite monetarism in Nu-Labour and accepted by the wider Political Class, that created the conditions for the Leave vote: the inequality, the competition between marginalised domestic labour and vulnerable migrant workers, the plundering of the state through PFI and financial deregulation that triggered the 2008 recession. The evident self-entitlement of so many MPs in the expenses scandal at the same time did nothing to reconcile growing numbers of disaffected voters with our political leaders. Not the worst by far, Swinson still didn't forget to keep her receipts for a 29p pack of dusters and 78p for a can of Mr Sheen: Lib Dems are nothing if not shiny.

And it was the continuation of this disaster capitalism by the Coalition Government that Swinson was a fairly senior member of that sealed it. And of course the referendum itself was a response by David Cameron to divisions in his own party, one backed by Swinson's party when it was voted on in the Commons in 2015 (she herself to be fair had lost her seat and wasn't in parliament at the time)  - our liberal masters assumed of course a comfortable victory would ensue.

That it didn't, as we know, has been met by furious rebuttals that Leave voters didn't know what they were doing and should effectively be disenfranchised. While some Remainers and People's Voters would protest, the Lib Dems' enthusiastic adoption of Swinson's pledge to scrap Article 50 without a vote confirms that people who claim to be democrats and who have campaigned repeatedly for equal votes are in truth not democrats and are in fact perfectly happy for their own votes to count somewhat more heavily than those of their opponents.

As so many times in history, liberals (of all party hues) proclaim their superior knowledge of the facts and through that assert an informed knowing that eludes ordinary punters but entitles them to govern. The recent resort to the Courts over both the referendum and more recently the proroguing of Parliament betrays an almost naive if arrogant take that they can prove their opponents wrong and if so, everything will go back to meritocratic normality. In doing so, whatever their technical skills level may well be, what is clearly absent is any degree of emotional intelligence.

As we saw with the tick-boxing of Lib Dem policies through the austerity of the Coalition, these people will trumpet getting a deal on introducing a plastic bag tax in exchange for agreeing benefits cuts to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. They will claim that getting some extra funding for mental health counselling somehow makes up for all the suicides caused by introducing arduous tests for disability that were designed to fail vulnerable claimants. They are either clueless or callous, or both.

They will even try to excuse the most execrable decisions by promising to review their procedures to get it right next time, as Chief Whip Alastair Carmichael assured conference doubters over worries about the influx of expelled Tory MPs into their parliamentary ranks. Apparently, each of them was subjected to a 90 minute "grilling" by him to see if they shared the party's values. In spite of this undoubted Ordeal, perhaps via trial-by-lunch, former Tory MP Philip Lee, who opposed gay marriage and introduced legislation to ban migrants with HIV, ticked the relevant boxes.
So illiberal, but so job done...

They are of course playing with fire and are dreadfully ill-equipped to do so. Their actions do nothing to reconcile the deep division in our country, quite the contrary. And with their latest wheeze, they may well have already overplayed a hand they are viewing through a centrist magnifying glass.

The polls suggest that they have already plateaued and started to fall back from their May upsurge in the local and European elections. Swinson's smug style and twisted logic are unlikely to yield many more votes from rival parties. Yet what the polls do show is that her relentless focus on misrepresenting Labour and denouncing Jeremy Corbyn opens up the path to a potentially overwhelming victory for Johnson's Tories, especially if as is not entirely unlikely, they do come to some accommodation with Farage's Brexit Party. Combined, the Tory-BP vote in the current rolling average of polls is 46% to 25% Labour, 18% Lib Dem, 5% Green and 5% Nationalists. Repeated at a General Election, this would produce a Commons with somewhere over 470 hard right MPs out of a total of 650.

Now by Jo Swinson's logic that would be quite a mandate. Even although it might still be the choice of less than half the voters, No Deal would be a dead cert. But perhaps by then Jo will have defaulted to wanting a referendum.

Or maybe not. Maybe she'll be down at the ranch looking for a new pushmi-pull-u.

Illiberal and undemocratic - Swinson and Carmichael

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Order In Berlin

Appeal to no reason: Nazis canvass a farming family
"We don't want lower bread prices. We don't want higher bread prices. We don't want   unchanged bread prices...
We want National Socialist bread prices!" 

This summer marks the centenary of the infamous Treaty of Versailles, which notionally put a formal end to the carnage of the First World War, but which a plethora of commentators, politicians and historians have long held to be in truth the trigger for the Second World War. Indeed, a few have even postulated a single world war from 1914 to 1945, punctuated by a false peace traced in Germany from 1933 by the Nazi era, but prior to this epitomised by the tumult of the Weimar Republic.

Weimar is often nostalgically remembered as the progressive interlude between the authoritarian Second Reich of the Kaiser and the genocidal Third Reich of the Fuhrer. It has been lionised as the time of Bauhaus, Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang and Cabaret, when under the aegis of the "most liberal constitution in the world" Berlin was Cosmopolis and German culture led Europe in breaking old boundaries and forging ever freer means of expression.

That it was to lurch politically from crisis to crisis until collapsing almost eagerly into the clutches of the devious Hitler is a conundrum that has occupied historians from William Shirer's epic "Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany " through Alan Bullock, Peter Drucker and hundreds of others. And now to Benjamin Carter-Hett's 2018 offering, "The Death of Democracy", published by Windmill Books. Echoing the long held narrative, the jacket blurb dramatically poses the question of the day: "What caused the fall of the most progressive government in 20th century Europe and the rise of the most terrifying?"

Carter-Hett's book uses a combination of the episodic and thematic with a relatively loose nod to chronological narrative. Each chapter opens with a cameo to illustrate the rest of the chapter - the mysterious Reichstag fire leads to the suppression of the Communist Party; a detailed description of propaganda posters, from the Red Flags of the Communists through the muscular men of the Social Democrats and the demure, smiling women of the liberal State Party to the charcoal-grey, grim-faced unemployed workers express "Our Last Hope: Hitler". The latter opens a piece on Goebbels mastery of mass communications, his pioneering methods picked up and used by the mass media and marketing communities ever since. In a later chapter, the wife of a Communist MP searches for her arrested husband in the early weeks of Nazi rule, soon to share his fate as the main narrative picks up on the final destruction of all opposition to the Nazis.

Carter-Hett firmly places the story in the context of Germany after the First World War. While giving a nod to contemporary events, he avoids the over-tired and often facile comparisons between then and now, though still warning of the need to learn from history. No one in 1933 expected Hitler to stay in power long; no one could have anticipated the sheer scale of the horrors he would inflict on tens of millions; yet the confluence of mass protest, disillusion with democratic institutions and the blind arrogance of a self-entitled elite, and "suddenly the whole thing looks close and familiar."

Underpinning this analysis, however, is the traditional narrative: of plucky social democrats and liberals bravely taking power as the Kaiser's Empire succumbed to military defeat, desperately fending off assaults from both the extreme left and right and badly let down by the Western Allies. The latter's vengeful continuation of the wartime blockade for eight months after the Armistice, condemned hundreds of thousands of Germans to death from malnutrition and disease and coupled with the imposition of punitive reparations and substantial territorial losses at Versailles, the fate of the young liberal democracy was sealed almost from its inception.

Party representatives outside a polling station at 1932 election
Carter-Hett tracks through the ups and downs of the republic, from the wheelbarrow inflation of 1923 through the revival of the Stresseman years, from the brief attempts to advocate an early form of European economic union to the 1929 Wall Street crisis, and finally the deflation which flooded Germany with cheap food, ruining the large farming community and fostering the mass unemployment of 1931 -32. The anti-Semitism that led later to the Holocaust is also set in the context of longstanding hostility towards Jews and other racial minorities among substantial elements of German society, exacerbated but not originated by the Nazis.

Yet at the core of the book is the view that the Weimar Republic was indeed a democracy, ruined by the ill-intentions of army leaders like Ludendorff through the myth of the "stab in the back" of November 1918 and the political immaturity of its people. He notably recounts the views of Berlin Social Democrats who, viewing the rise of the Nazis, decried the proletariat as not being ready for democracy. Germans longed for a Father-Emperor, it seemed.

Yet there is another narrative; one largely excised from mainstream history and given only a passing reference in Carter-Hett's tome. Its most recent publication can be found in another 2018 book, "A People's History of the German Revolution" by the late William A. Pelz under the Pluto Press imprint.

This takes a very different starting point: the Social Democrats who assumed power in 1918-19 were not the democratic revolutionaries that both history and their right-wing contemporaries portrayed them as being. In fact, quite the opposite - in truth, they prevented rather than led revolution and willingly agreed a Faustian pact with the military specifically to head off the momentum of their more radical rivals - the Independent Social Democratic Party and the Spartacist League (transformed on New Years' Eve 1918 into the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD).

The Imperial bureaucracy, judiciary and military were left in place and ownership of industry and land was to be reviewed rather than nationalised or redistributed. SPD leader and first Republican President Friedrich Ebert vocally abhorred the idea of revolution, while more sanguine colleagues argued that the time had not yet come for such massive change. In exchange for a parliamentary republican constitution being supported by the High Command, the Social Democrats undertook to bring the revolutionary components of the revolution to heel.

German social democracy had its roots in revolution - in particular the unsuccessful revolts of 1848, which Karl Marx himself participated in,  and during which the bourgeoisie failed to make significant inroads against the feudal hangovers that existed in the then-disparate German states. Although social democrats organised and grew, it was only much later in the century, after the wars of unification and industrialisation under the Second Reich founded in 1871, that it flourished. Political reform under the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, granted a very limited parliamentary system under which the Social Democratic party (SPD) soon grew to be the largest socialist party in the world.

Indeed, as both Pelz and Carter-Hett explore, its membership expanded into so many forms of activity - political, cultural, educational, artistic, community self-help - that it developed into a virtual state-within-a-state. As other parties representing different groups developed similar infrastructure under the Weimar system, German politics became increasingly confessional in their nature, almost tribal, with limited interaction and switching between their fixed points - to leave the party was to leave behind personal affiliations and even a way of life.

Yet Pelz postulates that, while the growth of the SPD greatly enhanced working class organisation and political awareness, it developed its own bureaucracy and hierarchies, and even a leadership class whose rise to prominence was parallelled in a fall in its radical temperament. Its parliamentary success was its revolutionary downfall, culminating in the decision by the party's MPs to defy the previously agreed line of the Second International that socialist parties would oppose war and work instead for international revolution to end conflicts. Instead, like socialists in most other countries (the Russian Bolsheviks being one of the few exceptions), the SPD voted in favour of the war credits requested by the Imperial Government to fight the war.

This dichotomy between continuing revolutionary rhetoric and revisionist reality was to lead to schism in the party in 1916 with a minority led by Hugo Hasse, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg leaving to establish an independent party (the USPD). This was to fracture further with Liebknecht and Luxemburg moving into the Spartacist League, which transformed itself into the Communist Party (KPD) at New Year. Meanwhile, the USPD initially collaborated closely with their original comrades in the crucial weeks of October and early November 1918 and joined the provisional government under SPD leader Ebert following the Kaiser's abdication.

Pelz charts how the war came to an end not through the machinations of either politicians or generals, but through a war weary soldiery making common cause with a revolutionary civilian populace. Starting at the naval base at Kiel, where sailors refused a final supposedly glorious "death run" by the Imperial Fleet (one Admiral lamented that had the fleet been destroyed, at least its' officers and men would be "lying in immortal flame at the bottom of the sea" rather than being preserved in cowardice and disgrace), military mutineers were quickly aided by masses of revolutionary civilians. In many cases the insurrection was started or even led by women, who had been prominent in illegal anti-war protests from 1914 onwards. The revolutionary crowds quickly established a string of Soldiers and Workers Councils (or to use the Russian word, Soviets) to threaten the exhausted Imperial regime.

The Social Democrats, by this stage in negotiations with the Imperial Chancellor Prince Max of Baden, actually sent one of their leaders, Gustav Noske, to try to head off the radical movement, but his success was fleeting as the Council movement spread across Germany and to the capital, Berlin, itself. Ebert and the SPD leadership responded by making its deal with the military - and while the Kaiser abdicated and retired into Dutch exile, the events that followed were in effect the Establishment absorbing the revolutionary wave until its impact was blunted and softened into meaninglessness.

When the USPD, alarmed by the violent suppression of protesters in early December, left the provisional coalition government, their personnel were removed by the SPD from key posts, leading to further popular discontent. When the USPD Berlin police chief was dismissed by Noske, who now held the position of Minister of the Interior, huge crowds took to the streets in early January and an initially hesitant Luxemburg joined them. For several days, a full socialist revolution appeared in the making and the SPD leaders fled the city.

Freikorps paramilitaries -"the advance guard of Nazism"
However, the revolutionary leaders debated ceaselessly over whether or not to seize power until the initiative was lost. Noske, who declared himself the SPD's bloodhound, enlisted the Freikorps - hard right-wing armed paramilitary units composed of former soldiers - to suppress the civilian demonstrators by all means necessary.

Over several days, hundreds of Berliners were slaughtered, among them Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Pelz charts the utterly vicious and vengeful nature of the repression and in particular the misogynistic repercussions that were rained down on female socialists, a number of whom were tortured, sexually assaulted and humiliated by both paramilitaries and regular police. The Far Right's hostility to female activism and its emphasis of "traditional" roles for women runs deep, and Hitler was to amplify it many times in the years ahead, but it was centrist social democrats who drew first blood.

The SPD leaders returned and proceeded with a constitutional convention that obligingly adopted a thoroughly liberal constitution and kicked the issue of industrial ownership far out of sight. While revolutionary uprisings persisted in a few places, these were all bloodily suppressed, the last one in Munich in March 1919, where an idealistic commune of artists and philosophers briefly held a form of power before the more organised KPD organised a three week defence of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Among the elected members of their Workers and Soldiers' Council sat one Adolf Hitler, who clung briefly to socialism's promise of a better world when questioned after his arrest - before being employed by the police to spy initially on his former comrades and then, with devastating consequences, to infiltrate the predecessor organisation of the Nazi Party.

Pelz and Carter-Hett exemplify the sharply different narratives that define interwar Germany.

The latter, liberal view regrets the bloodshed by the Freikorps, but essentially lionises the Weimar Republic as a noble but tragic experiment in democracy, one which was flawed from a combination of ill-will among leading politicians and generals on the right; hobbled by (largely unpaid and ultimately cancelled ) war reparations to the Allies; and undermined by provisions in the constitution which granted emergency powers that bypassed the Reichstag. Secondary considerations he explores are the division between cosmopolitan Berlin and the rural hinterland where the large farming community was hostile to the immorality of the capital, alarmed by the arrival of large numbers of refugees from Soviet Russia and devastated by the deflation of 1929.

Socialists murdered by social democrats - Liebknecht and Luxemburg
Pelz by contrast sees Weimar not as a product of revolution, but as a block or perhaps more correctly a devious sop to mass revolutionary fervour. The self-interest of the SPD leadership won out over the demands of the radical crowds and turned on its former comrades with a ferocity markedly more severe than anything meted out against subsequent right-wing putsches.

While Hitler's Beer Cellar uprising led to his jailing in a comfortable prison suite for just long enough for him to complete his Mein Kampf testimony, Luxemburg was done to death by sadists who dumped her corpse into a canal where it rotted for some months before its recovery.

The SPD justified the suppression of democratic protest on the grounds that it was done to defend democracy - it was all for the greater good of a new Germany. Like centrists and revisionists throughout history, their emphasis was on defeating radicalism, not assaulting conservatism. It warped the incredible revolutionary optimism of the war-weary masses in 1919 that out of the dreadful slaughter a new, better and peaceful world could be born. It squeezed out any hope of significant social change through years of economic crises and austerity which, like more recent troubles, somehow always favoured the big landlords and capitalists. And ultimately it gave rise through the collapse of any faith in liberal democracy to the abandonment of realism and the wild fantasy of "National Socialist bread prices!"

Nazis come to power with Centrist support, 1933 Enabling Act
In the end, as observed by Professor Mario Kessler in his introduction to Pelz's tome, "The unfinished Revolution of 1918-19 resulted only in a precarious democracy, which was usurped by full-fledged counter-revolution in 1933 when the Nazis took power."

The ultimate irony, recounted in some detail by Carter-Hett, was that in 1933, the Enabling Act that legally empowered Hitler's dictatorship only passed the required threshold with the crucial votes of Zentrum - the Centre Party.

And perhaps it is this betrayal, even more than the obscenity that was Nazism, that should be the lesson of then for now. For through such historical prisms, the Great Lie of the Centre is exposed - by the very nature of its fettering of socialist change, centrism shifts rightward and becomes of the Right; it is not that the centre cannot hold - it is that it does not actually exist, and never did. As Pelz himself reflects, "...had the German Revolution been radical and purged the old state apparatus, there would most likely have been no Nazi seizure of power, no Third Reich, no World War II, no Holocaust. Unhappily, that opportunity to sweep away the pests of the past was squandered... Moderation won out, albeit after a mountain of corpses and rivers of blood, and it proved ultimately wanting."

On 14 January 1919, as the bloody social democrat-instigated repression of socialists and Spartacists was picking up momentum, and just hours before her murder, Rosa Luxemburg penned her final polemic, mocking the SPD for announcing that "order" was being restored through the killing of Germany's own citizens. Yet even in that darkest moment, she looked to a better future, one which she would never see, but which she summonsed up with her last known words, words which echo still today.

"Order prevails in Berlin!"
You foolish lackeys! Your "order" is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will "rise up again, clashing its weapons" and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing:

                                                              I was, I am, I shall be!

Spartacist League flag, 1917