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This restless land

Last year, after a decade of violence, Maoist rebels drove through the abolition of Nepal’s monarchy

Over dinner in Kathmandu, my friend was becoming increasingly agitated. It was not the fate of her own business - high-end fashion design and retail - that concerned her most, though a winter-long electricity shortage that had blacked out the Nepalese capital for nearly 19 hours a day had crippled it, along with many others. Her biggest worry was the fate of the business belonging to a Tibetan friend.

The Tibetan ran a successful furniture factory that gave much-needed work to several dozen employees. One day, 40 armed Maoists turned up at the factory, roughed up some of the workers and made two demands: for an exorbitant contribution to party funds, and that all the factory workers join the union. None of the staff wanted to join. The factory owner, who enjoyed a good relationship with his workforce, was equally unenthusiastic. The "union", everyone knew, was a device to establish a Maoist presence in the factory. Once installed, the union would insist on recruiting Maoist cadres to the workforce, whether they were trained or not, to ensure that the party's writ would rule in the enterprise. The factory owner closed down his operations and took an unscheduled holiday. When he returned to restart his business, it was with a militia, assembled for his protection against further Maoist visits.

Since their departure from government early in the summer, after a single, ineffective year in power, Nepal's Maoists have been noisy on the sidelines, organising demonstrations and strikes and replenishing party coffers through their own brand of extortion. They had signed a peace agreement in 2006, following a decade of armed insurgency, and emerged as the largest single party in Nepal in the constituent assembly election in April last year.

In August, the Maoist leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, popularly known as Prachanda, was appointed prime minister of a coalition government. The Maoists remained the dominant party of government until May this year, when Prachanda tried to sack the head of the Nepali army, General Rookmangud Katawal, on the grounds of insubordination.

It seemed like an unnecessary quarrel to pick, given that the general was due to retire four months later. Prachanda, however, chose to force the issue of the integration of Maoist fighters into what used to be the Royal Nepal Army. The "Royal" was dropped when King Gyanendra was deposed in May 2008, but the army's attachment to the interests of Nepal's old ruling class was not lost. Faced with Katawal's reluctance to admit the Maoist combatants to the army, Prachanda insisted that the principle of military obedience to civil authority was at stake, even though the army had pledged loyalty, for the first time in Nepal's history, to the elected government. When his coalition partners backed away from the confrontation and the president, Ram Baran Yadav, countermanded the dismissal, the Maoist-led government collapsed. Prachanda resigned, leaving Nepal in the hands of an unwieldy coalition of 22 out of Nepal's 24 political parties.

The peace process is now in a precarious state. Certainly the central elements of the peace accord - a new constitution to follow the ending of the monarchy, and the proposed integration of the Maoist fighters into the army - have all but stalled. Complaints by the army that many of the 19,000 fighters were underage and underqualified were fuelled by a leaked and widely televised video of Prachanda apparently boasting to his supporters in January 2008 that he had deceived the UN special representative charged with guiding the peace process about the size of the movement's army, and that he regarded the integration of the Maoist ranks into the army as a means of politicising the military. Against this background, settling the outstanding accounts of the decade of violence - the still-unexplained disappearances and human rights violations on both sides - remains a remote prospect.

Mutual suspicions could bring about the outcome that everybody claims not to want - a return to authoritarian rule, either through the Maoists or following an intervention by the army, which has so far resisted the call to reduce its ranks to a size appropriate for a poor nation that is no longer at war. If the Maoists, who believe they have earned the right to political supremacy through both military and electoral success, feel unfairly excluded from power, a return to force cannot be ruled out. Equally, if the army and its supporters feel that the Maoists' real game plan is to establish the Leninist party-state, it might be moved to "save" democracy.

Mosaic of cultures

Democracy is not an easy proposition in Nepal. Many of the country's political parties - even the relatively disciplined Maoists - are racked with internal divisions, and defections are common. These tensions are acted out daily in the constituent assembly, which has set itself a deadline of next May to complete the blueprint for Nepal's political future. To do that, it must choose between a presidential or a prime ministerial system and determine what degree of autonomy Nepal's 100-plus ethnic groups can hope for.

General de Gaulle once remarked that it was impossible to govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese. Nepal, with 126 languages, presents an even greater challenge. The country's mosaic of peoples and cultures has been dominated for the past 300 years by the Brahmin and Chhetri castes, which have monopolised power in the army, the economy and political life. The overthrow of that dominance in favour of a system which would give equal ­opportunity to other groups was one of the promises held out to lower-caste Maoist fighters by their Brahmin leadership. Many already feel that the promise has been broken.

Every day there is agitation by one group or the other, anxious that such promises will be forgotten in the horse-trading around the text of the new constitution. Following the conflict, there is a new assertiveness on the part of some powerful minorities, notably the Madhesis who live in the baked plains of the Terai, terrain that merges seamlessly with northern India across an open border. The Terai covers one-fifth of Nepal's territory and contains 70 per cent of its industry, but armed and militant groups now call openly for independence from the mountainous parts of the country, with which they feel little in common. Migrants from the hills, many of them refugees from the fighting during the insurgency, are harassed in the Terai, both by armed political groups and by criminal gangs that make a living from kidnapping and extortion. The hill people are not the only victims: factories are also closing as businessmen flee the troubles.

As the ragged government stumbles on, locked in endless negotiations over the minutiae of the division of spoils, the people become more anxious and more impoverished. Nepal has the lowest per capita income in south Asia, with 80 per cent of the population making a difficult living from the land. Only 15 per cent have access to electricity and that has become increasingly unreliable. Climate change is already having an impact on the livelihoods of some of Nepal's poorest people, subsistence hill farmers, who are faced with new pests and diseases and failing crops. Two million Nepalis, out of a total population of 28.5 million, currently receive UN food aid and the government has asked for twice this number to be included. An unusually dry winter presages a low harvest for next year; a second dry winter would repeat last winter's power failures, as the rivers run too low to generate the hydropower on the which the country depends.

Peace has brought no relief from the burden of military spending: the current budget includes an increase of 27 per cent for a military that already enjoys a larger share of national revenues than the collapsing power sector, agriculture or health. Without the remittances sent home by millions of Nepalis working in construction gangs in the Gulf or serving in the British army, Nepal would be bankrupt.

Between China and India

In recent weeks, thousands of Maoist supporters have rallied in Kathmandu against President Yadav, accusing him of undermining the authority of the civilian government. Prachanda has threatened a campaign of disruption unless the party is allowed to return to government and the powers of the president are debated in parliament. Such threats merely reinforce suspicions that democracy, even in its imperfect, Nepali form, would not be safe in Maoist hands.

A further political problem is Nepal's growing role as a proxy theatre for the rivalry between Asia's emerging giants, India and China. In his brief term as prime minister, Prachanda ruffled feathers in India by making his first foreign visit to Beijing rather than to Delhi. Although Nepal's Maoists have little in common politically with today's turbocapitalist Chinese, Beijing seems happy to take advantage of the invitation to establish a larger presence in the backyard of its rival power.

Nepal's border with Tibet has been a favourite escape route for Tibetans fleeing their homeland, and the government in Beijing says it suspects Nepal's large and lively Tibetan exile community of anti-Chinese activities. Beijing's relatively modest investment in Nepal has paid dividends in tighter border surveillance and stricter controls on the refugees. For India, at odds with China over their long and still disputed border, and anxious about connections between the Maoists and India's own Naxalite insurgency, the signs of Beijing's increasing influence are deeply unwelcome.

For the Nepalese people, sandwiched between two competing giants, there is little relief. Neither the army nor the police, despite generous budgets, provides protection against disaffected armed groups. For these violent gangs, as for a corrupt and underpaid bureaucracy, for Nepal's political parties and for the police, citizens are cash machines, vulnerable to extortion and expected to offer bribes for everyday services. For these citizens, who have repeatedly taken to the streets over the years to demand democracy, a state that guarantees security, equality and opportunity remains a dream.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.net.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle