Mad Margaret's voyage of dishonour

In this week's selection from the New Statesman archive former editor Bruce Page opposes the sending

The New Statesman 9 April 1982

On 2 April 1982 Argentina's military junta invaded the British colony of the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to liberate the islands and their people from what was fascist rule - by war if necessary. In a number of passionately argued editorials, Bruce Page, then editor of the New Statesman, rejected the sending of the British expeditionary force and the support given to its departure by the Labour Party.

Selected by Robert Taylor

The owl of Minerva, said Hegel, flies only at dusk. By this he meant that human societies take a dangerously long time in learning from history.

In the case of Britain and her post-Imperial pretensions, the owl trundles down the runway again and again. But she never shows any sign of getting into the air.

It is not easy to believe that even a government as stupid and amateurish as Mrs Thatcher's can actually be sending some of the Navy's costliest and most elaborate warships to take part in a game of blind-man's-buff at the other end of the world. The revenue cost of the enterprise can't be less than £50 million, which would be more than enough to give the Falkland Islanders the fresh beginning in life that this country certainly owes them. The capital cost, if ships and aircraft start going into action, and taking casualties, could make the revenue cost look trivial.

And the cost in blood? One is not talking here of using a few highly-trained SAS men to knock over a captured embassy with its garrison of half-demented terrorists. The task is to take and hold a group of islands defended by some 5,000 professional soldiers, who have air and naval support from a tolerably-handy home base – while our people have to operate at the end of an 8,000 mile ocean supply line.

Some other late flutters of the post-Imperial heart – notably, the Anguilla episode – had their comic side. But if any serious shooting starts in the Falklands, a lot of young men, British and Argentinian, are likely to get killed and maimed. And in what cause will this be done?

If you read the Daily Mail, or listen to Tory MPs, you might imagine that the cause was liberty and democracy. (These are the same people who became passionate trade-unionists when Jaruzelski's army crushed Solidarity.) If you believe The Times, you are committed to thinking that the cause is the rolling back of aggression more evil and portentous than Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939. WE ARE ALL FALKLANDERS NOW says The Times, having apparently failed to notice that the government on which it now fawns went to some trouble, last year, in its Nationality Bill, to ensure that we are not Falklanders – and to ensure that no such colonial bounders could be mistaken for members of the homeland club.

Certainly the Argentine Government, in spite of changes of regime, hasn't for many years been off any sensible observer's short-list of the world's most noxious regimes. But until the weekend's rhetorical orgy swept leader-writers and Parliamentarians into its embrace, no Labour or Tory ministers had found any serious inconvenience in that fact. Till now, British government have gone out of their way to truckle to Argentina – and if that means abandoning the Falklanders, okay; if it means turning a blind eye to torture and fascist repression, fair enough. There was a brief tiff in January 1976, when Buenos Aires broke off ambassadorial relations after Lord Shackleton paid a visit to the islands. But by March 1979 the Labour Government had agreed to exchange ambassadors again.

The truth is that relations between Britain and Latin America are dictated not by ministers, but by the Foreign Office and by an assortment of business-oriented lobbyists like Lord Chalfont and Viscount Montgomery. When Mr Nicholas Ridley was supposedly in charge of our Latin American affairs in 1980, he gave a touchingly honest account of the government's actual expertise: complaining of the whole continent, he said “it's very far away, it's very expensive to get there, and what's more they mainly speak Spanish or Portuguese.”

Labour ministers have not been better than Tories at taking a detached view of the “advice”offered to them. A letter sent from Edmund Dell, Trade Secretary, to David Owen, Foreign Secretary, in 1978 deserves quotation in some detail:

“Even Luard may have told you of the dinner given by the Lord Mayor recently...for the purpose of bringing together those with significant interests in Latin America. There was a free exchange of views, during which several speakers expressed concern about the effect which our stance on human rights was having and would continue to have for some time on our trade interests there.

Since then, George Nelson of GEC has written to Fred Catherwood, who as you know is chairman of the British Overseas Trade Board, following up their discussion at the dinner. Apart from reiterating his concern over our long-term trade interests generally, he has particularly drawn attention to GEC's and British Aerospace's interest in selling the Hawk aircraft to Argentina (worth about £100 million)...I understand that you are at present considering whether or not General Agosti, Argentine Chief of Air Staff, should be invited here and received at the appropriate level. Nelson and Catherwood both urge that we should invite him...”

No surprise, then, that during the 1970s Britain provided nearly one-third of all major weapons purchased by Argentina – including ship to air missiles and ship-to-ship missiles which could be used against our own fleet in the event of Mrs Thatcher's somewhat hysterical “diplomacy” going adrift.

In October 1979 William Whitelaw received hearty Argentine congratulations on ending the visa programme for Latin American refugees. In August 1980 Cecil Parkinson Minister for Trade, visited the Argentine and enthused about the trading possibilities, and was followed by Peter Walker in 1981. Meanwhile in all sorts of penny-pinching detail, the social infrastructure of the supposedly-treasured Falkland Islands was steadily handed over to the Argentine regime: as the British Government never followed-up Shackleton's recommendation for a long-range airstrip on the island, the Falklanders' communications go via Buenos Aires, and via a small airstrip built by Argentine soldiers who no doubt made the most of their reconnaissance opportunities.

Supposedly, the emphasis is now on "diplomacy", in which Mrs Thatcher's chum Ronald Reagan is expected to play some part. The likelihood of the double-act's success should be assessed in terms of its immediate past performance – which is the remarkable one of driving the Argentine dictatorship into the arms of Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Until last week, Buenos Aires backed Reagan's anti-Communist crusade all the way: sending “advisers” to the Salvadorean and Guatemalan armies, and to the Somocieta camps in Honduras; withdrawing ambassadors from Havana and Managua in support of American aims.

Only last November the Americans gave General Galtieri a banquet in Washington and described him as a "majestic personality". Demented by flattery, Galtieri appears to have concluded that the Americans would support him in his Falkland Islands, and was thunderstruck to receive a long, distinctly hostile phone-call from Reagan just before the invasion went in. “Whose side are you on?” he is reported to have asked Reagan, in understandable puzzlement.

But the Soviet Union – which will take 80 per cent of Argentina's grain exports this year – has been carefully cultivating the General for some time, and there is excellent historical precedence for hasty marriages of convenience between totalitarian regimes of “left” and “right”. Already the Argentine ambassadors are on their way back to Cuba and Nicaragua. And next month Galtieri's foreign minister will go to Havana to discuss ways in which Argentina might become more active within the “non-aligned” movement of which Fidel Castro is president.

To support Britain's dubious, irrational enterprise, the whole armoury of patriotic rhetoric and flim-flam has been deployed. The Times, predictably, reached out for one of the two literary passages which even Fleet Street leader-writers know (the other being Yeats's remark about things falling apart when the centre fails to hold), and in which by endless repetition even John Donne's prose has acquired the overtones of cliché:

"No man is an island, entire of itself... therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

A slightly wider acquaintance with Donne's works might have yielded this, from the Verse Letters (and the title, To H.W. In Hibernia Belligeranti, ought to remind us that amid all this mimicry the Secretary of State for Northern Island is trying to transact some serious business):

"Went you to conquer? And have so much lost

Yourself, that what in you was best and most,

Respective friendship, should so quickly die?"

The puzzle that the thing we call "Britain" presents to the world is that of a community of peoples perhaps as civilised, and humane of temper, as any who may be found – yet which is led, again and again, into enterprises which are as self-defeating as they are dishonourable. The reason, of course, is that the thing we still have to call our government – the United Kingdom state – was never designed to rule a group of democratic, European industrial nations such as the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish are capable of being. It was brought into existence to run, by bluff and cheapskate contrivance, a shabby world-wide empire that was assembled by blunder, force and fraud in varying proportions. Like an old, mangy lion, it knows no other trick, and so long as it has dominion over us it will betray us – and make us pay the price of betrayal in our own best blood.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom