I am a medium- to long-term reader who has never written before, but felt compelled to respond to your Editor’s Note in the last issue (19 June). Thank you for doing what so little of the mainstream media is doing and naming the far-right football hooligans who marred much of 13 June in London, Newcastle and beyond. Many publications have bent over backwards to avoid calling them anything but “counter-demonstrators” and to avoid the truth, which was evident in the chants and Nazi salutes in front of Churchill’s statue in London, and, bizarrely, that of Earl Grey, an abolitionist, in Newcastle upon Tyne. To deny that there were hardcore white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the far right at the core of the call for demonstration from the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, in these fraught times, is dangerous.
In his Editor’s Note of 19 June, Jason Cowley surmises that he “may have misread the moment”. His confession, in the context of Covid-19 and the inequalities it has highlighted will, I hope, stimulate a critique of a direction of travel that has been gaining strength in the New Statesman over the past few years. It was epitomised in the same edition in the reference to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sunday sermon, in which he spoke of “the resurrection of common life”.
An earlier example is to be found in Adrian Pabst’s article, “The politics of the void” (24 August 2018), with the revealing standfirst, “The search for the common good in the age of individualism and identity liberalism”. He argues for “a politics of ethical purpose, hope and meaning” that “connects questions about what it is to be human with what constitutes the good life”.
Central to this kind of enterprise are the concepts of “the common good” and “the good life”, to which we might add related ideas such as “the general will”, “the common interest” and now “the common life”. I wish to warn against this line of thought, which offers the false hope of a kind of theoretical deus ex machina, or some undiscovered core of agreement grounded in the facts of human existence. It dangerously undermines the very basis of our freedoms.
I would contend that conflict between ideas, theories and interests is germane to a free society. “The common good” and “the good life” represent at best wishful thinking, and the historical record suggests they too can become instruments of control. Meaning, ethics and hope spring from entering the contest; pessimism and servility flow from the refusal or inability to do so.
As Simone Weil wrote:
“The struggles between fellow citizens do not spring from a lack of understanding or goodwill; they belong to the nature of things, and cannot be appeased, but can only be smothered by coercion. For anyone who loves liberty, it is not desirable that they should disappear, but only that they should remain short of a certain limit of violence.”
We must work towards a world arranged differently, but not via the search for “the common good”: rather through resolute, democratic struggle.
Last week’s article by Richard J Evans (“The history wars”, 19 June) was most welcome: “Unthinking racism was woven into the fabric of everyday life in Britain through the Fifties.” Indeed. I was brought up in colonial Kenya, where schooling was strictly separate for Europeans, Africans and Asians, presumably in accordance with the shameful policies of successive British governments and parliaments, and I came into British politics largely motivated by opposition to apartheid. We therefore need to keep a sense of proportion about the views of people such as Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery. We should rejoice that times have changed and determine to root out what remains of racism wherever it is to be found, and the authorities should clamp down on the thugs who pretend to protect statues.
Lord Steel of Aikwood
Selkirk, Scottish Borders
It is disappointing to see an eminent historian such as Richard J Evans misrepresenting what happened in Kenya in the years before independence.
Kenya was no different from scores of other British colonies and protectorates in the way that government documents were filleted before being passed on to the new rulers. Papers embarrassing to the UK were withdrawn, with some destroyed and a representative record sent back to the Colonial Office. Files that might cause dissent or worse if they fell into the hands of incoming politicians were burned.
The files from dozens of colonies were stored at Hanslope Park and forgotten about, until the Mau Mau compensation case triggered a Foreign Office official to remember them. They were then lodged at the National Archive for scholars to examine (as I have done). There are no “smoking guns” among them, so there was no reason to “suppress” them. Apart from the reprisal attacks after the Lari massacre, there were no “massacres of villagers”, other than by Mau Mau itself.
That the colonial government failed to prevent Mau Mau from murdering thousands of fellow Kikuyu for refusing to take the required oath was by far the worst failure of the pre-independence years. The only people “lying about the past” are those historians who decline to address the scale of the Mau Mau killings.
Though agreeing with much of Richard J Evans’s article, I was surprised that he sought to rehash claims made about Oliver Cromwell in the 1930s and 1940s: that he was a genocidal military dictator. CV Wedgwood was among many who drew such parallels at the time, in her short 1939 biography of the Protector, though decades later she spoke with regret of her “ugly decolourisation of Cromwell’s image”. The understandably febrile climate of the 1930s and 1940s had led Wedgwood to “cast a lurid and misleading light backwards on to the figure of Cromwell”. If we wish to shed light on the 17th century, let us do so on its own terms rather than through the prism of the Second World War.
Paul Lay, editor, History Today
I thoroughly enjoyed Richard J Evans’s article on the history wars. I couldn’t help giggling at the thought of Mary Beard’s response to being called an “ancient historian”.
Helen Thompson writes: “Imagine the uproar if Labour had won the last general election and was now supported in office by the SNP while the Conservatives held the majority of English seats, and this Labour-led coalition was England’s government” (These Times, 5 June). In Scotland we do not need to imagine: the equivalent has been our experience for the past 40 years. Between 1979 and 1997, Scotland was run by a government whose share of the Scottish vote ranged from 31.4 to 24 per cent. In the 2010s a Westminster government has overseen Scotland having secured between only 14.9 and 28.6 per cent of the nation’s votes. If Professor Thompson wishes to do more than imagine the uproar, she is welcome to engage the Scottish population in conversation any time.
In his review of Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome (The Critics, 19 June), John Gray is right to comment on the uncertainty of what we face. But he could usefully have read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. In the final paragraph, with the disease at last abated, Defoe’s protagonist says he could say no more lest he “enter into the unpleasant Work of reflecting, whatever Cause there was for it, upon the Unthankfulness and Return of all manner of Wickedness among us”. It would seem that the sum total of good and bad never changes.
Guy de la Bédoyère
John Gray appears to skip over a century and a half between the Plague of Cyprian in the middle of the third century and the gradual collapse of the Roman empire (in the West) in the fifth century. The traditional narrative of this period was one of steady decline. However, modern scholarship has challenged this on the basis of archeological and other evidence that points to a strong, sustained recovery until the middle of the fourth century, followed by a period of stability until around AD 400.
Sophie McBain’s enjoyable article (“The dark side of wellness”, 19 June) lumps too many things together. Empowerment cards and moon energy are not amenable to scientific verification. But nutritional approaches to chronic diseases have been verified through scientific trials. In her eulogy of “medicine” as the counterweight to all things wellness, she risks becoming blind to another commercial complex – Big Pharma – whose record on drug trial transparency, dubious marketing and the timely withdrawal of unsafe products is, shall we say, mixed.
Up for debate
It is interesting to note the different views on Peter Wilby’s recent column on partisanship in the press in your Correspondence pages (19 June). Surely the New Statesman should be just the place for non-tribal debate? Though I’m still a reader of the Guardian, I’ve long given up hope on them for anything other than a loyal Labourist view on pretty much everything. I hope the NS continues to resist any temptation to become boring and remains open to different views on progressive politics.
Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire
To kickstart activity in her newly dug pond (Off the Record, 19 June), all Tracey Thorn need do is take a bowl of sludge from the bottom of a friend or neighbour’s healthy, mature pond and pour it into hers. Once the murk clears, she’ll be delighted by the mass of tiny creatures happily going about their business beneath the surface.
If only a similar fix were possible for injecting life into a stricken national economy.
Marple, Greater Manchester
We reserve the right to edit letters.
This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football