12th July, 2009
3rd June, 2009
As Britain suffers a spate of losses in Afghanistan, more and more people are beginning to question whether we should be there at all, and if we are there, what we should be aiming to achieve. Judging the war solely on casualties (both current and predicted ones), should we remain in Afghanistan?
Each casualty is a tragedy, especially as some of them could have been avoided if the Ministry of Defence had bought the right equipment. This sort of attitude shows that our soldiers will be put in unnecessary danger in the future. Casualties have been rising at a faster rate recently, and since there is no clear end in sight (given that the Taliban are a guerrilla force), we do not know how long we will be there. Some other nations are not doing enough to help, nor are they likely to do so.
However, compared to most wars in history, casualties are very low. For much of the period before the 20th century, the ineffectiveness of firearms, combined with the unsanitary conditions of a military camp meant that non-combat casualties often outnumbered combat ones. In the 20th century, the advent of the machine gun and similar mass killing devices tilted the balance, while now, the combination of better sanitation and much better medical care (at least in Western nations) has helped to minimise the numbers dead. Nor do the Taliban have access to particularly heavy weaponry (such as aircraft). Thanks to the Pakistan army closing the main crossing points (for the moment) on the border, Taliban can now travel only on foot, when they used to travel around in an armada of jeeps.
This is only meant to be a very narrow analysis of the Afghan conflict. There are obviously many more factors to consider. But it still is pertinent to ask how many casualties is Britain willing to stomach in order to win a war which might not be winnable.
21st May, 2009
This week is the 25th anniversary of the three day long siege of the Golden Temple by the Indian government. That siege of course not only led to the deaths of hundreds of people, but also led to Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the anti-Sikh pogroms in New Delhi (and other parts of India), the mid-air explosion of the Air India flight to Toronto (killing over 300 people) and the “counter-insurgency” operations in India which led to the further deaths and imprisonment of tens of thousands of Punjabis.
Let’s just say it is a pretty big anniversary in the Sikh calendar. Of course, going by the non-existent coverage across the British media you’d be forgiven for thinking they don’t really give a crap about the nearly half a million Sikhs that live in the UK. Especially since the 1984 attacks had a huge impact on Sikh families in the UK.
Anyway, I have an article on the Guardian website about it. The point I want to stress is that I do not want to be the Sikh spokesperson for the Guardian newspaper and explicitly told them that I’d only write about 1984 if they had some other people also writing on the issue. I didn’t really want to write about the history, but focus on the implications of 1984, 25 years on, from a specifically British perspective.
Except of course, when I sent in the first draft I was told they’d spiked the other piece and I was the only person writing about 1984. Really. That’s how much bloody interest there was at the Guardian on Sikh affairs. I’m not happy about it, and I tried to be as balanced as I could while slipping in some thoughts about the negative impact 1984 had on Sikhs (apart from the obvious).
24th April, 2009
Why has there been so much antagonism between Tamils and the Sinhalese in recent decades in Sri Lanka? After all, Tamils and Sinhalese have co-existed on the island for several thousand years. There are many factors involved of course, but tensions began to rise in the second half of the nineteenth century as hundreds of thousands of Indian Tamils came to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). By 1900 Indian Tamils made up around 7.5% of the population (roughly 300,000 out of 4,000,000). Why did they come? They were invited around for coffee and tea, as Roy Moxham demonstrates in his excellent book, A brief history of tea, from which this article takes its information.
Prior to the nineteenth century, Sri Lanka exported little, with high grade cinnamon being the only notable crop, albeit an incredibly lucrative one. Once the British took over from the Dutch though, they began to experiment with planting other cash crops, firstly coffee, and then tea. Coffee was planted in the mid 1820s, and the industry expanded, until 1869 when it was hit by a fungus, causing production to drop to less than 10% of its 1869 peak in 1890. Workers were needed on the coffee plantations, as very few of the native Sinhalese wanted to abandon their own subsistence holdings to work for someone else. The plantation owners (who were mostly British) turned to South India. Coffee was a seasonal crop, so Indian Tamils could travel to Sri Lanka to harvest coffee for four or five months, then return home to harvest their own rice.
21st April, 2009
The character John Bull first appeared in 1712 in the work The History of John Bull, authored by John Arbuthnot, Queen Anne’s physician. In this satirical work of fiction Bull was a minor cloth trader, â€œwho found himself embroiled in a law suit with his European neighbours; Nicholas Frog (the Dutch), Lewis Baboon (Louis Bourbon of France), Philip Baboon (the king of Spain), Esquire South (the Austrian archduke), Sister Peg (Scotland), and various others.â€ The work was meant as an attack on Whig foreign policy and on the financiers who were benefiting from English intervention in Europe (in the War of the Spanish Succession). John Bull wasnâ€™t the first English character to be portrayed as an â€œarchetypal Englishman; blunt, irritable, and prone to take to the bottle, nor the first association of Englishness with bovine characteristics: the bull, the ox, and beef had often symbolized the English nation.â€ However, he would eventually come to symbolise those traits.
By the 1760s, depictions of John Bull depended on who was drawing him, and for what purpose. Bull was usually shown to be a nationalist, but not one who cared much for war, as that meant higher taxes. As Miles Taylor puts it, his enemies (The Scots, the French) might change, but â€œhis reputation as a down-to-earth, liberty-loving, beer-drinking, and pugnacious admirer of all things English remained intact.â€ Only a few cartoonists, alarmed at the radicalism of the French revolution (1790s), depicted John Bull as a negative embodiment of democracy; common and coarse. Interestingly, even when drawn in a positive way, John Bull also had severe shortcomings: he was easily tricked by schemers, and lacked any real foresight. Thus he wasnâ€™t so much the ideal Englishman as perhaps the epitome of the ways in which many English saw themselves.
9th April, 2009
The monarchy is an integral part of Britain’s constitutional fabric: laws are not passed until they have received royal assent; ministers hold their offices courtesy of the crown; MPs speak in the chamber by addressing their remarks to the monarch’s representative (the Speaker); and the monarch is the head of the armed forces. Yet while these constitutional niceties have lip service paid to them, in reality it is the government of the day that really controls the country, in conjunction with the European Commission. Thus, debates about whether we should have a monarchical state or republic lack urgency, as Britain would neither dive into destruction nor soar into the clouds were we to abolish the monarchy. Therefore, the debate ultimately boils down to little more than personal preference.
Graham Smith, head of the republican lobby group Republic, is not a fan of the monarchy. Fair enough. Yet he fails to make much of a case for a republic in his latest attack on Prince Charles, in which he accuses the prince of ‘political meddling’, amongst other things.
8th April, 2009
Yesterday I looked at David Starkey’s condescending attitudes towards female historians and historical females. I attempted to disprove his assertions, and now I want to examine why he made them. Most people at this point would attempt to dissect Starkey’s personal life in order to show why he behaved the way he did. Such approaches always make me feel uncomfortable, and besides I believe that the answer lies not in who he is, but what he does.
Starkey is a TV historian. Thanks to the media, he has become arguably the most prominent historian in contemporary Britain. Some might argue that he believes that prominent=best (as a comparison, imagine if the contestants on the ‘Apprentice’, an allegedly popular reality television show, believed themselves to be the best simply because they were on TV). Thus, he feels free to pontificate on many matters. This is not a bad thing per se. The problem is the way he does it.
22nd March, 2009
Recently, David Starkey accused female historians of having ‘feminised’ the subject:
“”But it’s what you expect from feminised history, the fact that so many of the writers who write about this are women and so much of their audience is a female audience. Unhappy marriages are big box office.”"
This was in relation to his view that undue prominence had been given to Henry VIII’s wives; he also felt that women shouldn’t be considered as “power players” in pre-20th century Europe. There is a lot wrong with what Starkey said, and how he said it.
9th March, 2009
This is a guest post by Anwar Akhtar as part of Speaker’s Corner Sundays.
The play English People Very Nice caused somewhat of a furore at the National Theatre recently. I think itâ€™s good the National Theatre continues its welcome run of work about life in modern urban Britain and not only voices in tweed or period costume. The fact that I loathed large parts of this play is no reason to criticise the National Theatre for putting on work like this, but every reason to criticise the work. Theatre, like all art forms should take risks, even if it offends people.
The narrative of the East End story regarding race and migration is a familiar one; the Huguenots, the Irish and the Jews all escaping persecution and conflict, followed by West Indians, Asians (especially Bangladeshis), and now the Somalis and the Polish.
15th February, 2009
If someone came into your house uninvited, took an heirloom, and departed, you would make every effort to get it back, and few would question your right to do so. But what if someone had done the same thing to your great-great grandfather, one hundred years ago? Would you feel quite so confident in pursuing something that had been out of your family’s hands for five generations? What if your great-great grandfather had himself acquired the artefact in similar circumstances to how he had lost it? Would you strive to return the artefact to its original owner?
13th February, 2009
The BBC’s “landmark” 3 part documentary series, ‘Iran and the West‘ began last week, to mark the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
With interviews and first hand commentary from key players from the events, who include two ex-presidents of Iran, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami and leading westerners including ex-US President Jimmy Carter as well as Secretaries of State George Schultz, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright.
1. The Man who Changed the World
2. The Pariah State
3. Nuclear Confrontation
Another BBC documentary, not part of this series, but a good place to start is ‘Iran and Britain‘ which charts the history of Iran prior to the Revolution and serves as an excellent introduction.
Unmissable stuff. Documenatries of this quality don’t come around very often, so catch them on iPlayer while they’re still available.
23rd January, 2009
I’ve written an article for today’s Times on Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses controversy, which is published in the newspaper. The jist is: The Salman Rushdie affair prompted all of us to examine what it means to be British.
I’m also bloody exhausted and tired. Blogging might be light as I catch up on a mountain of emails.
16th January, 2009
A government commission, The Consultative Group on the Past, which was established to try and heal some of the wounds caused by British-IRA conflict in Northern Ireland, is likely to recommend that any family who lost someone during the Troubles should be given Â£12,000 in compensation. This will include IRA terrorists and their Loyalist counterparts:
“The government is to be asked to pay Â£12,000 to the families of all those killed during the Troubles – including members of paramilitary groups… The Consultative Group on the Past is to publish its report next week. If the recommendation is accepted by the government, the cost would be an estimated Â£40m.”
The commission is a good idea, and hopefully it will allow people to move on (though the Â£300 million figure for their proposed programme is presumably an exaggeration). However, the idea about death compensation is a bad one. The cost, while fairly high (Â£40 million), is largely immaterial. The real problem is that it will once again present us with the deeply unpleasant spectacle of terrorists benefiting from their actions. This is likely to increase tensions in Northern Ireland. It was probably necessary to release some IRA terrorists to secure peace in the first place. There is no reason now why the IRA and Loyalist forces need to benefit again. It seems like a step back to many.
14th January, 2009
Jai responds to my CIF article by saying what Udham Singh did was “actually in violation of Guru Gobind Singhâ€™s Khalsa code for permissible violence, ie. you are not supposed to kill someone in revenge, or engage in assassinations.”
Udham Singh was born a Sikh but he was influenced by socialism/communism, so I doubt he used religion to justify his actions. But that’s not the point. It’s arguable the murder of the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, was more about re-igniting a sense of anger and dignity among Indians to take up the independence cause more strongly. That, as a form of resistance, would be allowed.
Peter Beaumont made a similar point, asking why Palestinians reacted in violence against a much stronger enemy.
It served – said my interview subjects – multiple functions: as a form of psychological release; as a focus for social cohesion and national identity, generating “martyrs” to celebrate; and, finally, as a constant reminder to the “other” – the enemy – that the Palestinians had not been defeated.
Israeli hardliners live in the neo-conservative fantasy world where people will greet their occupiers with garlands, and that eventually they can break the will of Palestinians or wipe out Hamas through military action alone. In fact, if anything, their actions are weakening Fatah. And so it goes – they’ll keep claiming they have no partner in peace while ensuring Hamas remains the only ‘Palestinian protector’ in town.
8th January, 2009
We have a problem in this country; few people believe the official crime figures. This lack of faith in official statistics has helped to undermine trust in the criminal justice system, and made it easier for people to claim that Britain was much safer in the good old days, when we had hangings, public executions and stocks, and murderers were executed rather than just locked up for a few years. But did the England/Britain of previous centuries, when such punishments were at their height, see more or less homicides than the modern age? The short answer is that we are not really sure. The long answer follows.
13th November, 2008
Since the Gaza conflict started, there has been an upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks. While this is not surprising, it is still rather depressing news. Yes, some people will have used the conflict as an excuse to attack Jews, but others don’t seem to realise that Mrs. Cohen from number twelve isn’t the head of the IDF. Muslims too have faced these sort of idiots after terrorist attacks, usually trying to explain that while they are Muslim, they don’t oversee training camps in Pakistan, or decide Saudi Arabia’s religious policy.
Minorities often have to put up with these types of mindless attacks, because people, aided by the state and media, tend to view them as a homogenous mass. As a result, it becomes easier to demonise one for the failings of another member of that ‘group’. Since this stereotyping doesn’t happen to white people, most people don’t really give it much thought.
29th October, 2008
Following the election of Barack Obama, there has been much talk about the possibility of Britain having a prime minister from an ethnic minority. Sunder Katwala was upbeat about the possibility, Trevor Phillips less so, while Shariq provided an excellent comparison between Britain and the USAâ€™s respective situations.
Yet when one is discussing race, a lot hinges on definitions, which can mean different things to different people. Obama isnâ€™t black, but rather mixed-race, yet he was almost universally described as â€˜blackâ€™. If John McCain had been elected, would he have been billed as the first US president born in Central America? No. Therefore, what we have is a subjective assessment of what constitutes an ethnic minority.
27th October, 2008
Zak sent us this interesting article about Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a figure I had only heard of in passing. A documentary film, The Frontier Gandhi: Badshah Khan, a Torch for Peace, is shortly to be released:
“Little known in the West is a figure named Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who argued that religiously justified violence was “not God’s religion.” Known as Badshah (also spelled Baacha) Khan to his followers, the devoutly Muslim leader was called “The Frontier Gandhi” and built an Islamic parallel to Gandhi’s violence-eschewing ideals of compassion for one’s enemies and peaceful resistance to oppression as a means of overcoming it.
Khan, a Pashtun tribal leader who died at 98 in 1988 in Peshawar, also founded the Awami National Party, which today fights against enormous odds to organize tribal aspirations in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan and nearby areas away from the Taliban…
16th August, 2008
Somewhat of a furore has sprung up over the weekend with the news that a group of French revisionist historians are holding a conference to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (1415). The controversy arose after the English were branded “war criminals” by Christophe Gilliot, a French historian, because of alleged war crimes on the battlefield:
“At the very least the English forces acted dishonourably. The middle ages were a very violent time, of course, but some might accuse the English of acting like what might now be called war criminals…These [acts] included burning prisoners to death and setting 40 bloodthirsty royal bodyguards on to a single Gallic nobleman who had surrendered.”
Let’s assume for a moment that these acts did happen. So what? This doesn’t really tell us anything new. We already know that the English forces acted appallingly throughout the Hundred Years’ War (which was actually a series of wars, lasting roughly from 1337 to 1453- the term ‘Hundred Years’ War’ is a historical invention). In fact, this was the cornerstone of the English strategy: to devastate the French countryside through widespread pillaging, burning and rape, in the hope of reducing the revenue of the French king and forcing him into battle (the French avoided battle mostly in the hopes of wearing the English down). Nor were the French any better, doing the same to English-held areas of France, or England, when they could get to it.
9th July, 2008
A free and open society is an ongoing conflict, interrupted periodically by compromises – which then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum.
A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be “compromise”.
– Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (1972)
This is spot on. This is why I’m unafraid of conflict. Its not only important, but necessary if we have to move forward in any direction as a society.
8th July, 2008
In the Guardian’s A woman’s place series, Lesley Abdela laments the paucity of women in parliament.
Eighty years on, the UK parliament rates 69th in the world league of women in parliament, one ignoble place below Cambodia.
Women’s representation in politics is not linked to whether a country is rich or poor. The US has 16.8% women representatives. Japan has 9.4% women in the Diet. Rwanda, with 48.8%, and Sweden, with 47%, have the highest representation of women in any parliament in the world, versus the UK at just over 19% women MPs.
The reasons behind this dearth don’t seem to be addressed, but what is important is the emphasis put on the female quota.
Jackie Ashley argues that the presence of women in Parlaiment is necessary for the passing of gender equality laws. In charting all the progress towards gender equality during the Blair/Brown years, including Sure Start, improvement in childcare, the filling of the gender pay gap, and measures by a woman, Harriet Harman, to help more women get jobs, Ashley puts this necessarily all down to women MPs.
Might the men have got there alone? I doubt it, because women MPs have themselves experienced how hard it is to juggle work and family, making them much more forceful in agitating for new laws. They have also lobbied women journalists, in the unofficial circles that exist at Westminster, to push such issues up the political agenda.
But surely gender equality should be encouraged in everyone, rather than making it only something women can understand? Ideally it shouldn’t matter whether you’re a man or woman if you support equality for both genders. It is counterproductive to assume that only women can push for their rights, and superficial to assume that the presence of women in power is a good measure of the equal status of women in society. Women’s rights should be espoused first and foremost by men, and we shouldn’t assume that a woman will fight for the parity of her sex by default.
It’s high time we treated this issue with gravity and seriousness, rather than addressing it with reactionary politics. We can get rid of the term Blair Babes for a start.
17th June, 2008
Is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II a feminist icon? I donâ€™t know if she is, but a strong case could be made for it (perhaps the F Word can tell us). What better retort to those who believe that women canâ€™t survive at the top, or cope with pressure, then to point to her? Yes, she inherited the position, but in the fifty six years since her father died, she has been a widely respected figure and is almost universally praised for the way that she has conducted herself in an age of 24-hour news and blogs where the slightest mistake gets pounced on.
Can the feminist movement benefit even more from Elizabeth II however? At present, the succession to the throne is weighted in favour of males, so that any male child is automatically closer in line to the throne than his sister(s), whatever their ages. This arrangement made sense five hundred or more years ago when this was the norm in most households. If the monarchy had attempted to reform it then, it could well have led to civil war, as many would have flocked to the banner of a male pretender to the throne, angry at the change in customs or simply to exploit the situation.
29th May, 2008
Recently a Conservative member of the Welsh assembly was disciplined by the Tories for calling Italians â€œgreasy wopsâ€. While this was evidently a racist insult, the whole story has a faintly comical tone:
â€Welsh politician Alun Cairns made the slur in a radio phone-in show. He was discussing which football team he was supporting at Euro 2008. A guest on the BBC Cymru show said she wrote “nice food” next to Italy. Mr Cairns said: “I’ve written greasy wops!” He has since apologised.â€
So you are a politician appearing on live radio, are handed a sheet of countries playing at Euro 2008, and your first instinct is to write â€œgreasy wopsâ€ next to the Italians. One can only wonder what he wrote next to the other countries. This got me thinking about why we consider certain words to be insulting, and more specifically, about the term â€˜Pakiâ€™, happily heard less and less.
Most labels used to define a group, whether an ethnic one or a religious one, have come from outsiders. Many of these terms were meant as an insult. Thus the first Protestants called themselves members of the â€˜Reformed Religionâ€™, while it was Roman Catholics who labelled them as â€˜Protestantsâ€™ (for protesting against an edict hostile to the new religion), â€˜Lutheranâ€™ (followers of Martin Luther), or â€˜Calvinistâ€™ (followers of John Calvin), in an attempt to discredit them.
1st May, 2008
His Grace Bishop Nazir-Ali has written an article in Standpoint, a new monthly magazine. In it, he argues that British values have been shaped by Christianity, and that the cultural revolution which has been going on since the 1960s has led to the decline of Christianity and a moral vacuum. I am going to leave the latter part of his discussion, and just focus on his contention that values like the rule of law, civility and suchlike arose from Christianity in Britain in the preceding centuries.
19th April, 2008
Phrases are often misused by those who do not understand their origins. â€˜Midas touchâ€™ exemplifies this trend. Nowadays it is used to describe someone for whom everything is going right. Gordon Brown is often held to have the opposite of the Midas touch, as everything he comes into contact with goes wrong (from sporting events to budgets). This misses the point of the mythological Midas story though, and the true meaning of the â€˜Midas touchâ€™ is of a gift that turned into a curse. It is meant to be a cautionary tale.
King Midas once entertained and sheltered a friend of Dionysusâ€™ (who was the god of wine). As a thank you, Dionysus offered to grant Midas one wish; Midas wished that anything he touched would turn to gold. Dionysus reluctantly agreed, and Midas went merrily round turning everything into gold. But when he sat down to eat, Midas found that the food he picked up turned to gold, while the water and wine he tried to pour down his throat become liquid gold as soon as it touched his lips. Soon he was hungry and thirsty, and was willing to trade all his gold for some bread and water. Eventually Dionysus took pity on him, and told him how to get rid of the â€˜Midas touchâ€™. Midas later became a hippy.
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Passover begins today, and lasts for a week. The most important Jewish festival, it commemorates the Jewish Exodus from Egypt which freed them from slavery. Jews have a long connection with England, albeit one that was interrupted when Edward I expelled them in 1290, forcing a few thousand Jews to leave England. Officially they were not allowed to return until 1655; however a small Jewish community was in existence before this date.
After the crushing of the Muslim kingdom of Granada in 1492, the rulers of Portugal and Spain turned their attention to the Jews, who had previously been tolerated in return for their money. Spain ordered the expulsion of all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity in 1492, whilst Portugal did the same in 1497. Many Jews converted in order to stay in the Iberian peninsula, and a number continued to practice Judaism in private. This made them the favoured target of the Spanish Inquisition, who were not allowed to target infidels (i.e. non-Christians), but were permitted to arrest and torture heretics or those who had relapsed into their old, non-Christian faith. When the Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1535, it began to persecute these Judeo-Christians too, leading to a small community of about 70 Jews fleeing to London and establishing themselves there in 1540. They were known as Sephardi Jews (â€˜Sephardiâ€™ being the medieval Hebrew word for â€˜Spanishâ€™), yet were from Portugal.