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Gove gets it wrong

In an interview with the Sunday Times on March 6th Michael Gove tried to invoke Tolstoy’s name and renown to back the Brexit case. He was reading War and Peace, he told us, and was “irresistibly reminded” of the EU by Napoleon’s “grotesque imperial overreach” in wanting “to impose a single unified bureaucratic model on Europe.” “And in the end it did not work out so well for him,” he concluded with obvious satisfaction.

I wrote to the Sunday Times, pointing out that this was a rather tendentious reading of the novel. (A letter incidentally that the Sunday Times edited in such a way as to make me appear to be saying the exact opposite of what I had actually said: an error for which, it has to be said, they apologized.) Mr Gove could just as well have found support – in the very first pages of the novel, as it happens – for a rather unflattering view of the UK’s role in the EU. At the aristocratic soirée hosted by Anna Pavlovna, with which the novel opens, conversation turns to what can be done to stop the advance of the dreadful vulgarian Napoleon. “Russia alone must save Europe… Whom…can we rely on…? England with her commercial spirit will not and cannot understand the Emperor Alexander’s loftiness of soul…The English…cannot understand the self-abnegation of our Emperor who…only desires the good of mankind. And what have they promised? Nothing. And what little they have promised they will not perform…”

English objections mean-spirited and penny-pinching

Tolstoy’s characters’ words remind me irresistibly of the reasons why Britain decided not to join the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of the EU (minutes of the Cabinet meeting, June 6th 1950). The first, never quite made explicit, is that it was a French initiative. The second strongly echoes Anna Pavlovna’s strictures: we were not going to sign up to some ‘lofty’ statement of principle, like the good of mankind or the unity of Europe, without knowing exactly what was in it for us: would we be one pound richer or one pound poorer? Loftiness of soul, self-abnegation, the good of mankind…this kind of talk cuts no ice with our “commercial spirit.”

We like to think of it as pragmatism. Others see it as a kind of unadventurous, small-minded and selfish stolidity. “What have they promised? Nothing. And what little they have promised they will not perform…” We are not to be trusted; our word is not our bond. The French call us perfide Albion; the Greeks find us hypocritical. We do not like it, but clearly they see something in the way we habitually behave. Who was it called us a nation of shopkeepers? That is not to deny what is good about us; but we nonetheless have habits and character traits, just like everybody else, and they are not always particularly admirable or attractive.

Significantly, much of the current debate about IN or OUT of Europe is being conducted in just such book-keeping terms. Of course it matters whether or not membership is an economic disaster. But very clearly it is not and never has been.

EU has broken barriers, brought prosperity and reunited a divided Europe

Anyone old enough to remember how it was before our membership of the EEC remembers how much duller and more limited was the range of products available in our shops, how far more limited were the opportunities for working abroad, travelling abroad, doing business abroad, owning property abroad. Of course far fewer people did either work or travel abroad, even in Europe. You had to have work permits, resident permits, certificates to show you had paid your taxes before you could leave to return home, Customs to go through, even when shipping your own used possessions. The Goves and Borises of this world are too young to have experienced this.

People gripe about the money paid out to build roads in Greece, bridges in Romania…but in the long run it is in all our interests that every member state should be helped to reach the same sort of level of economic development and competence. Not to mention the fact that the UK has itself been the recipient of large amounts of money. Not that anybody anywhere ever advertises the fact or – you could say– shows the slightest gratitude. In eastern Europe, in Greece, in Ireland, you see billboards proudly advertising the EU’s contribution to infrastructure projects. We pay out millions of pounds a day, we are told ad nauseam, and get nothing back. The real figure is around £17 million a day, which works out at about 26 pence per person (Hugo Dixon, IN FACTS), which, even if it were remotely true that we gained nothing in return, is scarcely daylight robbery!

Unremitting denigration by the British press

Have you ever seen an EU flag on display in England? In France every public building flies the tricolour, the EU flag and the regional flag. What is the matter with us? Surly, reluctant, unappreciative, always trying to pull the bedclothes over to our side, as a Frenchman put it to me once: never the slightest acknowledgement that we have ever received the slightest benefit. And no wonder, in a way: from the very beginning three quarters of the British press have consistently rubbished the EU and its precursors, always representing the UK as victim, having one injustice after another imposed upon it, without ever trying to explain how its institutions work or how our relative weight and influence have played out within it. Has a newspaper in any other member state descended to the base vulgarity of Murdoch’s papers: appointing a date and time for a general mooning at the Continent and running headlines like Up Yours, Delors?

There is more to Europe than nationalistic penny-pinching

David Milliband, in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this week, made the point that it is actually other factors, not economics, that constitute the most important arguments for the existence of the EU and for our remaining in it. Some of them are pretty down-t0-earth, tangible factors. Our security, most obviously: our remaining free to live, act, think, debate, explore, question, without going in fear of our lives, of being sat upon and repressed by some violent and intolerant force beyond the reach of reason and debate, like Putin’s Russia, for instance, with its long tradition of arbitrary rule and violent repression of all and everything its ruler(s) disapprove of; or obscurantist, authoritarian and equally lawless regimes like those favoured by the followers of Islam – both of them much too close to our borders for comfort.

The EU owes its foundation to the universal desire in Europe to tie neighbouring states together – the big powers, France and Germany in particular – in such a way as to make it well-nigh impossible for them to go to war against each other ever again. An objective which it has been signally effective in achieving: in fact it has done even better than hoped, in roping in and securing the countries of eastern, central and south-eastern Europe most exposed to the dangers of Russian imperialist bullying.

All of these countries, us included, belong broadly to the same cultural family: our ways of thinking and being have been shaped by the legacy of Roman rule in our formative years, by the intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks and the influence of Christianity. We may have fought each other, but by and large our histories have run in parallel: the gradual progress towards democracy, wars of religion, struggles for greater social justice and equality as for education and freedom of speech. Some have had their progress interrupted and impeded by Ottoman Muslim rule, in the case of the Balkans, and by the blinkered, mind-numbing brutality of Soviet Communism further to the north. But essentially we are cousins: family. What lunacy to repulse the few friends and kin you have in this uncertain and dangerous world!

I strongly suspect that if people in England still learnt foreign languages in school as a matter of course, attitudes to “foreign” Europe might be rather different. How easy it is today to find thousands of youngsters in other European countries quite able to conduct conversations in English at an early age. Much harder to find English children with any kind of linguistic competence. How many times have French teachers complained to me that it is impossible to find English schools to exchange pupils with, because none of them do French any more. Does Gove speak French? Tebbit? Carswell? Farage? Redwood? Lamont? Lilly? I don’t mean mumble a few words. Can any of them go on French – or on any other EU country’s, for that matter – TV and conduct an interview in French or Greek or German? You get a rather different view of things when you can speak to people in their own language; their points of view do not seem so different from your own, you are much less likely to see them as adversaries, as Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in The Spectator the other week.

Migration

Immigration probably has depressed wages in some sectors, especially where the unskilled are concerned. But then one might ask, were the unemployed young English queueing up to go and pick strawberries in Herefordshire polytunnels? Not that I recall. And who would not rather employ a smiling, well-mannered, accommodating Polish plumber with a PhD? Come to think of it, I cannot remember encountering too many smiling, accommodating Bangladeshis, who after a couple of years or three have become more or less indistinguishable from the native English. EU migrants do not blow up people in the name of religion. If Trevor Phillips were to make a documentary about attitudes to England among EU migrants, I am pretty sure it would look very different from what he has discovered in What Muslims Really Think.

Yesterday’s men

That is how Mr Gove apparently sees those in favour of EU membership (his March 6th Sunday Times interview): yesterday’s men and yesterday’s ideas. But when you look at his fellow Brexiteers: Rees-Mogg, Tebbitt, Farage, Lilly, Lawson…Is a dazzling future of new ideas, innovation, reaching out across the world, the vision that first springs to mind?

Project Fear is how they see the arguments for remaining in the EU. I would suggest anyone fearful of giving up so many obvious advantages, to say nothing of the company of one’s peers and kin, is absolutely right. And for what? Anyone who thinks, for example, that there will be less government interference, fewer regulations, more freedom, if things are left to Whitehall, needs his head examining. There is nothing more English than that propensity for – indeed delight in – sticking your nose into other people’s business, wagging a moralistic finger and informing them that they are infringing some pettifogging regulation or other. My guess is that free of the mitigating influence of other Europeans like the Greeks and Italians, who are much less uptight about dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’, our government will look more and more like a combination of Camden Council and the no-platforming brigade: free rein to the thought police!

‘No Man is an Island’

Mr Gove tried to enlist Tolstoy in support of his position. I am enlisting John Donne in support of mine.

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were…’

Exactly! And the anti’s would do well to remember that. We will be diminished and Europe as a whole will be diminished, if we leave. And, besides, it would be entirely understandable if the rest of Europe felt pretty pissed off at us for causing this loss.

We are in the club. We are used to each other. We are good for each other, with our different strengths. The newcomers will learn, just as it has taken us centuries to arrive at the relatively good and comfortable place where we find ourselves today. If there are things that members do not like, think can be improved upon, then work to bring about those changes with other like-minded members. VOTE TO STAY.

As a postscript:

In that same Sunday Times interview, Mr Gove attributed the existence of the Greek fascist party, Golden Dawn, to the European single currency. That is a shameful slur which could only be perpetrated by someone quite ignorant of the last hundred years of Greek political history. General Metaxas, for instance, came to power by coup d’état as long ago as August 1936; he was an open admirer of Hitler and Mussolini. Colonel Papadopoulos, who was prominent in the 1967-74 Dictatorship, had already made a name for himself as a scourge of Leftists in the 1946-49 Civil War. Michaloliakos, founder of Golden Dawn, has been prominent in far Right politics since the early 1960s. All of this long before Greece came anywhere near joining the EU, let alone the Eurozone.

 

 

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Dear Mr Farmer,

You have just been awarded a CBE. You have just been voted most admired charity leader of the year and seen the findings of the task force you led adopted by the NHS as grounds for hugely increased investment in mental health care. Your career as a charity bureaucrat is beginning to look rather spectacularly successful.

I remember the beginning of your rise to prominence. In the early 2000s you were recruited as director of public affairs by the then National Schizophrenia Fellowship, an organization founded by one, John Pringle, in 1971 to campaign on behalf of people afflicted with schizophrenia. It had formerly been run largely by parents and volunteers. In 2001 you and Cliff Prior, your boss (also since awarded a CBE), staged a palace coup, railroading a change of name to Rethink on the grounds that the presence of the word schizophrenia in the original title attracted stigma and deterred both potential funders and people who might actually benefit from the organisation’s help. I use the expression “coup” because only 14% of the total membership voted; those who favoured change amounted to only 9%. A majority of members did not like either of your proposed alternatives, Reason and Rethink, and only 5% of total membership approved of Rethink, the name chosen by the Board of Trustees. A member of NSF staff at the time told me that “the balance of power within the organization had shifted: the professionals had gained the upper hand.”

I mention this because it does not seem to fit very comfortably with your standard rhetoric about consulting the people most concerned, carers and those they care for: the sick, now known, I notice with horror, as “experts in lived experience.” But right from the beginning you have adopted the woolly and evasive jargon of political correctness with gusto. “The ethos of optimistic realism” was the empty slogan you coined in your campaign to change the National Schizophrenia Fellowship’s name. And there were many other semi-literate horrors you perpetrated in your campaign literature, which I kept for many years but have now, unfortunately, thrown away.

You are not alone of course in your enthusiasm for the new sub-Orwellian mentalhealthspeak. Doctor the language and all that is disorderly, unsavoury, difficult, embarrassing: all that tends to suggest that anyone might belong to a category of being that might be perceived as inescapably inferior must be eliminated. Thus, illness has been abolished; we are all on “journeys of recovery,” as the CEO of our local mental health trust wrote to me à propos of my son’s schizophrenia some ten years ago now. Now we are all more well or less well, just as we are less able to stand rather than unable to stand or just older rather than old or elderly. And if you query the sense of talking about recovering from afflictions from which recovery in the normal sense is not possible, you will be told that actually recovery does not mean what you thought it meant: it means rather whatever you want it to mean. In effect, if I say I have recovered or you say I have recovered, then I have.

Suspiciously convenient, one might think: sort of useful for bureaucrats who love positive outcomes and ticking boxes. Is this perhaps what you meant by the “ethos of optimistic realism”?

The losers in all this: the people like my son who suffer from schizophrenia and other serious mental illness. You of course do not talk about mental illness any more. Your talk is all about mental health problems: how one in four people in the population will suffer from a mental health problem in the course of a year, which is a statistic that only makes sense if taken to include Monday morning blues, disappointment in love, missed job opportunities, bereavement and many of the things which through most of human history have been regarded as routine life experiences. You talk endlessly about psychological services, about making talking therapies more widely available. Very likely these things help with the kind of existential problems life throws in our paths… But, even in France, where talking therapies have been in regular use with schizophrenia, psychiatrists will tell you they rarely work in psychotic illness.

You wheel out Stephen Fry and Jonny Benjamin as examples of how people can recover from psychotic illness. I do not in any way underestimate Stephen Fry’s suffering when he is ill, but there is plenty of evidence that people with bi-polar disorder can function very well between bouts of illness. Even Jonny Benjamin – admirably courageous young man that he is – is very much the exception rather than the rule where schizophrenia is concerned.

Your achievement in changing the name of the National Schizophrenia Fellowship to Rethink has ensured that for ten years and more the staff have scarcely allowed the word schizophrenia to pass the barrier of their teeth. Terry Hammond, one of the organisation’s trustees, has himself written: “Schizophrenia is fast becoming the neglected illness and all this is happening in the name of recovery – empowerment – independence…I believe there is no comparison between the life-changing effects caused by schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness…Most people who develop schizophrenia do not go on to live ‘normal lives.’ Most are unable to work. Few get married or successfully socially integrate nor do they become prime ministers, spin doctors, comic geniuses or award-winning actors…too many policy makers and politicians have been taken in by the ideological claptrap which has been preached over the years by the mental health extremists…empowerment, independence, normalisation, recovery: all worthy aspirations, yes, but in the hands of politicians and Primary Care Trusts, they are simply excuses for delivering community care on the cheap…most of those who are campaigning at this level are individuals with depressive and anxiety disorders – not schizophrenia.”

John Pringle in the 1971 letter to The Times that led to the foundation of the National Schizophrenia Fellowship wrote that, while some people may make a partial recovery from schizophrenia, thousands “level off like my son at a low level of adaptation, physically fit and normal-looking to a casual outsider, but without application or anything that can be called will-power, and finding most inter-personal relations almost impossibly difficult… they are incapable of looking after themselves without special guidelines and supervision…”

They need help even with the daily routines of life and they are not getting it.

When are you going to acknowledge your debt? Your career has been founded in a sense on schizophrenia, but through your uncritical espousal of the fashionable discourse of the care services you have contributed in no small degree to silencing the few voices that once spoke out for schizophrenia.

 

If I were a Greek watching the coverage of the Greek crisis by the British media I would be inclined to believe that someone in Britain was orchestrating a massive campaign to ensure a No vote in our own referendum on EU membership by blackening its name for causing the ruin of Greece. Its accusers range from The Spectator‘s Charles Moore (poor little Greece, July 4) to David Davis MP (he would, wouldn’t he), Paul Mason of Channel 4 News, who sees pro-Syriza demonstrators as “ordinary Greeks” and pro-EU ones as “cashmere-wearing nouveaux riches, “ and Jenni Russell in The Times (July 2) who thinks that Syriza, “not yet corrupted…is the country’s best hope for genuine change.”

Or is it Putin, who wants a warm sea port and free supplies of feta cheese? Remember Encounter!

Jenni Russell does at least have the wisdom to see that the real problem is Greece’s political culture: in effect, bad habits learnt as the only available means of protection against the arbitrary and despotic rule of the Ottoman sultans under whose yoke they lived, along with much of the Balkans and the Middle East, for several centuries. The state is used as a mechanism for enriching “your” people, through dispensing patronage, in the form of jobs, contracts and so on. Samaras, the last PM, visited by a proud schoolfriend when first elected in 1981, was found to be going through lists of constituents to whom he had promised jobs: something that all MPs have done. A regional police commander, for example, will receive “sweeteners” (a lamb at Easter and Aug 15th perhaps) from shepherds who twice a year pass through his territory on their transhumant journey, as an insurance against trouble he might otherwise cause them for trespassing on other farmers’ land.

Since the state is not to be trusted you learn to rely on family and long-established networks of favours given and received or on outright bribery. If you want a favourable outcome in a lawsuit you pay the judge. If you want your tax bill reduced you pay the tax man…if you pay tax at all. Out of 800,000 registered freelance professionals (this includes doctors, lawyers, language school owners), 500,000 claim not to earn more than €8,000, the threshold for income tax. If you want to pass an exam you buy the questions in advance. I was investigated twice by London University’s chief exam security officer on suspicion of selling A-level questions.

There is a finely calibrated vocabulary to describe all these gradations of what we think of as dishonesty. We know we are doing wrong, in a sense, but volevòmaste. We make a sort of accommodation with our conscience; after all everyone else is doing it too. But people, like foreign journalists who cannot speak Greek, do not see any of this and therefore fail to understand what the Greeks themselves call the “Greek reality,” the ellinikì pragmatikòtita . Yet this is what has brought about Greece’s undoing. It is no fault of the Germans, who also, let us not forget, have voters to think about before lavishly disbursing their money.

As for the idea that Syriza “is the country’s best hope for genuine change,” well, that is a bit of a teaser. Schauble, Germany’s economics minister, found that negotiating with Tsipras and co was like dealing with student activists, which is exactly what Tsipras has been – all his life. In fact his government has just reinstated a law that allows student organisations to control universities and students to remain students for years without passing their exams, while himself personally intervening to prevent the introduction of electronic voting at elections. So much harder, after all, to intimidate the reluctant than it is when having a show of hands at the factory gate.

The Kathimerini newspaper recently carried an article about tsapatsoulià, that characteristic Greek way of doing business: botch it up, make it up, improvise something at the last minute. It is a word of Turkish origin. Once, trying to replace a spark plug, I showed the old one to the spare parts man. He returned with one plainly not the same. When I demurred, he replied, “It’s a spark plug, isn’t it?” A friend trying to get noticed by the post office clerk leaned over the counter to see what she was doing. She had a bowl of lentils on her lap which she was cleaning. She held it out. “Do you have a family?” she said belligerently.

I suspect Tsipras went into those negotiations in rather the same way, with ill-thought out proposals written on the back of a cigarette packet. No wonder the Troika lost patience with him, especially when the minute he left room he accused them of blackmail and criminality. And why would they trust him when he comes from a political tradition that has been resolutely anti-US, anti-NATO and, latterly, anti-EU? Indeed, why should one believe that he went into the negotiations with any kind of sincerity when failure allows him to preserve the “purity” of his ideological commitments, which seems to be closer to his heart than the long-term interest of the nation? And you would think that his ideological references might give his English fans some pause: the Communist Party of the 1940s with its kangaroo People’s Courts and summary executions of class enemies and its incessant attacks on other Resistance groups of different political persuasion.

People are suffering, that is for sure – though let us not examine the veracity of the statistics too closely – and you can certainly argue about the wisdom of the Troika’s proposed solutions to the Greek problem, but to suggest they caused it is both absurd and extraordinarily irresponsible. Six months with Tsipras’s hand on the till have made matters very much worse.

At the risk of repeating things I have said about Greece in previous posts…

Paul Mason is Channel 4 News chief economics editor. He, along with other Leftie reporters like Patrick Cockburn (The Independent, Feb 1st) and Serge Halimi (Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2015), has swallowed the Greeks’ own self-serving view of the jam they find themselves in. We are not to blame. It’s the Germans.

Paul Mason obviously knows nothing about Greece. This has has been clear throughout his coverage of the current crisis and Syriza’s coming to power. He clearly does not speak Greek and is not aware of the extent to which he cannot see behind the language he does not understand. He re-iterated his version of events on The Spectator‘s Diary page on February 28th in a piece which contained a curious little passage in which he referred to his name appearing on a TV monitor in Greek letters: Πωλ Μεισον (sic). What was the point of this? one wonders. Did he think it lent authenticity to his reporting? Or was it a not uncommon kind of patronising – these funny little people with their quaint language and odd way of spelling foreign names?

Be that as it may, in an embarrassing interview for Channel 4 News with the German deputy finance minister on Feb 23rd (embarrassing not least because unbelievably rude and aggressive) he accused Germany of having twice overthrown Greek democracy. The first time was presumably meant to be in 1941 when German troops invaded Greece. But at the time Greece was not a democracy. It was an openly Fascist dictatorship under General Metaxas, who had seized power by coup d’état in 1936.

Mason also suggested to the minister that he could hardly ignore the “moral authority” of Manolis Glezos, an old-time Communist and now MEP for Syriza, who as a teenager tore down the Nazi flag from a corner of the Acropolis. But Glezos, for all his teenage bravery, has no moral authority. He has made a career out of that act, posing as a kind of political Zorba, ferocious and unbowed in his heroic and solitary rebellion against God knows what. He was honoured by a Soviet postage stamp in the 1950s, if that gives you some idea of the role he has played. And he blames the Germans – still unrepentant Fascists in his view – who owe Greece anyway, in payment for the terrible sufferings they caused in WWII. They may not have won that war, but they are hell-bent on establishing a new kind of reich under the guise of the European Union…

The second overthrow of Greek democracy of course is supposedly now, by the imposition of the conditions of the EU bail-out. “What do you say to the Greeks whose democracy you just trashed?” Mason asked the head of the Euro Group. But no one is trashing Greek democracy, if they ever truly had one. They have trashed it themselves. As a Greek friend said to me on the phone the other night: “It has always been like this, since the beginnings of the Greek state 150 years ago. How can we change this mentality?”

Greece is a clientelist state. Government, public office, is a means for enriching oneself, one’s clan, one’s supporters. When there is a change of government, the incomers adopt the same approach; it is our turn now. Result: no one trusts the state and they are right not to.

I have 80 sheep. I declare 350 for EU subsidy. Lots of other livestock farmers are doing the same. The subsidy man knows the score. Why does not he say anything? “Ton taïzome. We feed him.” Which means a lamb at Easter and August 15th and 50kg of feta cheese in the summer. He is happy. I am happy.

800,000 tax payers claim to be self-employed professionals. These include lawyers, doctors, language-school owners and such like. 500,000 of them claim not to earn more than €8,000 per annum, the threshold for income tax.

The introduction of the euro in 2001 made the giving of receipts fairly common. Before that, if you asked for one, people would look at you as if you had perpetrated some terrible insult.

If you want a favourable judgement in a lawsuit, you pay the public prosecutor. If you want the doctors to look at you in a public hospital, you had better hand over the proverbial fakeláki, the little packet with cash in it.

I am not making these things up. I have lived them.

The last Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, was the youngest MP ever when first elected to the Parliament in 1981. A proud school friend went to visit him, expecting to find him busy with affairs of state. He was shocked to find him going through lists of people to whom he had promised jobs in return for votes – something which has been common practice since the inception of the Greek state, whence the size of the civil service, equal to that of France, with more than six times the population.

How else could the finance ministry possibly need 600 cleaners? They have been camping outside since they lost their jobs because of the cruel Germans and their bail-out conditions. Syriza is going to re-employ them.

And the billions that the EU has poured in since 1981 through various development funds. How much of that money has found its way into private pockets? I have seen numerous small-scale rural development projects in remote mountain areas funded under the Leader programme: access tracks to ancient monuments that peter out round the corner, old footpaths cleared perhaps once and left to fall into ruin…Did anyone ever come and check whether the money had been properly spent?

And the gigantic scheme to dam the Achelöos river for hydro-electricity and divert its waters through tunnels from its mountain gorge to irrigate the plain of Thessaly: a scheme that dragged on for more than twenty years in contravention of numerous important international environmental accords and of decisions by Greece’s own supreme court, only to be abandoned in the end. At what cost, both to the Greek exchequer and to the EU, although the latter eventually pulled out?

None of this can be blamed on the Germans or anyone else. When anything goes wrong in Greece, it is always the ‘foreign finger,’ to kséno dháktilo, that gets the blame. It used to be the Turks, then the British, then the US; now it is the Germans. If Mason could read Greek, he could have read an article in Kathimerini on Feb 8th, which told the story of a similar Greek debt crisis in 1897, equally blamed on foreigners.

This is the Syriza line and Paul Mason has swallowed it, as did Paul Cockburn in The Independent. That Greeks are suffering as a result of the bail-out conditions is undeniable, though it is a city rather than a village problem. And I strongly suspect that part of the responsibility lies with the way that previous governments have responded to the crisis, introducing heavy-handed measures in an entirely characteristic manner without proper forethought or preparation: what the Greeks call tsapatsoulià – both the word and the bad habit borrowed, like so many others, from the Ottoman Turks who ruled their country for 600 years.

Mason talks about Glezos “defying the rule of law in 1941.” What has that got to do with it? It is unforgivably offensive to suggest that there is the remotest connection between Germany’s influence in the eurozone and anything that it might have perpetrated during WWII. “It’s a shabby time in the eurozone,” Mason concludes. The only shabby elements I can detect are the Greeks’ refusal to face up to their responsibilities and Mason’s arrogance in playing the role of ill-informed inquisitor rather than reporter.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 3,900 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

First, full marks to Sajid Javid, the new Secretary of State for Culture, for telling Asian and other immigrants that they have a responsibility when living in England to learn the language and adapt as far as possible to English ways. Good for him for having the courage to say this: you live here, vote here, use the education and health systems and many other services and institutions which basically you have not paid for, fought for, struggled for. You can’t go on as if you had never left the Punjab. And good manners require it. When in Rome, they used to say…

Well, you are in Rome. You should try to be as English as possible, to fit in, rather than make demands for special treatment all the time, for special dispensations for your children, and going out of your way to look as different and as foreign as possible. There are of course immigrants from all over the place, but no one makes more noise and causes more trouble, out of all proportion to their numbers and importance, than the immigrants from Muslim countries. We are told repeatedly that the noisy ones are unrepresentative, are not the majority. Wouldn’t it be nice, then, if some imams or so-called Islamic scholars were to speak out against the atrocities committed by people claiming to be their co-religionists like Boko Haram or the murderers of nurses trying to eliminate polio in Pakistan or seizing hostages on oil wells in North Africa or advocating the stoning of women or their exclusion from education  or just the bombing of ordinary people in ordinary European cities? What a welcome development it would be if such grandiloquently named outfits as the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain were to recommend to those it claims to represent that they try to be as much like everybody else as possible rather than the reverse, try to fit in rather than being as contrary as possible, rather than going out of their way to look and behave as differently as possible. Oh, they whinge about Islamophobia and discrimination, but have you ever tried to walk, say, down Golbourne Road in London’s Portobello district after prayers when the pavement is packed with aggressive-looking men determined to make themselves look as separate and as unfriendly as possible?

You have to ask, why, if the English way (and other people’s too) of doing things is so distasteful to them, they still remain here. If the reason is that in spite of their distaste they find it rather more convenient to be here than in their countries of origin, then they should remember their manners. And wouldn’t it be nice if some of their more accommodating co-religionists were to remind them of this?

It would also be timely if they could be reminded that Islam is a religion, not a race. Being disturbed by things done in the name of Islam is not racism, any more than objecting to practices like human sacrifice is. Birds of a feather flock together, the old saying goes. And there is nothing surprising or reprehensible about that. Feeling comfortable, forming a group, with like-minded people is an entirely normal human instinct, without which there would not be society. It is entirely natural to go towards those with whom you have things in common and shrink away from those with whom you have nothing at all in common. The cohesion that is the glue that binds society comes only with long shared experience, or at least with sufficiently shared experience, customs, values. To flout that commonsensical observation by insisting on totally strange and alien customs and values at the very least invites disapproval, aversion and even overt hostility. There should not be any surprise about that.

There has been a lot of fuss recently about halal meat being sold without being explicitly labelled as such. I think it should be and I don’t particularly like the idea of having my food associated with Islamic prayers. However, I think it worth pointing out that until very modern times all animals were killed by having their throats cut. That was – and in many, including European, countries – still is the only method of slaughtering, for example, your sheep. From time immemorial the shepherd who wanted to eat one of his beasts has had to kill it with his own hand with a knife across the throat. I have seen it done many times. And when you consider that the man who kills the sheep with his own hand is the man who acted as midwife to the sheep when it was born and has handled it every day of its life, so there is no alienating journey in an unfamiliar vehicle to an unfamiliar place surrounded by unfamiliar smells, sights and noises, I cannot see that there is any particular cruelty in that and I cannot see that there is any great reason for horror and outrage either.

But aside from the question of strange customs and unfamiliar beliefs, it is clear that no society can absorb more than a certain number of outsiders without there being uncomfortable tensions. You could argue until the cows come home about precise percentages, but it is abundantly clear now that in the UK the balance has tilted to the out-of-kilter side. The more different, the more difficult. The problem is not going to go away. We have to find a way of dealing with it. It seems to me that the native people of these islands – pace Bonny Greer with her peculiar notions about what indigenous means – have leant over pretty far in their willingness to accommodate a lot of strangers; it is time some of the strangers did some leaning. They are touchy enough about having their sensibilities respected, it is high time they became wary of offending our sensibilities, because, pace Bonny Greer again, there is such a thing and a perfectly legitimate thing as “our.”

TODAY, May 9th, Putin is celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by wheeling out his military hardware in Red Square and dropping in on the Crimea, the piece of Ukraine that he has just helped himself to, on the grounds that he is merely responding to the will of the people there and reclaiming what is anyway Russian territory. It is in short a day for nostalgia, sentimental bullshit about our great and glorious, not to say holy, Mother Russia, a day for the kind of ultra-nationalist propaganda that is not in the least concerned about truth and fact and that is such a feature of Russia’s view of itself.

Well… for a start, whether or not Crimea is historically Russian territory rather depends on what view you take of history. Russia has certainly occupied it for the last couple of hundred years, but there was nothing Russian about it before that. Herodotus records Scythian tribes inhabiting the surrounding steppes. The coastal towns were independent Greek city states from around 600BC, later incorporated into the Byzantine Empire, by which time the residents of the hinterland were Turkic-speaking Tatars, ruled by their own Khan, whose capital was at Bakhchisarai: a state of affairs which lasted until Catherine the Great grabbed the Crimea for Russia just short of 1800. Bakhchisarai is a Turkish name, made up of bahçe, a garden,and saray, a palace (see photo). Many towns’ names may have been Russified, but topographical names, for rivers and hills, for example, remain Turkish, albeit in Russified form – Uçun-su (Flying-water), Tepe Kermen (Castle-on-the-Hill). A sure sign of who was there first.

Bakhchysarai 2

Under both the Czars and the Communist regime the Crimea became the summer watering-hole for the ruling classes, and many less exalted Russians moved in as well. Russia has always been an aggressive, expansionist, imperialist state – the workers’ paradise bullshit notwithstanding. And racist, to boot. Just listen to the Russians who settled their Central Asian possessions like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They speak of the natives as wogs.

The Russians are meddlers in other people’s affairs. They occupied a large chunk of north-eastern Turkey between 1878 and the end of WWI, drove out the local populations and imported a whole lot of Christian settlers, posing as ever, when it suited them, as champions of the oppressed Christians of the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Putin is doing what Russia’s rulers have always tried to do. Furthermore, he is by training and inclination a policeman, and a secret one at that – another long-standing Russian tradition under both Czars and Communists: if you don’t like the look of them, lock ‘em up – his nose put out of joint by post-Soviet Russia’s diminished status in the world.

As for the glorious victory over the German Fascists… Again, well… of course there was heroism, stoic endurance and dogged resistance. But are the thousands of Soviet soldiers shot by their own secret police, the NKVD, pour encourager les autres even in such battles as the siege of Stalingrad…are they being remembered and celebrated today? And the Soviet POWs in Germany who returned to their deaths in their motherland? Not to mention all those other many thousands of good Soviet citizens whose last contact with their families was a 3am knock on the door, followed within hours by a bullet in the back of the neck or death by exhaustion and cold in the prison camps of Siberia and Kazakhstan?

Death to Fascism is a slogan you see all over Soviet-era monuments. If by Fascist you mean those people who exercise unchallenged and unchallengeable authority over those they govern, is not this a matter of the pot calling the kettle black, especially when Putin has the nerve to call the new government in Kiev Fascist? If there were Ukrainians who looked with favour on the arrival of the Germans during WWII, it was largely because they were sick of being sat upon by Communist Russia and saw the Germans as potential saviours. As for the new regime in Ukraine, it is there because Ukrainians, especially the young, are sick and tired of being ruled by the old gang, the people who profited under cover of the Soviet Communist regime and profited under its corrupt successor. The ousted president Yanukovich and his like were Russia’s legacy to all the countries of eastern Europe “liberated” by the Red army. Fascist indeed! You can’t even open a beauty salon without paying some nasty racketeer. Do you think a law degree allows you to practice as a lawyer? Not without bribing some gangster.

Sure, you find people who are nostalgic for the old days. They tend to be the poor and unambitious, people who fiddled around half looking after twenty-five cows on a collective farm, asked no questions, received a pitiful wage (but received it), were housed at very low rents (in shockingly horrible circumstances often, from what I have seen visiting just such friends), had their heating and hot water supplied from some central factory through a rusting system of enormous pipes arching over roads, received their pitiful pensions…If they kept their mouths shut and wanted no part of responsibility for any aspect of their lives…If they were content to be ranked, as Macbeth says, in the very lowest file of humanity… Such people do complain about their lives today and regret the passing of Communism. I suspect a large proportion of the so-called Russians of eastern Ukraine come into this category.

And their heads are stuffed full of nationalist propaganda, by their education system no doubt, ably aided and abetted by the Orthodox Church. I like many aspects of Orthodox practice, but they do seem dangerously attracted to the ugliest manifestations of nationalism – the Greek and other branches of Orthodoxy too.

What do Russians know of democracy, of dissent, of acknowledging the right of those who disagree with you to express their opinions too? Three quarters of them were slaves, were somebody else’s property until 150 years ago. They have been ruled uninterruptedly by one kind of authoritarian regime after another, whose only response to dissent is to “disappear” you. If you sit on people brutally enough for long enough, you can destroy their humanity. A friend, trapped for more than forty years in Hodja’s Communist Albania, said to me once: “Hodja had us like rats in a cage. We lost our humanity.” It is not difficult to brutalise people. If you travel in countries where Russia’s writ has run you will see plenty of evidence of that. Just try getting information from the bus depot in Odessa or buying a train ticket at the mainline station in Sebastopol or negotiating with the conductor on a Romanian train: dealing with anyone in any kind of authority you will get the sense that “Off with his head!” or “Off to Siberia!” is the response that still would come most naturally.

When I visited the Crimea in 2009 I was taken aback by the number of Russian Federation flags flying from roof tops in Sebastopol and the presence of Russian folk dance troupes performing on the seaside promenades. Sebastopol is – was – after all part of the Ukraine.

But it was also home – albeit rented – to the Russian Black Sea fleet and Russia has never hidden its aggressive designs on a warm water Black Sea or Mediterranean port. How “convenient” that the ethnic Russian – whatever that means – population should want to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia!

None of this of course justifies just grabbing a piece of someone else’s country. And what will happen to the substantial Tatar population, who most definitely don’t want to be part of Russia? Stalin rounded them up and deported them at a hour or two’s notice to the “stans” of Central Asia in WWII. It is only since the collapse of the USSR that they have been able to return home and they too, it would seem, did not behave in a very gentlemanly way towards the people they found occupying their homes and lands in their absence. A guide in the Danube delta told me that she and her family had fled there to escape the murderous revenge of some of the returning Tatars.

A plague on all their houses one feels like saying. How is this for an idea: let Putin buy the bloody Russian troublemakers of eastern Ukraine and see what he can make of them?

What sort of a lie is a nation living that can build itself monuments like this? As if the humble proles ever received any kind of honour or respect…

Sevastopol

Death to Fascism is the slogan on this WWII locomotive by the Sebastopol bus station. Who is kidding who?

Death to Fascism

And here are two photos of Kerch, where Putin wants to build a bridge joining Crimea to Russia. They show Crimea’s Greek connections, much older than those with Russia.

Kerch

Kerch: John Baptist