Saturday, 30 August 2014

My country right or wrong?

Dr Johnson described patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, but we still seem to treat “patriot” as an inherently favourable term to this day.

It seems to me that George Bernard Shaw got it right, when he said that “patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.”

One of my favourite writers is Ursula Le Guin, whose books present themselves as Science Fiction, but only use the genre as a vehicle for searing insights into humanity.

“How does one hate a country, or love one?” asks a character in one of her best novels, The Left Hand of Darkness, “I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks... but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry?”

A glorious landscape that I love
But if Scotland votes "Yes" it'll be abroad
Should I love it less then?
That’s the central issue. Love of country is closely linked to hatred of other countries. We call the latter nationalism rather than patriotism: Charles de Gaulle claimed that “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” Curiously, though, I’ve recently had a personal experience showing that how little separates them.

I recently posted about how government, in Britain but not in Britain alone, is reacting to terrorist threats from abroad by trying to weaken key rights at home. An (inevitably anonymous) commenter wrote:

“My god are you the most un nationalistic individual in the entire UK not a single patriotic instinct in your entire body or mind.”

The writer’s tone suggests we can take him for a patriot. Indeed, for a him: his aggression suggests masculinity. Or is it perhaps that I suspect he tends to talk a load of balls?

He feels I have no nationalism or patriotism – note that he makes no distinction – but hasn’t realised that I regard such a judgement as a compliment. Britain isn’t better than anywhere else because I was born there (as it happens, I wasn’t – I’m certainly English by birth, but I was born abroad. Has that influenced my viewpoint? I rather suspect it has).

Britain’s better than many places because, among other things, it has a legal system which aspires, at least, to such principles as the presumption of innocence, and a political system which, when it resists attack from government or a particularly debased press, upholds freedom of thought, speech and assembly. It is no better than anywhere else that tries to apply those principles; and if it gives then up, it will be a lot worse.

We do Britain, or any other country, a disservice when unthinking patriotism allows our leaders casually to take such liberties away.

It seems the author of the comment on my post has grasped none of that. Like Ursula Le Guin, I see no good reason to draw an artificial boundary at a geographical line and stop my love there. That doesn’t stop me loving what is most admirable in my country.

But my country seems intent on undermining much of what gives it most value, a health service free at the point of care, a willingness to look after the vulnerable, a commitment to educate our children. As it seems intent on whipping up a climate of fear to undermine our rights. Just yesterday, the terrorist alert level was raised to severe, though no one expects any kind of terrorist attack and deaths from terrorist action can be counted on the fingers of one maimed hand; by contrast, 1730 people died on the roads in the year to june 2013.

However, what David Cameron announced yesterday wasn’t a new initiative against bad driving, it was a move to make it possible to take away people’s passports on suspicion of terrorism. On suspicion.

All this is because of the violent success of ISIS in the Middle East. For which, I might add, the United States and Britain bear a major share of responsibility, through their invasion of Iraq. And yet we surely know which Britons have travelled to fight with ISIS and come back hardened jihadists, ready for action in Britain.

If we don’t know, then I’m at a loss to understand what purpose all that snooping by our spooks serves.

It seems to me that good intelligence is the answer to a terrorist threat – it’s what defeated the IRA in Northern Ireland – not further restrictions on human rights. That may not be a patriotic view, but it’s certainly one that upholds the very values that make Britain worth loving in the first place.

My answer to the anonymous commenter on my blog? Nothing sums it up better than the words of Carl Schurz, the first German-born American to be elected to the US senate:

My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.

If you can’t see that, my dear patriotic critic, you really don’t understand what a legitimate love of country is.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Give me a break, if only to cut through the medical jargon

As we all know, or if we don’t know, are likely to discover by bitter experience, all professions are a conspiracy against the laity.

As the man who coined that phrase, that fine Englishman and native of Dublin, George Bernard Shaw, was all too aware – he advanced the conspiracy charge in his play The Doctor’s Dilemma – the medical profession is one of the worst offenders. And it has made a fine art of one of the great tools of such conspiracy, the use of opaque language to baffle and mislead the uninitiated. 

The patient's friend
No reason to suspect him of
using obscure terms deliberately
Take, for example, that terrible, debilitating and fatal condition known as Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

I wouldn’t quibble with the word disease. MND certainly is one, and a particularly nasty one to boot.

Motor is a bit confusing. It usually represents something that’s noisy, smelly, expensive to fuel and even more expensive to maintain. Just like the human body. But the human body doesn’t contain one.

Still, it doesn’t take long to work out that the word motor is linked to motion. As for neurones, we all know people who seem to have none, and from that it’s not hard to deduce that MND is a ghastly condition that attacks bits of the brain that keep you moving.

So not immediately obvious, but you can work it out in time.

But now consider ALS. This is the thing that’s pouring cold water on so much good cheer these days. It’s the term the medical profession has come up with to replace MND, presumably because they felt the old name wasn’t obscure enough. It stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

What the heck?

Nasty trick. It
’s all wrong from the outset, because it combines Latin and Greek terms in the same expression. CP Scott, legendary editor of the Guardian, said “television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it.” He may have been wrong about TV, but he was right about the word.

That first “A”. It’s Greek for “Not”. So basically we’re saying it’s not myotrophic lateral sclerosis. I don’t know about you, but I find it slightly suspicious when someone tells me what something isn’t. Presumably there are lots of things it isn’t. Tell me what it is, I’m inclined to ask.

What about “myotrophic”? More Greek. For muscle and feeding. So we
re being told it’s non-muscle feeding. Seriously? It’s Motor Neurone Disease. Did anyone imagine it might have the same effect as some kind of body-building drug?

Lateral? We
’ve switched to Latin, and it’s obviously wrong. The condition affects everywhere, not just the sides.

And sclerosis? Back to Greek. The word for hardening. Yeah, right.

The poor guy is coming apart at the seams and we say he’s hardening?

ALS: the term’s obviously designed to mislead. Go along with it, and you might end up doing any kind of crazy thing. Like, say, getting a bucket of iced water dumped on your head.

But stop! Here
’s a pleasant surprise. Precisely because the medical profession’s so sneaky in its designations for things, I was delighted to discover that the abbreviation for a fracture is a hash sign (#). Like a sharp in music. 

Unlike such underhand terms as ALS, isn’t that just beautifully transparent and honest? When you break a bone, it’s usually because you’ve made a hash of things, like my wife reaching for a shuttle too far on the badminton court, tipping over and cracking a foot. And boy, the pain is sharp, as she discovered.

The medics got that one right.

So here’s my plea to all physicians. End your conspiracy against the laity. Go for limpid language, not the learned and obscure. More of the #, please, less of the non-muscle-feeding-sideways-hardening.

Monday, 25 August 2014

What we really need is a politician with a sense of humour, a willingness to be self-deprecating, and the sense to realise that there’s more to life – more even to his life – than politics.

London has got itself a mayor who entirely fits the bill. Boris Johnson likes to make a fool of himself in public and share the joke. He’s a fine classical scholar and writes and broadcasts in an amusing and engaging, if slightly superficial, way on Roman history. 

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
"What a great sport I am!"
Sadly, he also provides living proof that we actually need a politician with those qualities like we need a hole in the head.

Terrorists achieve their primary aim when they terrorise us. And that happens when we panic so much that we’re prepared to give up our own values in response to their actions. Yesterday, it was demonstrated by that same jocular, amusing, bumptious London Mayor.

Boris Johnson has called for a “minor” change in the law so that anyone travelling to the war zones in Iraq and Syria would be presumed to be a terrorist, and liable to prosecution unless they can prove otherwise.

In other words, with this “minor” change he would like to undo a value won and upheld through centuries of agitation for basic rights: the presumption of innocence. The principle means that in any criminal case, it is for the prosecution, backed as it is by all the apparatus of the state, prisons, security services, the police, to prove its case against the solitary individual in the dock, usually supported only by a lawyer.

For Johnson, doing away with this right is a small matter. As a man educated at Eton and Oxford and in possession of a significant fortune, he of course has little to fear from the state. If anything, as a leading Conservative politician, he’s far more likely to be exercising that power against others. What is truly worrying is that he speaks for a constituency within the broader electorate that is all too ready to believe him and give up rights that protect it, in order to seek safety from a supposed terrorist threat.

Why are we talking about such a threat? Because the voice-over on the video that Islamic State released of the murder of American journalist Jim Foley had a British accent. That touched a nerve among many in Britain. But if the result is that we cease to defend fundamental rights, then we shall have given Islamic State a far greater victory than it could have imagined.

Fortunately, Johnson’s suggestion has already been denounced by another leading Conservative, Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General. He called it “draconian” and said that it would criminalise much legitimate behaviour. However, it’s insignificant that Grieve is the former Attorney General, believed by many to have been sacked for being too liberal for the current government.

That government includes the Home Secretary Theresa May, who intends to bring in new legislation against people and organisations who advocate extremist views.

Interestingly, that’s an even more pernicious intention than Johnson’s, because banning extremism sounds eminently sensible. But who will decide just what’s extreme? Let’s remember that there was a time when campaigning against slavery, or for women to be given the vote, or for Ireland to win its independence, was regarded as extreme. 

Do we really want government to decide what is or isn’t extreme? Do we want to give it the power to act against the views people advocate? Might it not be better to have it concentrate only on extreme actions rather than views? Most such actions are illegal already.

These are Tories, who are prompt to talk the language of “British values”, which they insist immigrants must endorse. It seems that they don’t regard presumption of innocence, freedom of thought or freedom of speech as fundamental among such values.

In addition, they proclaim their commitment to small government. It’s curious how easily, then, they advocate initiatives that massively increase government’s capability to intervene in all our lives. And then disguise what they’re doing behind a veil of good sense or, as in Boris Johnson’s case, one of engaging good humour.

It strikes me that as well as needing to deal with actions by Islamic State militants, we in Britain need to be ready to confront another threat far closer to home. And far more pernicious.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

David Cameron's bright idea: privatising the NHS

It’s curious to be sitting in the Accident and Emergency Department of our local (NHS) hospital, waiting for someone to see my wife for a sports injury she received this morning.

No one has asked us to provide evidence of ability to pay. The treatment will be delivered based only on the state of her health, the extent of her injury, and not her financial status.

No one stands to profit financially from her care. I’ve just heard a nurse explaining to an East European couple that they would not be receiving antibiotics. There is no financial incentive to prescribe any particular medication, and so it’s possible to get strict about what drugs are handed ou.

Sadly, Britain seems to be trying to move away from this admirable model, with doctors warning that the principle of service being free at the point of care is unlikely to survive more than another ten years if there’s no let up in the pressure on the NHS. It’s hard to overstate how shameful that is: the notion that when we’re ill or hurt, we can count on care immediately whoever we are and whatever our social position, is precious. It seems extraordinary that anyone can seriously question it or want to do away with it.

This isn’t to say that a health service has to be based on it. The United States, for instance, takes the opposite approach: there is no presumption of treatment without payment. I’m always impressed by the number of Americans I’ve known who assure me that the system is the world’s best, whereas it’s my feeling that it’s simply the world’s most expensive.

US Healthcare leads the world.
At least in expenditure
Far too much of the US population has no cover at all, a lamentable state of affairs Obamacare is only beginning to address, and a great many more have no adequate cover; highly expensive care is often provided, but it’s often entirely inappropriate: costly hospital treatment for conditions which could have been dealt with far more cheaply by a GP if one had been available earlier; and no follow-up after hospitalisation, so there’s a high risk that the underlying condition will continue to get worse and the patient will be back in hospital before long.

Considering how much it costs, that’s a damning indictment of the US system.

Which leads me to wonder why it is that some in Britain, most deplorably many in government, are so keen to see us move in that direction. And yet they do. Increasing numbers of services are being put out to tender to private companies. Currently £5.8 billion worth, a 14% increase over last year. And yet there’s no evidence that they’re provided either better or more cheaply than by the NHS itself: one of the biggest privatisation companies, Serco, was involved in a major scandal when it was forced out of its contract to provide out-of-hours GP services in Cornwall. And then just a week ago, it announced that it was going to see out the contracts it still has left and then withdraw from the UK market for healthcare services. It has racked up multi-million pound losses, and has had enough.

So privatised services aren’t particularly good. They aren’t particularly cheap. And they don’t even generate much of a profit for their providers.

Not that they don’t try to make one. When Care UK took over services to people with severe learning difficulties in Doncaster and absorbed a group of employees from the NHS, their first move was to cut wages by up to 35%, leading to a long-running strike. If profits don’t come, it certainly isn’t for want of trying. 

Why are they so hard to achieve? Because the NHS runs a tight ship: Britain may not have the world’s best health service, but many studies have found that it has the most cost-effective. In the profligate environment of the US, healthcare service companies can make a fortune, but over here it’s a lot more difficult.

Why then is the government so intent on maintaining the headlong drive towards privatisation?

There’s much debate about the nature of politics. Should it be oriented towards personalities, image, soundbites, charisma? Or instead towards ideologies, principles, fundamental philosophy?

Well, image gave us Cameron, a man whose incompetence as Prime Minister is only rivalled by his indolence. With a major crisis in Iraq he had to be called back from holiday – twice. He seems not to understand that he has a post that requires not just a full-time commitment but a lot more dedication than ordinary jobs. Dubya was like that, too, taking sixty or seventy days leave a year and working short hours. That’s the man who took us into the Iraq War, for God’s sake (and he probably thought it really was for God’s sake).

As for ideology, well that’s just what’s leading to NHS privatisation. It makes no sense: it benefits no one, not patients, not the taxpayer, not even the privatising companies. But that same Cameron has made up his mind, as a matter of principle, that it needs to be done. Against any evidence. As a matter of sheer belief.

In the debate between image and ideology, I choose neither. Competence, pragmatism and a willingness to take evidence into account, are the qualities that matter. And we need them badly, especially if we’re to save the NHS.

An old man has just been discharged in the hospital.

“Would you like a taxi home?” asked the nurse. “We’ll pay for it.”

The gesture would cost under £10. A trivial sum. But what a difference it would make to a lonely old man, worried about his health.

Money alone can
’t measure the value of a health service ready to provide such care to that man. We need to hang on to it as though our lives depended on it. 

Because they do.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Isis and the mission of the unaccomplished

There’s so much to learn from Iraq. In particular, the truth of the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I’m prepared to go out on a limb here, and say that I’m prepared, for the purposes of argument at least, to give Tony Blair the benefit of the doubt. I’m prepared to allow that he might actually have been sincere in believing that Saddam Hussein was “a profoundly wicked, I would say almost psychopathic, man” and that, in consequence, he was right to do what he could to bring him down.

Saddam. A vile dictator. Bringing him down was a great idea
if only what followed hadn't been still worse
Now, however, even Blair admits that overthrowing Saddam Hussein may have contributed to the situation today. On 23 June, he told the Independent, “of course the Iraq of 2014 bears, in part, the imprint of the removal of Saddam Hussein 11 years ago. To say otherwise, as a recent editorial in this newspaper implies that I do, would be absurd.”

Indeed. Bringing down a vile dictator sounds like a fine plan, but you have to be sure that you’re going to replace him with something better. Whereas the intervention of 2003 has inflicted on the region, and on the world, something far worse. The massacres, the enslavements, that expulsions of innocent people by Isis give the measure of the utter barbarity of that movement. And yet, perhaps on Stalin’s principle that a single death is a tragedy and a million merely a statistic, the gruesome beheading of Jim Foley has brought it home far more powerfully still.

Jim Foley reported on horrors which have now claimed him
A single murder can be more blood curdling than a massacre
Why, it even dragged the British Prime Minister back from holiday. For the second time. On the first occasion, he authorised limited British military action in Iraq. but then shot off again as quickly as he could. It’s possible that his family stop him reading the papers or watching TV while he’s away (nothing about David Cameron suggests he regards being Prime Minister as a full-time occupation), because on his return it seems the security services had to make him watch the video of Foley’s death. Apparently to make him understand the gravity of the situation.

I imagine quite a few people had grasped how serious it was even without watching the video (I, for instance, feel no inclination to watch it). But perhaps Cameron’s just not that quick on the uptake.

A man who certainly isn’t quick is George Dubya Bush. It probably hasn’t occurred to him yet that there’s trouble in the same Iraq that he invaded. He may indeed not know that there’s trouble at all. Let’s not forget that he was unforgivably slow in his response to the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, although he was on holiday (yes, there’s a pattern here) in Texas, the state next door.

He probably still believes that he accomplished his mission in Iraq, as he proclaimed on the deck of an aircraft carrier. He may not have grasped that the murder of one of his compatriots, Foley, is a direct consequence of the mission he botched, with Blair’s faithful support. Less of a mission accomplished than a mission bungled by the unaccomplished.

Just how bungled is shown by what the West is reduced to hoping for these days.

The US heavily armed the Iraqi army it set up to replace Saddam’s. As a result, Isis has been able to seize enough weapons to arm five divisions, when that army turned tail and bolted from its advancing enemy. Now we have to hope that the Iraqi military can learn some effectiveness from the Iranian officers who are trying to get it back into some semblance of order.

And yet one of the justifications for the invasion of Iraq was to protect us from the still greater threat of Iran.

Meanwhile, Isis continues to make serious advances in Syria, using the US weapons it captured in Iraq. The country’s biggest city, Aleppo, is in danger of falling to its militants. The only hope of stopping them? The army of Bashar al-Assad, the man Blair still feels we ought to have bombed last year.

We may well have gone into Iraq with excellent intentions. But what a mess we made. We’ve woken a far worse, far deadlier, far more monstrous enemy. We’ve put weapons in his hands. And now we have to rely on highly unsavoury regimes to help us defeat him.

Yep. Good intentions. They take you straight to hell.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Islamic State: history repeating itself? Without redeeming features?

Explaining increased British involvement in action to stop the Islamic State in Iraq, David Cameron points out that the alternative was to allow the emergence of a “terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a Nato member.”

The Nato member in question is Turkey. And, curiously, seeing that region threatened by a militant Islamic movement is a repetition of history – though, as often happens when history repeats itself, the second time round is even more painful than the first.

When the prophet Mohammed died in 632, he left the Arabian peninsula united as it had never been before. His successors discovered an energy and a military drive that would astonish and, generally, overwhelm their neighbours. To their North, two great Empires had been battling with each other for centuries: the Byzantines, successors of Rome, and the Persians. Within a generation, the Persian Empire had been completely overrun by Islamic forces and the Byzantines had lost huge territories, principally in the regions that now make up Iraq, Syria, Lebanon – and Turkey.

See the repetition?

Their sudden irruption on the scene wasn’t the only remarkable aspect of the Muslim conquerors. Their behaviour after victory gave them some unusual redeeming features. Instead of massacring their defeated foes, or even crushing them, they usually recruited them. So, for example, when they’d stretched their Empire along the whole of the North African seaboard, they decided it might be worth crossing the straits into Southern Spain and trying their luck in Europe. Tariq ibn Ziyad, who led their first landing on the rock off the Spanish coast which bears his name, Tariq’s mountain, Jebel Tariq, now Gibraltar, was in all likelihood a Berber, rather than an Arab, and the son of a former prisoner of war.

Once in Spain, the Arabs made allies of the Jews, long oppressed by the Visigothic Christian rulers. Jews held the captured cities on behalf of the Muslim armies, which could therefore move on to capture some more. The tradition of coexistence with other communities inspired one of the world’s great cultural centres in Cordoba. Muslims ran the show, but Jews – who were allowed to settle in pride of place right next to the Mosque – and Christians were tolerated and allowed to debate with Muslim scholars in one of the richest periods of intellectual development in Europe.

When Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote the works that would transform Christian thinking and underpin the Renaissance, he drew heavily on the thought of the Greek pagan Aristotle, as interpreted by a Muslim scholar from Cordoba, Averroes (Ibn Rushd).

That was then. Today a new Islamic military force is threatening the borders of what were once the Persian and Byzantine Empires. Given the opportunity, it would no doubt be more than happy to take the whole Mediterranean littoral and even threaten southern Spain. However, based on their track record so far, you can be pretty certain that they wouldn’t want to found a community in Cordoba that would win an international reputation for the free exchange of ideas.

Islamic State: attempting to reproduce the Muslim conquests
but without any of the redeeming features

On the contrary, it has proved to be a life-threatening condition to be non-Muslim, or even simply the wrong kind of Muslim, in the presence of the Islamic State. 1500 Shia prisoners of war were executed in a single day; Christians or Yazidis have been murdered, enslaved or driven from their homes in huge numbers.

The militants of Islamic State are trying to reproduce the great conquests of Islam in its early days. But as I said before, the second time round tends to be less admirable, less glorious than the first.

In Islamic State’s case, a lot less admirable and a lot less glorious.

No bad thing if we can help stem their attempt to repeat history.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Better together. For us, certainly. Perhaps even for you.

Driving northwards, towards Scotland, for a few minutes from that fine historic town, Berwick-upon-Tweed, will bring you to the sign welcoming you to Scotland. And thereby hangs a tale: for Berwick was a Scottish town for a long time. Every time I drive into Scotland from Berwick, as I just have, the town’s capture by England strikes me as emblematic of the history of the two nations: England has always grabbed more than it was entitled to, in its long history of battles, or negotiations, with Scotland.

Always a great welcome.
Though resentment would be understandable
So I can understand the sentiments of the campaigners for a Yes vote in next month’s referendum on Scottish independence. England’s never really treated Scotland fairly; why maintain a relationship in which the same injustice is likely to occur again?

An even stronger argument is voiced by many Yes campaigners: there is just one Conservative MP from Scotland, and yet Scotland groans under a Tory government like the rest of us.

It’s that “rest of us” which make me sympathetic to the argument, but also leaves me hoping that Scotland will vote No on 18 September. Because I didn’t vote for Cameron either, but got him anyway. A lot us in England are as keen as anyone in Scotland to see the back of him. And the departure of Scotland, with its 41 Labour MPs at Westminster, will make it all the harder.

Which puts me in this difficult position of feeling that, while Scottish independence is a perfectly comprehensible aspiration for the Scots, it will make life a lot tougher for us in England.

As it happens, I don’t really understand what kind of independence the Scots are looking for. They’re talking about keeping the pound as their currency. But by leaving the union, they would lose all say over how it’s managed. Why would they want to do that? And what kind of independence is it they’ll get, with their currency still managed by England?

So, while I couldn’t help feeling a surge of sympathy for the Scots as I drove past that sign 4 km on the Scottish side of Berwick, I take some relief at the apparently widening lead for the No vote in the polls.

“Better together” is the official name of the No campaign. I’m sure we in England would be far better off together. And, given the kind of independence on offer to the Scots, I’d like to say to them – you might be better off too.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Indian Independence, and how it helped free Britain

Richard Lederer, in his Anguished English, quotes a student who believed that the sun never set on the British Empire because the Empire was in the East, and the sun sets in the West.

An American, the Revered W. B. Brown, suggested that the sun never set on the British Empire because God didn’t trust the Brits in the dark.

Both statements have some merit. 

We’re all watching blood-curdling events unfolding in the Middle East at the moment, as Islamic State militants terrorise their region to build themselves a new country that crosses the recognised borders of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. But where did those borders come from? Why, from the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. In the middle of World War One and without even waiting to beat the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the British, represented by Sir Mark Sykes, signed a secret agreement on how to divide up Turkish possessions in the Levant with the no more trustworthy French, represented by François Georges-Picot.

Sharing out the spoils of the Ottoman Empire
In other words, a lot of blood is being spilled today because of a devious deal brokered by the British and their fellow conspirators. It seems that letting them operate away from scrutiny was never a good idea. It was indeed wiser to keep the Empire in the sunlight.

As for its Eastern nature, it’s true that the main centre of the British Empire, the jewel in its crown,  was India. While I was preparing my recent Countdown to War series, it was curious to read a 1914 Manchester Guardian reference to Britain as an “Asiatic power”. It seems a strange notion today, but back then the possession of India and its other Far Eastern holdings, certainly made Britain an Asiatic power and a major one at that.

The fact that the Empire was best not left unsupervised meant that being a British colony was hardly a matter for self-congratulation in India. Just how serious a misfortune it was is perhaps best illustrated by the events surrounding the ending of that status. 

Rather than leaving India to the Indians, and allowing them to sort out their internal difficulties, including sectarian ones, Britain partitioned the country first. So the Muslim majority areas were hived off, eventually forming Pakistan, even to the extent of giving that country two separate wings with 1600 km of Indian territory between them.

To ensure that an independent India could not block the partition, Pakistan was granted its independence a day earlier. India was faced with a done deal, which it was forced to accept despite fighting four wars with its neighbour to undo it.

Partition also sparked the world
s largest migrations, involving some ten million people. Hindus and Sikhs moved from Pakistan to India and Muslims travelled the other way. Conflicts between the groups left anywhere between 200,000 and a million dead. Eventually the two wings of Pakistan fell out, and a short but destructive war led to East Pakistan winning independence as Bangladesh.

Refugees on the move as a result of Indian partition
And yet, was there any point in partition? There are more Muslims in India today than there are in Pakistan. They are one of the many disadvantaged minorities of the world’s largest democracy. Had the Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh remained inside India, sheer numbers might have ensured better treatment for such a large minority. It would also have spared the world the creation of two failed or failing states.

Kipling and his ilk thought of the British presence in India as shouldering the white man’s burden. It strikes me that the burden was British and it was carried by the Indians. Except maybe that by imposing it on the Indians, we in Britain bound ourselves to keeping our country authoritarian and imperialistic, to our own loss. I remember the late Tony Benn, the radical Labour MP, describing England as the last colony of the British Empire. So the independence of India was the beginning of a process to free us from our self-imposed yoke too.

The White Man's Burden: the question is, who was carrying it?
That’s why today, 15 August, I celebrate the 67th anniversary of Indian independence with my glass raised to my many Indian friends and colleagues. I wish them enjoyment today and prosperity in the future.

And breathe a sigh of relief that, however Eurosceptic it may be, my homeland has at last accepted that it is a second-tier European state, and not an Asiatic power with global reach.

Jawaharlal Nehru's first address as Prime Minister of an independent India
Even though, with a few islands scattered round the globe, technically the sun still doesn’t set on the British Empire...

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Countdown to War: the Postscript – what did World War One achieve?

What struck me most as I was preparing the Countdown to War series was how little ordinary people, of the time, must have known about the impending catastrophe.

I based myself on two newspapers: for weekdays the Manchester Guardian, now simply the Guardian; for Sundays the Observer, now the Guardian’s sister paper, though then entirely independent and with a distinct stance: much less friendly towards the Liberals, to say nothing of Labour, much friendlier towards the Conservatives, and, as war approached, as firmly convinced that Britain had to join in on the Russian and French side as the Manchester Guardian was convinced the country should stay out.

For quite a time, those papers gave little indication of what was coming. For a week or so after the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Grand Duke on 28 June 1914, there was much talk about it – but mostly as a tragedy in itself and a sign of the terrible chaos in that part of the world. Between the 6th of July and the 21st, there was little mention of any consequences, which is one of the reasons I was able to spend so much time talking about other matters: the descent towards civil war in Ireland, suffragette agitation vote (and the cruelty of the authorities towards those they arrested, including force feeding), trouble in Mexico, trouble in the Balkans, but well to the south of Sarajevo: Turks massacring Greeks or being massacred by them.

Even from the 21st, when it first emerged that Austria-Hungary was going to present a Diplomatic Note to the Serbs demanding action over the assassination, it was only gradually apparent where events were heading: the increasingly bitter tone of exchanges between Vienna and Belgrade, then war, and only in the last few days, the mobilisation of Russia followed by that of Germany, and finally German military action against both Russia and France.

Clearly, those in political power had a much clearer idea of what was happening. They knew of the pressure that Germany was putting on Austria-Hungary to push its quarrel with Serbia towards war: Germany felt that it needed a war to change the balance of power in Europe, to loosen the stanglehold it felt Russia and France had over it, and to emerge as the leading power of the Continent, which it believed was its rightful place.

Even in government, though, I’m sure the realisation of the extent of the calamity to which they were heading only slowly became apparent. Both at the top and the bottom of society, Britain and the other powers sleepwalked into war. And I hope that came through from the series.

A catastrophic war
Slowly, then, and as though unconscious, Britain drifted with much of Europe into a war of unprecedented ferocity. 

What did the war achieve? And, in particular, what did Britain’s involvement achieve?

Germany had clearly gambled on Britain remaining neutral. With Britain on the sidelines, Germany might be able to knock out France quickly, as had happened in the previous war of 1870-71. That would leave it free to take on Russia, much the larger power, but with forces that were no match for the Germans. The war might have lasted a short time and ended in German victory.

Germany would have emerged as the dominant power on the Continent.

British involvement made that dream impossible. As a result, Germany was defeated and forced to accept humiliating and punitive conditions. That made the Second World War almost inevitable, as none of the conflicts that had pushed Germany into war in the first place had been resolved. In 1945, after defeating Germany for the second time, the Allies, this time dominated by the United States, insisted on a different kind of settlement. Instead of having to pay reparations to the victors, Germany received huge volumes of aid from them. Germany rebuilt, and structures grew up in Europe which far from denying German aspirations, gave them the opportunity to achieve them by peaceful means.

Leading to Germany emerging as the dominant power on the Continent.

Had Britain stayed out, that dominance would have been achieved more quickly. It might, indeed, have been a great deal harsher, enforced by military might. But – a hundred years on? Might the authoritarian aspects of German rule not have softened? Might the defeated nations not have risen again and obtained autonomy within some kind of European grouping of the nations? A kind of European Union?

What that different history would have done is avoid the millions of deaths of the two world wars. A quick defeat of Russia might have avoided the Russian revolution. We might never have seen a Nazi regime take power. We might have seen no Holocaust. And if the foundation of the state of Israel was a response by Western powers to the failure of Europe to accommodate its Jews, there might have been no Israel and the Middle East might have looked profoundly different today.

However, that isn’t what happened. Speculating about what might have been, playing with counterfactuals, is fun but ultimately fruitless. You know the story of the traveller in Ireland asking the way to Dublin and being told, “oh, if I was going to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here.” We are where we are, we got here the way we got here, and we have to find a way forward from where we really are, not where we’d like to be.

Still. It does leave me wondering whether the Manchester Guardian might not have been right. Getting involved in that catastrophic war was perhaps one of the most disastrous decisions Britain ever took.

Remember that, during all the celebrations of victories and defeats in the next four years.

Monday, 11 August 2014

A young girl measures human progress

A picture in today’s Guardian caught my attention. 

From the Guardian of 11 August
I wondered what different people might see in it. I imagine most of us would see a young girl. A child.

If we looked a little closer, we might think she was sleeping peacefully, although the setting – adults and other children sitting behind her, wide awake, and frightened – might suggest that she was actually sleeping in exahustion. I still hope that most of us, if we were present, would want to do nothing worse to her than lower our voices so she could keep on sleeping.

If we then read the article, we would discover that a large group of men in Iraq, where she comes from, would have wanted to do far more than that. They would have seen in her a target, a Satan-worshipper, and they would have been driven by a holy zeal to do God’s work, into killing her or forcibly converting her to Sunni Islam. After conversion, she would have been reduced to slavery.

I don’t think there’s much to rule out in the list of things that could be done to a young girl who’s made a slave by the Islamic State.

All that because she’s a Yazidi. That indeed is why she is where she is in the photo, and exhausted. She’s just completed a draining trek to safety in Kurdistan, from a home invaded by the IS militants.

The safety’s only relative, because it depends on the ability of the Kurdish Peshmerga to hold IS at bay. Equally, though she’s lucky to have escaped – many thousands of others have not – that luck is also relative: she is now entering onto the misery of life as a refugee, dependent on charity, with neither a home nor a living to support her.

So we should amend our view of the photo again. An exhausted, unfortunate young girl, we might say.

If she were from Gaza and not Iraq, she might not now be the deliberate target of a terrorist movement, but she would be in serious danger nonetheless, as a potential victim of collateral damage by the Israeli Defence Forces, one of the world’s most powerful armies. She would be at risk because Israel has decided that, in its self-defence, it has every right to deploy hugely destructive firepower in densely populated areas. Anyone it kills as a result it views a regrettable but entirely legitimate casualty.

So again, let’s review our judgement. An exhausted, unfortunate young girl who doesn’t really matter much, even to people who claim to respect democracy and human rights.

Which adds up to a measure of just how far humanity has progressed down the tens of millennia. We live in a world in which many people feel that it is perfectly justified to snuff out the life of that little girl, or to cause her unbearable suffering. Some will act that way because they believe it is the will of God. Others out of indifference to her fate. Yet others to gratify some deeply deformed appetite.

Humanity will have reached a state we can call civilised the day we can look at such a sleeping young girl, and the only thing any of us would want to do to her, is cover her with a blanket.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Between two coffees: so much can be done, if one can find the energy. And the will

The French have a fine wine known as “Entre deux Rives”, between two banks.

This is not a tribute to those fine people who brought us the 2008 financial crash. We’re not talking about a wine between Lehman Brothers and the Royal Bank of Scotland. It probably doesn’t cost enough for those worthy fellows, though if it did and someone else was paying for it (the taxpayer, say), I’m sure they’d enjoy it as a change from Champagne.

No, the banks in question are those of the Gironde and the Garonne, in the Bordeaux region where the wine is made.

This morning a new notion struck me, that of “Entre deux Cafés”. There is a precious time in my life between the two coffees with which which I like to start each day. As a general rule, it’s a time of quiet reflection and calm contemplation, in which I might, perhaps read the Guardian.

Reading the paper is an important ritual, even if in my case it no longer involves any actual paper, since I read it on Kindle. It enables me to find out what atrocity the Israelis have most recently committed, or indeed their fine disciples, now far ahead of them in vileness, in the organisation I used to think of as Isis.

Isis has, of course, announced that it now wishes to be known simply as the “Islamic State” or “is”.

In the first place, I’m not convinced we should be particularly concerned with what that organisation’s wishes are.

But in the second place, it
’s a ludicrous name. I suppose the Wizard of Is might be a less factitious and far nastier version of the Wizard of Oz. But imagine the awful sentences to which the name could lead, such as “they are is”. Perhaps such barbarity towards language is appropriate, though, as the linguistic expression of their barbarity on the ground.

Occasionally, I don’t allow myself to be drawn entirely into reading the newspaper. If I can dredge up the courage from somewhere, at times I’ll go swimming between the first coffee and the second. It has to be between: leave myself the time to drink the second, and any courage for the swim has gone. The time will seeped away too, as it happens, especially since one of my colleagues had the genial idea of organising a daily conference call at 8:30 a.m. That rather limits my room for manoeuvre in the mornings.

So it’s off to the pool after the first coffee, with the second ahead of me as a promise of reward for my virtuous behaviour.

Today, however, it was different. It’s a Saturday and this afternoon we have friends coming over for wine and cheese. That
’s the kind of party I think of as 50-50: I’m not that keen on cheese, but I like wine more than well enough to be fine with the 50% I can enjoy. 

We both work, so Friday isn’t a good time for cleaning. And at 10:00 on Saturday we generally have a couple of hours of badminton, after which we’re too clapped out for cleaning. And yet, with people coming round, cleaning had to be done.

Such a space, between two coffees
To be filled with so much. Swimming. The news. Even cleaning

So it became a task for between-coffee-time. One quick coffee and then, from 7:45 to 9:30, out came the sponges and the scourers and the cleaning products.

Oddly enough, it was strikingly similar to swimming. The drudgery’s perfectly bearable, no real hardship at all. And at the end, the sense of well-being is overwhelming. With swimming it’s mostly physical, with a dash of self-satisfaction over one’s display of virtue; with cleaning, it’s entirely moral, but the self-satisfaction’s all the stronger.

And – at the end – there’s another coffee.

A great way to start the day.

Friday, 8 August 2014

What genocide really feels like, by a prospective victim

Yesterday I wrote about what genocide really means, when the word isn’t being thrown around as a simple term of abuse to hurl at anyone using brutal and excessive force to achieve military ends.

Today my blood ran cold as I heard a man facing the prospect of real genocide being perpetrated against his people, and specifically himself. He was facing that fate not at some indefinite date in the future, but within a few hours. If you
’re reading this in the evening of 8 August, there’s every likelihood that the speaker is dead, killed by foes so pitiless that he would rather have the international community bomb him than die at their hands.

If he
’s killed, it will not be for anything he’s done, but for what he is: a member of the Yazidi faith in Northern Iraq. 

This is my transcript of what he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning. I give it without comment: I feel it provides commentary enough in itself.

Yazidis on Mount Sinjar
Awaiting death by thirst, or by Isis

Currently our situation is very catastrophic. We don’t have any food, we don’t have any water. In the last couple of days, I’ve seen 22 children who died because of the lack of food and water, and I’ve seen  also four or five women and men who died because of the lack of supplies. We’re currently on the mountain surrounded on four different sides, and right now, while we’re speaking, there are clashes between Isis and a couple of our people. I would also like to add that maybe you will not be able to contact me again, because I will be already killed.

The clashes now are very, very close to where I stand. Now there are clashes among the final line of resistance. There is a small checkpoint inside the mountain. If Isis defeat the defending forces there and advance by night, they will kill every one of us and all this ethnicity will be wiped out

It’s a matter of hours whether they manage to capture this last checkpoint by nightfall. They will kill all of us and we don’t think we have enough time.

We already fled because they killed more than 1000 people around the area and they captured also more than 200 women and girls.

Send us urgent help and urgent rescue because we are facing our certain death. If the international community can’t help us and send us urgent rescue, I want them to bomb us and wipe us out, because we would rather that than be captured or killed by Isis. They will have to live with the guilt they have. Because our time now has reached almost the end.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Gaza: you think that’s genocide? You ain’t seen nothing yet...

It’s interesting to see people throw the word “genocide” around when talking (or ranting) about the 2000 deaths at Israeli hands in Gaza. Indefensible, unjustifiable and quite probably criminal deaths. 2000 of them.

Let’s be absolutely clear.

Genocide is the deliberate extermination of a people. In other words, it’s the resolution of ethnic conflict by one people physically wiping out the other. Usually it’s accompanied by ethnic cleansing, where you can avoid being killed if you go away, abandoning everything you and possibly several generations before you have worked for, and settle for scraping a subsistence living in some miserable refugee camp somewhere.

Precisely that is happening right now, but not in Gaza. 130,000 members of the Yazidi sect have fled their main city of Sinjar in North West Iraq. 40,000 of them are now sitting on a mountain outside the city contemplating the unappealing alternatives of coming down and being murdered by Isis, or staying there and dying of thirst.

The Middle East's latest charmers: Isis at work in Iraq,
the nation where Bush accomplished his mission
Those who remain in the city have the third option of converting to Sunni Islam. That would certainly convince me. But then I prefer living on my knees to dying on my feet, on the basis that dying on your feet leaves you permanently on your back, whereas there is a chance of getting off your knees and back on your feet if you stay alive.

Even the figures of 130,000 and 40,000, shocking through they are, are on the smaller end of the scale of genocides. In Rwanda, for instance, estimates of deaths vary between 500,000 and a million. But Isis are just getting started. They showed their mettle by killing 1500 civilians in a single day (by comparison, it took the Israelis weeks to kill their 2200), and they have plenty of enemies other than the Yazidi: Shias (fellow Muslims), Christians, basically anyone who gets in their way.

Now it’s beyond a doubt that Israel has the capacity to be as genocidally effective as Isis. But if they had been in Gaza, there would have been hugely more deaths than there were. Whatever accusation we can make against the Israeli incursion, and we can accuse it of a great deal, charging it with genocide simply means ignoring what a genocide really is and what actually happened.

The UN has rightly said that the Israeli Defence Forces may have committed war crimes. It is, as I understand it, a crime to behave recklessly so that, even if an armed force is fighting legitimate military enemies, if it kills civilians through simple failure to take sufficient care, it has committed a war crime. That means no one needs to prove that they were deliberately targeting civilians: the mere fact that they didn’t take reasonable measures to protect them is enough.

It makes sense to investigate Israel on those charges. In the meantime, it would be a good move to suspend all arms exports to Israel. That might, indeed, force them to the table and oblige them to take a less violent line with their adversaries.

Nothing could be more necessary. That was brought home to me by an interview that John Alderdice, previously of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, gave to the BBC Today programme. With his experience of facilitating negotiations involving Protestant paramilitaries and the IRA in Ulster, he has no qualms about negotiating with terrorists. Indeed, he believes such negotiations are vital. He has personally held discussions, relatively recently, with Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. Here’s what Alderdice said:

I understand the perspective that Israelis have. I would also of course say, “well there’s not much evidence that the Israeli Government’s way of working has actually helped.” And from a very early stage, one of the things that was part of the discussion, was that Hamas was saying, “look we’re prepared to engage, we’re prepared to engage in a kind of Western democratic style of things, and free and fair elections and forming governments, and even coalitions, and all of these kinds of things. If however this becomes impossible, we will not change our commitment to that, but we can let you know that there are people in our wider community who in any case want to burn the system not work the system.” So in the same kind of way as not engaging with Fatah for many years led to the rise of Hamas, trying to destroy Hamas will simply create something else.

Chilling words. And a salutary warning to us all. Israel’s decades-long attempt to crush Fatah led to the emergence of the far more vicious and dangerous Hamas. Now their long battle against Hamas may lead to something far worse still.

What might that far worse thing be?

Alderdice was in no doubt:

…and we’re seeing it developing: with Isis.

The fruits of Israel’s action is to generate the most violent and terrifying terrorist organisation the Middle East has yet seen. Israel’s action and that of the Western Powers in invading Iraq. And in time, it will be targeting the West as well as Israel.

Anyone who thinks what we’ve seen in Gaza over the last few weeks was genocide needs to think again. Because it’s going to fade into insignificance compared to what we may see in the months ahead. And let’s remember that it’s been brought into existence by Israel’s recklessness and our support for it.

That’s the biggest danger. Our task is to understand it, so that we can do something about it. And misusing terms like genocide to make them simple insults only muddies the waters.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Countdown to War, Day 39. 5 August: Britain declares war and an era ends

One hundred years ago today, on Wednesday 5 August 1914, Martin and his tracklayer mates reading the Manchester Guardian, found confirmation that the axe had finally fallen the day before. Britain was at war.

“England declares war on Germany” screamed the headline.

“Presumably it’s us too,” grumbled the Scotsman.

Great Britain declared war on Germany at 11 o’clock last night.

The Cabinet yesterday delivered an ultimatum to Germany. Announcing the fact to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister said: “We have repeated the request made last week to the German Government that they should give us the same assurance in regard to Belgian neutrality that was given to us and Belgium by France last week. We have asked that it should be given before midnight.”

Midnight German time was 11:00 p.m. in Britain.

Another article made clear why the appeal for Belgian neutrality had been made. And why it had never stood the slightest chance of being heeded.

The Prime Minister of Belgium announced in the Belgian Chamber yesterday that Belgian territory had been violated by the German forces.

The British Foreign Office was informed by the Belgian Minister in London shortly before noon that the German forces had crossed to Belgian soil

German troops occupying Ostend
“So that’s it,” said Martin, “We’re in. Like it or not. For better or for worse.”

“For worse,” said the Cynic.

“And all over Belgium!” another voice piped up.

“Nothing to do with Belgium,” said the Cynic, “it’s Germany wanting a bigger role in the world. Much bigger. And France and Russia thinking she’d only get it at their expense.”

“And the Austrian Archduke?” asked Martin.

“A pretext for Austria-Hungary to take on Serbia. And that was’s the pretext for this one.”

“I still don’t see what on earth it has to do with us.”

“It didn’t have anything to do with us but it does now.”

There was a silence as the men reflected on what the future held in store. Not that they were likely to guess the full impact the war would have.

Firstly, it would end in two separate defeats. The first would be suffered by Russia: despite the huge numbers of men it could call on, “to die in heaps” as the Guardian had said, they were hopelessly outmatched by German discipline, training and arms. Russia’s defeat led to the seizure of power by the Communists and 70 years of tension with the Capitalist world.

The second defeat was suffered by Germany and Austria-Hungary.

For the Dual Monarchy, defeat spelled dissolution. Hungary was separated from Austria, but also lost two-thirds of its territory. Austria was reduced to its German-speaking heartland. The Balkan Slavs, including Bosnia where the Archduke and his wife were murdered, merged with Serbia. That was a triumph for the Serb nationalists. The King of Serbia even took the throne of the new country, though as a sop to other groups, it was eventually given a neutral name, Yugoslavia, the land of the Southern Slavs.

As for Germany, the Kaiser lost his throne and went into exile. The country felt itself betrayed not beaten, and crushed by the reparations the victors forced it to pay. The bitterness and resentment led to the Nazis taking power as a violent revanchist movement, intent on reversing the losses of the First World War by fighting a Second. Neither that war nor the Holocaust need have happened had the first war not been fought.

The Empires on the winning side lost out too. France and Britain were sucked dry by the cost of the war. Because they were victors, they clung on to their colonies for another generation, but the writing was on the wall.

Domestically, the war also brutally altered Britain’s destiny.

Asquith remained at the head of a Liberal government, the last Liberal Prime Minister, until May 1915 when he brought leading Conservatives into a coalition. A little over eighteen months later, he was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by David Lloyd George, who saw the war through to victory. The National government, as the Coalition was known, fought and won the 1918 election as a bloc under Lloyd George, with Asquith’s Liberals running against them; by 1922, the Tories had had their fill of the National Liberals and dropped them. Labour took over as the second largest party, forming its first government, as a minority, in 1924.

Liberals never again formed a government of their own.

Winston Churchill had started his career as a Conservative before holding a series of Ministerial posts in the Liberal Party; Arthur Balfour, Tory Prime Minister at the turn of the Century, just before the Liberals came to office, said “I thought Winston Churchill was a young man of promise, but it appears he is a young man of promises.” In 1925, Churchill returned to the Conservatives, a move on which he later commented “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”

A young man of promise or a young man of promises?
Women’s suffrage was delayed for the period of the war. In 1918, however, after a war in which women had played a crucial role in keeping the industrial machine going, they at last won the right to vote at age 30 subject to a property qualification; practically all men were given the vote at 21, as Martin had hoped. 

The suffrage was made equal between the sexes ten years later. 

We saw Irish Home Rule being put on the back burner as war broke out. It would never become an option again: the traditional Nationalists were outflanked by more committed and radical movements demanding full independence. The divisions within the island, however, were never addressed, so when the British government was at last forced to let Ireland go, it retained six of the nine counties in Ulster, where Edward Carson had raised the cry of “No Surrender” to rally the Protestant Loyalist forces.

The war cost 37 million casualties, 17 million of them dead. Was Martin one of them?

British soldiers heading off
It’s hard to say. Out of five and a half million who fought, 700,000 were killed. That he fought I have no doubt. I suspect he wouldn’t have joined up voluntarily, given his views, but in 1916 conscription was introduced and as a healthy young man in a line of work that wouldn’t have exempted him, he would certainly have been called up.

However, I’ve found no trace of him in any prominent position in the post-war National Union of Railwaymen or Labour Party. Did he merely fail in his ambitions to go into union or national politics, or was he one of the 700,000 dead? Or perhaps one of the 750,000 who were permanently disabled? There’s no way of knowing.

And then there were Martin’s more parochial hopes. On 4 August 1914, Lancashire’s arch-rivals Yorkshire notched up a commanding lead in their latest match. They wrapped up the game on the 5th, the day Martin read about the declaration of war.

The season ended with Surrey winning the County Championship. Lancashire was eleventh out of sixteen, in the bottom half of the table and well behind Yorkshire, which came fourth.

“Like I said,” explained Martin, “It turned into a lousy year, 1914.”

Monday, 4 August 2014

Countdown to War, Day 38. 4 August: German incursions in France; a fateful session of the House of Commons

One hundred years ago today, on Tuesday 4 August 1914, Martin and his mates would have discovered from the Manchester Guardian that the Continental Powers had taken another fatal step the day before.

Reuter’s Agency is informed by Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London, that he is authorised by the Imperial Chancellor to state officially that all news about a German invasion of French soil is without foundation.... On the other hand, several official reports had been received about French troops crossing the German frontier...

Reuter’s Agency is requested by the French Embassy to deny officially German allegations of an alleged violation of German territory by French officers.

“The fog of war,” said Martin.

“Its first casualty,’ replied the Cynic and, when Martin looked blank, added, “the truth.”

Reuter’s further reported:

A German patrol entered French territory, and came into collision with a French force near Joncheray. The officer in command of the invaders killed one of the French soldiers, whereupon he himself was slain by one of the dead men’s comrades...

This morning a fairly strong force of German cavalry advanced towards Suarée... three kilometres from the frontier...

According to official telegrams received here... German troops advanced on Herzerange and Langlaville, in the neighbourhood of Longwy.

A welcome cup of water served by a peasant woman
to French soldiers on the march
“So what’s happening?” asked a voice.

“No one seems to know,” replied the reader, and read a quotation from a French official in an article on “the spirit of France”

”The state of Franco-German relations is unprecedented. Germany has not only violated the neutrality of Luxemburg, but has also entered French territory at two points... Yet the German Ambassador remains in Paris...”

“So – are they at war or aren’t they at war?”

“Of course they’re at war,” said the Cynic, “it doesn’t suit the Germans to admit it yet so they’ve left the Ambassador in place.”

“They’re not feeling cheerful in Vienna, apparently,” went on the reader.

Government quarters here contemplate the situation as superlatively critical...

To-day everybody seems to feel that the life of Austria-Hungary as a State may depend upon the outcome of the impending struggle, and in any case the sacrifices of blood and money which it will impose on the population far exceed anything foreseen when only Servia was pitted against the Dual Monarchy.

“Yes,” said the Cynic, “Austria-Hungary’s bitten off more than it can chew, fighting Germany’s battles with France and Russia, instead of just its own with little Serbia.”

“Italy’s staying neutral,” said Martin pensively, “so it can be done.”

“What, you’re still clinging on to that hope, are you?” asked the Cynic, “here, pass me the paper.”

The Cynic leafed through until he’d found an article headlined “A Fateful Sitting of the Commons.”

Leading members of the Liberal Government but leading hawks
David Lloyd George (left) and Winston Churchill
Rather less than two hours sufficed to-day for the essential passages of the strangest, the most moving, and in every sense of the word the most fateful sitting of Parliament within living memory...

As Ministers came to their seats those whose names had been associated with rumours of resignation were greeted with general cheering. Both Mr. Churchill and Mr. Lloyd George were thus welcomed, and it was noted that the part taken in their ovation by the Opposition was particularly marked. Some time passed before Mr. Asquith joined his colleagues. Even in cheering their careworn leader members scrutinised his grave and impassive face with eager curiosity, as if in search of some sign of hope. None was visible.

Not much to smile about
The last Liberal Prime Minister,  Herbert Asquith
He would be replaced by Lloyd George at the end of 1916
The Cynic paused. 

“Churchill and Lloyd George are the war party in government. Everyone thought they’d resign if we decided on neutrality. They haven’t so now they’re being cheered by the war party in the Commons, the Tories.”

He went on.

... Sir Edward Grey rose to take the nation into the confidence of the Cabinet...

On the surface the earlier part of his statement seemed to be a justification for neutrality or relative inaction... in commenting on the obligations in honour by which France was tied to Russia in the war, Sir Edward Grey frankly admitted that such obligations could not apply in the same way to this country... Even so, our long-standing friendship with France – “And with Germany,” interjected a Liberal member – had led to arrangements which, in Sir Edward’s opinion, involved us in certain responsibilities.

Of those, the heaviest turned out to be the undefended condition of the northern and western coasts of France, due to the withdrawal of the French fleet to the Mediterranean. Here a hypothetical case was presented – the possible event of an attack on those coasts by the German fleet and of ourselves looking on as dispassionate spectators. With greater energy than he had hitherto shown, Sir Edward, raising his voice and speaking with unusual emphasis, utterly dismissed the latter hypothesis and declared that in such an event we could not possibly stand aside. Amid the general cheering evoked by this declaration the Nationalists made their voices unmistakably heard. “Hurrah for France!” shouted Mr. William Redmond...

William Redmond?” asked Martin.

“Brother of John,” explained the Cynic, “also an MP. What? You thought the Irish were above dynastic politics? Just because they want to be rid of us doesn’t make them any better. You watch: Ireland will have just the same kind of trotters in the trough behaviour as anywhere else, in or out of the United Kingdom.”

“And now they want us in this war...” said Martin.

“It’s all going to come down to Belgium,” went on the Cynic.

... there was the more serious question of the invasion of Belgian territory – a question, as the Minister showed, which earlier in the crisis had been the subject of unsatisfactory diplomatic negotiations...

“Didn’t anybody speak out against?” asked Martin.

“Of course they did. Your mate for one,” answered the Cynic and went on reading.

Some impatience was shown while Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, in his firm yet temperate manner, was giving voice to the determination of the Labour party to have no part in a policy of war...

“Well, at least we can count on Labour,” sighed Martin, “one party that’ll never take this country to war against the will of its people.”

“Probably best never to use the word never, young man,” said the Cynic.

...the House listened in sombre stillness to speech after speech from the Liberal benches, all, with scarcely an exception, severely critical of the Foreign Minister’s arguments and actions.

“A Liberal government has lost the support of Liberal MPs,” said Martin sadly.

“And has to rely on the Tory Opposition to take us into war.”

The Cynic held up the paper to show another headline:


War Office announce the intended proclamation.

“We’re mobilising already,” he said, “how long can it be?”

“It’s already happening,” said a young man who’d just walked in, “it’s on the telegraph back at the station.”

“What do you mean?” asked Martin.

“The authorities are taking control of the railways. We work for the government now.”

There was a shocked silence broken by the Cynic laughing.

“So now our jobs will be to keep the cannon fodder moving round the country. Until we become cannon fodder ourselves.”