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Friday 29 May 2015

Review: Andrew Morton, 17 Carnations: the Windsors, the Nazis and the Cover-Up

This is what you end up with if you place at the heart of your country’s constitution a struggling dysfunctional family, often enough just not up to the job or any job. There are plenty of occasions reading Andrew Morton’s book when I thought “Just like Prince Charles!” and “Just like Prince Harry”. The Windsors ( and their previous incarnation, the Saxe Coburg Gothas whose name they dropped in 1917 ) have only ever had much luck when their women have been in charge: Victoria, George VI’s wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the Queen Mother), Elizabeth II.

Unfortunately, this is not a good book. I find it hard to believe that the author read it cover to cover before signing it off:  two thirds of the way through, it is as if another (and inferior) writer takes over in Chapter 13 who then goes on to re-tell from a different perspective what has already been told in the first dozen chapters (and already more than once). So though I began reading with interest I ended up more than ready to put the book down.

It is not original research and in offering many quotations from a fair number of historians who have already written about Edward VIIIs sympathy for Hitler (and his own German aristocratic relatives who rallied to Hitler’s cause) it ends up without a clear verdict on the nature of his disloyalty to his country and his country’s various governments in the 1930s and 1940s. Morton has at least one excuse: though many important incriminating documents survive, others have surely been destroyed and more would have been if the House of Windsor and the Governments of the 1940s had had their way. (Just as nowadays, it is the Government which is fighting to keep Prince Charles' indiscreet political letters from becoming public)

The man who briefly became Edward VIII before abdicating to marry an American divorcee combined popular charisma with a deeply unpleasant private personality, his wife likewise. There are many examples in the book to make you think, “These people are complete shits”.

Like Prince Charles, Edward believed in an “active” monarchy which would not restrict itself to the constitutional duties of advising, encouraging and warning. But it’s unclear on what Edward felt his right to intervene to be based: he doesn’t appear to have studied much, read much or spent much time talking to anyone who wasn’t a crony or a crook – or a flatterer and spy. Perhaps then just Divine Right gave him the authority he assumed, after the Abdication, to conduct protracted freelance diplomacy with the Nazis and their allies.

Deeply self-centred and often childish, he had no notion of discretion and his careless talk in France in 1940 – where he had an active duty military posting - may have cost lives. On that Morton is reasonably decisive.That may have been one reason he was then posted to the Bahamas where he was made to sit out the war as Governor. Primarily, he was exiled from Europe to keep him a long way away from his Nazi chums.

The insecure George VI and the vindictive Queen Mary (George V's widow and Edward's mother) and Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother ensured that after the war, there was no place for him in Britain. But in perpetuating the family feud as dysfunctional families are supposed to do, they may have done some good. Edward VIII got away with actions which in the case of lesser mortals might have led to war-time internment. He does not even appear to have been questioned under caution. After the war, he had little or no scope for any action. 

Monday 25 May 2015

Review: Suki KIm, Without You, There is No Us

You couldn’t make it up. North Korea boasts one private university, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). It teaches  - in English and for free -  a couple of hundred male children of the North Korean elite, picked by the regime. The University is funded mainly by American Evangelical Christian groups and the teaching staff are mostly  Christian missionaries, who are however forbidden to proselytise. Go to Wikipedia to find out more about PUST (which you can do, unless you are in North Korea where Internet access is restricted to a very small group with usage monitored by guards).

Suki Kim, a Korean American born in Seoul, got herself a job at the University in 2011, shortly after it opened and at which time it was no more than a glorified English language school with its own new campus. She had her own agenda: not as a Christian, but as an investigative journalist and writer. This book is the product of teaching at PUST for two semesters. Her website contains a page defending the ethics of what she did.

This book is her strange diary of teaching in a strange land among strange teachers: the kind of fundamentalist teachers who won’t enter a Buddhist temple (page 211) or entertain the idea of letting students watch Harry Potter. (“filth” page 275).

Presumably, the North Korean authorities feel that they have something in common with American evangelical Christians and I guess they do: “mad” comes to mind quite frequently as you read this book. Both groups are intellectually isolated. Google to find out how many Americans believe that the sun goes round the earth or that human beings are the product of special creation.

North Korea is a country where over ninety percent of the population is kept hidden from outside eyes. They are impoverished, hungry,sick and afraid. They are at permanent risk of brutal punishment. They are –  Suki Kim uses the word – slaves. They do not appear in photographs.

What outsiders are allowed to see is a theatre – Potemkin churches (“Freedom of Religion”), Potemkin farms, Potemkin crowds – against a stage set of endless monuments to the Kim dynasty and endless socialist realist exhortations.

What Suki Kim encounters is a small group of elite students who know next to nothing about the world outside Pyongyang, but who are clever enough to know that they don’t know. They are na├»ve, sexually frustrated, and very very fearful. They operate exclusively in groups (though that is common enough among young men – think English football fans). They look alike and act alike. They are at least half mad.

It is difficult to see how North Korea can change. Except for the blanket of ideology which stifles everything, the relationship of the capital to the rest of the country is not so different to that found in mineral-rich African states, where the capital city’s wealth stands in total contrast to rural impoverishment. Except that North Korea has little by way of natural resources. The regime is propped up by the proceeds of crime, the proceeds of slave labour, foreign aid, and - as I now discover - Christian missionaries. There is no economy to speak of. What money there is goes into the military programme.

This is a troubling, very emotional (and probably flawed) book. It contains very little to comfort and a lot to disturb.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Review: Owen Jones, The Establishment

This is a straightforward Them (the 1%) and Us (the 99%) book. It's lucid, well-documented, compelling and sometimes - as in the chapter on the police - scary. Rather than concentrate on its many strengths, I will focus on my doubts.

(1) Trade Unions. It's true that the assault on Trade Union power, led initially by Mrs Thatcher and continued ever since, has helped produce a much more casualised, readily exploitable, and lower paid labour force than existed for many industries - but not all - in the 1960s and 70s. But that assault was possible because the old Trade Unions pissed off a lot of people and not just the bosses.

There has always been some tension between the goals of trade unions and the aims of socialist or social democratic political parties. The former are designed to advance the interests of sections of the labour force; the latter to advance the interests of all workers. Those aims can conflict. In the UK the miners, for example, got into the habit of expecting everyone to stand up for their pay claims - partly playing on other people's guilt when they didn't themselves do such dirty or dangerous work - until a point was reached (for me, in 1984) when people no longer wanted to jump when the miners said Jump! Oh, the miners might get sentimental about the nurses, but that's not the same as a proper discussion about who should be paid what and why. 

Look at France, which retains strong unions ever-ready to strike, and what you see, partly as a long-term consequence of unions pursuing sectional interests is, on the one hand, large groups (notably in the public sector) with very good terms and conditions of employment and, in stark contrast, two big, overlapping, excluded groups: young workers ( or would-be workers) and migrants from France's former colonies, mostly blacks and mostly Muslims. Whatever the rhetoric - and there's an awful lot of it in France - the effect of sectionalism has not been favourable either to equality or fraternity. 

(2) The Big State. Around the world, more egalitarian societies have bigger states, taking a larger share of GDP. This is a bit depressing because in the UK at least, the state has a poor record for efficiency and transparency. To this day, the National Audit Office churns out report after report documenting the waste of billions. Transfer activities have an inherent inefficiency because when you take from A to give to B, there are always administrative costs and, on top of that, there is often bungling. It would be nice if we could cut out the middleman.

Apparently, there is just one major state - Japan - which scores well on equality but has a relatively small state (for details, see Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level). 

How could you achieve both a lot of equality and a smaller state? It could be done, for example, by legislating high minimum wages and capping top wages. If that is combined with the use of inheritance tax as a major source of state revenues, you can dramatically level the playing field. The last thing I can get enthusiastic about are systems which make heavy use of indirect taxes (VAT) and subsidies such as tax credits and housing benefit. On the other hand, when you legislate for equality then if you are way out of line with market forces, you just end up with black markets, dual systems, evasion and so on. That is, unless people are satisfied with their situation - Owen Jones, for example, points out that nowhere else in Europe do bankers expect to be paid such huge amounts as those in London. And in Germany, at least,corporate greed seems much less common - big companies are kept in the family, not asset stripped and bankrupted by their bosses. So there are cultural issues - and I suspect they include such things as the culture of stag parties and men-only football (In Germany at the time of the World Cup, I was amazed to find the streets full of painted, flag-waving but mixed-sex and sober groups).

(3) Profit. Owen Jones spends a lot of time denouncing the selling off and outsourcing of public services for private profit. Leave aside that there exists some support for this because people got fed up with crap public services. Concentrate on the issue of Profit.

Suppose it cost the public sector £150 to provide some identifiable chunk of a service - like issuing a TV licence or producing a chest X ray. Now suppose a private firm comes along and offers to do it for £100 plus a whacking £25 profit. It's still better value for money than the public service. Why not let them have their profit?

Since there may be important reasons to keep a service public, the first response to this situation should be to ask why the public service is more expensive and whether it can be made more competitive. Frequently, it can indeed be made more competitive - and Owen Jones is quite right to point to the purely ideological commitment to private provision which characterises our recent governments and which led, for example, to the selling off of the one public service rail franchise (the East Coast mainline) which just happened to be more efficient and more profitable than any of the heavily subsided private sector rail rackets. 

To make Profit the enemy is a dangerous oversimplication (as in "People not Profit"). People can benefit from Profit - but not from ideologies of Profit which is what we are currently offered.