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In Prisoners Of Geography, Tim Marshall sets out to explain world politics in terms of geopolitics – that is, that nations are almost compelled by the physical attributes of their landscape to behave in certain ways. Thus, we are presented with a Russia that will always want to have a buffer of conquered states to the west where flat plains leave it vulnerable; South America will always be poor because the landscape lacks natural harbours and navigable rivers; and the interconnected rivers but high mountain ranges made it inevitable that Europe would become a trading zone divided by many languages. This all sounds plausible, but does it make a book? Whilst some of the arguments are compelling, it is all presented through the “Lens of Now”. By that, I mean taking the current reality, looking for how geography might have contributed, and then presenting the current state of affairs as an inevitability caused by geography. So, by way of example, China is presented as a successful nation because the Han culture and Mandarin language have achieved dominance in a flat area with natural boundaries and navigable rivers, but development is focused on the coastal region because of ease of transport. But in a parallel universe, where the Han race and Mandarin language had not come to dominate the others, would Tim Marshall have been arguing that an area as vast and flat as China could never be united and enjoy stable governance, always being at the mercy of warlords constantly invading one another’s territory? And thirty years ago when China was not successful, it still had the same geography, didn’t it? Other examples in the book – the Middle East in particular – don’t seem to be much about geopolitics at all. That seems to be more a problem of cultures and religions jostling for supremacy. There are issues of arbitrarily creating nation states based on lines on a map, but the narrative seems more to be a statement of who currently holds what territory rather than any convincing explanation of how geopolitics got us there. There’s a feeling that even without the lines on the map, there would still be warring factions. And much seems to have been simplified: there is scarcely a mention, for example, of the Maronite Christians, how they came to be in the Levant area (i.e. driven out of Armenia by the Turks) and how the Turks had previously been driven out of Central Asia. By the same token, there’s not much thought about current population movements in the area and how they might impact on the future. Speaking of the future, there is some discussion of “where to from here”. We consider whether there will ever be a resolution of the Korean issue (answer – not any time soon); and how global warming might open up trade routes through the Arctic. There are occasional references to the politics of water supply. But unlike the definitive statements about how we got here, geography doesn’t seem to give up the future so easily. It all starts to get a bit vague. Overall there is some interesting material in this book – although after ten chapters it can start to feel a bit samey. Some people have criticized it for over-simplifying things but, in a way, that’s exactly what Tim Marshall set out to do. He wanted to increase our understanding of geopolitics in a very broad sense without having to read the extremely detailed material from which the theories derive. My real beef is not the simplification, it is the weight given to geopolitics in what is a more nuanced world: key decisions might have gone the other way; a different leader might have come to power; the war might have lasted another ten years; Russia might never have sold Alaska, etc. There are lots of what ifs – and I’m not sure this book gives sufficient recognition to those, or to the fact that we are looking at just one point in time facing a vast and unknowable future. ***00
Dear BGO Members, I write to draw your attention to my eBook, ‘The Evidence of Our Senses’: Language, Belief and Britain’s Great War. The book is the product of a student of English literature whose interest, in postgraduate years, turned more specifically to history and the relationships between language, patterns of thought and decision-making. The book examines the confection of a British sense of national identity during the second half of the nineteenth century and relates this to the illogicality and irrationality of the British decision to intervene in the European war that broke out in 1914. It examines the language of English poetry of the war, avoiding the sterile labels of ‘pro-‘ and ‘anti-‘ war verse. It gives the most thorough account to date of Siegfried Sassoon’s 1917 protest against the war’s continuation, demonstrating that the incoherence of that protest is attributable to the incoherence of the war itself (i.e. there was nothing identifiable against which to protest). It reviews British military conduct of the war, demonstrating that the shortcomings of senior British commanders are attributable to their subscription to the meretricious value-system confected in the nineteenth century. It reviews the Treaty of Versailles, confirming both that the Treaty was an improvisation and that the tenets of economic orthodoxy are fundamentally incompatible with a world-view that accepts the possibility of war. It reviews the factitious ‘war-books’ controversy of 1930 and indicates that latter-day attempts to attribute negative British perceptions of the First World War to the influence of a handful of literary works are recrudescences of the mind-set that created the war itself. In this sense, the book is an allegory of the contemporary Zeitgeist. An earlier version of Chapter One appeared as, ‘Confecting a British Identity’, in The New Nationalism and the First World War, ed. Lawrence Rosenthal and Vesna Rodic (Basingstoke and New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 19-46. An earlier version of Chapter Three was delivered as the paper, ‘Gesture and experience in “patriotic” and “anti-war” poetry’, at the English Association Conference, ‘British Poetry of the First World War’, at Wadham College, Oxford in September 2014. An earlier version of Chapter Seven appeared as, ‘Fiction and Memoir of Britain’s Great War: disillusioned or disparate?’, in the European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 22:5, 791-813. In an age of ‘fake news’ and labyrinthine relativism, I believe my book is extremely important. At the very least, it could start a discussion about the nature of truth and how we are to establish it. I think that is a discussion we need to have. I hope I have not committed a solecism by advertising my work here. Of course, I hope that people will be interested in my book, but I understand that advertisements can be irritating! Kindest regards, Rod Beecham
The Blunders of our Governments promises much but delivers short. Aside from a brief opening to say that broadly the Governments of the UK have achieved good things, the book launches into a list of "blunders", defined carefully to distinguish them from judgement calls that turned out to be incorrect. Blunders, essentially, are mistakes that should have been avoidable. Each blunder is set out in some detail, with an overall feel of political dispassion. The focus os on what happened, rather than who did what. It promises that the blunders will be examined in later chapters to discover why things went wrong, but goes to great pains to avoid personal blame. And because the blunders are set out in rough sequential order, they start with Tory blunders under Thatcher and Major, and then segue into Labour mistakes under Blair and Brown. The book makes the point that all governments, regardless of political complexion, are liable to commit blunders. Some of the blunders are well known: the Poll Tax; The ERM; the Child Support Agency; ID Cards. Others are less well known: esoteric computer systems, single payments for farmers; the PPP for London Underground. It is telling that whilst it is funny to hear the well known blunders laid out for analysis, the less well known ones are hard to grasp; it is never quite clear exactly what is happening or why it is such a bad thing. We take it at face value that bad things are being described, and this is supported by quotes from various audit reports, but they are not being described terribly well. Then, half way through, the authors stop setting out blunders and claim to identify the underpinning causes of the blunders. Some of this is hard to dispute: cultural disconnect; groupthink; lack of accountability; lack of IT procurement expertise. But each new factor brings a fresh roll call of the blunders. It quickly becomes repetitive. The analysis itself feels superficial and the authors' recommendations are not properly supported. For a start, although the blunders are described in terms of the amount of money wasted, there is no sense of how this sits within overall government expenditure. Is Government blowing 50% of its money; 5% or 0.5%. Or even less? If it is at the top end of the scale, then clearly something needs to be done. If it is at the bottom end, then is it just the price worth paying for otherwise efficient government? I have no view one way or the other, but the authors should have set it in context. The recommendations themselves - for increased use of legislative scrutiny committees; cross party working; longer tenure for ministers; bringing ministers in from outside Parliament may have some merit (who can say - the arguments deployed are flimsy and incomplete), but they are culturally impossible. It's all very well to say that the UK Parliament should be more like Scandinavia, but it isn't and never will be. Sure, you can construct new Parliaments (e.g. the Scottish Parliament) from a clean slate according to a different model, but you can't overturn centuries of tradition just to avoid another Poll Tax. And on the subject of the Poll Tax, the authors would have the reader believe that the Thatcher government could and would have opted for a banded property tax if only they had thought of it. The suggestion that the whole government was asleep as a couple of junior ministers got the proposal through is nonsense. There was an ideology at play and the Poll Tax embodied that ideology. The Tories knew what they were doing and just assumed they had the numbers to get it through (which they did) and that the public would comply (and there was little reason to think they wouldn't). The narrative behind this blunder just doesn't ring true. Similarly, the narrative behind ID cards misses the ideological points. Yes, it accurately reports that the decision was taken to introduce ID cards before anyone had thought of a purpose, but it doesn't get to the heart of the circumstances (knee-jerk reaction to the World Trade Center attacks); David Blunkett's wish to give people something tangible (c.f. his previous attempt to introduce ID cards for teachers); and Labour ministers' fear of appearing soft on civil liberties (hence, once the idea was proposed, none felt empowered to argue against). The failings of both these sections make me wonder just how much has been glossed over in other sections. The Blunder of our Governments is a light (if long) read and will bring back memories of past blunders and scandals. It is interesting to hear once-familiar names (Norman Fowler, Norman Tebbit, Lord Young, Nigel Lawson) being set in an ostensibly objective, historical context. It is interesting to think that things could have been different, even if one doubts that really to have been the case. But as serious academic study, this does not work because of the lack of context and scale. ***00
G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Napolean of Notting Hill’ was one of those free books that I downloaded in the first enthusiastic flush of having a Kindle. I enjoyed ‘A Man called Thursday’ a while back so decided to give this a go. For me, it didn’t measure up to ‘A Man Called Thursday’ but it has its place in time. Written in 1904, Chesterton set the book in the future, in 1984. He is reputed to have given George Orwell (Eric Blair) a break by publishing an essay in in his magazine. Most of us are familiar with Orwell’s 1984. Chesterton’s future, though, includes no major technological differences and life on the surface seems very much the same as his own in 1904, but there are political and sociological differences. Chesterton ridicules the politics and philosophies of his time by exaggerating them, showing the absurdity of their extremes. People have not changed, but in some respects they have given in. Democracy has not been attained and most have given up trying for it. Government is run smoothly by the middle and upper classes without any disruptions from party politics or elections and most of the population are indifferent to it all. The monarchy is no longer hereditary, but a king as still necessary, as a figurehead, to get legislation through. He is chosen randomly from the people. Life is mostly peaceful, respectable, boring, dull and apathetic and anyone with a little colour to them stands out. Auberon Quin is one of these. He longs to break free and have fun, just to have a laugh. Then, just as he starts to do this, a new king is chosen and life changes for a large part of London, not least a redefining of the place-names. There are several battles, but, although they are bloody and people die, they are not really gory, they read more like play scripts, including a few Shakespearian-type speeches or campaign notes, dealing with strategy rather than feelings, emotion and pain. There is a map in the book, but it wasn’t very clear on my kindle so I looked it up on computer several times. Chesterton writes eloquently and his prose flows making the reading a pleasure. I enjoyed the humour and I liked the absurdity of the whole thing. In the past I have read that he wrote in paradoxes and I have also read that that statement belittles Chesterton’s thinking. I haven’t studied him enough to know, but I did find that he set me thinking in paradoxes. For example, I usually hold that I don’t support patriotism or regionalism and nationalism on the grounds that they foster arguments and wars and indeed we see a microcosm of this in the book, but then I do support free thinking and free speech and if that had to be sacrificed to get peace. Would I be looking for new colour in the grey world? Interestingly there are no women as main characters in the book. Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ acknowledges Chesterton as an influence by opening with a quotation from ‘The Napolean of Notting Hill’. He too has a London shaped by place-names and gives a social comment of his own.