In or Out?
Carl Gardner is perplexed that Tariq Ali could think he has ‘good socialist reasons’ to support Brexit and claims that he has ‘joined Gove, Farage, Johnson and the like’ (Letters, 17 March). One might as well say that Gardner has ‘joined’ David Cameron, the CBI, the bulk of British corporations and the US State Department. Both sides in the official debate will feature pro-business and anti-immigrant rhetoric; the left has to stake out its own position independently of either.
It is far from inevitable that Brexit will mark a shift to the right in British politics. The immediate impact would probably be to topple Cameron. It would certainly weaken British capital and its imperialist role in the world. In any case, the left cannot afford to think in purely national terms. The EU that Britain is a member of is the same EU that presided over the brutalisation of the Greek people. It is the same EU that is currently, with a little help from Nato, seeking to repel desperate refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere. It is the same EU that is engaging in the secret negotiations surrounding the TTIP, CETA and TiSA trade deals, which are designed to strengthen the role of multinational corporations and undermine regulations that protect people from them. Socialists should make no apology for mounting an independent, internationalist campaign against the EU.
Carl Gardner foresees that should Britain leave the EU, ‘the Scots would … part company with the UK after their next referendum.’ There isn’t a cat in hell’s chance that Nicola Sturgeon will call an independence referendum any time soon, even if virtually the whole of the UK votes for Brexit. She needs polls showing at least 60 per cent in favour of independence for a period of, say, a year. We have never seen such numbers. The oil price has collapsed and the Scottish deficit is £15 billion. What’s more, the SNP benefited from first past the post at the general election, as all parties do from time to time, but under conventional proportional representation, the SNP would have secured roughly 25 seats, not 56. Fifty per cent of the electorate didn’t vote for it. There is little prospect of another independence referendum for, at minimum, another five years. Sturgeon is hugely popular but she doesn’t want to go down in history as the Nationalist who killed independence for generations to come.
As a Non-Lawyer…
Francis FitzGibbon describes the fiasco in which a senior judge, later promoted to the House of Lords, got the law wrong in 1984 and it took more than thirty years to spot the mistake and put it right, leaving countless murder convictions open to question, with all the consequences that implies both for those convicted and for the families of the victims (LRB, 3 March). Having done so he concludes that the story shows ‘something admirable’ about our legal system. As a non-lawyer I see it differently. I remember being taught as a civil servant many years ago that I should never attempt to draft language to be included in legislation, because only a lawyer could choose his words in such a way that dangerous ambiguity would be avoided. It seemed sensible advice at the time.
Really Good at Killing
I am nonplussed by Scott Shane’s suggestion, summarised by Thomas Nagel, that the outrage against drone warfare has to do with the ‘small scale of these unintended slaughters’ compared to the ‘big ground wars which Obama had inherited’ (LRB, 3 March). My own outrage against drone attacks derives in large part from there being no declared war against the targeted parties. Obama has arrogantly substituted executive assassination for the constitutional requirements with respect to aggression in the name of US citizens. On 5 March, with the justification that he believed they were terrorists, he ordered a drone attack that killed 150 Somalians in a country we have not been invited into and with which we are in no declared conflict.
Thomas Nagel doesn’t mention that a number of former drone pilots, sensor operators and technicians have banded together in a ‘Refuse to Fly’ protest urging their colleagues to disobey orders to shoot. Their arguments are that drones cause heavy civilian casualties; that they create an ‘institutional culture’ unmoved by the deaths of children; that there is widespread drug and alcohol abuse on the part of operators, who may be working impaired; and that the targeted assassination programme is self-defeating because it aids the recruitment of terrorists.
Representation of the People
Tony Arnold addresses a serious point about the historical link between property-ownership and the right to vote (Letters, 3 March). But he makes a common factual error that has major implications for our understanding of the franchise in Britain. The error is to suppose that the term ‘householders’ in the various Representation of the People Acts refers to what today would be called ‘home-owners’. Had that been so, none of the Reform Acts would have had much effect, if only because, until the First World War, only about 10 per cent of dwellings were owner-occupied – across all classes. The householder, by contrast, was any adult man who occupied a dwelling and contributed towards the rates: a definition excluding not only his wife but also any adult sons living under the parental roof. And in the 1832 Reform Act it had been only the ‘ten-pound householder’ (meaning an annual rent at this level) who qualified. Hence the real importance of the abolition of this threshold in the 1867 Reform Act, which applied to the boroughs, and in the 1884 Reform Act, which applied to county constituencies too.
We used to think that this system grossly under-represented the working class. After all, before 1914 only about one-third of the twenty million British adults had the Parliamentary vote and only about two-thirds of adult men. Historians now see things differently, primarily because of the pioneering work of the late Duncan Tanner, whose early death is commemorated in The Art of the Possible, edited by Chris Williams and Andrew Edwards. The fact is that when the Representation of the People Act of 1918 extended the franchise, it did so not by (supposedly) abolishing property qualifications, but by enfranchising two large categories of voter. Since all men over 21 now qualified (and under 21 if they were soldiers), there were new male voters in all social classes; and, of course, there were now female voters. But had all women been given the vote, they would now have outnumbered the men. This shocking danger was averted by stipulating a different age threshold for women, who had to be thirty, and by stipulating too that (unless property-owners themselves) they had to be the wives of local government electors. And how did local government electors qualify? In effect, as householders. So the old household suffrage lived on in this ghostly fashion, now generally qualifying a married couple, and still excluding the sort of younger women who might well have been wartime Voluntary Aid Detachment or munitions workers. The true definition of the householder is not a quibble but the key to understanding how Britain became a democratic country.
Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Rosemary Hill’s review of Tate Modern’s Calder exhibition may too easily have accepted the museum’s rationale for rendering Calder’s mobiles immobile (LRB, 3 March). As she reports, the exhibition includes sculptures designed by Calder to be in continuous motion by use of electric motors. As exhibited, however, these sculptures stand immobile because of the museum’s desire to preserve crude and delicate motors now more than eighty years old. Hill endorses this decision, observing that ‘mechanisms wear out.’
Mechanisms do wear out, but that is hardly sufficient to justify altering the character of what Calder intended. Motors in cars also wear out, but a 1949 MG whose engine has been refurbished with some new parts is still a 1949 MG. And just as motors wear out, so does paint – we call it fading – but a restored 16th-century Caravaggio is still a Caravaggio, even though the restorer has replaced (some) old paint with new. So too with Calder’s motors.
Tate Modern’s erasure of some of Calder’s creativity appears to be caused by an unfortunate obsession with artefactual originality. There is indeed value to leaving some artefacts untouched, but this goal is often opposed to, and not in the service of, historical and artistic accuracy. If we are concerned to display only what Calder himself actually touched, Tate Modern’s approach makes sense. But if we are concerned to show and preserve Calder’s art, then preserving by restoration the motion of his mobiles would have been better.
The Butcher Bird
Mark Ford may be correct in suggesting that ‘A Masque for Three Voices’ isn’t the poet’s finest, but Ted Hughes was a better ornithologist than Ford is (LRB, 17 March). The ‘butcherbird’ is Australian, of the genus Cracticus. But the ‘Butcher Bird’ (as Hughes has it) is the English vernacular name shared by the three or four species of shrike (genus Lanius) found much closer to home, across Europe and – yes – into the former Soviet Union. Hughes probably meant the red-backed shrike.
I state this clearly in my book
While I welcome Jeremy Harding’s essay on Angola, a country typically ignored by the British media, I am disappointed that he should seek to caricature my view on the number of people killed following events on 27 May 1977 (LRB, 17 March). There isn’t a single incident of large-scale political violence in Angola whose numbers are not disputed. Far from being ‘confidently agnostic’, as Harding would have you believe, I was inspired by the philosopher Judith Butler, who in Frames of War writes that knowing how to count is ‘not the same as figuring out how and whether a life counts’. I state this clearly in my book. I also state, in the same paragraph from which Harding pulls the quote, that the steady inflation of the number of dead hasn’t had any influence on the Angolan government, the international community or, for that matter, anyone else. This is not a topic for supercilious comment: it is a tragedy for the friends and families of the dead.
Likewise, far from being ‘unable to decide whether it was a coup or an uprising’, I make it clear that I suspect it was both. This conclusion is the result of my detailed interviews with Angolans and others who were there on the day. I treat each interviewee with equal seriousness and weight, a deliberate and ethical decision on my part. It is up to the reader to decide who and what they believe.
Finally, I am intrigued that Harding should devote the best part of a paragraph to defending Michael Wolfers, while brushing over, in half a sentence, the dozen ‘victims of totalitarianism’ whom I also interview. I would point out that Wolfers’s description of a number of his black Angolan colleagues at the radio station was hardly sympathetic. He sums them up as ‘tawdry’, ‘empty-headed’ and ‘idle’. He refers to ‘psychological factors’ too, implying that they were somehow mentally unwell. Many of these men were executed during the purges. Wolfers died a natural death in an exclusive London club.