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Bernard Porter

Bernard Porter’s recent books include Imperial Britain: What the Empire Wasn’t and Empire Ways. He lives in Stockholm.

Spies in the Congo

Bernard Porter, 19 October 2016

No one asked the Congolese whether the Americans could take over their treasure to make the most terrifying and destructive weapon the world had seen, and then feed the American appetite for hegemony. They weren’t told of the Congolese component of the Hiroshima bomb until 17 years later. Then they got mad. ‘Bang! What a shock,’ Albert Makelele wrote. ‘A Belgian … stole Congo uranium … which went into a bomb.’

Gallipoli

Bernard Porter, 20 May 2015

From the time​ of the Crusades onwards, Western military interventions in the Near and Middle East have nearly all been disastrous; in the long run – just look at Iraq today – but usually in the short term too. The Gallipoli adventure of 1915, a disaster in every way, was dreamed up after Turkey sided with Germany in the Great War. Churchill’s cunning plan was to cut...

Genocide in Tasmania

Bernard Porter, 30 July 2014

It’s​ well known now that contact with British settlers in the early 19th century led to the extinction of the native Tasmanians; it was pretty well known at the time too. But much about that extinction is obscure, including the numbers involved: most estimates suggest that in 1803 between five and ten thousand aborigines lived on the island, and that by 1876 there were none –...

Lawrence in Arabia

Bernard Porter, 2 April 2014

T.E. Lawrence was one of history’s winners and one of its great losers. He was a winner in terms of the mythology that surrounded his reputation both in his own day and afterwards, as reflected in the 1962 David Lean biopic, presenting him as the romantic hero – tall, blue-eyed, in flowing robes – he always wanted to be. His failures are familiar to anyone who has taken any...

Black Market Britain

Bernard Porter, 23 May 2013

Britons on the home front in the Second World War bore the sacrifices the war imposed on them without too much complaint. In particular they accepted the need for market controls and rationing, which were intended to constrain the demand for precious consumables, ensure their quality and allow them to be shared out equally. This in a society which before then had been notably inegalitarian,...

Imperial Spooks

Bernard Porter, 21 March 2013

It’s pretty obvious why British governments have been anxious to keep the history of their secret service secret for so long. In the case of decolonisation, which is the subject of Calder Walton’s book, revelations about dirty tricks even after fifty years might do irreparable damage to the myth carefully cultivated at the time: which was that for Britain, unlike France, say, or...

Macaulay & Son

Bernard Porter, 22 November 2012

Thomas Babington Macaulay – later Lord Macaulay, and ‘Tom’ to Catherine Hall – was the most influential of all British historians. Sales of the first two volumes of his great History of England, published in 1848, rivalled those of Scott and Dickens. The main reason for his popularity, apart from his literary style, was that he flattered the English by crediting them...

The Meek Assassin

Bernard Porter, 5 July 2012

If Spencer Perceval is remembered at all today it’s probably as the answer to a question in a pub quiz: who is the only British prime minister ever to have been assassinated? But both he and his nemesis, John Bellingham, are more interesting than this implies, and the fatal act that brought them together, Andro Linklater thinks, is more significant and also more mysterious. They have...

Science in Africa

Bernard Porter, 10 May 2012

British imperialism may have been oversold. Anti-imperialists tend to blame it for most of the problems of the modern world; a rather smaller band of apologists credits it with spreading modernity. These views are not incompatible: either way it is seen as crucial. Most of the popular debate centres on whether it was (or is) a force for good or for ill. Little consideration is given to the...

Simon Mann

Bernard Porter, 26 January 2012

In Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War, Sir James Manson hires a mercenary called ‘Cat’ Shannon to stage a coup in the tiny West African state of Zangaro – Equatorial Guinea thinly disguised – and replace its tyrannical president with one who will, perhaps, be less tyrannical, and will definitely grant Sir James the highly profitable platinum-mining concession he...

The Opium War

Bernard Porter, 3 November 2011

In China the Opium War is taken to mark the beginning of the country’s modern history, seen as one of continuous national humiliation under the heel of Western imperialism, bravely but hopelessly resisted by the peasantry, until Chairman Mao came along. It takes pride of place in school history courses; monuments, museums, books, films and TV documentaries are devoted to it; and there...

The Food War

Bernard Porter, 14 July 2011

It isn’t true that starvation is just like being hungry, only worse. ‘Victims of starvation die of nutritional dystrophy,’ Lizzie Collingham writes in The Taste of War,

a process whereby, once the body has used up all its fat reserves, the muscles are broken down in order to obtain energy. The small intestine atrophies and it becomes increasingly difficult for the victim to...

The AK-47

Bernard Porter, 6 January 2011

The Kalashnikov automatic rifle is light, portable and cheap. It scarcely ever jams, even in the most extreme conditions – tropical heat, Arctic cold, bogs, deserts. It can be disassembled and reassembled ‘by Slavic schoolboys in less than 30 seconds flat’. Millions have been manufactured and distributed worldwide. The gun has become iconic, especially among anti-colonial...

GCHQ

Bernard Porter, 18 November 2010

Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, gathers secret intelligence electronically rather than through spies: ‘sigint’ as opposed to ‘humint’. (There is also ‘comint’, ‘elint’, ‘comsec’, ‘sinews’ and ‘sigmod’.) It was the last of Britain’s three (that we know of) national secret services to be...

Monitoring Morale

Bernard Porter, 8 July 2010

When Chamberlain took the British to war in September 1939, he had little idea of how they would respond. Very few of those in authority did. In their introduction to this important collection of documents, Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang point out the ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ that separated ministers and civil servants from ‘the broad mass of the British...

Israel, South Africa and the Bomb

Bernard Porter, 24 June 2010

Each found erstwhile allies and trading partners dropping away – Israel even lost US support for a while in the 1970s – except South Africa in the case of Israel, and vice versa. ‘When it comes to choosing our friends,’ the president of the Israeli-South Africa Chamber of Commerce said in 1983, ‘we haven’t got too many friends we can afford to antagonise.’ Pariahs can’t be choosers. That seems to have been the fundamental basis of the relationship between them.

Knut Hamsun

Bernard Porter, 27 May 2010

If Knut Hamsun is remembered at all in Britain – he never really caught on here – it is as the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer who became a Nazi, and a betrayer of his country during the Second World War. For the majority of his compatriots, suffering under the German occupation and yet still, many of them, courageously resisting it, this fall from national hero to traitor...

MI5

Bernard Porter, 19 November 2009

As well as being relaxed about reading other people’s letters, these people seem – from the examples quoted here – to have been racist, anti-semitic, sexist and homophobic (ostensibly) to a degree unusual even for their time, though perhaps not for their class. They also tended to be cheery and fond of outdoor sports.

Churchill’s Failings

Bernard Porter, 27 August 2009

Carlo D’Este, a retired US army lieutenant-colonel much admired in military history circles for his books about World War Two, knows a real soldier when he sees one, and on most counts Churchill doesn’t measure up. He was certainly fascinated by soldiering from an early age – it was his toy soldiers, he claimed, that did it – but he seems to have gone to Sandhurst only...

Corruption and Post-Imperialism

Bernard Porter, 26 March 2009

You can’t just march into someone else’s country, give it entirely arbitrary boundaries, decide to rule it with only the minimum of resources, settle an alien population on its best land, brutally suppress any sign of resistance, then scuttle before you’ve properly prepared it for self-government – and expect everything to turn out OK. That’s with the best will...

Lady Hester Stanhope

Bernard Porter, 23 October 2008

She was a wonder, a legend. The writer Alexander Kinglake said that when he was a child in the 1820s Lady Hester Stanhope’s name was as well known to him as Robinson Crusoe’s, though he thought Crusoe was more believable. A century later, her table-talk (retailed in six volumes by her doctor-companion, Charles Meryon, and first published in 1845-46) was still being studied for the...

Torching the White House

Bernard Porter, 21 February 2008

Britain has fought the Americans twice. The first occasion we know about: it was the war that secured the colonists’ independence (1775-83). Mark Urban’s book is about the experiences of one British regiment – the Royal Welch Fusiliers – in that campaign. (Most of them weren’t Welsh, incidentally.) The second war scarcely anyone in Britain has heard of, and even...

The End of Empire

Bernard Porter, 2 August 2007

Gosh, how civilised it was. ‘At last, without convulsion, without tremor and without agony, the great ship goes down.’ The ‘great ship’ was the British Empire; the words are those of the imperial historian Jack Gallagher. Noel Annan believed that the ‘peaceful divestment of the empire’ was ‘the most successful political achievement of Our Age’....

How bad was Stanley?

Bernard Porter, 5 April 2007

For a biographer looking for an unlikely reputation to rescue, reputations don’t come much unlikelier than that of Henry Morton Stanley. Widely excoriated in his own time as one of the most brutal of African travellers, condemned by historians for his part in the creation of King Leopold II’s Congo Free State, and derided both then and since for his famous but embarrassingly arch...

The Central African Federation

Bernard Porter, 25 May 2006

The Central African Federation was one of the most bizarre creations of late British imperialism. Formed controversially in 1953 out of the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi), it never looked like succeeding, and spluttered to an ignominious death ten years later. Everything about it was wrong. It wasn’t even a federation in the...

The Falklands War

Bernard Porter, 20 October 2005

In 1982 Britain’s continued possession of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands was ridiculous. Even at the British Empire’s height they had been one of its least important and favoured colonies. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 they were represented by a showcase containing some tufts of wool and dried grasses. Dr Johnson’s famous description of them in 1771, which Lawrence...

Britain’s Atrocities in Kenya

Bernard Porter, 3 March 2005

“In March 1953 a British policeman wrote a letter to his buddies back at Streatham police station bragging about the ‘Gestapo stuff’ that was going on in his new posting in Nyeri. All this happened a few years after the war, so such analogies came quickly to mind. The critics – many of whom had fought against Nazi Germany – knew what they were talking about too. One relatively liberal police chief in Kenya claimed that conditions in the detention camps were far worse than those he had suffered as a Japanese POW. Comparisons were also made with the Soviet gulags, and, later on, by a former defence lawyer for the Mau Mau, with ‘ethnic cleansing’. The accepted view of Britain’s decolonisation hitherto has been that it was done in a more dignified, enlightened and consensual way than by other countries – meaning, of course, France. It will be difficult now to argue this so glibly. Kenya was Britain’s Algeria.”

The recent revival of military imperialism has had many commentators rummaging in history for precedents. The occupation of Egypt in the 1880s is a favourite one, largely because its imperialist character was similarly denied at the time. The British government was going in to rescue the Egyptians from tyranny and mismanagement; it had no desire for territory, and as soon as it had set up a...

Cannabis and empire

Bernard Porter, 4 March 2004

Narcotic drugs taken for recreational purposes were, until comparatively recently, mainly associated with the ‘Orient’. They were used in Europe only by ‘Orientals’ and some adventurous and transgressive literati, though they were also hidden in patent medicines and tonics. In Asia and Africa, however, their use was fairly widespread, and they became part of the...

Rudyard Bloody Kipling

Bernard Porter, 25 April 2002

Kipling is an easy man to dislike. He wasn’t much loved in his own time, apparently, even by people – schoolmates, for example, and neighbours in Vermont – with whom he thought he was rubbing along well. In his later years he lost many of the friends he had, except the most right-wing ones and King George V, who found Kipling the only literary figure he could get on with at...

Winston Churchill

Bernard Porter, 14 January 2002

Why two more Churchill biographies? Geoffrey Best reckons there are fifty or a hundred out there already. Two good reasons to want to add to them would be the unearthing of new evidence or a radically different interpretation. Roy Jenkins says he is not ‘a great partisan of the “revelatory” biography’, and claims that for Churchill nearly all the ‘facts’...

Stella Rimington

Bernard Porter, 18 October 2001

Secret service memoirs are invariably rubbished. When Robert Anderson’s Lighter Side of My Official Life appeared in 1910 – Anderson had headed a counter-Fenian agency – Winston Churchill lambasted it in the House of Commons for its ‘gross boastfulness’: ‘It is written, if I may say so, in the style of “How Bill Adams Won the Battle of...

This book’s most startling revelation – if true – concerns the state of legal education in Britain today. We are told that from their ‘first days at law school’ our young lawyers are taught that civil liberties in this country are ‘protected by the common law’ and that ‘their violation has been the fault of Parliament’. The hero of the...

From The Blog
24 July 2019

It looked so unlikely to rational-minded commentators a few months ago as to make one wonder whether the entire historical process might, in fact, be governed by mere irrational chance. That would be anathema to most academic historians, who like to think that we can perceive order in events where ordinary folks can’t. Johnson’s elevation, however, suggests that anything can happen.

The accidental factors contributing to this astonishing outcome are obvious. That it should have come down in the end to a vote among fewer than 160,000 of the most reactionary people in Britain – the rump of the Conservative Party – is the most egregious.

From The Blog
31 December 2018

Jeremy Corbyn is getting a lot of stick just now – certainly on the anti-Brexit Facebook pages I subscribe to – for not coming out clearly in favour of a second referendum, and for Remain. The Guardian is especially critical: but when hasn’t it been, of this untidy bearded radical who flouts even liberal standards of political respectability? I have to say, a part of me is disappointed too. I’d have liked Labour to have taken more of a pro-European lead. But then I think again. There are three reasons for suspending judgment on Corbyn until the whole sorry affair has worked itself out.

From The Blog
11 April 2018

It must be spring. New political parties are sprouting all over. Two of the latest are Britain’s millionaire-funded Project One Movement – a provisional title, presumably – and, in Sweden, Alternativ för Sverige, the name obviously a nod to Alternative für Deutschland, formed in Germany in 2014.

From The Blog
21 February 2018

The right-wing press – Telegraph, Times, Mail, Express, Sun – is peddling the old accusation of ‘communist subversion’ against the Labour Party, specifically against Jeremy Corbyn. One leading Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, was forced, under threat of legal action, to withdraw a tweet in which he claimed that Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’. I hope they charge Bradley nonetheless. He’s the man who suggested that the unemployed could be vasectomised to stop them breeding.

From The Blog
26 January 2018

The IRA bomb that went off in the Grand Hotel, Brighton in the early hours of 12 October 1984 blew half the building to bits, killed five Tory high-ups, including an MP, and seriously injured 34 others. The security forces really should have sniffed it out before Margaret Thatcher and most of her Cabinet moved in. It had been set up, with a timer, several days in advance. As an assassination attempt directed against Thatcher, however, it failed, having been placed in the wrong room. ‘The cry went up: “Maggie’s safe!”’ Jonathan Aitken remembered afterwards. ‘Such was the relief that strangers shook hands, and clasped each other’s shoulders.’ (How ‘British’! No hugging or kissing!) It also failed as an act of terrorism. Terrorism is supposed to terrify. The Brighton bomb didn’t. If anything, it had the opposite effect.

From The Blog
14 September 2017

The Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described by the shadow leader of the house as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which expresses and enacts the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time. The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs against the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy.

From The Blog
1 March 2017

Donald Trump’s reference to Sweden at his rally in Florida on 18 February had Stockholmers mildly amused at first. 'We've got to keep our country safe … You look at what's happening in Germany, you look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what's happening in Brussels. You look at what's happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris.' He didn’t explicitly say that Sweden was experiencing Islamic terrorism, but that was clearly implied. His reference to ‘last night’ was precise. Swedish journalists tried to find the incident he might have been referring to, but could come up with nothing more exciting than snow-blocked roads in the north, a car chase in Stockholm and a randy elk. No Islamicists were involved. It transpired that Trump had been misled by an item on Fox News – where else? – which had tried to link rising crime in Sweden with its generous asylum policy; but even that turned out to have been a distortion.

From The Blog
1 November 2016

Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, plans to institute military cadet corps in schools. The idea, apparently, is not only to provide future recruits for the British army, but also to instil discipline and ‘British values’ – whatever he thinks they may be – in young people. School cadet corps started up in the later 19th century in order to encourage national and imperial patriotism. Most public schools had them; state schools refused to, out of anti-militaristic principle. (That was one reason Baden-Powell founded his Boy Scout movement.) As far as I know, the public schools have them still. So do, or did, the grammar schools that liked to ape the public schools, such as mine.

From The Blog
21 September 2016

My historical centre of gravity, so to speak, is the 1890s, and has involved research into the London Metropolitan Police; so I’ve been a keen watcher of Ripper Street on BBC2, starring Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Reid, a fictional detective in Whitechapel around then. It takes a strong stomach to watch it; but historically it’s pretty accurate, despite the occasional (unsurprising) anachronism. This week’s episode centred on the Thames Ironworks factory in the East End; and in particular its football team. Thames Ironworks FC was the original name of West Ham United, a.k.a. the Hammers or the Irons. I've followed them for decades. On Monday night, we saw them playing, convincingly (i.e. roughly but skilfully), in late-19th-century strip. The plot involves the murder of one of the star players – with a hammer. It also features the Arsenal. But I don’t want to give too much away.

From The Blog
27 June 2016

There hasn’t been much rejoicing on the winning side of the EU referendum. How many of them must have spent the weekend thinking: ‘Fuck, what have we done?’ As the pound plummets, Cameron falls on his sword, a clown is set to take over, Corbyn (the only one who put a rational case for the EU, if only the press had bothered reporting it) is stabbed by the Brutuses in his own party, the UK breaks up, region turns against region and generation against generation. I’m embarrassed meeting young people now; I ought to get a badge: ‘I may be an old fart, but I voted Remain.’

From The Blog
11 May 2016

I bought a black eye-patch (I’ve just had an eye operation) to frighten off any Man United hooligans at West Ham’s ‘farewell’ match at the Boleyn Ground last night. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about them. It was ours who spoiled the day - attacking the Man U bus with bottles as it drove into the ground. West Ham's co-chairman - the ex-pornographer David Sullivan, brought up as it happens in the same East London suburb as I was - blamed the visitors for being late. (He’s since retracted.) My son and I didn’t see any of the violence, and only learned of it as we were leaving, through a cordon of riot police. The game had had been a wonderful occasion, and - almost incidentally - a terrific match: 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, then 3-2 to the Irons. Joy was unconfined. Until we got out. As so often, it is the hooliganism that has made the headlines.

From The Blog
22 April 2016

Sweden’s relationship with the EU is almost as problematic as Britain’s. It only joined in 1995 – 25 years after the UK – and on the basis of a pretty narrow popular vote. At the same time, Norway voted to stay out. Like the UK, Sweden has spurned the euro. The bigger political parties are all pro-Europe. Sweden used to have a party like Ukip, known as Junilistan (‘June List’), which won 15 per cent of the vote in the 2004 European elections, but has withered away since. A recent opinion poll put its support at 0.3 per cent. There’s also a Folkrörelse (‘People’s Movement’) opposed to EU membership on mainly socialist grounds. The Vänsterpartiet (‘Left Party’, ex-communist) is anti-Europe. The right-wing Sverigedemokraten’s policy is to renegotiate the terms of Sweden’s membership, rather than to leave. The Greens are swithering.

From The Blog
17 March 2016

When I went up to Cambridge in October 1960, I found myself, for the first time, in the company of public schoolboys. My college, Corpus Christi, boasted – if that’s the word – a higher proportion of them than most, about 90 per cent, I would say, all appearing to fit in naturally to the ethos of the place, which I, at first, found strange and rather wonderful. They were all very pleasant to me, despite my ‘Estuary’ accent and the fact that I had lived at home during my school years, and I made close friends with a number of them. But there was always this barrier – of adolescent experience – between us. They knew things that I didn’t (and vice versa? perhaps). One thing was the proclivities of one of the fellows, the Rev. E. Garth Moore, notorious in public school circles as a sexual predator: they felt they needed to warn me, as a comparatively plebbish ingénu. ‘If Garth invites you to tea in his rooms,’ one of them told me on my first day, ‘don’t go. We know about him. You won’t understand.’ I think they were trying to protect me from embarrassment more than anything. It was kind of them. Anyhow, I did get the invitation, and politely turned it down.

From The Blog
4 March 2016

Back in Sweden again. (I travel back and forth.) What strikes me this time is the great contrast between the political and economic mood here and in the UK. Britain is gripped by ‘austerity’, and full of gloom and doom (except for the very rich). More cuts in social provision are promised, hitting the poorest and most disadvantaged, and the NHS is collapsing for want of funds. The government is using the ‘crisis’ to extend privatisation and diminish the state, on what appear to be purely ideological grounds.

From The Blog
7 January 2016

The Labour Party has always been split over foreign policy. The Boer War, fought between capitalists and racists, made it difficult to choose a side; likewise the First World War (imperialism v. Prussianism); less so the Second World War, which divided the Conservatives more. The Falklands War was fought against a fascist dictator, but by the hated Thatcher and in defence of a colonial relic. And then there's the Iraq War and the bombing of Syria.

From The Blog
16 November 2015

There are many ways of defeating a nation. One is by destroying its ‘values’. If they are liberal, it can be difficult to defend and preserve them in time of war. Modern terrorism, we are told, is a kind of war. The French republic is struggling to maintain its founding principles of liberty, equality and fraternity in the face of it. Other nations have been through the same experience, and quandary, in recent years. The United States was only half successful at keeping its ideals intact after 9/11. Norway was much admired for its determination to do better after the Utøya massacre of 2011.

From The Blog
7 August 2015

A lot of journalists (and others) have been calling Jeremy Corbyn a dinosaur. They should beware of the label. At the turn of the 20th century, the dominant political discourse – at least in what today would be called the ‘Westminster bubble’ – was that liberalism was passé, that the future lay with great empires and imperialist societies, and that anti-imperialists were doomed to ossify. ‘Imperialism’ infected all political parties, including the ‘Lib-Imp’ wing of the Liberal party, and even some Labour MPs. Yet within five years of E.T. Reed’s depiction in Punch in 1900 of the remaining Liberal anti-imperialists of his time (shown here), imperialism had lost its attraction to voters, the ‘imperialist’ party was hammered in an election, and a new, quite old-fashioned looking Liberal government came to power.

From The Blog
11 February 2015

Three years ago there weren’t many beggars on Stockholm’s streets. Some homeless, yes, selling Situation (the Swedish equivalent of the Big Issue), a few buskers in the Tunnelbana; but not men and women huddled in doorways, wrapped in blankets – it’s well below freezing here now – with stories of sick children, homelessness and hunger scrawled on squares of cardboard beside them, and paper coffee cups for passers-by to put coins into, or not. This is new. It’s a shock for someone who’s been coming to Sweden for years, always impressed by the absence of obvious signs of poverty, only too familiar in the UK and elsewhere in Western Europe, but relieved in Sweden by the generous welfare safety net. It seems so very osvensk.

From The Blog
22 December 2014

When I began following West Ham fifty years ago nearly all the team was made up of local lads, including the World Cup-winning trio of Moore, Hurst and Peters; plus Harry Redknapp – a bit of a joke on the wing. (How we loved him! I still do.) Of course there were players bought in, one or two of them even from abroad; but the core was made up of East Enders and Essex boys. One of them (Andy Malcolm) went to my Dad’s school. We supported them because they were us.

From The Blog
25 November 2014

The Palace of Westminster is crumbling. It will require £3 billion to restore it. I’ve never been very fond of the building architecturally, and it wasn’t popular when it was built – least of all among MPs, who complained of the stink it let in from the Thames – but familiarity often breeds acceptance, and the silhouette has become so iconic that of course the place needs to be put back into shape. Whether or not that’s worth splashing out three billion for, when there are so many other worthy causes to hand, such as bailing out banks, is for taxpayers – or rather the chancellor – to decide.

From The Blog
11 November 2014

Yesterday, following the debate – or rather non-debate – on the European Arrest Warrant in the House of Commons, and the press commentary on it, I was surprised that the Julian Assange case wasn’t cited as one of the more contentious instances of the warrant’s use.

From The Blog
21 October 2014

Sweden has always had a problem with Russians and the sea. You can see why when you visit the Stockholm Archipelago and learn about the days when whole islands were set on fire by Russian invaders in the 18th century. Covered with fir trees and little wooden houses, they are very combustible. Whole towns were burned down. It was called a ‘terror’ campaign. Against this, Sweden’s eastern defences are not too impressive. The story is told of the Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke that he laughed ‘only twice in his life: once when he heard of the death of his mother-in-law, and then when he visited Waxholm.’ Waxholm fort was supposed to be Stockholm’s outer defence.

From The Blog
18 September 2014

In the course of the current debate about Scottish independence I’ve noticed a few references comparing it to an anti-colonial struggle: the poor oppressed Scots against their arrogant English masters. This is historical nonsense. Scotland joined the Union originally in order to share in the benefits of England’s overseas colonialism, after its own had failed; and thereafter played a disproportionate part in the expansion and rule of the British Empire, from the butt end of the gun. It has also shared greatly – maybe disproportionately again – in the governance of Britain itself, as well as in its culture. It may be that the loss of the empire has removed one of the original Scottish motives for the Union, and so boosted nationalism in that way. But that is a very different thing from painting it as a rebellion by colonial victims. On the other hand, colonialism/imperialism has moved on from the mid-20th century.

From The Blog
2 December 2013

Hannes Råstam’s Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer was translated into English earlier this year. We can highly recommend it for any fan of Nordic noir. Thomas Quick trumps any of Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson’s villains, with more than thirty victims to his name: boys, girls, women, old men, blacks, whites; slaughtered all over Sweden and Norway (and one in Finland) between 1964 and the early 1990s, by knifing, clubbing, strangulation or suffocation; sometimes raped (both sexes); dismembered; and in one case cannibalised. He was tried for eight of the murders, and found guilty of all of them, serving his sentences in Säter psychiatric prison in Dalarna. He puts British ‘rippers’ in the shade. Except that he doesn’t. Because he almost certainly didn’t commit any of these crimes. He was formally pardoned for the last of them a few months ago.

From The Blog
18 October 2013

Are British governments the most secretive in the ‘free’ world? The contrast between Downing Street’s response to the Snowden revelations and others’ suggests so. Almost every European and South American leader has expressed shock at the degree and extent of surveillance Snowden uncovered, and set in motion measures to limit or at least oversee it. There are popular movements against it. I observed one this summer in Halle – but then the East Germans have had experience of this kind of thing. In Britain there’s almost no public protest; just Hague’s assurance that ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ (didn’t Goebbels say something like that?), MI5 splutterings about ‘national security’ and condemnations of Snowden et al from the prime minister on down to the Daily Mail. Now we learn that British governments have been hiding our history from us, in the same spirit.

From The Blog
21 May 2013

Julian Assange’s latest piece of evidence that the extradition case against him is part of an American-Swedish plot doesn’t amount to much. Assuming he’s not making it up (which is unlikely), it simply tells us that someone at GCHQ – we don’t yet know who – believed it was a ‘fit-up’ because the ‘timings are too convenient’. Nothing solid here, and nothing from either of the horses’ mouths. So it doesn’t take us much further.

From The Blog
7 May 2013

I’m not sure that Hull City are good enough to play in the Premiership – they’ve been rubbish in recent games, and the very last stages of their campaign were pretty nail-biting – but their promotion is terrific for the city. With so much worldwide interest in the English Premier League, playing there puts this poor, isolated and much denigrated town on the map. Quite literally: I remember, the last time they were (briefly) in the Premiership, checking into a hotel in Copenhagen, giving my Hull address, and saying (based on my experience abroad): ‘I don’t suppose you know where that is.’ ‘Oh yes I do,’ the man replied. ‘It’s in the Premier League.’ Those of us who live there, especially if we came from the South (as I did, in 1968; the Hull-born and bred may be less bothered), greatly resent the way it’s generally presented by our softer neighbours. Being placed top of a list of ‘Crap Towns' a few years ago hurt. My son, who lives and works in London, gets it all the time – though he's better than I am at laughing it off.

From The Blog
5 April 2013

You never know what might happen when you write for the LRB. A recent piece of mine has caused a bit of a stir – unwittingly, so far as I am concerned. I was reviewing Calder Walton’s Empire of Secrets, which is about the part played by the British secret services in decolonisation. One of the questions is whether they got up to any dirty tricks. One that is sometimes attributed to them is the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, in 1961. Walton doesn’t rule this out, but has found no evidence for it; so ‘at present we do not know.’ Then came the surprise: a letter from David Lea, who said that Daphne Park, the head of MI6 in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) at the time, told him a few months before she died in March 2010 that she had organised Lumumba's assassination.

From The Blog
4 February 2013

A couple of years ago, Swedish politics were shaken up by the fresh-faced young Jimmy Åkesson’s Sverigedemokraten getting 5.7 per cent of the parliamentary vote on an anti-immigrant ticket. Now Centerpartiet – traditionally the party of the countryside – has been taken over by another fresh face, Annie Lööf (pronounced ‘lurve’), advocating unlimited immigration. Both are considered to be of the right, but totally opposite rights: the Sweden Democrats nationalistic and chauvinist, the Centre Party just about as ‘new liberal’ as you can get. (This kind of contradiction isn’t unique to the right. The left has its state socialists at one end of the spectrum and anarcho-socialists at the other.)

From The Blog
7 November 2012

I took early retirement from my last university job about a dozen years ago. One of my reasons was the way in which my post as head of the history department had become ‘managerialised’. I had mercifully forgotten the horrors of this until I recently stumbled on a copy of one of my memos to my colleagues. Here it is. (I’m not sure of the date.)

From The Blog
20 August 2012

First, a number of disclaimers. I’m not an uncritical admirer of Julian Assange, especially in relation to what he has admitted he has done – quite apart from the criminal allegations against him – in his personal life. In brief, he seems to me to be a bit of a cad. Beyond that, I have no opinion as to his legal guilt or otherwise. I’m also not entirely in favour of WikiLeaks’ activities. I think you need to preserve diplomatic confidentiality in many areas. To qualify this, however, I’m not terribly disturbed – or impressed – by most of the ‘revelations’ in the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010, few of which can reasonably be thought to threaten any nation’s security. (Dignity and reputation a little, perhaps. That’s no bad thing.) On the other side, I’m certainly not anti-Swedish. I live there much of the time, and consider its political, economic and social institutions far superior to Britain’s. Recent events have led me to question the fairness of Sweden’s judicial processes, a view shared by a number of Swedes; but that should be put in the context of my overall Swedophilia. Lastly, I’m not a ‘conspiracy theorist’ – this in relation to suspicions that the whole Assange affair was a put-up job by the CIA – although, having worked in this area (the history of ‘counter-subversion’), I would never dismiss the possibility of any ‘conspiracy’ out of hand. I hope that’s clear. The Assange affair really is a very curious one.

From The Blog
2 July 2012

It may be because I’m a professional historian, and so proprietorial towards my subject, but I’ve always objected to British history’s being used – ‘prostituted’, would be my word for it – in order to inculcate patriotism, as Theresa May’s latest idea for a citizenship test for immigrants seeking British nationality appears to envisage. For a start it must be questionable how far our history ‘defines’ us as a nation, as opposed to our present-day circumstances, and influences from abroad. Second, history taught in order to teach patriotism must be ‘patriotic’ history, which is bound to be selective at best. Third, I rather like the Swedes’ view of their national identity, which is defined much more in terms of their aspirations – equality, and the like – than of their history. Just as well, perhaps; Sweden has quite a number of skeletons in its historical cupboard: as of course does Britain.

From The Blog
13 April 2012

Here in Sweden – as, I believe, in other Scandinavian countries – everyone has access to everyone else’s tax returns on the internet. I’m sure it’s sometimes circumvented, but not in most cases, and it seems to deter dishonesty and greed. People really do feel that they are ‘all in it together’ (whatever ‘it’ is). Maybe David Cameron learned about this from Fredrik Reinfeldt, when he visited him in Stockholm in February. Apparently they got on famously, with Cameron taking away all kinds of ideas. It is interesting how the ‘Swedish model’ has flipped recently, so far as Britain is concerned; formerly an ideal of social democracy, it has now taken on a much more rightist tinge. George Osborne may have got the idea of increasing pensioners’ taxes (in effect) from Reinfeldt, who did the same when his coalition was re-elected in 2010. By that time his ‘Moderaten’ (Conservatives) had cunningly rebranded themselves as the ‘real workers’ party’: of workers, that is, as opposed to slackers, which pensioners essentially are.

From The Blog
12 December 2011

Nobelprisdag is a special day in Sweden. Stockholm city centre stops while the prizewinners are shunted from the Grand Hotel to the Concert House for the awards, then on to the City Hall for the dinner, followed by the laureates’ speeches, and a ball. All this is fully covered on Swedish television, preceded by the Peace Prize ceremony relayed from Oslo. It starts on SVT2 at midday, and goes on into the small hours.

From The Blog
20 September 2011

The LRB recently sent me Cita Stelzer’s Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table to review. It’s a good subject. We know that Churchill believed in personal diplomacy (he thought he could charm the most obdurate dictator if he could only meet him face-to-face); that he did a lot of negotiating over meals; and that he was a sparkling conversationalist. I hadn’t heard of Stelzer, but the CV provided by her publisher, Short Books, looked good. She is a 'Reader at Churchill College, Cambridge’ (‘reader’ being a rare and high academic accolade, one step short of 'professor'), 'a Research Associate at the Hudson Institute' in Washington, a 'member of the Board of the Churchill Centre (UK)', and a freelance journalist and editor. Dinner with Churchill promised to be a lively but serious work of history. If only.

From The Blog
25 July 2011

Sweden isn’t Norway, and relations between the two countries aren’t as sisterly as outsiders might assume. But of course there’s wall-to-wall coverage of recent events here – 27 pages of Saturday’s Expressen, and SVT2 relaying NRK’s live reporting 24 hours a day – and immense sympathy. From pictures of it, Utøya could well be an island in the Stockholm Archipelago, like the one I’m writing from now. There’s enormous admiration in Sweden for the way the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has responded to the atrocity. Also, the reluctance of the authorities and local media to jump to the conclusion that it was the work of Islamists – despite a (supposed) Islamist website immediately claiming ‘credit’ for it.

From The Blog
6 May 2011

Yesterday’s Dagens Nyheter carried an article by two leading Swedish lawyers on the Assange extradition case. ‘Assange’s criticism of Sweden is right on several points,’ the headline says. There’s a report on it in English here. Their criticisms centre on (a) the lack of a jury system in Sweden (verdicts are arrived at by a judge flanked by two party appointees); (b) the fact that accused people awaiting trial are kept in prison for months, without bail, and often in solitary confinement (the European Court has already condemned Sweden for this); and (c) the fact that in some cases (such as rape) trials can be held in secret.

From The Blog
11 February 2011

In the 19th century it was virtually impossible to extradite anyone from Britain. In the first place there had to be a bilateral extradition treaty with the country concerned. These were very few and far between. All of them specified very precisely what a person could be extradited for. It had to be a serious crime, recognised as such in Britain too; there had to be a formal charge; a prima facie case needed to be established that a prosecution would probably succeed; no one could be extradited for one offence only to be tried for another; and the crime could not be ‘political’. ‘Political’ at that time embraced politically motivated crimes, including those that might have been extraditable if they weren’t committed for political reasons, such as murder, and what today we would call ‘terrorism’.

From The Blog
29 November 2010

Well, nothing much there. But then we’ve only, so far, been given a few tasty morsels picked by the editors of the newspapers that were favoured with a preview of all this stuff: selected by criteria of their own (usually what would make the most interesting headlines in their countries); and apparently heavily ‘redacted’ by the editors themselves. What more is to come we can’t yet know. (I’ve tried to get into the Wikileaks site directly, but can’t. Is it my ageing computer? Or internet traffic congestion? Or is someone blocking it?) But it is unlikely to be the really damaging ‘top secret’ stuff, which apparently is more secure.

From The Blog
5 October 2010

Doesn’t anyone out there care what’s happening to Sweden? I posted two pieces a couple of weeks ago on the elections here; hardly anyone responded, apart from a handful with Swedish, Danish and Norwegian email addresses. In the British press, so far as I can tell, the only aspect of the election that has made even inside-page headlines is the ‘rise’ of an anti-immigration party, now in the Riksdag for the first time. To be fair, you find that in Swedish papers too. It has clearly been a bit of a shock, but should be put in perspective: Sverigedemokraten got a grand total of 339,610 votes (5.7 per cent); 100,000 people demonstrated against the party in Sergelstorg in Stockholm the day after the election. Sverigedemokraten also apparently found it difficult to find dedicated candidates; one of them resigned his seat on a local council the day he was elected after reading their manifesto for the first time: ‘What’s all this? Immigrants are my friends.’ The big change was that they managed for the first time to inch over the 4 per cent line that entitles them to have members of parliament. But no one else there will have anything to do with them.

From The Blog
20 September 2010

Yesterday I voted in my first Swedish election – not for the parliament, as I’m only a resident, not a citizen, but for my Kommun, and for the local health authority. It was held in our neighbourhood school. There was a stall outside selling coffee, sandwiches and buns, staffed by the schoolchildren and their parents. You get the same sort of thing if you deliver your tax return in person to Skattehuset on the deadline; almost a carnival atmosphere, with hot dog stalls and the like. People were sitting around in the autumn sun discussing how they had voted; I don’t ever remember seeing that in England. This was social citizenship on display. Maybe it’s why Sweden regularly gets turnouts of over 80 per cent (around 83 per cent this time).

From The Blog
9 September 2010

If you’ve had nothing but the British (or, I imagine, American) press to go by these last few weeks, you can be forgiven for being hardly aware that a general election is brewing in Sweden. Perhaps the newspapers don’t think it’s important; or that an election there can make much difference to the social democratic consensus that has dominated the country, virtuously but boringly, for years. Visiting the various party booths on Sergelstorg in the centre of Stockholm – almost identical little kiosks (can you get them from IKEA?) staffed by clean young political clones – it is difficult to think of it in terms of a contest at all. Posters carry portraits of smiling party leaders with anodyne slogans against pastel backgrounds. The television coverage is ubiquitous, but polite and low-key.

From The Blog
29 June 2010

It is difficult to know how to take recent reports that Niall Ferguson has been recruited to overhaul, or to help overhaul, the history syllabus in schools. For a start it seems an odd way for the new education secretary, Michael Gove, to announce it, from the audience at a talk given by Ferguson at the Hay Literary Festival last month. It clearly took Ferguson by surprise: ‘I am looking forward to your call.’ It sounds as if it was a spur-of-the-moment idea of Gove’s, taken without consultation, which was surely improper. Ferguson’s enthusiasm for the idea is hardly less so, bearing in mind his lack of experience in this field.

Secrecy in Britain

Bernard Porter, 15 July 1999

It was Richard Crossman who described secrecy as ‘the British disease’. As with other alleged vices anglais – strikes, spanking and sodomy spring to mind – this seems on the surface to be unfair. Other societies have undoubtedly been as secretive. Soviet Russia, for example: I don’t suppose it was any easier to see your medical records there than it is here. But there are at least two British peculiarities. One is the depth of our secrecy. Not only are we secretive, we are secretive about how secretive we are. We aren’t allowed to know, and don’t on the whole seem to care, what is being kept from us. That is rather special; and a major factor, claims David Vincent in this path-breaking book, in our governance.’‘

From The Blog
20 November 2009

Amid all this celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, I’m left wondering whether I was the only one to have jumped the other way at the time. It turned me into a Marxist. All my adult life before then I had thought that Marx had been wrong, for example in predicting that capitalism would need to get redder in tooth and claw before it was undermined by its internal contradictions. The Russian Revolution however had not occurred in the most advanced capitalist country, which is why, by my way of thinking, it could only be kept alive by tyranny – a premature baby in an incubator was the metaphor I liked to use. In the West it had been shown that enlightened capitalist societies could smooth away their own roughest edges, by taking on board social democracy, the welfare state, decolonisation and the like.

From The Blog
10 June 2009

Sweden starts to wind down about now, preparing for the short – but glorious – summer. So, not much excitement over the European elections here. The quality dailies carried some serious articles on them, of course, but that's just the political class. A few party posters appeared, very late, all almost identical (just faces), and in pastel shades. Swedes have always been ambivalent, at best, about the EU, joining it very late (1995), resisting the euro, and endlessly carping about the way Brussels seems to want to interfere with their cherished customs, like the state liquor-store monopoly, snus (vile little cushions of tobacco you put between your bottom lip and your gum), paying immigrant workers decent wages, and – well – democracy generally.

Letter
I’ll leave the truth of the Bumbireh episode to others to determine. All I want to add is that both Tim Jeal and Paul Landau are mistaken in inferring that I was persuaded by the former’s defence of Stanley. Rereading the original article, I think it’s plain that I was generally sceptical of Jeal’s approach.
Letter
Bernard Porter writes: I’m happy to defer to David Elstein on the question of numbers. I too was unconvinced by Elkins’s, but didn’t have the resources at hand to check them. I thought that stating the 100,000 figure as a ‘claim’ of Elkins’s would let me off the hook. Obviously not. Otherwise I think I’ve represented both books accurately, apart from the slip...
Letter
Bernard Porter writes: It may surprise Danny Karlin to learn that I agree with most of his letter, except of course its tone. I was careless about the boarding house in Southsea, which wasn’t strictly a ‘school’. On everything else I’m sure we could find common ground. I agree about the impact of the cruelty Kipling was subjected to at Southsea. ‘Goggle-eyed’, like...
Letter

Unlikely

14 January 2002

Richard Boston (Letters, 21 February) must have misunderstood what I wrote about Churchill. I suggested that he would have preferred the Nobel Peace Prize to the Literature Prize he was awarded in 1953. I also asked whether the admiration for Sweden’s ‘warriors’ he expressed in his letter to the Swedish Nobel Committee (apologising for not being able to collect the Literature Prize...

How to Build an Empire

Ferdinand Mount, 30 March 2016

‘Those​ who make many species are the “splitters” and those who make few are the “lumpers”,’ Charles Darwin wrote in 1857 to his friend, the great botanist...

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