Vol. 42 No. 4 · 20 February 2020

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What Matters

Stefan Collini is troubled by ‘two problematic features’ in my history of the Economist (LRB, 6 February). First, claiming that I ‘arraign figures in the past for failing to live up to the most progressive standards of the present’, he cites my treatment of the banker-editor Walter Bagehot. In leaping to defend this ‘teasing, playful writer’ who was ‘no zealot for any cause’, Collini is in great, if not always good, company. But to wave away the positions that Bagehot took is itself unhistorical. Collini presents Bagehot as if he were a standard opponent of ‘universal adult suffrage’ in his day, rather than of the limited franchise of the Second Reform Act, and minimises his support for Louis Napoléon, right through from 1849 via the Mexican expedition to the Franco-Prussian War, as if this too was perfectly standard at the time. It wasn’t, and neither was his support for the slaveholding South in the US Civil War. I never resort to anachronism in assessing Bagehot: instead, I compare his writings on economics, politics and empire to those of his contemporaries, including Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill and Frederic Harrison.

Second, Collini insists that liberalism is a distraction in looking at the Economist. That is absurd: its own editors proudly and consistently embrace the label. The 1 February issue advises Boris Johnson that he needs a lodestar: ‘Liberalism offers one.’ At no point, however, does my book present liberalism as a ‘transtemporal category signifying, roughly, “not socialism”’. It traces the historical emergence of the category out of different, principally Continental strands, and shows that there were always distinct streams of liberal thought and politics. It is not at all surprising that the conflicts between liberal thinkers found expression in different periods in the pages of the Economist. Collini’s grasp of these debates may be judged from his description of the editor Francis Hirst as an ‘Old Liberal’, when he was a staunch supporter of the New Liberal reforms of the 1906 government.

Collini’s prolific work on writers and thinkers has for many years focused, in his own words, on their ‘voice’ – not so much on the content of what they wrote, or the systems or doctrines they elaborated, but on their tone and temper, or cast of mind. Resistant, in general, to overarching categories, he seems particularly sensitive when it comes to liberalism. ‘When people ask me if the division between men of the Right and men of the Left still makes sense,’ the essayist Alain once remarked, ‘the first thing that comes to mind is that the person asking the question is certainly not a man of the Left.’ When someone says, mutatis mutandis, ‘all you mean by liberalism is “not socialism”’ and ‘there is no such thing,’ it is safe to assume the speaker is a liberal, defensively protecting himself.

In neighbourly fashion, Collini extends his protection to the Economist, pooh-poohing my research on the political stances of the paper as mere auditing of superficial aspects of its record. What matters, he says, are the utility of the facts it provides. I draw attention to the strengths of the paper, especially its global reach, and point out how seriously this should be taken. But the ‘informational’ side of the paper is a means to its ‘ideological’ ends: Collini’s artificial separation of the two and elevation of the first over the second banalises successive enormities of the Economist. Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Yemen? Yawn. What counts is its coverage of soya futures and sex toys.

As an adept of ‘voice’, Collini delights in the conceit that the Economist speaks as if from On High. What it is saying hardly matters. ‘If you want to know what’s happening in the world, read the New York Times,’ he urges us. ‘If you want to know what’s wrong with what’s happening in the world, read the Guardian. If you want to know what’s going to happen next in the world … read the Economist.’ A sillier flourish is hard to imagine. The Times was telling us what was happening in the world as it toasted Hillary’s Clinton’s cruise to the presidency? The Guardian was telling us what was wrong with the world when it cheered New Labour and adored Obama? Was the Economist telling its readers what was going to happen when it hailed the invasion of Iraq as the dawn of a new world order as wonderful as America’s forging of the Free World in the time of Acheson? Or when it had no glimmering of the financial meltdown of 2008?

Alexander Zevin
State University of New York

Labour’s Defeat

In the course of his excellent piece about the December election (LRB, 6 February), James Butler says that Jeremy Corbyn possessed the quality of resilience: ‘He withstood a level of opprobrium almost unprecedented in public life.’ One wonders whether ‘resilience’ is quite the word, when complaints about the supposedly unprecedented opprobrium have been noisy and outraged. Butler echoes the claim in the Labour Party’s post-election report that ‘there is also little doubt that four years of unrelenting attacks on the character of the party leader, an assault without precedent in modern politics, had a degree of negative impact.’

Perhaps they ought to read Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. He records some of the statements by public figures, in public or in writing, about her character, appearance and personal attributes. Dennis Potter called her ‘repellent’. David Hare said that her influence would disappear after she went, ‘leaving nothing but the memory of a funny accent’. Alan Bennett said that she was ‘a kind of maiden aunt who knows all about marriage’. Mary Warnock said that a film of her in Marks and Spencer had ‘something really quite obscene about it’. Jonathan Miller called her ‘loathsome, repulsive in almost every way’. Songs were released by pop bands with lines like ‘I want to change into a dog so that I can use Madame Thatcher daily as a lamp-post,’ or ‘When they finally put you in the ground/They’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down,’ or, concisely, ‘Maggie, Maggie, you cunt/Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, you fucking cunt’. Alice Thomas Ellis called her ‘a mean little mouse bred on cheese rind and broken biscuit and the nutritionless, platitudinous parings of a grocer’s mind’. Much later, admired novelists would write stories fantasising about her violent murder set around the time of her attempted assassination in Brighton, a time when (as everyone concedes) she behaved with notable bravery.

This is not to complain about this sorry and often childish catalogue of insults, which some readers will think richly deserved, while others will hold that opprobrium is only to be expected by a politician proposing radical change, whether Thatcher or Corbyn. But it isn’t correct to suggest that the opprobrium Corbyn undoubtedly experienced and clearly thought unjust was unprecedented. If there was a popular West End musical with a song looking forward to celebrating Corbyn’s death, as Billy Elliot gleefully anticipated and, in the event, celebrated Thatcher’s, I missed it.

Philip Hensher
London SW8

Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall tells the story of migration from Jamaica to the UK (LRB, 23 January). There is one factor in this story that is given too little attention: bauxite. In 1945 large deposits of bauxite, the ore from which aluminium is extracted, were discovered in Jamaica. Aluminium alloys were vital for the defence and space industries, leading the US to regard bauxite as a ‘strategic military resource’. The fact that Jamaica was the closest source of bauxite to the US made its deposits even more valuable. The British colonial government sold the deposits to the US in part repayment of its debt under the Marshall Plan. Under the early contracts, drawn up in the 1950s, Jamaica received only 3 per cent of the value of the ore extracted. Some 170,000 acres of land were acquired for bauxite mining between 1948 and 1968. Many of the peasantry – rent-paying smallholders, small property owners or labourers on larger plantations – became landless, and emigrated as a result. Others drifted towards Kingston and built great shanty towns on its outskirts. The Jamaican landscape, meanwhile, was left scarred by the bauxite excavations, which created great lakes of toxic red sludge.

Thom Cross
Carluke, South Lanarkshire

Spare Heirs

In his piece about Princes Andrew and Harry and the problems of being a spare heir, Jonathan Parry briefly mentions that Prince Alfred, second son to Queen Victoria, was suggested as a potential king of Greece in the 1860s (LRB, 6 February). In the 19th century there was a rich tradition of junior male royals being made useful in this way – filling vacant thrones in upstart countries and generally propping up the European monarchical system. The first king of the newly independent Greece, Otto I (r. 1832-62), was the second son of the king of Bavaria. When Otto was deposed – when Alfred was in the running for the gig – he was replaced by the second son of Christian IX of Denmark, who became George I (r. 1863-1913).

Not quite in the same category, being more spare than heir, but rolled out regardless, were the future first king of the Belgians, Leopold I (r. 1831-65), the third son of the duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and the future emperor of Brazil, Maximilian I (r. 1864-7), the second son of the third son of Francis II of Austria. (Maximilian is the man being executed in Manet’s picture.) Prince Alfred, as Parry notes, didn’t get Greece, but did end up being duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, one of his family’s many German entanglements. This too had a precedent. Ernest Augustus, the fifth and longest-lived of George III’s sons, who were extremely proficient at having children out of wedlock but not inside it, became king of Hanover in 1837 by default (Victoria was prohibited on grounds of gender).

It’s worth saying that second sons did sometimes come in handy at home. Britain’s George V only became so because his addled elder brother, Albert Victor, died in 1892 (to much relief). When Karl Josef of Austria’s son and heir, Prince Rudolf, died in a suicide pact with his mistress in 1889, Karl Josef’s younger brother’s son, Franz Ferdinand, eventually took his place. When he was assassinated in 1914, his younger brother’s son became the new heir, and then the last emperor of Austria, Karl I (r. 1916-18). And when Carlos I of Portugal and his eldest son, Luís Filipe, were shot by anarchists in 1908, it was a mercy that Prince Manuel was around to step up to the plate (only to be deposed in the revolution of 1910; he spent the rest of his life in Twickenham).

Leslie Green
Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham

I can add a personal moment of recognition to Jonathan Parry’s identification of the ‘They’re just like us really, aren’t they?’ strand of our relationship with the monarchy (LRB, 6 February). A recent television news item showed the queen greeting a visiting head of state in the drawing room at Buckingham Palace. There, in the cavernous fireplace, was exactly the same make and model of electric convector heater that we have in our sitting room.

Jeremy Mitchell

Laughter in Art

Nicholas Penny mentions the small terracotta Virgin and Child from the Victoria and Albert Museum that was loaned to the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition of Andrea Verrocchio’s work (LRB, 23 January). The infant Christ’s expression is, he says, ‘perhaps the first successful representation of laughter in art’. He has perhaps forgotten the delightful Virgin and Child fresco by Gentile da Fabriano in Orvieto Cathedral, in which the child isn’t just laughing but waving too. The fresco is dated 1425, which is before either Verrocchio or Leonardo (the artists to whom the V&A terracotta has been variously attributed) was born. Surely there must be further early examples?

Ouida Weaver
Civitella del Lago, Italy

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