Talking about JB Priestley

Hi there everyone,

I had the great pleasure to be interviewed on the East Marshian Chronicles podcast recently about the writer JB Priestley and the historical context of his work. You can hear the show here:

https://eastmarshianchronicles.buzzsprout.com/1764181/9442034-historian-nick-shepley-on-the-background-and-context-of-an-inspector-calls

When British corruption drops the ball

Traditionally, Britain has managed to avoid appearing to be a corrupt country, because so much of what any rational onlooker might call graft is actually legal.

The rewarding of party donors with the ear of cooperative ministers, peerages and other honours enables British politicians to be easily and cheaply bought.

This process acts as a short circuit on the democratic process, rendering votes meaningless and leaving the public with a deep and resentful belief that no matter who one votes for, nothing changes.

For five decades, Britain’s newspaper proprietors, now just four oligarchs (Murdoch, Rothermere, Barclay, Lebedev) have exerted a choke hold over British politics, with politicians of both major parties desperate to prove their loyalty and worth.

When in 2015 Labour members voted for Jeremy Corbyn, it was Britain’s now alt-right newspapers that led the coup (along with the right of the Labour Party), to make sure he was deposed and the earth was down with salt. Among other things, Corbyn promised to carry out in full the recommendations of the Leveson Report into press standards and corruption.

During 2020, the Conservative Government and its donors acted with impunity. Contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds were issued for PPE equipment to businesses that had virtually no capital, had been set up in some cases weeks before the contracts were signed, and the normal processes of competitive tendering were ignored.

The justification for this was that during a crisis, the normal ways of doing things have to be suspended, the unwieldy state needs fleet footed capitalism to help out. The figure of the brilliant business maverick who can see what has to be done and can intervene decisively has been a popular myth in Britain in the past year.

The only problem is that nothing of the sort actually happened. Instead, the British government gave vast sums of money to Conservative Party donors and to friends of ministers who saw a public health catastrophe as a business opportunity. In many cases, substandard and faulty equipment was supplied, whilst poorly paid nurses risked their lives.

This week in Britain, the former environment secretary, Owen Paterson attempted a coup against the parliamentary standards procedures and in doing so has broken the prime directive of British corruption; never make it the story.

British people (perhaps temporarily) are talking about corruption and this is not how the system is meant to work.

Paterson was paid by £122,000 Randox Health to lobby the government for contracts for health and food safety services. This itself is not illegal, though the fact that it isn’t speaks volumes about the quality of British democracy.

The report into his breaches of lobbying rules said:

“No previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of confusion between the private and public interest.”

Paterson faced a 30 day suspension from the House of Commons; a paid holiday is hardly a deterrent against the corruption of British democracy. The fate that he sought to avoid, however, was the recall ballot that would be triggered if MPs voted in favour of his suspension.

Adamant that he would not suffer this indignity, Paterson and his patron Boris

Johnson attempted to tear up the weak parliamentary standards system itself. By Thursday of this week, corruption had become a national news story and had angered the wrong sorts of people; Tory voters.

On the front pages of Tory supporting national newspapers like the Daily Mail were the first angry editorials against the press oligarchs client prime minister ever. When Paterson went on TV on Thursday morning, believing that he had survived the scandal and spoke of his lack of regret, saying he would not have done anything differently, Downing Street decided to throw him to the wolves.

MPs, having previously been given a three line whip to back an amendment that would pause the process of disciplinary action and dismantle the standards system, were now to be allowed a free hand in deciding Paterson’s fate. He resigned before they could.

Corruption only works in Britain if most people think it doesn’t exist. The culture of British exceptionalism tells the British public that corruption happens in far away countries that are backward and uncivilised.

The temporary reaction against corruption is a reaction also to the puncturing of this myth. The government exists in large part to propagate and protect the myths that many British people prefer to hear about their country, its status, its place in the world and ultimately about the society they inhabit. The government will always be rewarded when these myths are repeated and punished if they are interrupted.

Brexit’s Leninists

Reading Everyday Stalinism by Sheila Fitzpatrick (one of my favourite social histories of the USSR, as regular listeners will know), one thing becomes abundantly clear about the Soviet view of time and history itself. The historical and social state that the party would describe as communism was always something to be eventually reached and never actually experienced. In the 1920s and 1930s, party members and leaders would make pronouncements about how far of, chronologically, communism was, and give reasons as to why it was not yet attained.

Often those explanations were that saboteurs, enemy spies and enemy classes were holding up progress, ensuring that housing, food and living conditions remained dire. The culture of a beseiged state was propagated by Stalin, because any other explanation ran at odds with the official version of history that shaped the Soviet Union. The reality was that a largely agrarian society, devastated by civil war now laboured under a new bureaucratic elite that was riven with corruption and nepotism, and these were not auspicious circumstances for rapid economic growth. The fact that significant growth was achieved was due to the ability of the party to use massive coercion when necessary, as it was the Russian peasants who would pay most of the price for Stalin’s first and second Five Year Plans.

In Britain, a utopia beckons. It is not quite as well defined as Lenin’s vision of a future proletarian society, and the economics it is based upon change, depending on who is asking. At times it is described as a Britain that has many of the advantages it currently enjoys (and several that it has recently lost) with few of the downsides. Sometimes it is a Britain that has weaned itself off cheap European labour and has undergone decades of extreme economic shock therapy, which has resulted in its businesses and its workers being elite amongst their peers across the world. Recently, since Britain lost access to European labour markets and has begun to make noises about a trade war with Europe, the utopia has been a protectionist one, a happy little island of well paid workers and well funded public services (neither of these are traditional Tory articles of faith).

The point isn’t to have a credible destination, or a plan to get there, and for many Brexiteers, the act of voting to leave the EU was a revolt against credible plans of all sorts. Obviously, for many it was a poorly judged protest vote that gave the party they loathe vastly more power than it would otherwise have enjoyed. Brexit itself was always a sentiment, a wish by a section of the British elite to revolt against historical inevitabilities, namely Britain’s relative economic decline and our transition from world hegemon to a middle ranking European power (albeit with high living standards).

Tory leader of the house, Jacob Rees Mogg said that it might be fifty years before Britain saw the benefits of Brexit, implying that we were involved in a project of generational significance. In his view (and we have to assume some sincerity here from a man whose investment firm has already seen significant benefits from the country leaving the EU), EU membership was an historic mistake and Britain’s natural world position was lost as a result. A frequent and remarkably lazy argument is that ‘we were in for 47 years, we’ve only been out for two, let’s give it time’, which presumes that we cannot crtitique this new direction for our island for at least four and a half decades.

These views are shared currently with a significant minority of Brexit voters, those who default world view is that of a British, and more often English nationalism, and who reject the idea that Britain in a world of competing trading blocks cannot compete. This in itself is a form of faith, a belief in English exceptionalism, that has its prophets (Churchill, inevitably), and a national secular religion in the form the Second World War built around it to remind them that ‘we came through much worse than this.’

Interestingly, this world view abandons and pretense at utopia, and is more focused on the purity of hardship and the desire to recapture a long lost Britain. This imagined past of blue passports, conquering cricket teams, classic sitcoms, Bond films and a sense that Britain mattered and could call the shots is long gone, if it ever really existed. The future utopia will never be realised because, unlike the utopias of the Leninists, it was never really intended to be realised, and for the referendum’s leading man, Boris Johnson, it was meant to be a noble quest defeated at the last hour.

The Brexiteers won the referendum and initiated the next and most catastrophic phase of British national decline, knowing full well that they had a disaster on their hands. The question was only ever how they could politically profit from the disaster, not whether the fantasies they had spun could ever come true.

Correction to this week’s podcast on Harold Wilson and MI6

In this week’s podcast I referred to the author Stephen Dorril as former MP. This is not the case, and in fact the Stephen Dorril in question is an author and academic who specialises in intelligence work.

So there you go, bad me, I am not infallible and get it wrong from time to time. I will repeat this clarification on next week’s podcast. Mr Dorril, if you happen to listen to the podcast, I do apologise.

Pravda and Stalin’s Terror

Noam Chomsky pointed out when he was observing the role of the press during the Vietnam War, that it had a significant role to play in atrocities.

The job of print and broadcast media, he argued, was to legitimise and explain away mass killings and to tell the story of why they were necessary.

Looking at the role of the Soviet press, there is abundant evidence for this. Chomsky was writing about a notionally independent US media which generally found itself in broad agreement with the government. Here we will look at the role of a heavily controlled newspaper in a totalitarian state:

You can hear it on Spotify

Or catch the episode on YouTube:

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