Tag Archives: may

Britain goes to the polls this Thursday, to mark #GE2017 I’m talking ELECTION CAKE on #r4today on Thursday morning. #foodforthemany

https://www.academia.edu/33356782/The_Changing_Shape_of_Election_Cake

 

The above is a link to a piece of research I undertook last year – during the US Presidential election – when placed on a research fellowship in the idyllic Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Delaware, USA.

It’s all about election cake – a New England cake traditionally baked at election time, a large fruit cake, often boozy, which historically served a civic function in sustaining voters at the polls.

The article includes historic recipes for anyone wishing to bake an election cake to mark the crucial UK election this Thursday – but make sure you have enough people to help you eat it, for the election cakes of yore were enormous.

Britain votes this Thursday in a crucial election and I am delighted to have been asked onto BBC’s flagship radio news show, the Today programme on Radio 4, to chat about election cake on Thursday morning.

philadelphia

John Lewis Kimmel, Election Day 1815 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1815), Winterthur collection.

If you can’t tune in on Thursday morning at c. 8:50am GMT, the below links to a video I recorded with the Washington Post about the same topic last year.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/lifestyle/food/were-almost-at-election-day-what-america-needs-right-now-is-a-slice-of-delicious-cake/2016/11/05/1fd44622-a2d7-11e6-8864-6f892cad0865_video.html

Everyone loves a bit of cake and I have fond memories of Winterthur librarian Laura Parrish baking a delicious election cake, which we nibbled over tea, quite sure that Donald Trump would never get in. How wrong we were.

I hope that people listen in to Radio 4 this Thursday where they will be sampling the cake in studio: I also hope that the piece inspires people to get out there and vote …

Below are some heritage recipes if you fancy cooking a good ol’ election cake (all courtesy and copyright of Winterthur Museum, DE, USA):

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Doc1646_p20_election-cake

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Doc723_election-cake

Doc828_election-cake

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On #Brexit, #Trump, #Slavery and Moral Courage

Just how mean can Britain’s Brexiteer Tory ruling elite get?  

It’s a moot point, but the meanness of the British government’s approach towards US President Donald Trump has been clear for all to see recently.

Vampirish Prime Minister Theresa May, who descended on Washington in an attempt to catch crumbs falling from Trump’s table, defended her actions as pragmatic; it’s economically and politically sensible to maintain good relations with Trump, she reasoned.

Image result for trump and may

This is, from a certain perspective, a fair point. For, in a sense, all history is the history of struggle over resources. And you tend to align with whoever shares your economic interests. And if your electorate decide to catapult you towards severing ties with your natural, cultural trading allies in your own continent, you might have to look elsewhere.

In the British Library last week I picked up a book by journalist Paul Marshall called Prisoners of Geography, which is the latest example of works which explain geopolitics by reference to geography and climate and resources. This approach to history risks being reductionist, but helps explain things like the inevitable imperialism of Japan in the 20th c (given its lack of natural resources); the lack of war between India and China (thanks to the Himalayas); and the likely 21st century conflicts in the Arctic (oil reserves).

Image result for prisoners of geography marshall

May’s ‘pragmatism’ vis-à-vis Trump is in the same vein and there’s a logic to it, of course. May’ stance has been triumphantly trumpeted by other members of her cabinet since the visit, most notably the government’s red-faced-reactionary-in-chief Sir Michael Fallon, secretary of state for Defence.

And yet. And yet.

Diplomacy doesn’t have to be craven. Politics may be the art of the possible, but that is not synonymous with mercenary meanness.

Let’s consider approaches to Trump.

To be clear, Trump is odious and should be challenged by the British government. May has failed to do this in any meaningful way.

His ‘travel ban’ – to take the most egregious example of his chaotic presidency – is not just racist and immoral, it’s also ill-informed and counterproductive. And the denial of climate change is simply horrendous.

Having said this, I’m fed up with some of the pathetic anti-Trumpism. From the sneering celeb to the trendy protester, it’s a badge of cloyingly liberal East Coast honour to be anti-Trump purely from a narrowly (neo)liberal perspective, and I’ve seen this at first hand in the States.

Image result for celebrity trump protester

This ignores the fact that – whatever about the popular vote – he is the legitimate US President. It also ignores his radical potential to shake things up. Clinton was a dreadful presidential candidate, a hawk hand-in-glove with finance capital hiding behind celebrity endorsed wafer-thin liberalism and the very fact that she was a woman; she was an establishment figure who would play the gender card only when it suited (there’s a great parallel with Theresa May here).

Whatever you may think of Trump – and many rightly oppose this thin-skinned narcissistic bully – he is doing a very rare thing for a politician and attempting to carry out his campaign promises in a full-blooded manner.

This is precisely why so many people voted for him – he’s not a professional politician. He’s not just there for career advancement, to become a contented member of the establishment. Many who oppose Trump, and other ‘outsider’ figures like Jeremy Corbyn, will never understand this.

But challenging Trump, for all that, is very important.

Standing up to Trump is not something that Britain’s political leadership have the courage to do, not only because of the risible notion of the ‘special relationship’, but because they are professional politicians who don’t let little things like principles get in the way of self-seeking.

In this regard, the Tory government is very different from the fundamentalist Brexiteer, deluded but at least principled.

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson may be a suck-up and a charlatan, as grasping and venal as his one-time cabinet colleague Michael Gove. But at least his careerism (Johnson only plumped for Brexit because he saw personal political gain from it) is a guard against the sheer delusion of the fundamentalist Brexit wing.

The fundamentalist Brexiteer is now a lesser spotted breed thanks to the fact that the mercenaries, the smooth political operators, the careerists have taken over the project. I’m referring of course to Prime Minister May et al, who actually opposed Brexit in the first place but now own it as a patriotic project.

By contrast, the fundamentalist Brexiteer can now be mainly spotted on the sidelines, usually outside the High Court protesting against the legitimate prosecution of British soldiers convicted of war crimes.

Image result for free marine a protest london

Nonetheless, an example of the establishment pro-Brexit loon was witnessed earlier this week on the BBC’s awful but strangely compelling town hall debate show Question Time. Anne Widdecombe – Privy Councillor, former Tory MP and outspoken social conservative – was wheeled out and duly went about displaying some very bad history …

The abolition of slavery, said Widdecombe, took forty years or so but it was delivered. In the same way, she vowed, Brexit will be delivered whatever the legal and political prevarications

Now, Widdecombe is the sort of awkward country boutique conservative out of step with the PR-savvy May and her cabal, the sort of swivel-eyed believer in the holy grail of Brexit.

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There’s a certain charm to these fusty, fart-smelling old Tories when compared to their suave party leadership.

But comparing the Britain’s ‘independence’ from Europe to emancipation? Good grief!

But Widecombe’s bad history did remind me of an occasion when British attitudes towards America were motivated by moral principles as well as mercenary economic interest and where slavery was a big factor.

During the US Civil War of the early 1860s, the secessionist southern states gambled that withholding Cotton exports to Britain would have such a disruptive effect on trade that Britain could not afford to stand idly by and would be forced to intervene in support of the pro-slavery South.

Image result for us civil war cotton

It was the sort of political calculation based on the immoral but reasonable logic of economic self-interest. With millions of British workers dependent on the Atlantic cotton trade, surely Britain’s hand would be forced.

But it wasn’t. Instead, the outcome of the American civil war was in no small part determined by the failure of the South’s ‘cotton diplomacy’ and the triumph of Abraham Lincoln’s naval blockade.

So, with the sort of ‘pragmatic’ economic logic championed today by May and Fallon and others, why did Britain not intervene to support the south and its lucrative trade in cotton? Why did the British political elite of the day not embrace Jefferson Davis instead of Abraham Lincoln?

The reasons are many. The moneymen of the City of London weighed their options carefully, on the one hand anxious about the losses from Cotton embargo, but on the other eyeing greedily the wheat coming across the Atlantic from northern Union territories. Meanwhile cities dependent on cotton, like Liverpool, considered a Pro-Confederate city, pressed for support of the South – not due to ideological commitment, but because of the economic interest of reopening the Cotton trade.

But economic self-interest was not the be-all and end-all.

Other cities dependent on cotton, in and around Manchester, for example, supported Lincoln even though it was against their economic self-interest.

Image result for cotton industry lancashire

This is quite remarkable because the collapse of the cotton trade led to a ‘Cotton Famine’ in Lancashire, with mass unemployment and hardship the consequence. Nonetheless, cotton workers out of work backed the anti-slavery stance of Lincoln for moral reasons.

Lincoln would later laud the ‘sublime Christian heroism’ of unemployed Manchester cotton workers who wrote to him urging him to continue the good fight despite it resulting in them losing their livelihoods.

Image result for wikipedia abe lincoln

Many workers had learned of the horrors of slavery through talks and pamphlets by escaped or emancipated slaves like the famous Frederick Douglass.

There is a leftist tendency to romanticise the workers as always on the ‘right’ side of history.

Nonetheless angry and bitter and disenfranchised working men didn’t just revert to reactionary politics because it suited them and there were very few riots by angry mobs.  Workers really struggled, and would have had every reason to agitate for the South. But they didn’t.

Gladstone later mentioned the ‘stoicism’ of these Lancashire cotton workers as an argument for the extension of the suffrage.

So, to return to Anne Widdecombe’s comments about Brexit being like the fight to abolish slavery, I suppose you can see her bad history as informed by the idea that politics does not have to be based on economic self-interest alone.

In the same vein, people didn’t vote for Brexit for purely economic reasons. Quite the opposite, in fact – the dire warnings from the Bank of England about the sky falling on everyone’s head were not heeded by 52% of people.

The problem is that now Brexit is being pursued by those whose only rationale is economic self-interest. May et al, the mercenary political operators steering Brexit towards a ruthlessly reductionist economic and political ‘pragmatism’, almost show the true believers like Widdecombe in a good light.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the very bad analogy between Brexit and the end of slavery is the stance of the captains of industry back during the Cotton Famine. Remarkably, owners of cotton mills – who had everything to lose from Britain not backing the slave-owning South – were in fact mostly radical nonconformist mill owners who took a moral stance against slavery. Like their workers, they took the ever-so ‘unpragmatic’ option of economic suicide because it was the right thing to do morally and politically.

It may sound a bit wet, but they thought about others first and put their own immediate material interests second.

Little evidence of that today. Where are the upstanding white knights of commerce?

For some, wearied and depressed by Brexit, a white knight arrived in the form of Gina Miller, a hedge fund manager who took the legal case against Brexit to the high court, and won.

And who was the noble captain of industry financing this crusade by an ‘ordinary woman’ against the government? Why none other than self-made man and chief executive of the plumbing giant Pimlico Plumbers, a cockney named Charlie Mullins.

Image result for charlie mullins pimlico plumbers

Except Mullins is no radical nonconformist mill owner. In fact, he’s just lost a court case himself. For Mullins was trying, unsuccessfully, to deny his workers their rights, claiming they are all ‘self-employed’.

Some white knight.

What all of the above shows is how morally bankrupt and ill-informed much of British politics is today.

The deluded but principled Brexiteers have lost control of the whole mad project. Instead it’s being controlled by the ‘pragmatists’.

But pragmatism, it seems, dictates grovelling to disgusting and immoral men like Trump (or the Saudi regime, for that matter).

Having Theresa May in charge may be preferable to having the country run by the Anne Widdicombes and Charlie Mullinses of this world.

But I can’t help feel that she is entirely lacking in moral courage.

A narrowly British ‘economic pragmatism’, let’s remember, could also encompass celebrating the melting of the polar ice caps because it’ll open up shipping trade routes, or celebrating China’s horrendous smog crisis just because it opens up opportunities for wideboy businessmen to sell the Chinese bottles of fresh air from the Yorkshire dales.

And then, ultimately, we’re all fucked.

 

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On ‘Postcapitalism’ and Recent Events – #Nice, #Turkey

I’ve just finished reading the book Postcapitalism by Paul Mason, and some
recent global events have got me thinking about the book’s arguments.
As America becomes more polarised, We’ve also just had two pretty seismic events unfold: the slaughter in Nice and the coup attempt in Turkey.

Paul Mason commentates regularly on the knock-on economic impacts of such happenings as the economics editor for Britain’s Channel 4 News. His journalistic written style perhaps explains why a book which discusses sometimes arcane economic theory is such a compelling read. 

THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING

His basic argument is that the pace of infotech development over recent years has changed everything. Knowledge is increasingly free, and readily available at our fingertips. For example, the first I heard of the terror attack in Nice was while pootering about on Twitter: the news of the attack was not originally verifiable, but as it shot to the top trending topic it was clear that something very big and very bloody was unfolding in that city. 

Mason sees the free diffusion of knowledge (not just via social media but in the free exchange of ideas and science more broadly) as such a challenge to the privatise-at-all-costs mantra of neoliberalism that it could topple capitalism as we know it. He goes back to Marx’s Grundrisse and the great German philosopher’s meditation on how, if there were ever a machine invented that would never wear out, capitalism would crumble. He then points to the revolutionary potential of zero cost products in an economy based on information.

Mason did not have to convince me of the apocalyptic possibilities of capitalism if it continues as it does presently. Irreversible climate change, environmental destruction, the mass unavailability of lifesaving drugs, a new chasm between the ultra wealthy 1% and the rest of us: capitalism has to be altered, otherwise we, and the succeeding generations, are all heading to hell in a handcart.

But it does not necessarily follow that the revolution in infotech will deliver Postcapitalism, or even a better capitalism. The Apple corporation, for example, constructs a walled garden around free music, literature, ideas and art by forcing people to buy a variety of its products in order to harness them at all. Mason, to give him his due, notes this; more importantly, though, he notes the prospect of governments clamping down on this unprivatised brave new world.

STATE CLAMPDOWNS

Here lies the danger. The spot on the Promenade des Anglais on which the Nice killer fell is now littered with detritus and people assemble to spit on it. The killer’s actions, in the popular mindset, are not now human but monstrous. With the perpetrators of terrorist events commonly dehumanised and dubbed monstrous, the possibility of state crackdown is surely more alive than ever. 

When senior politicians like French President Francois Hollande are booed at commemorations, as happened in Nice last week, the tempting solution for the political establishment is to clamp down harder. Ever harder. Harder on the terrorists, yes, but also harder on the freedoms Mason lauds, and all in the name of security. Think of the Chinese government’s regular, outrageous censorship of the Internet. Think of Turkey’s President Erdogan and his tendency to do the same, only enhanced by the coup attempt in his country at the weekend. Think, too, of British prime minister Theresa May’s support for the UK’s proposed ‘snooper’s charter’. Ironically, Erdogan denounced the coup via FaceTime, the sort of free info / person-to-person platform Mason lauds and the Turkish president loathes.

INTERVENTION
Coming back to Mason, he has been dismissed by some as an unreconstructed Trot, but he does attack many of the old leftist shibboleths. The early twentieth century socialists – Trotsky, Luxembourg, Lenin – were wrong to perceive the imminent collapse of capitalism, he claims. He also doubts the ability of centralised state planning to effect the desired-for transition to Postcapitalism. The people, individuals, and not the omnicompetent state, will deliver Postcapitalism, says Mason. He wants a ‘Wikistate’, run like Wikipedia with just a couple of hundred administrators overseeing a wealth of freedom. 
However, and more broadly, we are actually witnessing the rise of politicians promising more state intervention, not less – Donald Trump is a good example, a cowboy pinup of the aggressive business world like Reagan, but hardly a neoliberal in the classic sense. With Brexit, with the resurgence of the European right, anxiety over uncontrolled immigration etc it seems people are demanding more intervention, not less. The price of greater security, then, may well be the jettisoning of the free anticapitalist ethos that Mason celebrates.
BRAVE NEW WORLD

There are other flaws, to my mind, with Mason’s thesis. But his cry for a different world borne of different thinking – one in which individuals all receive a flat wage and so do not have to perform ‘bullshit work’, in which banks are held to account and responsible and sustainable business practice rewarded – is one which should be embraced and not dismissed haughtily.

And yet. And yet. At times this book, for all its historical sweep, seems trapped in an intellectual cul de sac. Mason’s Postcapitalism, when he gets around to defining it, seems to be a mixture of the free market, the interventionist state, and – lording it above all equals – the techno geek. It all feels a bit faddish, a feeling I first got with Mason last year when reading a Guardian piece by him on how the hipster brewing company ‘Brewdog’ is an example ofPostcapitalism in making its recipes freely available and offering easily accessible share options. Oh please.

As the events in Turkey show, in this fast paced ever changing world, change is often effected in quite traditional ways: helicopters, television pronouncements, angry mobs. Great change in the world is certainly greatly desirable, but it may just arrive via more established means.

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