Quotulatiousness

August 16, 2015

An interesting era in Portuguese history

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Sarah Hoyt on the time when the throne of the Kingdom of Portugal was occupied by the Kings of Spain:

When I was little, one of my favorite times in history class every year was when we studied the Spanish occupation.

From 1560 to 1640 and due to some truly gifted stupid actions of Portuguese kings, the throne of Portugal was occupied by the Philips. The first Philip was the famous Philip of the Armada.

Now the throne of Portugal was acquired as legitimately as any other succession at the time and more legitimately than most. Technically Philip was the late King Sebastian’s nephew. (And possibly first cousin, uncle and grandfather. There is no word on whether the royal lines of Portugal and Spain could play the banjo really well, but if they didn’t it was only because they didn’t have banjos.)

However by the time I studied the occupation or “usurpation” EVERY year of elementary school, great indignation was built towards the Philips. One of the reasons I really liked that lesson is that our prim and elderly school marm would instruct us to bring out our crayons and deface our pictures of Philip of Portugal and Spain. (And for those cringing about destruction of school property, in Portugal you buy your school books. You can sometimes buy them used or inherit them from a sibling — not me, my brother was much older than I and books had changed — but in general everyone from the richest to the poorest bought the school books. I rather suspect, now I think about it, that this keeps the Portuguese publishing system working.)

The reason they were hated, the reason we were instructed to deface the pictures was that while occupying the Portuguese throne, perhaps because they were sure it wouldn’t last, or perhaps because they wanted to reduce the proud and independent spirit of the Portuguese (from their perspective the last of the small kingdoms in the peninsula to be swallowed by the Spanish leviathan) the Philips seemed to go out of their way to destroy all Portuguese interests, possessions and wealth, as well as the Portuguese standing with their allies and the world.

It’s been a long time, and mostly I spent my time studying how to deface a picture, but I remember the Spaniards broke the Portuguese alliance with the English which had lasted almost since before there was England, and save for that interruption has lasted to present day. This meant Portuguese ships could fall prey to the British privateers. They also failed to adequately defend Portuguese colonies and gave some of them away as dowry to Spanish Princesses or perhaps party favors.

There were other things, and the rule must have been felt even at the time as disastrous because particularly in the North a cult of the “King who will return” (in this case King Sebastian, young and possibly nuts or at least a really good banjo player, since his mother was the upteenth Spanish princess the Portuguese kings had married in a row.) He died in a futile attack on the North of Africa (there’s taking the fight to the enemy and then there’s nuts) which left the kingdom without a king. Save the Spaniards.

For years, and then centuries, adding an element of fantasy, the legend grew that he had not died and would return “one foggy morning.”

I must have had a fantastical or romantic bend from early on, because one of my favorite songs was by a group called 1111 (Ah ah) which sang about King Sebastian and how they’d found his horse and pieces of his doublet, his sword and his heart, notwithstanding which he’d come back in a foggy morning to lead the half mad seers and witches of the foggy Northern lands. (Represent, I say, represent.)

However, no matter how bad the Spanish occupation was, in that morality tale it became the inflection point at which Portugal stopped being amazing and became beaten down and down and out. At that moment (even though colonies and empire remained) Portugal was broken in the eyes of the world and in its own eyes.

August 11, 2015

Byzantine Empire: Justinian and Theodora – III: Purple is the Noblest Shroud – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 4 Jul 2015

A group of monks declared sanctuary for two hooligans from the demes (Constantinople’s fanatical chariot racing factions) who had miraculously survived a hanging. The public wanted them pardoned for their crimes, so when Justinian made his public appearance at the next chariot race, they begged him to have mercy. When Justinian refused, the crowd turned on him and became a rioting mob that tore through the streets of Constantinople. During the Nika Riots, they burned down neighborhoods and even the Hagia Sophia cathedral, rampaging until Justinian agreed to pardon the two men from the demes. Now, however, the mob would not accept that. They demanded that he fire his advisors. Then they decided to appoint their own emperor, a man named Hypatius who was related to the previous emperor Anastasius. Assaulted on all sides, Justinian made plans to flee, only to be confronted by Theodora. She gave a now famous speech asking whether he would rather live a failure or die an emperor, announcing that she would choose the latter. Justinian followed her lead and made new plans to retake his city. He called Belisarius and Mundus, his best generals, to marshal a force. He also sent the eunuch Narses to bribe one faction of the demes and begin dismantling their leadership. Then he ordered his forces to invade the Hippodrome, where they cut down some thirty thousand civilians and executed the false emperor Hypatius. Justinian’s reign was once again secure.

August 4, 2015

Byzantine Empire: Justinian and Theodora – II: The Reforms of Justinian – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Law, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 27 Jun 2015

Justinian wanted to restore the glory of Rome, but many obstacles stood in his way. He brought on talented advisors to help him reform the tax system, the law code, and the military might of the empire. With them he made great strides, but these advisors had very human flaws. His tax collector, John the Cappadocian, centralized tax collection and crushed corruption in his agents, greatly increasing the revenue to the empire – but he also skimmed money off the top to feed his private corruption. Meanwhile, a lawyer named Tribonian took centuries of confusing and even conflicting legal precedents and resolved them into a single code, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which remains the foundation of modern law today. He even made a textbook for students to learn from. But he was also a practicing pagan during an era when Justinian was trying to crack down on pagan rituals. And last, Justinian’s chief military commander Belisarius helped the Empire recover its military glory. He defeated the Sassanid Persians in the Battle of Dara, crushing a force of 50,000 men with only 25,000 of his own through clever strategy: he dug a trench to halt their infantry’s advance, then baited the Persian cavalry into overextending and sprang a surprise attack on them with Hun mercenaries. Although Belisarius seems to have been an upstanding person, his personal historian Procopius tainted even his clean record. Procopius wrote glowing official histories of the reign of Justinian, but his long lost secret history depicted Justinian as a literal headless demon and Theodora as a debauched monster.

July 29, 2015

Byzantine Empire: Justinian and Theodora – I: From Swineherd to Emperor – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 20 Jun 2015

Justinian arose from humble roots, the nephew of an illiterate pig farmer named Justin. Justin joined the army and rose to become leader of the palace guard, then took his nephew under his wing and made sure that he was well educated. When Emperor Anastasius died, Justin used his position (and his standing army inside Constantinople) to claim the crown for himself. His nephew guided the early years of his reign, helping Justin secure support both in the capitol and abroad. When Justin died, rule of the Byzantine Empire passed to the young Justinian, who had grand ambitions to restore its waning glory. It also freed him to marry Theodora, a famous actress who was far beneath his social station, and who would also rise from her humble beginnings to become a revered empress.

July 25, 2015

QotD: The King

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Perhaps the most valuable asset that any man can have in this world is a naturally superior air, a talent for sniffishness and reserve. The generality of men are always greatly impressed by it, and accept it freely as a proof of genuine merit. One need but disdain them to gain their respect. Their congenital stupidity and timorousness make them turn to any leader who offers, and the sign of leadership that they recognize most readily is that which shows itself in external manner. This is the true explanation of the survival of monarchism, which invariably lives through its perennial deaths. It is the popular theory, at least in America, that monarchism is a curse fastened upon the common people from above — that the monarch saddles it upon them without their consent and against their will. The theory is without support in the facts. Kings are created, not by kings, but by the people. They visualize one of the ineradicable needs of all third-rate men, which means of nine men out of ten, and that is the need of something to venerate, to bow down to, to follow and obey.

The king business begins to grow precarious, not when kings reach out for greater powers, but when they begin to resign and renounce their powers. The czars of Russia were quite secure upon the throne so long as they ran Russia like a reformatory, but the moment they began to yield to liberal ideas, i. e., by emancipating the serfs and setting up constitutionalism, their doom was sounded. The people saw this yielding as a sign of weakness; they began to suspect that the czars, after all, were not actually superior to other men. And so they turned to other and antagonistic leaders, all as cock-sure as the czars had once been, and in the course of time they were stimulated to rebellion. These leaders, or, at all events, the two or three most resolute and daring of them, then undertook to run the country in the precise way that it had been run in the palmy days of the monarchy. That is to say, they seized and exerted irresistible power and laid claim to infallible wisdom. History will date their downfall from the day they began to ease their pretensions. Once they confessed, even by implication, that they were merely human, the common people began to turn against them.

H.L. Mencken, “Types of Men 8: The King”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.

July 24, 2015

QotD: The personality of Kaiser Wilhelm II

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It was one of this Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behaviour to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operate. Too often he spoke not like a monarch, but like an over-excited teenager giving free rein to his current preoccupations. He was an extreme exemplar of that Edwardian social category, the club bore who is forever explaining some pet project to the man in the next chair. Small wonder that the prospect of being buttonholed by the Kaiser over lunch or dinner, when escape was impossible, struck fear into the hearts of so many European royals.

Wilhelm’s interventions greatly exercised the men of the German foreign ministry, but they did little to shape the course of German policy. Indeed it may in part have been a deepening sense of impotence and disconnection from the real levers of power that fired up Wilhelm’s recurring fantasies about future world wars between Japan and the USA, invasions of Puerto Rico, global jihad against the British Empire, a German protectorate over China and so on. These were the blue-sky scenarios of an inveterate geopolitical fantasist, not policies as such. And whenever a real conflict seemed imminent, Wilhelm pulled in his horns and quickly found reasons why Germany could not possibly go to war. […] Wilhelm could talk tough, but when trouble loomed he tended to turn and run for cover. He would do exactly that during the July Crisis of 1914. “It is a curious thing,” Jules Cambon, French ambassador in Berlin, observed in a letter to a senior official at the French foreign ministry in May 1912, “to see how this man, so sudden, so reckless and impulsive in words, is full of caution and patience in action.”

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

July 22, 2015

Tea

Filed under: India, Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

I was not aware that there were quite so many grades of tea: David Warren explains the rankings (and why you won’t find any in the Tea and Coffee aisle of your local Sobey’s or Metro):

There are six grades of Darjeeling, and the highest, Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe (SFTGFOP), will never reach the Greater Parkdale Area. One will need not only money, but contacts to obtain it. Perhaps, fly there, and start networking among the estate managers. You can’t buy it at Harrod’s, because they don’t sell to Harrod’s: it would be beneath them. The Queen might obtain some, but then, she has a staff.

Each grade lower drops a letter off the front, so that my fine tea is of the fourth grade, just short of “tippy,” which refers to the abundance of flowering buds. “Golden” means that in the process of oxidation, these tips will turn a gold colour. “Flowery” is the term for high floral aroma. “Orange” has nothing to do with fruit, but refers to the Nassau family of Holland, whose most creditable accomplishment was pioneering the importation of tea into Europe, four centuries ago. The term insinuates, “good enough for Dutch royalty,” perhaps. “Pekoe,” or more correctly pak-ho, refers to the white down that gathers at the base of the bottom bud, an indication of the plant’s mood, its susceptibility to plucking. (Tea picking is an art; one does not strip the tree bare, but selects each leaf as it is ready.)

Now, survey your local supermarket shelf — let us suppose it is an “upmarket” emporium — and you will find in the tea section nothing but sludge. The teas will all be “blended” — which I esteem as blended whisky, or blended wine, delivered in tanker trucks. This will be especially true of the expensive boxes with whimsical names for the blends — that say nothing of date, terroir, or the specific variety. The tea inside the boxes will be packed in irritating little bags, probably with the absurd claim that they are “organic.” Once cut open, they reveal that the tea was ground by a Rotorvane, even before being stirred in a diesel-electric mixer. Various chain tea stores have sprung up, posing as effete, to separate fools from their money. Their pretensions are risible, and they annoy me very much.

I won’t comment on the “herbal teas” they also sell; except to recommend, to the women (including nominal males) who want herbal remedies for their malades imaginaires, that they take up smoking.

Rather, let us focus on the words, “Orange Pekoe.” They attach to most of the Subcontinent’s black tea supply, as to that of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (the former paradise of Ceylon). I have explained what the words mean in a series — not much — but standing alone, they mean less. They guarantee that the purchaser will receive, at an inflated price, tea of a low, coarse, common quality, processed by the method called “CTC” (crush, tear, curl), introduced in the 1930s by a ravening industrialist named McKercher (“Sir William …”), and now spread around the planet.

The machinery was designed for volume at the expense of quality. It makes no sense to put good tea in, and what comes out might as well be bagged. This is tea for the masses, who have no prejudice or taste, and do not aspire to the humane. Like so much else in our fallen world, the best argument would be that tea of this sort is “better than nothing.”

The pleasures of a weak government

Filed under: Britain, Economics, Government, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait sings the praises of “an infirm hand on the tiller” during the War of the Roses:

For my point is that this royal “hand on the tiller” that Wilson says the country so much needed can sometimes be rather too firm.

Wilson is right that medieval civil war, or medieval war of any kind, could be a disaster to the wider society in which it happened. A routine military method in those days was for a retreating army to wreck the countryside, burning crops and killing livestock, in order to deny these resources to an advancing enemy. That this was a death sentence to whoever lived in this devastated area may have troubled the people who inflicted such horrors, but not enough to stop them doing it whenever they were told to. Elsewhere in the book, Wilson mentions an episode of just this sort, in which the King of Scotland inflicted just this horrible fate upon great swathes of Scotland, when he was faced with an invading English army. Those medieval wars between England and Scotland were not quite the nationalist confrontations that Anglo-Scottish wars later became. They were battles between aristocratic dynasties, between “families”, in the Godfather movies sense. Civilian populations were more prizes to be contested, to be owned or failing that denied to an enemy, than the ideologically enthused participants in the contest, as they became later, for instance in the seventeenth century.

But, on the whole, England’s Wars of the Rose, as they later came to be called, were not like this. These “wars” tended to consist of relatively small armies having sometimes very bloody battles with one another, but not, on the whole, creating all that much havoc for nearby civilians, apart from the unlucky civilians whose crops or animals had been on the actual battlefield.

So, what of that mercantile class which, in Wilson’s word, “emerged” at the same time as all of this rather low level fighting? He makes it sound like an unrelated coincidence. But might there not be an element of cause and effect in operation here? Was not the very fact that all this commerce, all this development of the wool trade, was “beyond politics” perhaps one of the key things that enabled it to “emerge”?

For many people, the mere possibility that the dynastic fights of the fifteenth century might degenerate, even if only in their immediate vicinity, into something more like the English — or worse, the German — civil wars of later times, was probably enough to make them believe, as Wilson believes, that a firm hand on the tiller would be preferable to rival hands flailing at each other. But in the meantime, it surely must have helped farmers — often farmers way off the beaten tracks of the contending English armies in places like East Anglia, and merchants, and speculators, and seafarers, that the aristocrats who might have taken command of their “emerging” arrangements, who, had they been all on the same side, might have brought them into politics, and if not ruined them then at least slowed them down quite severely, instead had other things on their minds. Basically, each other. What I am suggesting is that, from the commercial point of view, the Wars of the Roses might have been quite good wars, complicated enough to divert the attentions of aristocrats away from their usual anti-commercial meddlings, yet not too widespread in their destructive effect. That the Wars of the Rose were, for some, very bad wars, I do not contest.

July 13, 2015

Japan’s cross-dressing WW2 spy in China

Filed under: China, History, Japan — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In The Diplomat, Stephen Joyce reviews Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, a recent book by Phyllis Birnbaum:

Divisive figures often make the most compelling biographical subjects; and Kawashima Yoshiko is no exception. During her life and in death opinions have varied markedly. Loathed by the Chinese as a traitor, extolled by the Japanese for her talents as a spy, more recently she has even become a heroine to the LGBT community.

In Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, Phyllis Birnbaum provides a measured assessment of the fascinating rise and fall of this erratic, narcissistic, cross-dressing, bisexual princess.

Born in 1907 as Aisin Gioro Xianyu, Kawashima Yoshiko was the 14th daughter of Prince Su of the Qing imperial family. Soon after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, she was unwillingly sent to Japan to be adopted by family friend Kawashima Naniwa.

Her formative teenage years were spent in Matsumoto being educated in Japanese language and culture. It was not the happiest of upbringings. An attempted suicide and sexual assault by her new father are noted as potentially life-defining events but are hard to verify. Whatever the root cause of her discontent, in 1925 she shaved her head and started wearing men’s clothes.

In 1927 she married a Mongolian prince in a politically convenient union that quickly failed and Yoshiko soon travelled to China to pursue her dream of a honorable return to power for the Qing dynasty, beginning with Manchuria and Outer Mongolia.

With Japan increasingly active in China she soon found herself a raison d’etre: a spy in the service of the Japanese. Several incidents define her status as a spy; all are shrouded in mystery.

[…]

Although it would be hard to argue that she had a major influence over the key events of her time, Kawashima Yoshiko is a superb subject for biography and should interest all lovers of Asian history. And despite living her life in the public and media glare her essential mysteriousness remains—even in death. Did the Chinese Nationalist government execute her (as Kim Bai Fai) in 1948 or, as some would have it, did she escape and live out her last days quiet obscurity? Birnbaum concludes that the latter outcome is questionable, to say the least. Assuming she was indeed executed, her memoirs reveal a wry acceptance of her ultimate fate, despite her life aims lying in tatters.

The sheer wealth of material — autobiographies, Yoshiko’s letters, interviews, press reports, sensationalist magazine articles and official documents — with which to write a biography to some extent serves to cloud rather than illuminate the life of Yoshiko Kawashima. Much like her futile efforts to restore the Qing dynasty in China, any attempt to firmly pin down her real life story and true character seems destined to fail.

June 2, 2015

Strange Women

Filed under: Government, Humour — Tags: — Nicholas @ 05:00

StrangeWomen

H/T to Never Yet Melted for the graphic.

May 11, 2015

Nepal’s tragic unpreparedness for disaster

Filed under: Asia, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In The Walrus, Manjushree Thapa explains why Nepal was so badly prepared for the earthquake:

Following the April 25 earthquake, Nepalis have had to learn the value of preparedness in the most painful way possible. In the aftermath, Pushpa Acharya, a Nepali friend at the University of Toronto, observed, “Knowledge was not our problem.” Indeed. We all knew that our country sits on an active fault line, where the subcontinent collided with the Eurasian plate with such force it created the Himalayas. The last big quake took place in 1934. Others have since struck, but none with the force of 1934’s 8.0 or April 25’s 7.9. We knew that a big earthquake was due.

It was our duty to prepare, and though some of us did so individually, as a society we ignored the warnings. In the past ten days, during search and rescue, and then the beginnings of relief, we’ve had to do some hard thinking about how our country could become more responsible going forward. The root problem may seem obvious: Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its poverty is, however, a symptom of our history of ill governance, and the reason for our national failure to prepare, which has kept us from becoming a functioning democracy.

When the earthquake struck, the country was in a deep and deeply depressing stupor. The governing parties — a coalition of the Nepali Congress Party and the Unified Marxist Leninists — had reached an impasse with Nepal’s thirty-three opposition parties about what kind of constitution to draft. There was no plan for the country as a whole, let alone in the case of an emergency. The drafting of a constitution has preoccupied, confounded, and eluded Nepal’s polity since 2006, when the Maoists ended a ten-year insurgency to join forces with other parties to remove Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah. Nepal’s king had used the war as an excuse to end a fragile fifteen-year spell of democracy and install his own military-backed rule. A mass movement restored democracy, and the subsequent peace process promised to restructure the country along just and equitable lines through the drafting of a new constitution

May 5, 2015

QotD: Monarchies and republics

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

When I say monarchy I am not talking about the wishy-washy monarchy we pretend to have in the UK. I am talking about real monarchies, monarchies red in tooth and claw, monarchies that can at minimum hire and fire ministers and start wars.

Now, I can almost hear the pedants shouting “But those are precisely the powers the Queen has” To which I say “Only in theory”. Should the Queen or any of her successors ever attempt to actually exercise those theoretical powers they would be out of office in a matter of nano-seconds. Britain is a republic.

When did it become one? I think we can be pretty precise with the dates: sometime between 1642 and 1694. 1642 is the date of the outbreak of the English Civil War, when Charles I tried to impose his idea of absolute monarchy. 1694 is the date William III accepted that his powers were extremely limited. Since then it has been Parliament that makes the laws and votes funding – without which making war becomes extremely difficult.

But think of what happened in that period: four civil wars, one military dictatorship and a foreign invasion.

You think that was bad? Try the French. Between 1789 and 1871 they saw four monarchies, three republics, three foreign invasions and a 20-year war with the rest of Europe.

And now look at what happened in the 20th century. Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, China, Turkey, Spain and Portugal all made the same transition from monarchy to republic. I need not dwell on the German or Russian experiences — they are well enough known but all the others follow a similar pattern. China saw a 20-year civil war followed by Mao’s communist regime; Spain, a monarchy, followed by a republic followed by a civil war followed by a dictatorship followed by a monarchy followed by a democratic republic. Even Portugal saw two revolutions, a dictatorship and a series of bloody colonial wars.

The point is that in every case the transition from monarchy to republic is bloody and protracted.

Patrick Crozier, “What caused the First World War? Part V: Monarchies and Republics”, Samizdata, 2015-04-29.

April 16, 2015

QotD: Emperor Franz Joseph

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

At the heart of the grandeur was a man who liked plain food, predictable routines, and, for relaxation, hunting and shooting. He was a good Catholic without thinking much about it. Like his fellow sovereigns Nicholas II and Wilhelm II, Franz Joseph loved the military life and almost always appeared in uniform. Like them too he was sent into a rage when the details of army uniforms were wrong. Apart from that, he was invariably courteous to everyone although always conscious of rank. He only shook Margutti’s hand once, to recognize that he had been promoted. (Margutti regretted ever after that no one else at court had seen this momentous gesture.) Franz Joseph found modern art puzzling but his sense of duty took him to public art exhibitions and the opening of important new buildings, especially if they were under royal patronage.” His taste in music ran to military marches or Strauss waltzes and, while he liked the theater and from time to time the prettier actresses, he preferred the old favorites. He did not like unpunctuality, loud laughter or people who talked too much. He had a sense of humor, of a rather basic sort. He had climbed the Great Pyramid in Egypt, he wrote to his wife, Empress Elisabeth, with the help of Bedouin guides. “As they mostly only wear a shirt, when they are climbing, and that must be the reason why English women so happily and frequently like to scale the pyramids.”

Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, 2013.

April 15, 2015

The Last Tsar – Nicholas II I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 13 Apr 2015

Nicholas II was the last tsar of Russia and the last ruler of the Romanov dynasty. His reign and his command are considered especially inauspicious today. Everything you need to know about Nicholas II of Russia in portrait.

March 10, 2015

Magna Carta in the modern world

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, Government, History, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Mark Steyn talks about the decline in state observance (and in David Cameron’s case, even awareness) of the significance of Magna Carta:

Real rights are like Magna Carta: restraints on state power. Too many people today understand the word “rights” to mean baubles and trinkets a gracious sovereign bestows on his subjects — “free” health care, “free” community college, “safe spaces” from anyone saying anything beastly — all of which require a massive, coercive state regulatory regime to enforce.

But, to give it is full name, Magna Carta Libertatum (my italics – I don’t think they had ’em back then) gets it the right way round. It was in some respects a happy accident. In 1215, a bunch of chippy barons were getting fed up with King John. In those days, in such circumstances, the malcontents would usually replace the sovereign with a pliable prince who’d be more attentive to their grievances. But, having no such prince to hand, the barons were forced to be more inventive, and so they wound up replacing the King with an idea, and the most important idea of all — that even the King is subject to the law.

In this 800th anniversary year, that’s a lesson worth re-learning. Restraints on state power are increasingly unfashionable among the heirs to Magna Carta: in America, King Barack decides when he wakes up of a morning what clauses of ObamaCare or US immigration law he’s willing to observe or waive according to royal whim; his heir, Queen Hillary, operates on the principle that laws are for the other 300 million Americans, not her. In the birthplace of Magna Carta, a few miles from that meadow at Runnymede, David Cameron’s constabulary leans on newsagents to cough up the names and addresses of troublesome citizens who’ve committed the crime of purchasing Charlie Hebdo.

The symbolism was almost too perfect when Mr Cameron went on TV with David Letterman, and was obliged to admit that he had no idea what the words “Magna Carta” meant. Magna Carta Libertatum: The Great Charter of Liberty. I’m happy to say Mr Cameron’s Commonwealth cousins across the Atlantic in Ottawa are more on top of things: One of the modestly heartening innovations of Stephen Harper’s ministry is that, when immigrants to Canada take the oath of citizenship, they’re given among other things a copy of Magna Carta.

Why? Because everything flows therefrom — from England’s Glorious Revolution to the US Constitution and beyond. It’s part of the reason why the English-speaking world, in contrast to Continental Europe, has managed to sustain its freedoms across the generations.

On the topic of Cameron’s inability to say what Magna Carta translates to in English, Richard Anderson is convinced it was a deliberate ploy by Cameron to downplay his (expensive) educational background:

A Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a graduate of Eton and Brasenose no less, no more forgets stuff like this then he forgets his wife’s name or his archenemy’s personal weaknesses. He flubbed it on purpose. Boris Johnson, the rather eccentric Tory mayor of London, figured out Davy pretty much from the start:

    Johnson, a classics scholar, said: “I think he was only pretending. I think he knew full well what Magna Carta means. It was a brilliant move in order to show his demotic credentials and that he didn’t have Latin bursting out of every orifice.”

A bit of context is required here. Since the Roman Empire went the way of all flesh Latin has been the language of the European elite. At first this was for practical purposes. For centuries any useful knowledge that had survived after the fall of the Empire in the west was in either in Latin or Greek. But long after Gutenberg, whose revolution made the vernacular languages of Europe important stores of knowledge, Latin remained the mark of a gentleman.

[…]

Mr Cameron is a graduate of Eton, an Old Etonian as they say. What is Eton? It makes Upper Canada College look like a cheap poseur. It is a super private high school that has produced nineteen of Britain’s fifty-three Prime Ministers. Harvard has produced a mere eight American Presidents. The University of Toronto a corporal’s guard of four Canadian PMs. Harold Macmillan, Britain’s snottiest modern PM, once derisively quipped that Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet had more Estonians than Etonians. A meritocratic break from an aristocratic past. At least it seemed at the time. Cameron’s particular team of rivals is decidedly Toff heavy. His Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is a descendant of Henry III and his father was a baronet.

And what distinguishes the education of a Toff, even in these fallen times, is a sprinkling of Latin. Two millennia after the Romans decided the British Isles, or at least the warmer bits of it, were worth conquering the language of Cicero is still the mark of the Great and Good. Boris Johnson was perfectly correct. David Cameron almost certainly knew what Magna Carta meant. He was pandering to the lowest common denominator by pretending not to know.

But knowing the meaning of the name of the foundational document of British liberty, and by extension the liberty of the English speaking peoples, isn’t quite like being able to translate Virgil from the original into the Greek. It’s not specialized knowledge and should never be seen as such. This is what every schoolboy should and did know until the day before yesterday. That the Prime Minister of the day should think it politically advantageous to pretend not to know basic historical information is a chilling thought. That he was pandering was disgraceful but hardly shocking. That such pandering would be successful is a condemnation of modern Britain as severe as anything found in the works of Anthony Daniels.

There is stooping to conquer and then there is surrendering to the modern Vandals. David Cameron is the man holding the gate wide open.

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