Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Tristram Hunt - what a...

...Blairite bastard. In the latest issue of the New Statesman, Cambridge University historian Tristram Hunt has an cover article 'Why Britain is great'. Hunt begins badly, talking in a racist fashion about 'Islamo-fascism claiming lives in London, Madrid, Amsterdam and elsewhere.' 'As I write, highly educated if wholly uncivilised human beings are travelling underground, trying to kill me. But their aim is to murder more than just me, or you. Despite the appeasing rationalisations of John Pilger - that it wouldn't happen if only we cut and run from Iraq, or if we stopped supporting Israel - these terrorists are engaged in an assault on our way of life. As the Prime Minister has rightly suggested, British values are the true target of the terrorists.'

So for Hunt, we are right back to the 'Blitz' again, with Muslims as Nazis, anti-war voices as 'appeasers of fascism', and Blair as Churchill. Oh dear. Its like a neo-con wet dream. But why then haven't we evacuated London as they did during World War II? Why haven't gas masks been issued? Why aren't British Jews fleeing to America for safety?

Hunt continues, arguing the left in England can no longer refuse to 'engage with the virtues of nationhood'. Here he invokes the spirit of Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn (1940) to help him out. 'It was, of course, George Orwell who famously pointed out the prevarications of British intellectuals over patriotism. In his essays he ridiculed their embarrassed avoidance of nationalism while he revelled in England's invincible suburbs, its old maids, its pillar boxes and pigeon-fanciers.' A little unfair to Orwell it might be suggested. Orwell was a far more complex thinker than Hunt suggests - see for example Orwell's essay 'Not counting Niggers' in 1939, where he hammered the fact that those who celebrated 'Englishness' had to ignore those in British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, who had a rather different view of what English 'democracy' meant.

Hunt's 'progressive' vision of Britishness 'beyond the conservative trinity of royalty, church and army' that he thinks we 'desperately need desperately to defend' is revealing. 'Like other western and non-western nations, we have a history of promoting the type of gender, racial and sexual equality reviled by misogynistic mujahids. From the Married Women's Property Act 1882 to the Race Relations Act 1976, Britain has progressively advanced the cause of personal equality.' What a Whiggish view of the struggle for equality! How progressive our politicians have been! How grateful we should all be! Forget the Chartists, the suffragettes, the civil rights movement in Britain - we are so enlightened as a nation we recognised black people as equals in law as early as...1976. And if Hunt thinks we are such an enlightened society, perhaps he should go and talk to the parents of murdered black teenager Anthony Walker in Liverpool. I am sure they will have a rather different view of 'Great Britain'.

Hunt describes 'a stirring list of progressive British attributes: political pluralism, rationalism and radicalism, nonconformity and anti-clericalism, representative democracy, technological inventiveness, entrepreneurialism, religious tolerance (seen to such effect in differing attitudes to the hijab in France and Britain) and moral internationalism, from the anti-slavery movement to Make Poverty History.' Fine - one wonders just quite how 'British' some of these are - are they not universal progressive values? For example, leave aside whether 'enterpreneauralism' is 'progressive, just how British is it? I am reminded of something George Bush once said: 'The problem with the French is that they have no word for "entrepreneur"'...

The hypocrisy of what Hunt is saying becomes apparent when he argues that 'Unfortunately, our otherwise progressive government has not always acted to protect these cultural traditions.' Too right. Perhaps he is referring to the Terrorist legislation, Shoot to Kill etc, all of which erode ancient civil liberties? But no, Hunt is referring to, er, Fox Hunting. 'The French newspaper Le Figaro rightly remarked on the irony of MPs outlawing fox-hunting - a historic component of British culture in art, literature and the very contours of our natural heritage - while happily allowing in Muslim clerics committed to destroying British values.' You what? The 'British' value of free speech can be torn up and destroyed if Muslim preachers attack British foreign policy in their speeches, but Fox Hunting epitomises 'the best of British'?

Hunt then makes possibly the most amazing statement in the whole article. 'By bending over backwards to accommodate the cultures and religions of migrant communities, we have been in danger of undermining the very ideals that attracted immigrants here to begin with. One of the few politicians brave enough to confront this dilemma has been David Blunkett...Blunkett himself has happily broken with the left's usual reserve on these matters, speaking of his patriotic ardour for English music, poetry, drama and humour.' Humour? David Blunkett? David Blunkett as cultural critic? Perhaps Hunt ought to be reminded of Blunkett's statement echoing Margeret Thatcher by talking of immigrants 'swamping' our culture. That was real funny. Perhaps Hunt ought to read more about Babar Ahmed - a British citizen in Belmarsh prison without having a fair trial because the US think he is a terrorist. Is this about the British values of 'fair play'? One wonders quite why anyone would want to come to Britain today...

Having celebrated David Blunkett, it is not surprising that Hunt goes on to echo racist fears about immigration and asylum. 'It is often suggested that a central component of Britain's history is its openness to radicals and insurgents. Turning the capital into "Londonistan" during the 1990s was, we are assured, no different from Victorian London welcoming in Marx and Engels. But the critical difference was that both of those men adored England. Engels loved English poetry - entertaining guests with his rendition of "The Vicar of Bray" - and chose the coast near Eastbourne as his final resting place. Marx was never happier than in sleazy Soho dens, walking on Hampstead Heath or retreating to the British Library.' Right, so migrant workers and political refugees can come to Britain, but only if they 'adore England'. How tolerant we are! But did Marx and Engels really 'adore England'?

Here is Frederick Engels on the English middle class, the class lauded recently on television by one Tristram Hunt. 'I have never seen a class so deeply demoralised, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress, as the English bourgeoisie; and I mean by this, especially the bourgeoisie proper, particularly the Liberal, Corn Law repealing bourgeoisie. For it nothing exists in this world, except for the sake of money, itself not excluded. It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold. In the presence of this avarice and lust of gain, it is not possible for a single human sentiment or opinion to remain untainted. True, these English bourgeois are good husbands and family men, and have all sorts of other private virtues, and appear, in ordinary intercourse, as decent and respectable as all other bourgeois; even in business they are better to deal with than the Germans; they do not higgle and haggle so much as our own pettifogging merchants; but how does this help matters? Ultimately it is self-interest, and especially money gain, which alone determines them. I once went into Manchester with such a bourgeois, and spoke to him of the bad, unwholesome method of building, the frightful condition of the working-peoples quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city. The man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: "And yet there is a great deal of money made here, good morning, sir." (Frederick Engels, The Condition of the English Working Classes, 1845 - here) Today Tristram Hunt makes a great deal of money by passing off racist lies about Muslims as intelligent comment, while praising a Government that wages criminal and disasterous wars that kill thousands of Muslims abroad. He certainly does the English middle class proud.

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