Sunday, August 30, 2009

Powell and Bose

When Fitzroy MacLean parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943, little was known of Tito and the Partisans. Rumours suggested Tito was a woman, or a committee. MacLean found a communist.

During a subsequent meeting with Churchill, which he reported in his book Eastern Approaches (I can't find my copy so can't give the page reference), MacLean pointed out that supporting Tito, though militarily advantageous in the fight against the Germans, meant that Yugoslavia was being condemned to communist rule. Churchill asked him whether he was planning to live in Yugoslavia after the war. MacLean replied that he was not. Churchill said he wasn't either, and that concluded the conversation.

Not only were they both willing to take their enemy's enemy as their friend, they were prepared to condemn a whole country to what both regarded as tyranny, if that furthered their own national interest. From a modern British perspective, it's possible at least to understand their reasoning, whether or not we agree with it. They were defending liberal democracy against fascism. It's much harder to understand it when we are the bad guys, the enemy, in the fight against whom others are prepared to make alliances with evils. In fact, it's very difficult to accept we might have been, or even might still be, the bad guys in conflicts.

During World War Two, also in 1943, there was a famine in Bengal. There hadn't been a bad harvest, the famine was a man-made thing caused by both speculative and panic buying - the latter raised prices and made the former attractive - and by a sluggish colonial administration, British, that continued to export food as the famine worsened. Some three million people died, about half the death toll of the Holocaust. During the second half of the nineteenth century, between 30 and 40 million Indians died during famines. There have been no famines in India since independence in 1947.

These experiences of famine and of the absence of famine were of central importance to the work of Indian economist Amartya Sen, who suggests that democracies with free presses do not experience famines. Although his message is a complicated one, and places importance on the idea of "positive" liberty, liberal and free market types, like me, like to quote Sen from time to time. Tim Worstall quoted him a month or two ago, here, for example. If Sen is right, though, the blame for these famines in India lies in the fact that there was a colonial administration. It lies with the British.

About twenty years ago, I had some contact with one of Bose's sons, on and off, for a year or so. He was very proud of his lineage, in fact the reverse of his business cards mentioned it. He saw no reason at all why a white Englishman should not compliment him on it. Neither could I. Bose was not a fascist any more than Fitzroy MacLean was a communist. I think Bose made the wrong choice. I think he should have opposed the Nazis then opposed British rule, by peaceful means - not least because they were more likely to succeed, as events in India showed. I think the same about the IRA.

What's more, Britain was not, in the late 1930s, going round the world fighting fascism. We didn't help the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and we tried very hard to maintain "peace in our time" and NOT fight the Nazis. We were a lot less principled than we'd now like to think.

So on to the blog spat. Mr E wrote about the:

... mock outrage on the left over Dan Hannan's warm words for Enoch Powell - despite the fact that Hannan made no reference to Powell's views on immigration
Oliver Kamm thought differently:
Powell's broader political outlook was consistently ridiculous and he is remembered for one thing above all. He inflamed debate and debased the political culture by his incendiary and carefully judged comments on race. In Powell's words in 1968, under the Race Relations Bill (later the Race Relations Act) "the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided".

This wasn't aberrant in his philosophy. Powell was a pig-headed, anti-American, anti-European, xenophobic, crank conspiracy theorist. It was no accident (the dreary Marxisant formulation is apt here) that his wider writings were so preposterous: witness his forays into biblical criticism and his belief that the works attributed to Shakespeare were in reality written by the 17th Earl of Oxford. These were the recreational outlets for a mentality that found political expression in paranoid malevolence.
The important point about Kamm's criticism is that it was not restricted to the subject of race. Setting that aside and accepting that Hannan does not agree with Powell's stance on the subject, Powell is still a ridiculous figure to hold up as an intellectual hero. But given that Powell has become symbolic for ethnic minorities in Britain, using his name is probably unwise, for a politician, and whatever point one might be trying to make could probably be made in another way.

Hannan says he simply praised Powell
... for his prescience in understanding the threat that European integration posed to national democracy.
If that was the case, no more certain way could be found for the point about European integration to be entirely smothered and lost in an avalanche of criticism, than by citing Enoch's wise words on the subject.

So Hannan was apparently making what I'd regard as a reasonable point in a way almost calculated to be self-defeating. There are, of course, less charitable interpretations available. "Enoch was OK" is often code for "there are too many darkies". Hannan doesn't, so far as I can see, feel this is the case. So it was doubly stupid for him both to lose his argument in a welter of irrelevant criticism, and to sow a seed of (I believe unfounded) suspicion that he might be a closet racist.

Powell was a crank who, in my view knowingly, stirred racial discord. Bose was an Indian nationalist who was willing to ally with extraordinarily evil powers in the furtherance of what he saw as his own national interest. Powell was a British nationalist who was willing to ally with an extraordinarily evil power - I'm not aware he criticised our wartime alliance with Stalin. Both were willing to fight with courage for their country. The balance of awfulness favours Bose here.

Me E called it the other way:
I myself view neither Powell, Castro nor Bose as political heroes. But if we're really going to go down the route of choosing our leaders based on their views about divisive hate figures from the past, I'm afraid it's not much of a horse race. Give me the one who supports the democrat over the ones who support the dictators every time.
That's fair enough - though I'm not sure which democrats were available for an alliance with Bose. In the course of his argument, though, Mr E also criticised Sunny Hundall:
... one can't help noticing the lack of such outrage when Southall MP Virendra Sharma praised the pro-independence Indian leader, Subhas Chandra Bose. Indeed, Sunny leapt to his defence...
Hundall's response was:
Erm yeah. One was a high-ranking British politician who warned that black and white people mixing would lead to race war. The other was a lowly freedom fighter trying to get rid of the British Raj from India who had ruled his country for centuries and killed millions of people in the process. Obviously both are roughly in the same situation. By the same measure Churchill is a dictator who should never be spoken off highly forever.
Tim Worstall weighed in:
Bose fought for an[d] with the fascists. Indeed, if Powell had had his request granted to join the Chindits he would have fought directly against Bose and his fascist allies.

By continuing Sunny’s logic we should all therefore be supporting the BNP for they are indeed fighting with, not against, fascism. Or something.
Oh, there's nothing like a good blog spat.

I hate to say it, though, but in this one I agree with Sunny. If we'd been fighting the Soviets in 1939, we'd have allied with fascists too.


Anonymous said...

One was a high-ranking British politician who warned that black and white people mixing would lead to race war.

Except that, in Sunny's inimitable way, that's not really what Powell said.

This was a man who was outraged by the British treatment of the Mau Mau. He was also a minister with a hand in starting post war immigration to this country. Not exactly the behaviour of an out and out racist.

He had knowledge of the intercommunal violence of India; something that people like Sunny blame entirely on the British, yet which had a much longer history. I think he foresaw the danger of that arising in the UK with unchecked immigration. It's notable that his estimates of future immigrant population were ridiculed at the time as being alarmist. Yet it turns out he underestimated.

As for the jibe that if we had started the war fighting the Soviets we might have allied with the fascist. That's asinine. The fascists were an immediate threat that had to be contained. Having started a war against them, and then losing it, of course we allied with the devil to stop them. The first priority is to survive, only then can you be picky about choosing allies. During the Cold War we did ally with some pretty unsavoury people against the Soviet Union.

Peter Risdon said...

I accept all the points you make except the last; I don't think there are any happy precedents for multiculturalism and Powell wasn't entirely wrong about everything, though on balance I think crank is a reasonable description.

Your last paragraph, though, isn't logical. If we'd have started the war fighting the Soviets, they'd have been the immediate threat. We'd have allied with anyone against the immediate threat, as in fact we did.

dearieme said...

The reason we fought Nazi Germany was nothing to do with "fighting fascism", it was that Germany's direct and urgent threat to us had become undeniably obvious. When Stalin's preferred role as Hitler's ally was so abruptly torn from him, Churchill then treated Stalin as an ally, though to begin with all that meant was that we sent him supplies. (And that Churchill suddenly had much less trouble from the Unions.) Surely there's nothing here worth debating - isn't it all bloody obvious?

As for Sen's rule about famines, it fails rather obviously with the Irish famine of the 1840s.

Retardo said...

Who's "Bose" and what did he have to do with the Nazis? With Enoch Powell, you at least provide a first name so the reader can go find out what he's famous for.

Peter Risdon said...

Retardo, I apologise: Subhas Chandra Bose.

DM, yes, I agree - and that's in accordance with my account, isn't it?

The Irish Famine... a democracy with a free press? I'm not a sure that's right about Ireland in the 1860s.

Anonymous said...

Ref the quote from Powell supplied by O.Kamm - "...organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons..."

Sounds about right to me. Isn't that more or less what they've done? Especially the Muslims?

dearieme said...

Which bit wasn't true of Ireland (in the 1840s)? Unless he means "universal franchise democracy" which would make his argument not so much wrong as plain silly. (For instance, it would mean saying that famine wasn't a problem for the USA after the 1960s. Brilliant.)

Peter Risdon said...

Sen does seem to be saying that, so far as I can see. The people affected most severely by famine need to have the vote for their views to be an effective sanction. Hence the point that India hasn't had a famine since 1947 - but Bangladesh has.

Unknown said...

The Bengal Famine was caused by a panic destruction of crops in order to help stem the Japanese advance. Remember, "An army marches on its stomach".

The Japanese had made great use of the food available in areas they had overrun in order to continue their advance. It's easy to say with hindsight that the initial decision was wrong when it could have been entirely correct.

A fair and valid criticism would have been that a proper effort was not made to ship food in when the Japanese unexpectedly halted their advance, but that criticism wasn't the one made.

As for Bose, perhaps he should have asked the people of China after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the "Rape of Nanking" whether they thought the Japanese would have made better colonial governors than the British Empire.

dearieme said...

If you took Sen seriously, you'd say that the 1840s potato famine would have affected most seriously the part of the UK with the biggest democratic deficit - which was Scotland, not Ireland. But the tattie-dependent parts of Scotland, though hard hit by the blight, didn't suffer to the same extent. That was mainly due, I'd guess, to the blessings of the Clearances. If you move the subsistence-farming peasantry off to the Lowlands, Canada and Australia, they are safe from exposure to that vulnerable monoculture. (It might also have helped that those who stayed were more accessible by sea for relief supplies than were many of the Irish.) Anyway, democracy doesn't have much to do with it - in the UK, that is. Whether it had much to do with the potato famine in Belgium I don't know.

Peter Risdon said...

DM I don't think Sen argues that famine is distributed according to the degree of democratic deficit within a jurisdiction.