Left Tide in Ireland

Parish-pump politics has underpinned elections in the Republic of Ireland for many years. In sending politicians to parliament, voters often think hyper-locally, foregrounding parochial issues and punishing representatives who neglect their home constituencies. The result is a frustrating lack of creative policy ideas and long-term planning at the national level, along with a cronyist and clientelist political culture that permeates the entire polity.

Yet the February 2020 general election demonstrated a series of shifts – social, political, ideological – that threaten to disrupt this decades-old pattern. For the first time, more voted for Sinn Féin, running on a social-democratic platform, than any other party. It secured 535,595 votes, next to Fianna Fáil’s 484,320 and Fine Gael’s 455,584. But because of Ireland’s proportional representation system, and Sinn Féin’s strategic error in not fielding enough candidates to fully capitalize on its vote-share, the division of seats was almost evenly split: 38 for the populist centre-right Fianna Fáil, 37 for Sinn Féin, 35 for the Thatcherite Fine Gael.

Sinn Féin has evolved from what is broadly described as the political wing of the IRA, and now occupies an odd space in Irish politics: a left-populist party whose policies are pitched at a newly politicized generation, but whose identity is tied to nationalist ideals that chime with an older demographic, many of whom imbibed the free-market orthodoxies of the Celtic Tiger. Its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, does not come from Sinn Féin’s traditional pool of Northern republicans with erstwhile paramilitary affiliations. A charismatic 51-year-old from Dublin, she is popular with female voters and has expanded the party’s growing base in working-class urban areas since becoming leader in 2018. Meanwhile, the party’s Northern arm has returned to Stormont after a three-year hiatus under the leadership of Michelle O’Neil. Sinn Féin’s aim of eroding partition by accumulating power in all 32 counties is back on course.

Analysis of the astonishing 2020 election results was soon eclipsed by the pandemic and the protracted process of government formation. With the Fine Gael-led caretaker administration mounting a relatively effective Covid-19 response, and Fianna Fáil desperate to install their leader, Micheál Martin, as Taoiseach, the country’s longstanding political establishment gained a new lease of life last May. The coalition government, formed after months of negotiation, comprised Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. It settled on a ‘rotating Taoiseach’ arrangement: giving the job to Martin initially, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar agreeing to serve as deputy before assuming the post again in two years’ time. This outcome – a damp squib belying the profound political shift evinced by the election – gave rise to a chaotic, old-new power-bloc which has since lurched from crisis to scandal to mishap.

Yet within this maelstrom, the most significant change of 2020 may not be the rise of Sinn Féin, nor even the electorate’s clearly articulated disenchantment with the Fianna Fáil–Fine Gael duopoly (one of these parties has served in every government since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922). No, it was rather that the electorate appeared to turn away from their localities and zoom out, voting on national issues in a national election. Added to that, the haze that has traditionally obscured Ireland’s left–right divisions (a symptom of the near-identical centre-right colouration of the ruling parties) seemed to lift, and people began discussing politics in those agonistic terms.

If, as the veteran Irish current-affairs journalist Vincent Browne once remarked, the problem with politics in Ireland is the lack of politics – if the electorate is typically asked to measure the subtle distinctions between two outfits cut from the same conservative cloth – 2020 ruptured this setup. The election was no longer a hair-splitting contest but an ideological struggle, forcing each party to set out its vision – or lack thereof – for the post-recessionary period. Fine Gael, having been in power since 2011 (first in coalition with the Labour Party, then in a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with Fianna Fáil), clearly resented this development. After a self-satisfied campaign in which they avoided discussing Ireland’s overlapping social crises (particularly in housing and healthcare), they came away astounded by the electorate’s failure to reward them for ten years of austerity, plus a warped ‘recovery’ in which rents skyrocketed, homelessness soared, and tens of thousands emigrated.

Baffled by this transformation, Ireland’s national media came increasingly to sound like international observers, assessing the events from afar and distilling them for a foreign audience. People ‘voted for change’, they said, without specifying which people or what kind. Voters, especially in young and previously disengaged demographics, had clearly gravitated towards Sinn Féin – long the black sheep of Irish party politics. Yet beneath that movement was a grassroots campaign whose simple instruction was expressed by its hashtag: #VoteLeftTransferLeft. This sentiment cut through, catapulting inexperienced candidates to parliament on the back of the Sinn Féin brand, and enabling most far-left contenders (from the Trotskyist parliamentary bloc Solidarity–People Before Profit) to retain their seats.

In one sense, Ireland’s 2011 election was just as seismic: voters instigated the third highest turnover of parliamentarians in any Western democracy since World War II. Yet this was occasioned by a singular event – the economic calamity overseen by Fianna Fáil, and the consequent imperative to expel them from power – rather than a secular trend. The social fragmentation wrought by the recession of the 2010s saw another bizarre pattern play out in the forgotten 2014 local elections, which returned a staggering 193 independent politicians, while increasing Sinn Féin’s tally of local councilors from 54 to 159 (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael won 267 and 235 seats respectively). This erratic showing testified to a growing political vacuum, and a disorientated electorate with little enthusiasm for any party. Much of that floating vote now appears to have settled (albeit temporarily, perhaps) on Sinn Féin, whose identification with the left – and emphasis on social issues alongside Irish unity – has increased under McDonald’s leadership.

Amid Sinn Féin’s rejuvenation, there has been a burgeoning sense that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil represent an outmoded twentieth-century political orthodoxy. Ireland’s social revolution – whose landmarks were the referenda on marriage equality in 2015 and abortion in 2018 – began long before those votes, as the 2008 economic collapse coincided with the ongoing decline of the Catholic Church, compounded by revelations of historic sexual abuse and brutality in the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. The consequent ructions to the national psyche created an opening for Sinn Féin to alter the ideological consensus, whose standard-bearing parties, having reinforced the power of the Church for much of the last century, are now desperate to diminish that association – hence their token adoption of socially liberal policies over the past decade. The Repeal and marriage equality campaigns created a primarily millennial political bloc led by women and queer people, whose formation is a far cry from Sinn Féin’s often highly macho republican tradition, but whose insurgent energy – and single-issue focus – has nonetheless harmonized with the party’s progressive platform.

The 2020 election rearticulated the nebulous sense of discontent we saw in 2014, yet this time its object – the ‘quality of life’ issues affected by Fine Gael’s austerity programme – was more clearly focalized: poor planning, urban gentrification, grinding commutes, lengthy hospital waiting lists, a multifaceted housing crisis that had rendered over 10,000 people homeless, crippling rent, inflated property prices, expensive childcare and unmanageable living costs. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s abstract metrics of success – reduced unemployment and GDP – felt meaningless to many voters. Our economy was apparently ‘booming’, but for whom? We were said to have ‘turned a corner’, but to where? With EU backing, Fine Gael may have struck an authoritative note when it came to negotiating Brexit (though that was hardly difficult compared to the chaotic and cartoonish Tories), but whether they could protect the Irish people from its impact, given their dogmatic aversion to stimulus spending, was another matter entirely.

Though Fine Gael tried to cash-in on the ‘recovery’, voters recognized that this return to growth was not a monolithic process. By and large, they approved of new independent businesses but rejected hyper-gentrification. They accepted the need for urban development, but not the kind that began to pockmark Dublin’s city centre at an alarming pace: luxury student accommodation, five-star hotels and socially corrosive ‘co-living’ developments. Tourism was welcome, but AirBnB’s unchecked accumulation of housing stock was not (leading activists to occupy the company’s Dublin headquarters in 2018). Unemployment had dramatically decreased from its peak of 17.3% during the recession, but it was hard to ignore the minimal tax intake from the Big Tech companies – including the government’s determined refusal to claim back €13bn worth of public revenue from Apple despite the orders of the European Commission.

While many analysts have come to terms with the fact that Sinn Féin are currently the main benefactors of this diffuse appetite for change, it remains to be seen whether they will retain this position – or whether the intergenerational coalition they’ve assembled will eventually come apart. Indeed, if the underlying dynamic is an electorate shocked out of localism by a decade of national upheaval, there are others who stand to gain from this trend. Fine Gael, having reached across the aisle to its historic rival, and steered the country through a major public health crisis, has been polling evenly with Sinn Féin – and may redouble this ‘one nation’ messaging once the post-pandemic downturn hits. Could it work? Only if the official opposition squanders its momentum, and fails to preserve the continuity between its social policies and the broader cultural transformation that has taken shape during the recessionary era.

Read on: Daniel Finn’s study of the power blocs of post-crash Ireland and opposition from the streets.


The Trial of Julian Assange

The trial is over. Judge Vanessa Baraitser has ruled that Julian Assange will not be extradited to the United States. If anyone who has been observing the trial says that they aren’t surprised, they’re fibbing.

Nobody who sat through the proceedings (as I did at an earlier stage) could have failed to detect the bias and, on occasion, outright hostility that Baraitser displayed towards the defence lawyers. The bulk of her judgement is in that vein. The defence put forward numerous arguments for why Assange should not be extradited to the US – above all, that the US was bringing political, not criminal, charges against Assange, prohibited by the UK–US extradition treaty – and she ruled against nearly all of them.

She ruled there were no grounds for thinking that Assange’s constitutional rights wouldn’t be upheld in the US or that he would not be subject to arbitrary punishment after extradition. She denied at length, in the final paragraphs of her verdict, that this was a politically motivated prosecution aimed at silencing a journalist – essentially providing a face-saver for the UK government.

Instead, she ruled against extradition on the grounds that it would be ‘oppressive by reason of mental harm’ – that under US pre-trial conditions, held in isolation in a maximum-security prison, Assange would not be prevented from committing suicide.

It seems that the spectre of ‘supermax’ – the brutal reality of the American carceral system – was placed in the dock and found guilty. Pure hypocrisy. Is London’s notorious Belmarsh Prison, where Assange was held in isolation after being forcibly arrested in the Ecuadorian Embassy in April 2019, a humanitarian zone by comparison? In late 2019, doctors who inspected Assange wrote an open letter to the British government, stating that he ‘could die in prison without urgent medical attention’ due to the conditions in which he was kept. Nils Melzer, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, noted that ‘Assange showed all the signs typical for victims of psychological torture’, having been ‘in solitary confinement for all intents and purposes for more than a year now’. But Baraitser gave short shrift to this testimony.

Her ruling is only the first step. We do not know whether Assange will be granted bail pending the US appeal, or whether the judge will be vindictive. At his bail hearing tomorrow, the court will be more concerned about the risk of flight than the risk of assassination. And though Baraitser expressed her grave concern for his psychological wellbeing, she is unlikely to safeguard it by issuing an order of protection.

Questions also remain about the real reasons for this clemency. Did the incoming Biden administration let it be known they would rather avoid a US prosecution, in which the New York Times would be bound to defend Assange’s rights under the First Amendment, since it had also published Wikileaks materials? Did the British government want to link this to its own stalled extradition case against Anne Sacoolas, the US diplomat’s wife who fatally ran over a British teenager in August 2019? More details may yet emerge. But as they say in sport, a win is a win. The refusal to extradite should be celebrated, whatever its motives.  

As most people know, the case against Assange – an initiative of Eric Holder, the US Attorney General under Obama – is little more than an attempt to suppress freedom of expression. In a world where visual propaganda is central to war making, counter-images present a problem for the warmongers. When Al Jazeera broadcast footage of American troops targeting civilians during the War on Terror, a US army general – accompanied by a jeep full of armed soldiers – entered the news channel’s compound in Qatar to demand an explanation. The director of the station, a soft-spoken Palestinian, explained that they were simply reporting the news. A year later he was dismissed from his post.

Wikileaks likewise obtained footage of a 2007 US helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. The pilots were heard cheering, ‘Light ’em all up!’ and cracking jokes after firing on two young children: ‘Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.’ The ghoulish cynicism shocked many after the tape went viral. The crime it depicted wasn’t novel, nor was it comparable in scale to previous American atrocities (massacre of POWs in Korea, chemical warfare in Vietnam, carpet bombing in Cambodia and so on). Yet the Pentagon fulminated that the Wikileaks video would encourage terrorist reprisals. The problem was evidently not with committing war crimes, but with capturing them on film. Thus, Chelsea Manning, who leaked the material, and Assange, who published it, must be made to feel the consequences. 

Wikileaks cast light on the real reasons for the military interventions of the 2000s, which had nothing to do with freedom, democracy or human rights – except as codewords for capital accumulation. Using the internet to bypass legacy media, Assange published more than two million diplomatic cables and State Department records that exposed the machinery of American Empire. The reaction of the US state has often tipped into absurdity; a dog snapping mindlessly at everything ends up biting his own tail. Assange pointed out that ‘by March 2012, the Pentagon had gone so far as to create an automatic filter to block any emails, including inbound emails to the Pentagon, containing the word Wikileaks.’ As a result, Pentagon prosecutors preparing the case against Chelsea Manning found they were not receiving important emails from either the judge or the defence.

Revenge was the lesser motive. The primary aim was to deter other whistleblowers. Yet this was shortsighted and foolish. Those who expose war crimes, corruption or corporate malfeasance are usually courageous but ‘ordinary’ people, often quite conservative, working in establishment institutions: think of onetime CIA employee Edward Snowden or former marine Daniel Ellsberg. Would such a person – whose entire worldview has been shaken by some horror in their conscience – succumb so easily to a deterrent? The attempt to make an example out of Manning and Assange is at odds with the mentality of the whistleblower, whose sense of injustice drives them to accept the life-changing consequences of leaking.

Ellsberg, the State Department official who handed over secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, eventually became a liberal sweetheart, especially amongst Democrats, as he had exposed Nixon’s lies and misdemeanors during the war in Vietnam. I doubt whether Julian Assange will ever reach that exalted status on either side of the Atlantic. He has been slandered by media outlets across the political spectrum. Liberal newspapers have lined up to claim that he is ‘not a journalist’ but an ‘activist’ – or, as the Boston Herald had it, a ‘spy’. His trial never got the coverage it deserved in the NYT, Washington Post or the Guardian. The latter, despite publishing the Wikileaks material back in 2011, now appears to have given up on serious investigative journalism altogether. By contrast, El País and the Suddeutsche Zeitung were more objective.

Given what Assange has suffered, a few weeks of freedom in lockdown Britain will be a gift from heaven. No more cramped space and lack of sunlight; a chance to hug his partner and children, to use a computer, or pick up a random book. ‘I am unbroken, albeit literally surrounded by murderers’, he wrote to a friend from Belmarsh. ‘But the days when I could read and speak and organize to defend myself, my ideals and the people are over…’

Perhaps not.


Hopes for 2021?

Someone wrote me asking ‘what were my hopes for 2021?’ I replied that before talking about hopes and opportunities we first need to acknowledge our collective shame in failing last year to build an effective national protest movement against the policies that led to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people and the economic ruin of tens of millions more. The impacts, of course, have been grotesquely amplified in communities of colour and amongst the low-wage workforce. (Here in California two-thirds of the dead bear Spanish surnames.) Minority senior citizens are reckoned to comprise a majority of the 110,000 nursing home deaths highlighted in the New York Times yesterday: a massacre equal in number to a common estimate of those killed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  

From late March onwards the momentum for such a movement was generated by hundreds of rank-and-file protests and job actions by healthcare, food industry and service workers, with Nurses United as a national voice. In some areas, DSA chapters and BLM groups organized support activities while immigrant and prison rights activists attempted to draw attention to the pandemic explosion inside prisons, jails and detention facilities. But there was no real attempt at national coordination or the creation of an inclusive emergency coalition. Nor can I recall a single progressive publication editorializing in favour of national protests and movement building.  

One might have expected the leadership to have come from Sanders and Our Revolution, but while Bernie applauded workers and offered progressive proposals for congressional action, his camp was almost entirely absorbed in getting out the vote in November. In effect he abdicated what had been a major premise of his campaign: the integral role of protest in galvanizing voters. The national union response was equally electoral and on the part of many unions, chillingly low-key. While BLM repeatedly demonstrated that masked and distanced protest could safely return to the streets, liberals and too many progressives stayed bunkered down and harmless.

As a result, Trump’s neo-fascist mobs – criminally active vectors of infection – ended up owning the pandemic or, perhaps more accurately, the economic sacrifices that Republican policies imposed. For its part, the slow-brained and mechanical Biden campaign allowed health and jobs to be counterposed as priorities, giving away millions of votes to Trump. Nor did the Democrats press the most obvious populist button available: the immense upward transfer of wealth to Bezos and the zillionaire class.  

A national protest movement would have opened a second front for BLM and changed the election dynamics. It would have highlighted the specific union and community organizing campaigns that should be priorities for support in 2021. It would have kept Medicare for All on the top of the agenda and prevented the current marginalization of progressive voices inside the Biden administration.  

The left needs to face the fact that despite the huge popularity of its ideas and the dynamic example of BLM we remain clueless and disorganized as a national force. We need to stop looking for electoral silver-linings and get ourselves together. Renew our commitment to BLM and work like hell to build a multi-issue national coalition for life and justice.

Read on: Mike Davis’s granular analysis of the US election results.


The Time of No

Anon, Fountain of Life, Tinos, 18th c. (photo: Maria Desipris)

The Time of No

The gray-faced pilgrims coming off the Athens boat
Are not expecting a cure this time.
Tinos is an island of miracles, but the essential
German one, the papers say, is not for the likes of them.

The young leader’s face on the ferry T V,
Lunar, stubborn, sardonic, disappointed, with just the shadow of a smile
As the news from the bourse ticks by below,
Seems to be attending to the suits across the table
With the look he perfected in a previous life
For the gym-trim, six-figure vice-chancellor with his plan
To digitize the library and double the footprint
Of the business school.

Surely some evil is near for the children of Priam.

Up the road in the dark Panaghia, where all the pale faces have gone,
To the left of the door there’s a light-hearted icon
With more than a touch of the eighteenth century to it,
A relief on a day like this.
The Fountain of Life, if you follow McGilchrist, is pouring its streams
On a strange crowd of invalids seated below;
And the youngest among them, off to the side in the melee, soft as Tsipras
And dressed in the same shapeless Kung Fu shirt,
Has a neo-liberal demon issuing from his mouth,
Gray as a wisp of garbage smoke.  Up he goes.
If only Dijsselbloem and Schäuble could be exorcized as easily.

The wind from the mountain is blowing strong. The sun
Sucks the last moisture out of the air.  Summer is a monster.
Then mid-afternoon on the seashore, Mein Schiff goes sailing by:
Two thousand passengers headed for Rhodes,
Name on the hull in merciless freehand,
Plastic faeces pouring uncontrollably from its 21-storey stern.

Ah, the good ship Austerity, that Creditor of the Seas!


Winners All

After two days and one night, not to mention several weeks of mutual recrimination and blackmail, 27 national governments, the European Commission and the European Parliament declared themselves to be winners – all of them. A miracle? The first thing to learn about Brussels is that nothing there is what it seems and everything can be presented in an unending variety of ways. Moreover, the number of players and playing fields is huge and confusing, and they are working under an institutional framework called ‘the Treaties’ so complicated that no outsider understands it. Skilled operators find in it innumerable opportunities for obfuscation, procedural tricks, evasive ambiguity, pretence and excuses – differing interpretations and alternative facts cordially invited. And, importantly, there is on top of it all a deeply rooted tacit understanding among the members of that most exclusive and secretive body, the European Council of Heads of State and Government, that it is everybody’s duty to ensure that none of them has to return home looking like a loser, so all of them will remain willing to continue playing the game.

Take the Corona Recovery Fund. The first thing one must know is that it has nothing to do with Corona and everything to do with saving the Italian government from Signor Salvini. The second thing is that it has nothing to do with European solidarity either: every country gets something and nobody pays anything, as the fund consists of debt and debt alone: a supranational extension of the debt state. Moreover, nobody knows how that debt will be serviced and repaid, and nobody cares since this will start only seven years hence. Most likely repayment will be by new debt anyway or, through some arcane channel, by the European Central Bank. This, of course, would be illegal under the Treaties, but so may be taking up the debt in the first place. It also seems that all 27 national parliaments must agree to the fund, but nobody worries about this since they all get a share of the booty.

This doesn’t mean it’s all peace and friendship. Empires depend on a successful management of peripheral by central elites. In the EU, peripheral elites must be staunchly ‘pro-European’, meaning in favour of the ‘ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’ as governed by Germany with France through the Brussels bureaucracy. Germany and the European Commission have long suspected the present governments of Hungary and Poland of not being sufficiently ‘pro-European’. Similar suspicions exist in the so-called European Parliament, which does not covet members who are not in favour of ‘more Europe’. (‘More Europe’ is the raison d’être of this strange Parliament that has neither an opposition nor a right to legislate.) EP-members from Hungary’s and Poland’s liberal opposition parties therefore find ample support for withholding European money from their home countries’ non-liberal governments, to make voters there believe that they get more cash from ‘Europe’ if they vote for ‘pro-European’ parties. So why not make payments from the Corona Recovery Fund conditional on a country upholding the ‘rule of law’, defining ‘rule of law’ so that the policies of non-liberal elected governments do not conform to it?

Sounds good? Well, there are the Treaties. Under the Treaties, member countries, all of them, including Hungary and Poland, remain sovereign, and their domestic institutions and policies, for example family and immigration policies, are for their electorates to decide, not for Brussels or Berlin. When it comes to a country’s legal institutions, the only legitimate concern of the EU is whether EU funds are properly spent and accounted for. Here, however, Poland has an immaculate record, and Hungary seems still on or above the level of ‘pro-European’ Bulgaria and Romania, not to mention Malta. So what to do?

In Brussels there is always a way. The Commission has for some time tried to punish Poland and Hungary under a different provision in the Treaties that forbids member countries interfering with the independence of their judiciary. But this is such a big bazooka that member states hesitate to let the Commission activate it. (It also raises uncomfortable questions on the political independence of, say, the French Conseil d’Etat.) Now, however, comes the Corona Fund, and with it the idea of a so-called ‘Rule-of-Law Mechanism’ (ROLM) attached to it, on the premise that if you don’t have an independent judiciary, including a liberal constitutional court, and perhaps also if you don’t admit refugees as a matter of human rights and in obedience to EU distribution quotas, there is no assurance that your accounting for your use of European money will be accurate.

Can this work? Anything is possible in Brussels. The reasoning is similar to that with which the European Central Bank prevailed in the European Court of Justice against the German Constitutional Court (the PSPP ruling). The Treaties limit the ECB to monetary policy, reserving fiscal policy for the member states. But the ECB argued that monetary policy can today no longer be separated from fiscal policy, from which it follows that fiscal policy now falls in the domain of the central bank. In response, the German court, now cited by the governments of Poland and Hungary, insisted that European competences are strictly limited to what members have explicitly conceded in the Treaties, and if more European competences are needed the Treaties must be changed accordingly, which requires unanimity. This was the situation when the wrestling began in earnest.

Move I (the EU): We invite you to agree to the Corona Fund, including the ROLM and the possibility of you not getting anything unless you mend your illiberal ways.

Countermove (Poland and Hungary): We will never vote for this mechanism, so forget about your fund. Veto!

Move II: If you vote against the mechanism and thereby against the Fund, we’ll set up a fund for the other 25, and we’ll find a Treaty base for it, the Treaties are big and complex enough, paper is patient as the Germans say, and you won’t get a damn cent.

Countermove: That won’t be nice, it won’t be European (little they know!), and it would be illegal.

The chorus, impersonated by the German press, singing and dancing: See, money works; they do as they are told because they want our cash. It’s so good to be rich.

Enter the presidents, in the hour of truth, led by Merkel, dea ex machina, Mistress of the Closed Session, representing the country that happens to formally preside over the other countries in the second half of 2020, and informally anyway. Germany needs Eastern Europe for business. It also feels it cannot allow the Americans to have a monopoly on anti-Russian geopolitics. This precludes falling out with Poland over Polish sovereignty. After much back and forth, in the darkroom of intergovernmental diplomacy, Poland and Hungary agree to the Recovery Fund, complemented by a ROL document. According to it the Commission will issue a ‘Budget Protection Directive’ tying Corona and indeed any other EU subsidies to a national legal system independent enough to secure a correct accounting for EU moneys received. The Directive will not, however, take force until it is reviewed by the European Court. In the meantime – likely to last until early 2023 – the Commission will take no action under it, and money will flow to all 27. Once, and if, the mechanism has passed muster by the Court, the Commission may start proceedings against Poland, Hungary or both, to claim back money already disbursed, on the ground that the Polish and Hungarian legal systems are so rotten that they cannot generally be expected to render judgments in line with, well, the ‘rule of law’. Clearly this will take more time, and nobody knows what the world will be like then and what member states will by then be concerned about.

In Europe, grace periods work wonders. For the time being there is universal happiness: among the various Presidents, the Parliament (which got its amendment passed), the Commission (which gets a new toy with which to harass member states and feel important), the Court (its jurisdiction growing by the day), and the national governments including Hungary and Poland (who won’t talk about the informal assurances they received under the counter). The politics of deferment, Merkel’s favourite discipline, knows only winners – as long as it lasts.


International Letters

A strong dose of idealism is needed to keep any magazine going. For Lettre Internationale, it’s no less than to counteract the ‘provincialism of the great cultures’ and induce them to ‘see themselves through the eyes of others’. How? By scouring the world for the best texts in any language and offering them in exquisite translation.  

That was the ambition of Antonín Liehm, a Czech editor who spent his life between France and the US after the crushing of the Prague Spring. On December 4, he passed away in that city, at the age of 96. Three-quarters of a century before, he had started his first magazine, Kulturní politika, along with E. F. Burian, one of the country’s most innovative theater directors. As the rubble from World War II was still being cleared, the 21 year-old Liehm churned out the culture-meets-politics platform at the mad pace of a weekly. The magazine was pro-communist, but not an appendage of the Party, and ran for three years before Liehm rubbed the government the wrong way by publishing a poem deemed an anti-state conspiracy.

In 1960, he took over the Litérarní noviny and transformed what had been a Stalinist mouthpiece of the Writers’ Association into the most popular intellectual journal of the country. The LN wove a critical politics out of reportage on culture, philosophy, film, theatre and literature – Sartre, Aragon, the New Wave. For a readership of over 130,000, it supplied uncompromising and provocative articles that shimmied past the censors via sympathetic connections. Within a few hours of its appearance every Thursday, the magazine was sold out.

In 1960s Czechoslovakia, Liehm later reflected, its place was akin to that of the Encyclopédie in eighteenth-century France: a venue for the taboo in pamphlet form. And it carried similarly profound political repercussions. Promoting the reform of communism, Liehm’s concoction was a crucial catalyst for the Prague Spring, and several of its writers were leaders in the uprising. A year after the Soviet tanks rolled in, the magazine’s editor, on the list of people to be ‘shot down’, found refuge in Paris.

In exile, Liehm cobbled together his finances by teaching film and literature at universities in France and the US while searching for another publishing venture.  Gunter Grass and Heinrich Böll showed interest in assembling an East-West magazine, but for Liehm, this was too parochial. Only something truly international would suffice, something that would take down not only the wall separating Eastern and Western Europe, but the pedestal on which the latter stood as well. For Grass, this was not German enough, and the two parted ways.

It was at sixty that Liehm founded the outlet for this vision: Lettre Internationale. Funding he scrambled together from the French Ministry of Culture and Polish and Hungarian émigrés, who were willing to support an intellectual journal of the type they knew from home.  It wasn’t a fortune, but it was enough to birth the magazine in a one-room office shared with another dissident leftist, Paul Noirot. What money there was all went to pay the translators, whose work had to be of the highest quality: the texts were to read as fluently in French as they did in the original. Without funds to commission writers, the magazine was assembled as a collage, anchored by central text, juxtaposed against others, and refracted through images and poetry interspersed throughout. 

But it was to be much more.  The foundational idea was an international network of publications, but one quite unlike the standard sort that offers simply the same fare in different languages. Moving past the intellectual divisions in Europe and beyond – not merely East-West, but also North-South – meant not standardization but localization: half of the texts in each issue were to overlap, while the rest could be determined on the ground. Perhaps only Le Monde Diplomatique’s global federation of partner editions provides a contemporary comparison. 

In the late 1980s, Leihm’s vision spread quickly, with the rapid appearance of sister magazines in Italian (Lettera Internazionale, 1985), Spanish (Letra Internacional, 1986), and German (Lettre International, 1987). When the East opened in the 1990s, the pan-European ebullience, buoyed by foundation funding, spawned even more – Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian versions, while smaller western countries, Denmark and the Netherlands, caught up.

But noble intentions alone don’t pay the presses and the idealistic aim struggled against the technology available at the time: the texts circulated, slowly, by post. Within a decade, the French version collapsed, and no edition ever appeared outside Europe, which remained the central geographic focus. Now merely six languages remain: the Russian edition has found refuge online, and the rest struggle to hang on.

Only in Germany has the project continued in full form, without qualification, under founder-editor Frank Berberich. With a circulation of over 20,000, the Berlin-based Lettre International is the widest-read literary magazine in the country. This is no small feat for a chunky periodical of 150 pages printed on broad A3 paper. As such, it’s very much a stay-at-home quarterly: even rolled up, it won’t fit into a handbag. In public, it can be seen mostly in the window of cafes or wine shops, like a Zagat sticker signaling taste.

But the uncooperative format is perhaps a needed concession to the magazine’s interdisciplinarity. In the tradition of Breton’s Minotaure, it showcases artworks between the articles, and the uncompromised size gives them their rightful due. Covers are typically head-turners (for example, a watercolor of an S&M orgy), while the pictorial contributions inside, from the likes of Ai Weiwei, Annie Lebowitz, or Georg Baselitz, offer a moment for breath between the texts.

Three-quarters of these are translations that range across essays, reportage, interviews, poetry, fiction, commentaries and analysis. European languages predominate, but authors outside the West are not in short supply. The point is discovery – German readers have Lettre to thank for the introduction of Slavoj Zizek and Liao Yiwu to their shelves – and disruption. The magazine darts between political perspectives and hovers around the contentious.  It was in an interview with Lettre that then Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin first expounded his views on Muslim immigrants’ ‘unwillingness to integrate’, sparking a media frenzy and his eventual departure from public life. Recent issues have covered deglobalization and epidemics, the ganglands of Kosovo, the transformation of writing, apocalypse past and present, mutations of racism in America, the fraught Americanization of Europe, as well as the philosophy of touch – all from original texts in more than a half-dozen languages – and in its massive, obstinate format.

How should we conceptualize these internationalist endeavours? In The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova mapped the global literary order onto an uneven political-economic terrain. If universalist vernaculars once facilitated literary communication across vast swathes of territory, the Herderian revolution of nineteenth-century nationalism swept them aside as authors embraced writing in one’s native tongue as both right and necessity. The outcome was a more localized literary space, bounded by nationalized languages. Yet if languages were increasingly homogenized within state borders, literary worlds remained vastly unequal beyond them, country power a determining feature of their global rank. The effect is a hierarchy, much as in the field of international relations.

Within it, what passes now as world literature is determined in the hubs of power – London, Paris, New York. These dominant centres host the publishing, reviewing, translating and prize-giving mechanisms that function as gatekeepers of taste and arbiters of the new. The result is not a Republic of Letters, but an Empire of the same. Outsiders, whether from social margins or peripheral countries, gain admittance only if they conform to the establishment’s criteria of taste. The parochialism is perhaps strongest within the current global hegemon: in the US, works in translation account for only 3 percent of all books sold. 

Liehm’s vision for Lettre – like his politics since the 1940s – subverted this order from the inside. He took a project, born on the periphery of Europe, and transposed it to Paris where he attempted to raze the inequalities on which the continent’s literary capital rose, for translation was supposed to go both ways. There are as likely to be Arabic texts that readers of Swedish should access as vice versa, he would comment. The success of the magazine’s offspring in Germany would not have surprised Casanova. The country’s linguistic power lags far behind its economic might; as such, interest in translation from its hinterlands is an understandable response.

Or maybe it is that Germany remains the last bastion within Europe of the once wide-spread feuilleton culture, still materialized as an extended section in weekend newspapers. These, as a rule, carry long-form essays on politics and arts that assume a far more literate public than even the London Review might expect of its readers. Perhaps only this, and the feuilleton’s ritual venue – the Sunday breakfast that stretches on until sunset, round a table covered in jam and breadcrumbs – can explain how a magazine as thick and uncompromising as Lettre can survive in an age of blogs. 



The Soviet Union had a rule that any urban area that reached a million people had to have an underground Metro system. This went alongside a developed network of trolleybuses and trams that served most cities, which of course had its gaps and failures – there was nothing in the USSR that did not. Yet ‘1 million = Metro’ was such a strong rule that it was open to abuse by ambitious local authorities.

In the 1960s, the city council in Yerevan, which had been lobbying repeatedly for a Metro despite having an urban population of less than half the magic figure, received a delegation from Moscow. Although a supposedly autonomous soviet socialist republic, Armenia couldn’t build a Metro without the capital’s permission, cash and resources. Yerevan’s city council accordingly organised enormous traffic jams to keep the Moscow Nomenklatura stuck for hours on their way from the airport to the city hall, and insisted that this proved that Yerevan would be in chaos by the time it had reached a million inhabitants. The government were sufficiently impressed, and since 1981 Yerevan has had a gorgeous, if currently somewhat dilapidated underground Metro network. Public transport in Britain is administered in a similarly centralized manner, but is more miserly in spirit.

According to the EU’s planning project ESPON, there are twelve urban areas with over a million inhabitants in the UK – Greater London is in a category of its own at 10 million, but Greater Manchester, the Birmingham-Coventry-Black Country and Leeds-Bradford-Wakefield-Halifax conurbations all have over 2 million people; at over a million are Glasgow, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, Nottingham-Derby, Southampton-Portsmouth, Cardiff and the South Wales Valleys, Bristol and Sheffield.

Of these, none outside London and Nottingham has a fully integrated public-transport network where buses, trams and trains are planned and owned by the same body, and only London, Newcastle-Sunderland and Glasgow have true Metro systems of the sort you will find in cities and conurbations of their size in France, Germany, Italy or Spain. Some cities have trams, usually integrated with old railway tracks, such as Nottingham, Sheffield’s grandly named Supertram, Manchester’s Metrolink and the West Midlands ‘Metro’ between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Liverpool and its satellites have an extensive S-Bahn-style network, Merseyrail, built in the 70s as a replacement for the dismantled Liverpool Overhead Railway; operators try their best to hide it from the tourists, presumably because they might expect better.  

To find such a failure in provision elsewhere in Europe, the only obvious comparison is Dublin (the Republic has inexplicably copied almost every foolish planning decision made in Britain since 1922). Elsewhere, you have to look quite far – the big cities of the former Yugoslavia are the nearest equivalent, where a decade of war in recent memory and a total economic collapse provide a better excuse. One of the less-discussed possible consequences of the coronavirus is that the already rudimentary British public-transport systems may soon go bankrupt.

Where they exist, these urban-rail networks have lost between 80 and 95 per cent of their custom since the start of March 2020. In Britain, where urban rail and Metro systems are funded largely out of ticket receipts and advertising – most around the world are funded by government grants – this has led to mayors like Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham raising the possibility that their systems will have to be abandoned. As a result, a bailout was organised for England’s urban-rail and tram networks (somewhat inaccurately called ‘light rail’) in May. Some money has been thrown to the Tyne and Wear Metro (a superb system, built in the 1970s as a part of T Dan Smith’s ‘Brasilia of the North’), West Midlands Metro, the Metrolink, the Supertram, and Nottingham Express Transit.

A similar bailout was later agreed for Transport for London, which had deliberately onerous strings attached. These were designed to humiliate Sadiq Khan, whom the government appears to consider a prime enemy after the vanquishing of Jeremy Corbyn – a telling obsession, given his centrist politics. As bankruptcy still loomed, a further bailout of TfL followed in October, after some grandstanding between Khan and the government, which initially planned to force a series of draconian fare hikes, before executing one of its trademark U-turns.

It is of course an odd time to talk about extending public-transport provision, given that local governments have at least temporarily been encouraging people not to use it, but to cycle or walk instead. But we still know there is only one plausible approach to ensuring city and town dwellers can move around in an allegedly soon-to-be zero carbon age – not just by cycling and walking, even less by buying electric cars, but by taking tubes, trams and trolleybuses, segregated from cars and roads. The cities that have lowered their emissions furthest are precisely those that have the most extensive, efficient, frequent and cheap transport networks.

The fact that there are so few of these in the UK is the consequence of the micromanagement of all infrastructure from Westminster – an Act of Parliament is, preposterously, required in order to fund a tram line – intersecting with a ruinously complex, expensive and wasteful system of contracting and procurement.

Local authorities can be criticised for a great deal, but the paucity of public-transport provision in the UK is not for want of cities trying to get funding for something more ambitious. Glasgow has repeatedly, over many decades, begged for money to extend its one-line 1890s Subway; such an extension has never been agreed, let alone commenced. In the 1970s, proposals for a Manchester Metro were thrown out by the government – the fact that the city’s public spaces are clogged up by what are basically railway platforms for the Metrolink’s heavily engineered tram-trains is a direct result of this. Most of the networks outside London, Newcastle and Glasgow date from the 1980s and 90s, and were attempts at putting back a little of what was lost in the 50s and 60s, when the Beeching Axe – wielded by a ‘modernizing’ Tory minister, Ernest Marples – slashed suburban lines, while tram networks were torn out to make way for buses and, mainly, cars.

The South Hampshire conurbation, where Southampton and Portsmouth, the two densest cities in England outside of London, have had to contend with a Tory county’s objection to any expansion of their local-authority boundaries, have had two proposals rejected in Parliament. A slightly goofy Monorail proposal was thrown out by Thatcher, and, much worse, a serious, costed and extensive Metro network which would at last have properly connected this interminable sprawl, with a line gradually being built westwards from Portsea Island to Southampton, was vetoed by Gordon Brown’s Treasury and replaced with a bus running in railway cuttings between Gosport and Fareham.

New Labour talked a great deal about public transport, but Brown seems to have had an animus towards urban rail and trams, spiking plans for Liverpool and for Leeds, whose transport is probably the worst of any big city in Britain. The latter’s problems were compounded under Cameron and Osborne when a truncated trolleybus, which would at least have given Leeds transport of the quality of, say, Sloviansk, went to a public enquiry and was thrown out in 2016. Some of this hostility derives from an early New Labour report on urban transport, which argued that buses should play the major role in expanding public provision. While their importance is considerable, refusing to back pretty much anything else was strikingly short-sighted – even before one considers the way buses are run as private fiefdoms by private companies, seldom integrated with trams and trains.

Yet what did get built sometimes became cautionary tales, making the situation yet worse. Only two new systems were commenced under the Blair–Brown governments – Nottingham Express Transit (NET, modishly), a good, publicly owned tram-train which is partly funded by a surcharge on car parking; and Edinburgh. This was a scandal in Scotland, as cost overruns and ineptitude on the part of its contractors meant that the system came in at half the planned length and thirteen years late; its expense has become notorious, though the single line that now exists is pleasant and popular. Le Havre’s recently constructed light-rail/tram system, longer than Edinburgh’s, with more stations and a 500-metre tunnel, took three years to build, at a cost of £347m – less than half the price of the Edinburgh system.

The enormous expense of building infrastructure in the UK has been as prohibitive as the Treasury’s refusal to invest outside of London and Manchester. It is often claimed this is due to labour costs, but the French counter-example makes this obvious nonsense. The labyrinthine public-private contracting systems that have been dominant in the UK since the 1980s are the real culprit. In this context, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield can be proud of what little they have.

One of the many possible interpretations of the profound shifts in electoral politics in the North and Midlands – dramatically instantiated in the 2016 Brexit vote and the December 2019 Tory landslide – can be derived from public-transport provision, or the lack of it. The cities, towns and suburbs covered by the London Underground, Merseyrail, NET and the Tyne and Wear Metro mostly voted Labour in 2019; but an electoral apocalypse hit the poorly served outer towns of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire.

Leigh, for instance, the Greater Manchester town that saw the largest overturning of a Labour majority in the country, held by Labour since 1922, is almost completely cut off from Wigan, Salford and Manchester except by unreliable and slow buses. Dudley, not far from the centre of one of the largest urban areas in Europe, is treated by government and residents alike as a self-contained provincial ‘town’. The‘left behind’ cliché has a very concrete meaning in places like this.

Britain is clearly being polarised between London – plus a handful of similar places with property booms and bankers, such as Manchester and Edinburgh – and everywhere else. The entrenched character of the current culture war rests upon people believing bizarre things about the people who live down the road, and upon inculcating a sense of parochial resentment in places that are in reality dense urban areas. The possible collapse of the urban-transport networks was clearly not planned by this government, and it is unlikely that they will be allowed to fail permanently. A situation in which they rust away, offering a skeletal service to ‘key workers’ (or the ‘metropolitan elite’, depending on the audience) is highly plausible. This will only aid a politics based on pettiness and paranoia. 


Only Joking?

The crisis of English government that has gathered pace since 2016, accelerating further in the context of the Covid pandemic, has frequently revolved around the predilections and vanities of three men: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. The three were bound together by the Vote Leave referendum campaign, but already belonged to the same intellectual and journalistic milieu, whose political implications appear increasingly stark. It is brash, disruptive, libertarian and disdainful of liberal-conservative establishment norms, including those of the legislature, judiciary and civil service. Media-savvy, it seizes on hot-button ‘cultural’ issues to distract from less spectacular (but usually more consequential) economic decisions being taken elsewhere. If this ideology has a basecamp from which to mount its assaults on the state, it is not – as was the case for Thatcherism – a post-war think tank, but a Georgian magazine: the Spectator.

In April of this year, commenting on how the government appeared to be stoking a new ‘culture war’ amidst the Covid emergency, the political editor of the Financial Times, Robert Shrimsley referred to the ‘Spectocracy’ that was driving it. Johnson, who was editor of the Spectator from 1999-2005 is clearly this faction’s totemic leader, but Cummings (who departed Downing in Street in November) held a position as online editor, which he resigned in 2006 shortly after insistently re-publishing a Danish cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad. Cummings was hired as Gove’s advisor the following year, but still occasionally uses the Spectator blog to issue his over-wrought meditations on the state of politics, while his wife, Mary Wakefield, has held a succession of senior editorial roles at the paper since Johnson’s tenure. 

Shrimsley was also referring to the role of libertarian provocateur Toby Young, an associate editor, who has refashioned himself as a free-speech campaigner and ‘Covid sceptic’ who seeks to challenge expert opinion on policies such as lockdown. He might equally have mentioned the magazine’s political editor, James Forsyth, whose wife, Allegra Stratton, has – with great media fanfare – recently been appointed Downing Street press secretary. At their wedding, Forsyth’s best man was none other than Rishi Sunak, now Chancellor of the Exchequer. The cultural front of this new conservatism has been pushed in alliance with the Daily Telegraph, with whom the Spectator has shared the same owners – Conrad Black and then the Barclay brothers – and many of the same columnists and editors since the 1980s. Johnson’s December 2019 electoral triumph, built solely on the promise to complete the Brexit process, represented a startling coup for a clique that had spent much of the previous two decades trolling and trivialising politics.

In 10,000 Not Out, David Butterfield, a young(ish) Cambridge classicist, author of books on Lucretius, Varro and A. E. Housman and regular Spectator contributor, offers a lovingly told history of the magazine, its key characters, controversies and fluctuating readership. As Butterfield underlines, the Brexit era is not the first time that careers have zigzagged between Westminster and the Spectator. Previous editors include a sitting Conservative MP (Iain Macleod, 1963-65) a future Conservative Chancellor (Nigel Lawson, 1965-70), and Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer, newly ennobled by Johnson (Charles Moore, 1984-1990), while among its mainstays have been such figures as Thatcher’s policy advisor, Ferdinand Mount. Johnson combined the editorship with a parliamentary seat, plus stints as deputy chairman of the Conservatives and as Shadow Arts Minister. His successor, Matthew D’Ancona, was closely involved with David Cameron’s efforts to shift his party to the centre, and remains chair of the Cameronite think tank, Bright Blue.

This level of intimacy between a political party and a publication would be significant enough. What’s stranger is that the Spectator has frequently been at pains to stress its ambivalence towards the Conservative Party. Every incoming editor appears to have felt compelled to make the same self-regarding declaration of independence and lofty intellectual aspiration, no matter how personally entangled with the party they may have been. Some (like Cummings) appear to have held the Tories in some contempt, while fraternising and gossiping with them for a living. Perhaps they doth protest too much, and this rhetoric of independent mindedness is simply how the establishment likes to present itself. On the other hand, there is something distinctive about this restless branch of conservatism, which is constantly on the verge of attacking the very institutions it claims to cherish. Since this is the culture that has shaped Britain’s latest political elite, Butterfield’s impressively researched if hagiographic book might be read as a kind of history of our unhappy present. 

The Spectator was founded in 1828 by Robert Rintoul, a Scottish journalist with Whig sympathies and a progressive Benthamite perspective on social reform. Rintoul deliberately revived the title of the famous but short-lived coffeehouse periodical, established by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711, and Rintoul’s descendants have occasionally muddied the waters surrounding its true origins (the Spectator blog is named ‘Coffee House’). Like the Economist, which became something of a sister when it was founded fifteen years later, its main political concern was to defend and extend free trade. Beyond this core liberal principle, Rintoul hoped that his paper would avoid political partisanship, and instead focus on offering a form of intellectualism and heterodoxy that its readers would revere and learn from.

Coinciding with the heyday of Victorian laissez-faire, the early decades of the Spectator placed it firmly on the side of political modernity. Despite its stated desire to remain a neutral spectator of politics, it was forced off the fence where key liberal objectives were at stake, offering whole-hearted support for the 1832 Reform Act, then (less popularly) opposing slavery and backing the North in the American Civil War. John Stuart Mill was a frequent and enthusiastic contributor, while Butterfield reports that ‘the paper’s admiration for Gladstone had risen almost to the point of idolatry by the mid-1880s’.

The Spectator first turned on the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish home rule, which cost it a considerable number of readers, whose loyalties were to party before newspaper. By the close of the nineteenth century, the paper could boast a famous litany of literary contributors – Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle – but its progressive credentials (both culturally and politically) were growing shaky. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Spectator was firmly supportive of the Tories (a stance embedded in a vehement anti-socialism), by which point it had also undergone a brief flirtation with Mussolini.

Yet the existential dilemma of liberalism versus Toryism has never entirely deserted the paper. The cultural world of its writers is unmistakeably that of a fading public-school and Oxbridge elite, whose access to political power has been routed via the Tory Party for the past century. But in addition to its early attachment to laissez-faire, its social values (not to mention the lifestyle choices of its leading lights) have been liberal and individualistic, to an often provocative degree.

The dilemma is constitutive of a certain strand of conservative liberalism, which is (somewhat paradoxically) nostalgic for the Victorian model of progress. Various means of squaring this circle have been sought, most powerfully the modernising neoliberalism of Hayek and Thatcher, which sought to reinvent and reimpose laissez-faire. Never sufficiently committed to economics to add much to that agenda, the Spectator has clung to a different strand of ‘classical liberalism’, the rhetorical acrobatics and innuendos of the gentleman’s club and the Oxford Union, which ultimately resolves in the self-serving free-speech activism that has become the contemporary Spectator’s greatest cause célèbre.    

The perpetual editorial declarations of political independence and liberal intellectualism continued after the War. Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Phillip Larkin, Iris Murdoch and Ted Hughes were all occasional contributors, though Butterfield notes that the paper never quite got modernism or anything that smelled of the avant-garde. Social liberalism continued to inform the policies it advocated, including opposition to the death penalty and support for legalisation of homosexuality. In 1958, Michael Foot wrote to say that ‘no journal in Britain has established a higher reputation than the Spectator for the persistent advocacy of a humane administration of the law or the reform of inhumane laws’. Nigel Lawson’s paper attacked Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech as ‘a nonsense and a dangerous nonsense’.

The distinctive Spectator tone of reactionary satire, later advanced in cruder form by the likes of James Delingpole and Rod Liddle, was apparent in 1968 via the pen of ‘Mercurius’, a pseudonymous academic who railed against student protesters, social science and expansion of higher education. It seems fairly clear, though never confirmed, that the author was Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. Beyond such fripperies, what’s surprising is how little of substance the Spectator contributed to the resurgence of the right over the subsequent decade, especially given the critical importance of other print media (Samuel Brittan and others at the Financial Times in particular) to the spread of Thatcherite ideas. Lawson briefly positioned the paper as pro-European, though this was swiftly reversed by his successor George Gale, under whom the Spectator’s financial position and profile slid.

As for the country, so for the Spectator, 1979 proved a turning point. Under the accomplished editorship of Alexander Chancellor (who professed never to have voted Tory), Moore (who described himself as an ‘independent Tory’) and then Nigel Lawson’s son Dominic, the magazine became more spirited and increasingly hedonistic. Sales rose, as did the quantity of provocative and racy content. Thatcherism provided the backdrop, but the sense one gets from the Spectator of the 1980s is of the old patriarchal establishment becoming drunk on the freedoms of the revived laissez-faire.

Yet to grasp the cultural roots of the present political crisis, and to some extent of Brexit, it’s the Blair era that deserves closest attention. Beyond its enthusiastic support for the Iraq War, the paper found it difficult to gain a political toehold with respect to Blairism. After all, London in the late 1990s was everything that rich and well-connected social liberals could ever have hoped for. Unable therefore to offer serious or substantial criticism of the New Labour government, the Spectator under Johnson began to take libertarian swipes at what he called the ‘ghastly treacly consensus of New Britain’. Young joined in 1999, and Liddle jumped ship from the BBC three years later.

Offence-giving became a mark of intellectual freedom and was steadily ratcheted up under Johnson. William Cash, son of the Eurosceptic MP of the same name, asserted that Hollywood was the fiefdom of a Jewish cabal. Taki, a far-right lifestyle columnist, wrote of New York Puerto Ricans that they were a ‘bunch of semi-savages’ and that ‘Britain is being mugged by black hoodlums’, before later praising the Wehrmacht. In 2004, a Spectator leader repeated the lie that ‘drunken fans’ were culpable for the Hillsborough football-stadium tragedy, whose memorable death toll (96) the paper could only put at ‘more than 50’.

Throughout this period, anti-European barbs were being tossed on a regular basis, in tandem with the rest of the conservative press. Given how few steady ideological positions the paper seems to hold, the persistence of anti-Europeanism – following Nigel Lawson’s brief effort in the 1960s to embrace European integration – has become one of its most significant political identifiers, at least since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Butterfield treats as obvious that a publication committed to ‘free trade’ would adopt this stance (which unsurprisingly resulted in support for ‘Leave’ in the 2016 referendum) but this is to underplay the nationalist undercurrents of both Brexit and the contemporary Spectator.

Much of the time, this Euroscepticism is too flippant and jingoistic to count as a credible policy vision. As with kitsch Brexiteer appeals to ‘Global Britain’, it is rooted in nostalgia for a 19th-century modernity when you could ‘say anything you like’, cultural hierarchies were explicit and government supposedly did as little as possible. Since Thatcher left office in 1990, what Brexitism has offered subsequent generations of conservatives is a way of going ‘meta’ on the establishment that spawned them, distancing themselves from orthodoxy and authority, in the name of some higher freedom. The squaring of the liberal-Tory circle ends up in adolescent efforts to cause offence for its own sake, but the political side-effects have turned out to be far more serious.

The identity of William Cash – son, not father – has been corrected. Thanks to the Sidecar reader who pointed this out.


Was Christ a Collaborator?

Jesus of Nazareth lived in a time of political turmoil. Between the lines of the Gospels, which are our main source of information about him, this comes through loud and clear. But it is never brought to the surface. The last thing that the writers of the Gospels wanted was to drag in politics. They wanted to extract Jesus from his real historical situation and put across a universal message, which could apply to anybody. Above all, they did not want to tie Jesus in with the fate of the Jewish people who, at the time of writing, had just been crushed by the Roman legions after a bitter resistance war.

However, the actual situation in which Jesus lived is plain enough. In 63 BC Palestine was conquered by a Roman army, led by Pompey, and made part of the Roman province of Syria. Pompey, accompanied by his military staff, strode into the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple, which had been defended by its priests after the reigning king had opened the gates of the city to the invaders. From that moment on, until the final showdown 133 years later in 70 AD, the history of Palestine is mainly a history of Jewish resistance to Roman rule. It was a hopeless resistance which took place during a time which fundamentally was one of Roman expansion. Jesus of Nazareth lived right in the middle of this period and, despite his well-known attachment to the other-worldly, he could hardly have been blind to what was going on.

Palestine’s strategic role

The situation was not an easy one for the Romans. Palestine ­– Judea, as the Jewish part of it was called ­– was one of a chain of small states, stretching from Armenia down to Egypt, which formed a buffer zone between Rome and the Parthian Empire to the east, based in Persia. Palestine was a crucial link in the chain because it bordered Egypt, granary of Rome. Parthia was the second major power of the region and it was never conquered by Rome. Indeed, it several times inflicted defeats on the Roman legions, routed them and captured the eagles which were their battle standards. So Palestine was a sensitive area. A Jewish uprising could count on Parthian support. Indeed, in 40 BC, only about twenty years after Pompey’s invasion and not very long before the birth of Jesus, this was exactly what happened. The Roman puppet regime was overthrown and a new king installed, with Parthian support. The Parthians, moreover, unlike the Romans, took care not to desecrate the Temple. Their position was more or less like that of the Indians in Bangladesh, a foreign power aiding a national movement for its own purposes.

The Romans reacted quickly. They ditched the old lot of puppets and brought in a new candidate, Herod, who was about 30 at the time. Herod’s father had been the strong man, main pro-Roman in the old regime. Herod himself had been military governor of Galilee, the northern part of Palestine. When the Parthians came in he managed to escape to Egypt and eventually got to Rome. There he was crowned king of Judea. With full Roman backing he returned, taking Jerusalem with the help of the legions in 37 BC, and promptly executed the rebel leaders. The anti-Roman king, Antigonus, was crucified, the first of tens of thousands who were to be executed in this way by the Romans or their puppets. Once on the throne, Herod stuck to it until his death in 4 BC.

It is not certain exactly when Jesus was born. All we can say is that it was during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, who died in 14 AD, and that during Jesus’ adult life Augustus’ successor Tiberius was on the throne. Jesus may have seen the end of Herod’s reign, as an infant. Certainly the events which followed Herod’s death must have impressed him, either as childhood memories or as stories which were told him as he grew up.

Herod’s death

Herod’s death produced a crisis. Herod had been servile to the Romans and cruel and extortionate to his own people. He was loathed and hated. Naturally, when he died there was general rejoicing and the national movement came to the surface again. There had already been rumblings shortly before the end of his reign. A student demonstration, more or less led by two Pharisees, Judas and Matthias, had culminated in the tearing down of the Roman eagle which Herod had displayed in the Temple to please his masters. The ringleaders were burned alive. When Herod finally died, there was an uprising in Jerusalem. The procurator, Sabinus, the top Roman official in Palestine, immediately moved troops into the capital to maintain law and order and also to seize Herod’s treasury. During the festival of Pentecost, fighting broke out between pilgrims to the Temple and these Roman troops. Sabinus was pinned down in the garrison.

At the same time, there was another armed uprising in Galilee, led by a partisan leader called Judas, known as the Galilean, whose father had been executed by Herod for insurgency. This was a large-scale uprising in which the partisans took Herod’s palace in Sepphoris and seized the arms which were stored there. Sepphoris was only a few miles from Nazareth, where Jesus spent his childhood. About an hour’s walk away, in fact. The Romans had to send two legions, that is, twelve thousand troops, down from Syria to suppress these revolts and rescue Sabinus. During the fighting the Temple was badly damaged and Sepphoris was completely destroyed. When the Romans had restored order they crucified 2,000 rebels.

Twice the size of Northern Ireland

Palestine is a comparatively small country. Herod’s kingdom of Judea was not much bigger than Wales, about twice the size of Northern Ireland. It did not extend so far south as Israel does today but it covered a fringe of what is now Syria and Jordan. The population, about five million probably, was not homogenously Jewish. The Jews were concentrated in the Jerusalem area – Judea proper – and in Galilee, to the north, where they were fairly recent settlers. In between was Samaria, where the Samaritans lived. The Samaritans had their own religion which was a variant of Judaism. For example, they did not recognise the Temple, but had their own holy place on a mountain in Samaria. In the towns there were a number of Greeks and Hellenized Syrians or Phoenicians, who had first come in the wake of Alexander’s armies and now identified with the Romans. Herod had encouraged further immigration of Greeks and had built a number of new towns for them, including a new port and capital, Caesarea, which nationalistic and pious Jews would not live in because it was dominated by irreligious monuments, such as a theatre and a racetrack.

The divided country, split by national and religious differences, had some of the features of Northern Ireland or Cyprus. The Jewish national movement took a religious form; it was religion which bound the nation together. The leaders of the Zealots, as the guerrilla partisans were known, were often ultra-religious and religion was one of the two main issues around which opposition to the Roman occupation crystallised. There were riots over the pagan eagle desecrating the Temple, as described above: later, after the Romans had adopted direct rule, there were more riots under Pontius Pilate over the same issue. There were uprisings in the late thirties, only a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus, when Emperor Caligula wanted to put up a statue of himself in the Temple. Ten years after that there was a big riot when a Roman soldier on guard on a roof overlooking the Temple made an obscene gesture to the pilgrims.

Imperialist taxes

The second issue was economic: the Roman tax appropriations. Rome did not tax its own citizens but relied on wringing what it could out of subject peoples. The system was laid down officially and then the actual tax-collection was left to private enterprise, on something like a tender basis. Roman troops backed up the tax-collectors. Naturally tax-collectors were regarded as collaborators with the Romans and there were frequent attempts to sabotage the system and boycott it. Quirinius’s census in 6 AD was designed by the Romans to help implement tax-collection and it provoked widespread resistance and armed struggle, which was not subdued for some time, right during the childhood of Jesus. Once again Galilee was a focus of the revolt, but this time there was heavy fighting in the south as well, led by a shepherd called Athronges. Thousands were killed by the Romans during this period.

Direct rule starts

The census was particularly resented because it marked the beginning of direct rule by Rome. The puppet regime was abandoned by the Romans shortly after Herod’s death. His son was exiled after the Procurator was given full powers, in Judea at least. In Galilee and in South-East Syria, the Golan Heights area, two other sons of Herod were allowed to stay on as autonomous rulers. Generally speaking, the Romans changed Procurators quite rapidly. Pontius Pilate, who lasted nine years, from 27 to 36 AD was an exception to the rule. Pilate was intensely hated and this loathing shows through all the Jewish source documents which remain. He was both harsh and corrupt. When he took money from the Temple treasury there were massive demonstrations against him. He suppressed them by putting troops into the crowd in plain-clothes, and with concealed weapons, who suddenly leapt into action at a given signal. In the Gospels, there are references to the killing of Galileans, always troublemakers, and to riots in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s death, while the word used to describe the two ‘thieves’ crucified with Jesus is the same generally used to describe guerrillas, rather like ‘bandits’.

The Pharisees and armed struggle

However, the real struggle built up from the forties onwards, culminating in the full-scale national uprising in the sixties. At the same time, the national struggle began to cross-cut with an increasingly overt class struggle. The traditional ruling class in Judea consisted of an interlocking bloc formed by large landowners and the hereditary high-priestly families who controlled the Temple. The Sadducees were members of this bloc. They were challenged as religious authorities by the Pharisees, who were rigourists, organised on a strict entry basis into cells, led by scribes, graduates in theology, but also including elements from artisan and even labouring backgrounds. It was the Pharisees who welded the Jewish nation together into a religious-political force. Many of the Zealot leaders were Pharisees who had decided to move into a phase of armed struggle.

The mass of Zealots however, came from the people, from small towns and villages. This period was one of an overall movement in the countryside towards large estates, throwing small peasants, many of them in debt, off the land. There were a large number of slaves in Judea at the time and these made up part of the guerrilla armies. There was also an increasing number of hired hands, who are often mentioned in parables in the Gospel. The surplus of labour meant that they were usually employed on a casual basis. There was naturally a drift from the country into the towns and an increasing amount of employment in small craft industries.

Jesus and the apostles came from artisan families; Jesus was a carpenter, working with lumber imported from Lebanon and many of the apostles were fishermen, owning their own boats. We know from other sources that the fishing industry was thriving in Galilee at the time and there was investment in pickles for use in exporting fish. Jesus did not come from the masses, who were either living off charity – there was an efficient dole system in operation – or else were day labourers or slaves. Neither, of course, did he come from the priestly caste or from a rich business or land-owning background. He was a petit-bourgeois.

Kidnapping and assassination

The ruling class throughout this period became increasingly compromised with the Romans. It was the Roman Procurator who appointed the High Priest, usually a matter for bribery. In return, the High Priest acted as a Quisling, maintaining law and order in Jerusalem, a sensitive area for Romans, with his own Temple police and handing over troublemakers for trial. Yet at the same time, the Temple and its High Priest were the main symbols of national consciousness. In the end, class feelings came out into the open. Zealots kidnapped a Temple official and, like Tupamaros, held him ransom for the release of political prisoners. Assassination of collaborators was stepped up, until a High Priest was struck down too.

When, in the sixties, resistance gathered momentum, there were particularly troubled economic circumstances. For years extensions to the Temple had provided employment in Jerusalem and these suddenly halted. After riots, the programme was set in motion again in the form of paving the city streets. At the same time, there were complaints that the high-priestly families, who had equipped themselves with armed gangs, were marauding in the countryside extorting ‘tithes’ on which they had no claim. Matters came to a head in 66 AD when, after a huge tax boycott, the Roman Procurator looted the Temple treasury to make up the deficit. There was an immediate Zealot uprising. The Roman’s main force withdrew and the remnant left behind were massacred. One of the first acts of the Zealot regime was to destroy the record of debts – freeing the masses from the grip of moneylenders and landlords. A new High Priest was elected by lot, which fell to a peasant, an impoverished member of the priestly caste, an act regarded as outrageous by ruling class opinion.

The left is isolated

During the four years between 66 and 70 AD there was all-out war. A whole Roman expeditionary force, comprising two legions and several thousand auxiliaries, was wiped out. The Romans lost over 5,000 infantry and 480 calvary. This victory led to the setting up of a national Government, representing all aspects of religious opinion, both Sadducees and Pharisees, and even Essenes, the monastic group who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Zealots opposed this Government, which they regarded as class-based and potentially collaborationist. They were quite right.

The Jewish commander in Galilee, Josephus, who was a Pharisee, spent more time harassing the Zealots than preparing defences against Rome. When the Romans arrived, under Vespasian, he capitulated on the spot and became an open collaborator. Later he wrote a history of the events to justify his completely treacherous role. The backbone of resistance was led throughout by the Zealots who fought to the last in Jerusalem and then in the mountain fortress at Masada. When the Romans took Jerusalem in 70 AD, under Titus, hundreds of thousands were butchered and the city levelled. Josephus recounts how at one point the Romans ran out of wood for crosses and, when they had enough, had to search for empty spaces to put more crosses up in. It is in this context, that the crucifixion of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels must be seen.

Where did Jesus stand?

It can hardly be believed that he was as oblivious to what was going on around him as the Gospel writers make out. Roman reprisals must have struck the families of Jews known to him in the area. One of Jesus’s own disciples, one of the Twelve, was Simon the Zealot, who presumably participated in one of the uprisings.

Reading the Gospels, the picture presented in the main is that of a passive collaborator. Although Jesus was condemned and executed by Pontius Pilate, every effort is made to clear him of any real responsibility. Crucifixion was not a Jewish method of execution. It was the Roman punishment for political crimes. Spartacus was crucified, for instance. Whereas the Jews had responsibility for ordinary crimes and for religious offences, the political crimes went to Pilate. Yet the Gospels claim that Pilate washed his hands of the affair, protested Jesus’s innocence, could see no wrong in him and was only pressured into crucifying him by the High Priest and his lobby.

Jesus himself is represented in a pro-Roman light. For example, he is described as friendly with tax-collectors and collaborationists. He heals the child of a Roman centurion. He advises, not simply going along with the authority of Rome under duress, but going twice as far as required. And, of course, the most important incident recounted concerns the payment of tax. ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s’. In the Gospels, this is presented as a particularly cunning reply which outwitted the Pharisees who asked it. In fact, it is not at all equivocal. It plainly supports the payment of taxes to Rome. The whole question of taxation was the burning issue of the day. On this issue, Jesus took a pro-Roman stand and backed the claims of the Imperial power.

Keeping Jesus clear of Judaism

The counterpart of this pro-Roman attitude of the Gospels is the persistent denigration of the Pharisees. The Zealots, as such, play no part in the Gospel story at all. They are simply suppressed verbally, as the Romans suppressed them militarily. But the Pharisees are very much in the forefront. They are used as straw-men who feed Jesus the straight lines which enable him to score off them. The purpose of this, as far as the Gospels are concerned, is clearly to distinguish Jesus and the Christian community from the Jews and the Jewish cause. In almost every case, it is a disagreement with Judaism which is stressed, so that Jesus can be distanced from his own people. Stories like that of the Good Samaritan are heavily promoted to the same end.

A number of scholars have tried to rescue Jesus from this Pro-Roman presentation, especially in recent years when, after Auschwitz and Belsen, commentators on the Gospel have at long last become sensitive to its anti-Jewish bias. In particular, the episode of Jesus’s trial has been gone over in detail and it has been admitted that Rome and not the High Priest was responsible for his execution – as a political offender.

Pilate was not a weak administrator who was likely to allow the High Priest’s lobby to pressure him against his better judgement.

Pacifist sentiment

This line of reasoning has led some writers to go as far as claiming that Jesus was actually pro-Zealot and sympathetic to armed struggle. This interpretation means discounting the great slabs of pacifist sentiment which fill the Gospels as nothing but post-Fall of Jerusalem PR, put in by the fawning Evangelists, eager not to rub Rome the wrong way. In contrast, episodes like driving the money-changers out of the Temple are stressed and the fact that Jesus was arrested by an armed patrol and one of his disciples drew his sword and resisted arrest. Indeed, Luke describes how Jesus apparently instructed his disciples to buy swords just before the arrest, though he quickly adds that two would be enough.

It is certainly true that there are patches of anti-Roman material in the Gospels which may get closer to the attitude of Jesus, or at least the early followers, than the Gospel writers do. For example, the story of the Gadarene swine seems to have an anti-imperialist gibe hidden away in it. Jesus exorcises an evil demon, who is called ‘Legion’, and the demon then enters a herd of pigs who plunge over a cliff. The Roman occupation troops were known as ‘pigs’ by the Jews, so the moral is pretty clear. But conversely, there is a definite strain of anti-Temple feeling in a Jesus’s preaching. He is critical of a number of Temple institutions, particularly the financial institutions, and more than once criticises the various ways the Temple made money: donations, taxes, commercial transactions and so forth.

Above all Jesus did not in any way advocate violent resistance to the Romans, but believed that it was necessary to undergo a spiritual change in readiness for the coming of the Kingdom. He conceived of this change in a way which brought him up against the Pharisees, because he was an anti-traditionalist in his attitude to the Jewish religious Law. Ethically, he was a purist, but not in a legalistic way. Judging from his numerous parables about vineyards, labourers and husbandmen, he was fully satisfied with the existing relations of production, including slavery, and the general economic set-up, though he was distrustful of the rich. He seems to have felt that the Temple should not be in any way a secular institution, either commercially or politically.

Jesus not subversive

In itself, there was little that was subversive in Jesus’s preaching and, in this sense the Gospel writers were right to portray him as a passive collaborator. But his fate was sealed when he began to attract crowds, partly because of his feats of healing, partly because he was a compelling orator. The Gospels several times tell how he tried to get away from the crowds and give them the slip, anxious about the outcome, as well he might be.

Pontius Pilate’s last official act for example, in 36 AD, only two or three years after Jesus’s execution, was to massacre a crowd of Samaritans who expected a revelation on their Holy Mountain. Anybody who gathered large crowds was in danger of being halted in their tracks for political reasons. In Rome the careers of sports and theatre stars were abruptly stopped when they began to acquire supporters who were too vocal or demonstrative.

Religions of the oppressed

It is quite usual for messianic and prophetic religious movements to spring up in times of political upheaval. Jesus can be compared with the new movements which sprang up as part of the response to the advance of European imperialism: Peyotism and Ghost-dancing among the American Indians, Ringatū among the Maoris, Hòa Hảo in Vietnam. These movements attempt to break out of the confines of an apparently hopeless historical predicament, by stressing a glorious other-worldly role for the followers of their prophet. In a time of political turmoil, they appear dangerous to the authorities, anxious to suppress anything which might develop into a threat, usually cynical and ignorant, and inclined to err on the side of ruthlessness rather than mercy. They are put down and, if the circumstances are right, a new cult based on the prestige of martyrdom springs up.

The man in the middle

The real strength of Jesus’s preaching lay in his ability to respond to conflict without being sucked into it. He was the man in the middle. Not only was he in the middle of a class conflict but of a national liberation struggle. He was able to find something to say which made sense to all kinds of people without ever coming down on one side or the other. This still is his strength. The discontented, the disaffected, the wretched of the earth could respond to him. So could tax-collectors and Roman soldiers. In part, this was because he chose out of preference to speak in riddles and parables, to tell stories rather than make statements. But partly too it was because he had a talent for the ring of truth, for words which sounded right, which pushed everyone a little bit further together. He walked a verbal tightrope which he wove as he went along. And he could back it up with a quotation every time. It is precisely because he had this ability to reconcile conflicting aspirations, that he sometimes seemed subversive. But in the long run anything that covers over contradictions by appealing to both sides always favours those in power, and Christianity still does.

First published in the left weekly 7 Days, 22 December 1971. An offshoot of Black Dwarf, the paper ran from October 1971 to March 1971; it is available at the Amiel Melburn Trust internet archive under Creative Commons license.


The Werewolf

It is a northern country; they have cold weather. The cold gets into their bones, their brains, their hearts.

Cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest. It is a hard life. Their houses are built of logs, dark and smoky within; there will be a crude icon of the virgin behind a guttering candle, the leg of a pig hung up to cure, a string of drying mushrooms. A bed, a stool, a table. Nothing else.

The devil is a living presence to the upland woodsmen. He’s often been sighted in the graveyards, those bleak and touching townships of the dead where the graves are marked with portraits of the deceased in the naïf style and there are no flowers to place in front of them, no flowers grow there, so they put out little offerings, loaves, sometimes a cake that the bears come lumbering from the margins of the forest to snatch away.

Wreaths of garlic on the doors keep out of the vampires. A blue-eyed child born feet first on the night of St. John’s Eve will have second sight. When they discover a witch – some old woman whose cheeses ripen when her neighbours’ do not, another old woman whose black cat, oh, sinister! follows her about, they strip the crone, search her for marks, for the supernumerary nipple her familiar sucks. They soon find it. Then they stone her to death.

Winter the cold weather.

Go and visit grandmother, who has been sick. Take her the oatcakes I’ve baked on the hearthstone for her, and a little pot of butter.

The good child does as her mother bids. Five miles trudge through the forest; do not leave the path because of the bears, the wild boar, the starving wolves. Here, take your father’s hunting knife – you know how to use it.

The child had a coat of verminous sheepskin to keep out the cold. She knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she grabbed hold of her knife, dropped her basket and turned on the beast.

It was huge, its eyes were red, its chops grizzled, any but a mountaineer’s child would have fainted from sheer terror at the sight of it but she did not. It went for her throat immediately, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.

The wolf emitted a gulping, almost sob when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are cowards at heart. Then it went lolloping off disconsolately between the trees as well as it could on three legs, leaving a trail of blood behind it. The child wiped the blade of her knife clean on her apron, wrapped up the wolf’s paw in the cloth in which her mother had packed the oatcakes and went on towards her grandmother’s house. It soon came on to snow so thickly the path and any footsteps, tracks or spoor that might have been upon it were obscured.

She found her grandmother so sick she had taken her to bed, the covers pulled up her chin. The old woman had fallen into a fitful slumber, moaning and shaking so dreadfully the child guessed she had a fever. She felt her forehead, it burned. She shook out the cloth from her basket, to use it to make the old woman a cold compress, and the wolf’s paw fell to the floor.

But it was no longer a wolf’s paw. It was a hand, chopped off at the wrist, a hand gnarled with work and freckled with old age. There was a wedding ring on the third finger and a wart on the index finger. By the war, she knew it for her grandmother’s hand.

She pulled back the sheet but the old woman woke up, at that, and began to struggle, squawking and shrieking like a thing possessed. But the child was a strong child and held her down long enough to see the cause of the fever – there was a bloody stump where her right hand should have been, festering already, oozing pus.

The child crossed herself and cried out so loud the neighbours heard her and came rushing in. They knew the wart on her hand at once for a witch’s nipple, they drove the old woman, all in her shift as she was, out into the snow with sticks, beating her old carcase as far as the edge of the forest, and pelted her with stones until she fell down dead. The child cleaned up the mess in her grandmother’s cottage and lived there happily.

First published in the left weekly Socialist Challenge, 15 December, 1977; Angela Carter was a subscriber and supporter of the paper. Republished with kind permission of Mark Pearce and Alexander Pearce. A later draft of this tale appears in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979).