Friday, 30 June 2017

Book of the Month: The Windsor Faction (DJ Taylor)

D.J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction imagines a scenario in the 1930s, as the war in Europe approaches, which is different from the history. Edward VIII has not abdicated. His American lover, Wallis Simpson, has died of cancer in 1937, and Edward has assumed throne. The stammering younger brother with his wife and ‘girls’ has been dispatched to Sandringham. Hitler, in the meanwhile, has assumed control of Germany and has started occupying sovereign nations on the dubious grounds that he is protecting the interests of the German minorities in these nations. He has also not left anyone in doubt about what he intends to do to the Jews. Kristallnacht has happened. The British government, still led by Neville Chamberlain, is deeply uneasy about the intention of the Germans, and has been making disapproving noises about the aggressive German tendencies. The German army has gathered behind the Maginot Line, and many in Britain feel that the Germans are going to invade France, which would make war inevitable. In fact the war has already begun, officially, but both sides are waiting for the other to make the first move. The British are waiting to see whether the Germans would cross the Maginot Line.

Not everyone in Britain, though, is in favour of the war, or thinks that war with Germany would be in the British national and international interests. They are concerned that a protracted European war, as this one is bound to turn out to be, would be the death-knell of the Empire. “It’d be impossible to hold on to India,” Captain Ramsay, one of the few real-life- characters (Ramsay was a Tory MP from 1933 to 1945, the novel informs the reader at the end; and, fiercely anti-War and anti-Semite, was interned during the war) that play a pivotal role in the novel, says. The political faction that is against the war, the so-called pacifists, comprises Back-bench Tories, some of whom fought in the Great War; right wing intellectuals; isolationists in the American Embassy who believe that America should not get herself embroiled in the European conflict; and nut-cases who believe that the war is a world-wide conspiracy of Jews, and the only community that stands to benefit from this is of the profiteering Jews. The anti-war lobby suspects, and the suspicion lifts its spirits, that the King, Edward VIII, is against the war, and is sympathetic to their position: a negotiated peace with the Germans, in a neutral territory, such as Ireland, should be attempted. Germans, on their part, are giving coded signals that they would be willing to negotiate, but would not give back the territory that they have appropriated.

The Windsor Faction is the story of the frenetic months that lead to Second World War, in its alternative reality. Taylor has chosen to tell the story from the point of view of a fictional character, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, who, unwittingly, gets involved in the cloak-and-dagger game. As the novel opens, Cynthia is in Ceylon, where her parents made a tidy fortune. Cynthia returns to England as the drums of the war in Europe begin to sound. In London she finds herself a job in a literary rag called Duration. In the office she meets Anthea Carey, who, it seems, is not what she appears to be. Cynthia also begins an affair with Tyler Kent (another real life character, who apparently worked in the American Embassy and was also interned during the war because of his anti-war activities), a clerk in the American Embassy. Captain Ramsay, Tyler Kent, and Bannister (a fictional character), another Tory backbencher MP who is anti-war (as sinister, though not as unhinged, as Captain Ramsay) are all in cahoots, and, it would seem, stop at nothing to stop the war unleashed on Britain by the Jews. The Bannisters are family friends of the Kirkpatricks, having made their ill-deserved fortune in the colonies, and to whose son both sets of parents once hoped Cynthia would marry (although it did not happen as said son perished in a freak car accident when he took Cynthia out for a drive in Kandy, though not before, in the good old English fashion, he had had clumsy sex with her). Tyler Kent, who works as a clerk in the American Embassy, is smuggling out telegrams of the president, into the hands of Ramsay. MI5, needless to say, are aware of these shenanigans and are keeping these characters who, they have a strong reason to believe, are up to no good, under surveillance. MI5 are also keeping a close eye on the king, who, they rightly suspect, is against the war and might act in a manner that might compromise the official position of the British government, not to mention the country’s security. It’s all jolly good fun, and, although the novel does not trigger a lava-flow of adrenaline through your arteries, it keeps you riveted as it rattles along at a comfortable pace. If the end seems a bit anti-climactic it is also plausible.

Reading The Windsor Faction is a strange experience, in the main, I think, because the reader is not sure whether Taylor wants to write a political noir thriller or a slapstick social comedy. (Perhaps Taylor himself isn’t, either). There is no settled tone to the narrative voice (this is not a criticism). Indeed the opening pages of the novel, set in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) are very reminiscent of the comedy of Evelyn Waugh, who is mentioned more than once in the ‘diaries’ of the gay bon vivant, Beverly Nichols—another real life character, according to the ‘author’s note’; the real Beverly Nichols, Taylor informs, was a prolific author, journalist and librettist—although the tone becomes much more sombre and dark once the action shifts to London, only to slide, every now and then, into slapstick.

Cynthia Kirkpatrick, the main protagonist of the novel, is a pleasant enough character, not unduly encumbered by anything by way of personality. To the extent that Cynthia is able to make up her mind, she is pro-war. She does play a vital role in unravelling the plans of the anti-war faction (you expect no less from the main protagonist of the novel), but the reader gets the feeling that Cynthia does this not so much out of string political convictions as because of her weak character that makes her susceptible to the manipulations and machinations of other, strong-willed, characters. While this is not at odds with how Cynthia is portrayed, it has the effect of the character not making a lasting impression on your mind. Cynthia, not to put too fine a point on it, is dull. The supporting characters, Beverly Nichols and Captain Ramsay, for example, are far more interesting—and for that reason entertaining—that Cynthia. Tayler’s depiction of Edward is humane enough. Taylor desists from portraying Edward as a caricature and does not ‘give’ him anti-Semite tendencies, though ‘the king’ comes across as an empty suit.

Taylor excels in depicting for the reader the London in the 1930s, as Europe stands on the cusp of war (dark, gloomy, grubby, uncertain, fearful), which, in the end, is the most persuasive portion of this novel about the ‘phoney war’.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Humiliating Victory

The results of the British General Elections are out. These are being interpreted in the media as a disaster for the ruling Conservative party, and victory (of sorts) for the opposition Labour Party. Everyone is taking a great pleasure in the humiliation of Theresa May, the leader of the Conservative party and prime-minister, who ran (an ineffective) presidential style campaign.

As the exit polls predicted a hung parliament, pundits lined up to explain why this had happened: the Conservative party, which started the election campaign twenty points ahead of Labour, failed to win a clear victory, which its leader, Theresa May, wanted. Theresa May has now jumped into bed with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, a party, if truth be told, no one outside of Northern Ireland had heard of until now, with more eagerness and speed than my neighbour displays when getting up from the chair to collect her burger in the local McDonald. DUP is a party, it can be revealed, that wants to bring back death penalty, and wants all the rights and privileges of LGBT community removed; it is a party that is rabidly anti-abortion, and consists of senior members who insist that the world was created by God in seven days and climate change is a cruel hoax perpetrated by the devil-worshippers. In other words a party of crackpots.

The consensus seemed to be that the blame of this disaster for the Conservatives should be laid at the door of the Prime Minister, in particular the way in which she ran the campaign, focusing on the personal styles of the two leaders. You have got to say that the strategy, in principle, was sound. The reputation of the Labour leader, Jeremey Corbyn, for the best part of the two years, since he surprised everyone (and shocked himself) by becoming Labour’s leader, was lower than crocodile’s piss. Everyone, including many Labour MPs, feared that the Labour faced a wipe-out in the general election. In many newspapers Corbyn had become a figure of either ridicule or pity or both. By contrast the personal rating of Theresa May was 5-6 times that of Corbyn’s at the start of the campaign. It was also logical that, with the difficult Brexit negotiations looming, whoever is the prime-minister of the country, could have done with a solid mandate.

It is therefore remarkable that May managed to squander her near-unassailable lead in just seven weeks, and has ended up short of outright majority, albeit by a whisker.

The problem for the Tories was that Theresa May was simply not very good at projecting herself as the strong and stable leader she clearly believes she is. She seemed to lack the warmth and the necessary interpersonal and communication skills. Whenever the interviewer asked May a question she did not like, her eyes would narrow and the corners of her mouth would be set, as if what the interviewer had said deserved nothing other than a sound thrashing. In the few interviews and question-answer sessions which she did, May mostly came across as wooden and not spontaneous. Her answers to most of the questions were couched in generalities and did not really address the questions. For example, when Andrew Neil asked her in the BBC interview, to explain how her party was going to find the eight billion pounds the Conservatives promised for the NHS, May’s answer (delivered in a regal and majestic tone) was that the Tories had a long and proven record of managing the economy well and providing strong and stable leadership. Under these very favourable circumstances it was inevitable that the economy was going to prosper and everything was going to be hunky-dory. That is as maybe, the answer failed to provide any clue to the listener how the NHS was going to receive extra funding. May did this repeatedly: she was reluctant (or unable) to go into specifics. When pressed she would appear peeved and snap back that it was all spelled out in the spring budget of 2017, which, in case the interviewer had failed to register, was presented by the Conservative party (of which she was a strong and stable leader). It gave the impression that the woman was evasive at best and mendacious at worst. Grandpa Corbyn, in contrast, went round with his manifesto and a calculator, and strived to give account (to the last penny) of how the Labour was going to keep the tall promises they had given to everyone except the rich (who are obviously enemies of the proletariat and ought to disappear in the sugarcane fields, as they did in Cuba, ran by the Communist dictator Castro for decades, of whom grandpa is a long-standing admirer). Corbyn as well as his close colleague, Diane Abott, the shadow home secretary, stumbled more than once while answering questions related to financing the myriad manifesto promises of Labour (which anyone with two brain-cells could see they would not have been able to keep). The unconvincing performances made them, Abott in particular, objects of ridicule; however, since May’s performance was not great either, the Conservatives could not capitalise on the Labour weakness. During the only question-answer session May condescended to appear in, she made jokey, if slightly snide, references to Abott’s inability to count (three times, if I remember correctly, in case the audience had missed the joke the first two times), refusing at the same time to give any details of her plans. Poor Abott appeared to be severely arithmetically challenged. She withdrew (or was ordered to withdraw by the Labour party high-command) from front-line interviews after she struggled to answer questions, which, she, in her role as the shadow home secretary, ought to have anticipated. Apparently she has a long term medical condition. What could it be? Developmental Disorder is my guess—inability to calculate, and marshal such cognitive resources as she has to answering questions put by the interviewers. This ought to have been picked up in her childhood and she should have received appropriate help—another glaring failure of the NHS, if you ask me, no doubt the result of the underfunding of the NHS in the 1980s by the Tories.

Halfway through the campaign it became clear that May was struggling to project herself as the strong and stable leader, and—shock! Horror!—Grandpa, unbelievably, was coming across as more relaxed, confident, comfortable, and having some sense of humour. However, there was no observable change of course: he campaign continued to be all about herself, even though it was becoming clear that there was not much of it. The hasty retreats on some of manifesto promises did not help Brand Theresa as the stable and resolute leader.

It is also interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that the election, which was supposed to be all about Brexit, we didn’t really hear much about Brexit from either of the party leaders. May refused to say anything beyond her strong and stable mantra and repeating the meaningless slogan ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’. Corbyn focused more on issues such as giving money the country didn’t have to increase the wages of the nurses and abolishing tuition fees (even though evidence suggests that the number of university placements have increased in the last few years), nationalising industries, and pouring money into public services by taxing corporations and the rich. On the rare occasions when Grandpa could be bothered to talk about Brexit, his answers suggested that he had failed to grasp the enormity and complexity of Brexit (he confirmed that we would be out of the single market and free movement of people across the EU nations would end; but also blithely promised that under Labour there would be a tariff-free access to the EU markets, not bothering to give any idea—probably because he did not have any— as to how this was going to happen). This is a major worry. The leaders of Britain’s two major political parties seemed incapable of coming to grips with the complexities and scale of Brexit. In particular, neither seemed interested in answering how the likely economic impact of Brexit (about which the previous chancellor, George Osborne, whom May sacked unceremoniously within an hour of entering Downing Street last year, was repeatedly warning about) would be tackled. The lying Brexiter brigade during last year’s referendum had dismissed Osborne’s warning as Project Fear. Project Fear is about to become Project reality. Britain’s growth in the first quarter of 2017 was the slowest amongst the seven richest countries. Inflation is on the rise (at its three-year highest) and real-term wages of people are falling. During the election campaign Labour made much of the austerity programme of the Tories, and benefitted from the public’s anger about it. Guess what, austerity is not going to go away: the government revenues will fall in the coming years because of the slowing of the economic growth, and harder times are to follow. The UK’s decision to leave the EU was calamitous, and things are going to get much worse in the coming years, unless some common sense emerges in the Brexit negotiations. We cannot afford to go down the route of the kind of Brexit May wants to press ahead without inflicting serious damage on the economy. For that reason alone it is a good thing that May did not get the mandate she was demanding. One hopes that the Thatcherite MPs in the Conservative party will feel embolden by the result to steer the country away from the cliff-edge towards which May seemed determined to drag us.

The election results are without doubt personal humiliation, slap-in-the-face, whatever you want to say, for Theresa May. However, in the cold light of the day, despite May’s disastrous campaign, the Conservatives are still the preferred party of the British people. What has happened is that the British public has once again (almost for the third time in a row, if you discount Cameron’s slim majority in the 2015 election) has not given any one party a clear mandate. The position of the Tories is roughly the same as it was in 2015 and slightly better than it was in 2010. True, May has lost the majority that Cameron managed to get in 2015; but Cameron’s majority was wafer-thin—just 5 seats. The Tories have lost that majority, but not by a massive margin: they fell eight short of majority. May will probably go in the next few months. I can’t see her lasting given the regicidal tendencies of the Tories. They will do it with stealth, though. There won’t be any of the ungracious squabbling that we witnessed in the parliamentary Labour Party when the launched an ineffective coup against Corbyn who, they were convinced, was toxic.

In this general election there was a clear choice between the Labour manifesto and the Tory manifesto. And the Labour was comprehensively defeated in the election. Hardly a ringing endorsement of Corbyn and his hard-left policies.

The clear verdict of the British public has not stopped Grandpa from strutting about as if he has conquered the world. Anyone watching the jubilation and celebration of the Labour leader would have believed that Labour had won the election with a thumping majority. Like a plumped up raisin Grandpa is exuding vanity and smugness in equal measures, and is asking Theresa May to resign (even though her party won loads more seats than his), which is a bit rich coming from him given his track record. This is no doubt because the Labour has done better than expected. Everybody thought Corbyn was useless and Labour was staring into abyss. That has not happened, although the results also do not establish beyond reasonable doubt that Corbyn and his second rate cronies like John McDonnell—who have zero experience of running anything except their own mouths—are not useless.

This is now the third general election the Labour have lost in a row. And comprehensively. In spite of the allegedly popular policies of Labour under Corbyn (a socialist utopia where everyone has rights and no one has responsibilities, except when you are a productive member of the society and earning money), Labour fell 64 seats short of majority and are comfortably behind the Tories at this stage, in terms of parliamentary strength.

The tetchy Shami Chakraborty, the shadow Attorney General of Grandpa, made the risible claim in the BBC question time that Grandpa had actually won (maybe she also has a chronic condition, which makes her stare at truth and ask, “Do I know you?”) and was thoroughly booed by the studio audience. It was amusing to see Alistair Campbell, the much reviled press secretary of the allegedly discredited Blair, coming to her rescue. How Chakraborty must have hated it.

There is now the inevitable optimistic nonsense spouted by the tiresome lefties, in the Guardian, of how this is going to be the beginning of sort of quiet revolution, and how, in the next general election, especially if it is held in the next few months, Grandpa will stomp to power. It was left to Chris Leslie, the former shadow chancellor, an arch Blairite and a trenchant critic of Corbyn, to point out (it had to be done) that, for all the euphoria of the Corbyn cheerleaders, it was the Tories who were going to form the next government.

So the big achievement of Corbyn is that he lost as heavily as Gordon Brown did in 2010; and Brown, remember, after that defeat, resigned. Labour are in such a sorry state and the expectations were so low at the start of the campaign that falling short of majority by 64 seats is being touted as a victory. Corbyn might have silenced his (I suspect still plentiful) critics in the parliamentary Labour party (for now), but Labour are still not anywhere within sniffing distance of forming a government on its own. Corbyn is now talking nonsense about bringing down the Queen’s speech and forming agovernment, apparently because he believes he has got the mandate to deal with the issues of poverty and inequality in Britain, and he is determined to endausterity. I can’t understand How Corbyn can claim that he has a mandate when his party was comprehensively defeated in the election. In the unlikely event of Corbyn forming a minority government (he and McDonnell have already declared that Labour would do no deals), he would face serious obstacles in pushing through his agenda (which would not be a bad thing, seeing as his policies will bankrupt the country), and, whatever might be the qualities of this aging crypto-Communist, they do not regrettably include being inclusive and tolerant of views that are different from his, which is just one of the many reasons why he is completely unsuitable to be the prime-minister.

I doubt very much that the general election marks of something new and exciting in the British politics, as the Corbynistas (a term coined by British newspapers to describe the noisy and often obnoxious supporters of Corbyn, such as the Trotskyist Momentum) seem to have deluded themselves into believing. Grandpa Corbyn is mediocre at best and is simply not a prime-ministerial material. He will not be prime-minister. Ever. The Blair era might have ended in the Labour in this election, and the grip of hard-left on Labour might have become stronger; however that may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Labour will not win another general election unless they reclaim the centre ground in the British politics.