Letters to the Editor - March 2012
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
Share your thoughts with the readers of History Today.
Email email@example.com, or send to
25 Bedford Avenue
Prisoner of the Past
I am surprised that James Ellison writes in Is Britain more European than it thinks? (February 2012) that what David Cameron sought in the December Eurozone crisis meeting was asked for ‘undiplomatically and at the last moment’. Cameron’s view was well known before he went to the summit, as was his willingness to negotiate. It was the refusal of President Sarkozy to consider negotiation which was ‘undiplomatic’.
Ellison goes on to say that Britain’s ‘greatest interests are European. Trade figures, financial ties, international politics and, to an extent, law all point that way. So does the fact that so many Brits holiday in Europe’. Is this correct?
The UK has a massive structural trade deficit with the European Union (EU) yet is generally in balance with the rest of the world; over 90 per cent of British trade is not with the EU yet is still affected by costly single market legislation and regulation. British exports to the rest of the world outside the EU have risen faster (well over 30 per cent since the turn of the century) than those to the EU. Recent studies indicate that the net annual cost of EU membership (direct and indirect) is about ten per cent of GDP, or more than the value of all UK goods exported to the EU. The belief that membership of the single market is essential to export there is belied by the US and China selling more to it than the UK. Norway and Switzerland also export far more to the EU per capita or per GDP.
Ellison’s claim that financial ties with Europe, while important, are more important than those with the US, China or the developing world is way out of date and getting more so every year. In international politics the UK can, and does, still play a very important role distinct from the EU and a role which is often more effective than that of the EU itself. As for law it is increasingly obvious that the concept that the legal systems of all EU members must be treated as of equal validity is literally unbelievable.
Of course, as Ellison says, ‘the untold story is more about co-operation than conflict’, but it is a serious error to equate criticism of the EU and its institutions with ‘being anti-European’. It is necessary to point out that a huge amount of the non-budgetary legislation passed in Parliament every year is devised in Brussels by unelected officials and is enacted here by a statutory instrument. References by some to a ‘bulldog spirit’ merely reflect popular British disillusion with the way the EU is run and its wishes imposed, a disillusion that is also fairly common in other EU countries.
It is the EU which is imprisoned in the past, not the UK.
Paul Lay is right to argue that democracy is looking ‘curiously vulnerable’. Despite the upheavals in the Middle East, countries as important as China and Russia remain resistant to democratic advance. Vladimir Putin will remain Russian dictator whatever elections and his formal position suggest to the contrary.
In the West, while structures remain democratic, the role of money means that plutocracy, not democracy, is the most effective description of the situation. The UK remains a formally democratic society, yet the move to cut the number of MPs to the UK Parliament, on top of long-running reductions in the power of local councils, means that power is concentrated in an over-mighty executive. The old Whig view of history, in which progress is always on the agenda and democracy is ever expanding, is increasingly out of date. Elected dictatorship looks like the immediate future. A minister with a parliamentary majority has virtually limitless powers.
Given this situation, changes to the National Curriculum affecting school history need close scrutiny. Proposals to make history compulsory to age 16, possibly as part of the English Baccalaureate imposed on schools in 2010, are not welcome. Whatever gains teachers may make in terms of numbers will be offset by a lack of discipline as bored teenagers absent themselves or rebel. The current high quality of the GCSE exam is based on freedom of choice at 14. Volunteers work better than conscripts.
More worryingly, the rumours of politicians interfering in the curriculum to impose a narrow 1066 and All That model of British history will not go away. It is not up to ministers to dictate the content of school history. David Blunkett's decree that 25 per cent should be a minimum baseline for British content was enough. If ministers go further, then the democratic deficit in education will become a major topic for debate.
In his otherwise excellent article, Germany: a New Carthage (January, 2012), Antony Lentin alleges with regard to The Economic Consequences of the Peace that ‘none of Keynes’ predictions were realised’. He dismisses Keynes’ dire predictions rather casually, I think, with the comment that Germany’s postwar ills were ‘home-grown’. I do not wish to enter into a tedious argument about the obvious (in my view) link between the hyperinflation of the 1920s and reparations. In place of that I quote Keynes and leave readers to decide whether his predictions were realised:
If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victorious, the civilization and progress of our generation.
Indeed Hitler did not ‘limp’. In 1940 he danced a jig outside the famous railway car in which the French surrender was signed.
Professor Emeritus of Economics,
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Gawain and Mee
Nicholas Mee argues a case for seeing John of Gaunt as patron of the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Gaunt’s castle of Peveril in the Derbyshire Peak District as the model for Bertilak’s castle in the poem (Patron’s Place, January 2012). He further suggests that Peak Cavern, near Peveril, might have provided the inspiration for the Green Chapel.
Not all of Mee’s arguments convince. While the dramatic setting of Peveril Castle, high on its crag with a ravine to one side, certainly ‘fits the bill’, the castle lies too far east of Sir Gawain’s itinerary. According to the poet, Gawain’s journey took him along North Wales to the Wirral, which is the last locality mentioned. Given this evidence, a castle in Cheshire or north Staffordshire seems more plausible. Beeston, rising high out of the Cheshire plain, is one possibility.
The reference to the Wirral also has a bearing on the issue of patronage. The Wirral is in Cheshire, which in the 1390s was a demesne lordship of Richard II. The implication is that the patron is likely to have been a Cheshire retainer of the king and the name of Sir John Stanley has been suggested. It is hard to imagine how a figure as cosmopolitan as John of Gaunt would have commissioned a poem written in the old alliterative mode when at court he would have been familiar with Chaucer’s sophisticated new verse. The presence of the Garter motto at the end of the poem likewise offers no support to Mee as it is not certain that the insertion is contemporary with the poem.
Professor Nigel Saul
- The Archive
- Medieval (4th-15thC)
- Early Modern (16th-18thC)
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Kings & Queens
- Prime Ministers
- US Presidents
- Special Series
- Student Advice
- Browse Back Issues
- History Review
- Digital Edition