Letters - October 2011
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
While Tim Stanley is correct to argue that moral climates can change drastically, his comparison of the sexual ‘freedoms’ of Georgian England with the allegedly straight-laced Victorians serving as a lesson from the past for the 21st century is fundamentally ahistorical (The Contrarian: Changing Moral Climates, August 2011). The changes that have occurred since the 1960s happened due to changes in the law: divorce became easier to obtain, abortions likewise and homosexuality was decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act; subsequent legislation has gone some way in establishing equal rights in employment, child adoption and civil partnerships. This has been underpinned by political, psychological and even theological and academic argument – such as feminism, queer theory and the like.
The Conservative government’s attempt under Margaret Thatcher to reverse the trend through legislation such as Clause 28, which sought to end the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, has been denounced by the subsequent Labour government and the present Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. Furthermore the movement towards sexual liberalisation has become international and increasingly not even restricted to the West. In contrast, in 18th-century England homosexual activity remained punishable by death and our knowledge of the gay ‘community’ at that time is almost entirely dependent upon prosecutions of gay men; divorce remained the privilege of the wealthy. Neither was there any intellectual argument advocating change; in fact it was the Victorians who abolished the death penalty for homosexuality to a period of imprisonment. In short, as any serious historian knows, the specificity of cultural and social factors prevent such universal generalisations as Stanley presents.
Robert S Hopps
Britain versus Germany
I enjoyed Allan Mallinson’s article about the importance of heritage in the British army (At Ease with their Heritage, July 2011). Professionally I have studied the army’s performance using, among other things, historical analysis. Also, I am part of the army’s traditions, having served during the 1980s in the London Scottish, a Territorial Army unit with a strong pedigree.
I agree with Mallinson that continuity and tradition are an important part of effectiveness. However the British army’s ‘regimental system’ does not confer a unique ability to recover from setbacks. Many other armies have had, or do have, this ability, derived from different structures and traditions but just as effective nonetheless and often more so at operational levels. German army formations in the Second World War, for example, had a remarkable ability to re-form and carry on fighting after suffering crushing setbacks on a scale that often overwhelmed their British counterparts. The British focused at a lower level, on the regiment, the Germans focused on the division. Although the German army also has its own regimental traditions, it is the higher level which is more important. These different approaches derived from different needs: the British army’s to police an empire and to fight small-scale police actions over long periods far from home; the German army’s requirement was to fight continental wars on a large scale but closer to home and for shorter periods. The British model is not a universally good one. Tactically it is strong; operationally it can be a source of weakness, fragmenting the army’s approach to fighting wars. It is at operational levels that campaigns are won and the winning of wars made possible. If you want to win a campaign or a war rather than win a battle or police a region, I would argue that it is better to have a German system rather than a British one. Whatever the truth, I look forward to seeing more excellent articles like Allan Mallinson’s.
In and Out of Edinburgh
In Months Past (August 2011) Richard Cavendish states that when Mary, Queen of Scots arrived in Scotland from France (on August 19th, 1561) she was escorted from the port of Leith ‘to Edinburgh’ by noblemen ‘led by her illegitimate half-brother, Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray’ and that the crowds cheered her ‘on her way up to Edinburgh Castle’. In fact Lord James Stewart was not created Earl of Moray until January 30th, 1562 and the queen was escorted up to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, not Edinburgh Castle. Further, until the Burgh of the Canongate was annexed by the Royal Burgh of Edinburgh in 1856, the palace and the castle were not even within Edinburgh.
Negative and Positive
No one has ever written totally unbiased history but the article by Bernard Porter, Twilight of the Goths (July 2011), seemed more an exercise in prejudice than history. To pick one of the more glib remarks, why should it matter that the former Midland Railway Hotel has been ‘recently renovated in spectacular style at great expense’? That is the nature of the luxury hotel market but here it is made to sound as though a crime or at least a sin had been committed.
This seems to have led the author to stray from strict accuracy. He says that the hotel and Scott’s Foreign Office design were not the same, as though that disproved the story of Scott tweaking his Foreign Office design for the hotel. But this was clearly the case as amply demonstrated by the picture of Scott’s Foreign Office design printed in the article. When we come to the claim that Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet the credibility of the whole essay is put in question.
On a more positive note, I wish to say that nowadays every page of History Today seems interesting and readable. I also commend some of the recent innovations such as the Contrarian and the re-examination of past HT articles. So keep up the good work – trite but true – even if I don’t necessarily agree with all your authors’ views.
I found Tim Hannigan’s article on the British interregnum in Java fascinating (When Raffles Ran Java, September 2011). Though I was familiar with Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ role in the founding of Singapore (not least because I have stayed in the landmark hotel in that city, named after him), I had no idea of his earlier role as an imperial administrator. I welcome History Today’s forays further afield than the traditional British and European topics.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology