Sunday, 10 May 2015

Coalition jaundice

Now that the scale of the damage done on Thursday is sinking in, some less cheery reflections. The emerging consensus seems to be that the Lib Dems' decision to enter the coalition in 2010 was inherently suicidal - an act which Tories are calling noble, as they swipe the seats, and Labour are calling a betrayal, as they swipe some (but only a very few) of the votes. And the emerging lesson is: no small party should ever again enter a coalition.

I don't buy it. Partly because it wasn't a 'decision' in 2010 - the arithmetic made the decision to pursue a coalition inevitable, especially once the Tories had publicly offered it. But also because I think what destroyed the Lib Dems wasn't the coalition as such, but a series of specific mistakes made before and during it.

Easy to say now, of course, but I'm a historian and so am allowed to show 20/20 hindsight. The mistakes were, I think:

1. The biggie, the absolute king of them all: that recklessly stupid pledge on tuition fees before the 2010 election. It is one thing to say you are against them, but this pledge was ramped up higher than any I can ever remember, at least before the Labour pledge-gravestone of last week. It was very specific. Individual MPs and candidates individually swore that they would definitely vote against attempts to raise tuition fees. There were no let-out clauses or weasel words. The point is not so much that the reversal on that particular policy was unpopular. It was that it set the whole framework through which the country then saw the Lib Dems: they had apparently thrown away their single clearest pledge for a chance of power, or, hardly less damagingly, they were so feeble they couldn't defend their one key principle when their new Tory owners said no. I can see why they did it. For decades the Lib Dems and their predecessor parties had been in the habit of making airy pledges which they had little risk of having to implement, and this one was undoubtedly popular. But the damage it did and will, for a while, continue to do is unspeakable. Don't make unbreakable promises unless you are really willing to refuse to enter government rather than break them.

2. The determination to show that coalition could work. Again very understandable in 2010, but the Lib Dems felt it was peculiarly incumbent on them to demonstrate this. Hence, especially at the start, not pushing too hard on key issues. Like, for example, tuition fees. And therefore looking as if their main purpose was to keep the Tories in power.

3. Linked to this: my guess is that Nick Clegg's decision not to take on a government department was a mistake. Deputy PM is an invisible role, and too easily becomes seen as spokesman for / lapdog of the entire Tory-led government, rather than a distinct voice within it. If he'd been Home Secretary he'd have had a very bumpy ride - Home Secretaries always do - but he'd have had the chance to impress and would in any case have actually been doing things, and, amongst it all, would have been being attacked by Tories for much of what he was doing. Which would have helped.

4. A bad shopping list in 2010. I don't mean that what the Lib Dems actually did in coalition was bad. The tax-allowance thing was a brilliant wheeze, though the enthusiasm with which the Tories have nicked the idea is a little disheartening. The 'pupil premium', prioritising mental health, ending detention of underage migrants ... all excellent stuff. But all a bit second-order. The big-ticket items were voting reform and Lords reform, and both of them failed, in both cases essentially because only a minority favoured them and that wasn't enough. So they were left with nothing. Lesson: have at least one really big, clearly visible thing that will be an unmistakable contribution, and that doesn't depend on the outcome of a referendum.

5. No shopping list in 2015. Actually, I rather liked the 'give the Tories a heart or give Labour a head' angle, but it's a bit vague. What, specifically, would a government in coalition with the Lib Dems have had to do that it would otherwise not have had to do? The risk is that you are basically asking people to vote for a dose of centrist Establishment good sense, and that's quite a hard sell.

If they'd done all that ... well, they could plausibly have kept a hold of a many as half of the people who voted for them in 2010. And that would still have looked like a disaster and we'd be asking what went wrong.

Which also makes me think: it could, actually, have been worse. In first-past-the-post systems, especially with multiple parties, parties have been almost or wholly exterminated before (bye-bye, Canada's Progressive Conservatives in 1993). Eight MPs is obviously very bad but, hey, it's eight MPs. And the Scots Lib Dems held up much better against the SNP onslaught than Labour did, generally fighting their seats to a much closer finish. Perhaps the question is: given the experience of the last five years, how have we clung on to life at all?

Friday, 8 May 2015

Reasons to be cheerful

As a paid-up Liberal Democrat, I am a little in need of these after the massacre in the UK general election last night. But as a paid-up Panglossian, I can find some.

1.       Nigel Farage failed to win his seat, and UKIP only won one.

2.       George Galloway lost his seat.

3.       The British National Party secured less than two thousand votes across the whole country.

4.       On all three of those counts: the far right remains as marginal in British politics as it ever has been. This is very, very good news and could easily have been different. It shows that the Tories are still fulfilling their historical purpose of squeezing out right-wing populism.

5.       Apparently the British political system isn’t broken after all. We seem to be back to something like two-party politics (in England and Wales, anyway), not the multi-party melange of recent commentary, and we are evidently still capable of translating a decent lead in votes into a workable governing majority.

6.       Therefore: the political prize remains the centre ground. With only a little luck, a post-Miliband and post-Balls Labour will now elect a leadership which is willing to make a serious bid for that centre ground, and no more 35% strategies.

7.       In which case, the new government will need to keep fighting for that same centre, and will not feel the need to pander to the right-wing threat. So, for example, we can reasonably hope that, like last time, the Chancellor will not cut at the rate he feels the need to claim that he will.

8.       The SNP result … ok, as a unionist I need to work this one a little harder for a good news angle, but here goes. First, this is undoubtedly the SNP’s high-water mark: only one way to go from here. Second, the scale of the result is such that the Tories do seem so far to be taking seriously the crisis of legitimacy that this gives them north of the Border. Conceivably they will do something courageous about it.

9.       The EU referendum which is now coming: again this is a bit scary. But: (a) It would probably have to happen sooner or later anyway. (b) With UKIP a busted flush, it looks a bit more winnable than yesterday. Maybe this is the time to do it.

10.   And whatever the result of the referendum, it will finish UKIP, who would be as undone by a ‘out’ vote as by an ‘in’ one.

11.   And liberalism? Well, I suppose the likeliest path is that in a post-UKIP world the Lib Dems rebuild as a party of protest once again, which is a little depressing – especially as it turns out so many ex-Lib Dem voters have gone to UKIP. Alternatively, the Tories are tugged in a Borisite-modernising direction and become the old Liberal party in all but name, and Labour embrace the centre and become the SDP in all but name. But perhaps now my sleep-deprivation is catching up with me.

PS. One more ... Now we have a government which, unlike its predecessor, doesn't have a built-in House of Lords majority. It will, therefore, be harder for them to get away with doing stupid stuff.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Against Noah

Who could dislike the Noah story (leaving aside the merciless genocide aspect for a moment)? Every child is brought up on it, toys and books galore reference it, it's a reference-point so widely shared as to be endlessly retold, whether in affectionate and moving earnest (as in Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey's lovely The Log of the Ark, now sadly out of print) or in satirical parody (as in Julian Barnes' History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters). Even the Darren Aronofsky movie Noah was much, much better than we had any right to expect, and had the nerve to include the drunken, naked Noah bit at the end, though mercifully it never pretended to be anything more than hokum.

Well, sparked by his being in the lectionary today, here's my beef with Noah, and indeed with Adam and Eve, his only rivals for Sunday school and children's Bible stardom. When children are introduced to the Bible, it is to a remarkable extent through these two stories, possibly merely because they both have lots of animals in them. 

Then children grow up a little bit, and, especially if they really are interested in animals and the natural world, they discover that these stories are not literally true. So naturally, they conclude that the rest of what they are told in Sunday school  is probably also made up.

I'm not actually making a point about evolution or the historicity of the Noah story. True, I do strongly disagree with the Biblical-literalist approach here, but that's beside the point. If you are a literal, young-earth six-day creationist, you should also avoid teaching these stories too much to small children,  because they will quickly discover that they are, shall we say, controversial. To give anyone the impression that these stories are the fundamentals of the faith is, almost literally, to put a stumbling-block in children's paths.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Tyndale code

It's not often that the English Reformation manages a bona fide news story, and admittedly this one isn't a front-page lead, but it's exciting enough in its own way.

A manuscript has surfaced, from an as yet undisclosed source, of an English translation of Erasmus' devotional manual the Enchiridion militis christiani ('Handbook of a Christian Soldier'). The book's significant enough in its own right: this was probably the most influential devotional text of the early sixteenth century, a bestseller amongst Protestants and Catholics alike.

What makes it more tantalising, as the publicity around the export ban claims, is that we know that the Biblical translator William Tyndale made an English translation of the Enchiridion early in his career, in the early 1520s. But no authenticated copy of that translation has ever been found.

The only previously known English translation of the Enchiridion was published in 1533 and 1534 (slightly variant versions). The translator is anonymous. So it has long been tempting to put two and two together and guess that this was Tyndale's work (no English printer would have dared put that name on a book at that date). But there's very little evidence to support it. Anne O'Donnell's scrupulously careful edition of the 1533-4 text for the Early English Text Society, published in 1981, marshalls an impressive array of circumstancial evidence to test whether there was any link, and - despite clearly hoping that she'd find one - didn't come up with much. In particular, there is not much common ground between the translations of Biblical material in the 1533/34 Enchiridions and in Tyndale's own Biblical translations. (His Biblical work was done after the putative Enchiridion translation, so that's not a decisive argument, but it's indicative.) So since then, the Tyndale Enchiridion has seemed like a dead end.

This new manuscript doesn't solve the mystery by any means. But it certainly reopens it. The full text hasn't been published yet, just the first page:
Now when we compare that to the same section of the 1533 translation, we can see it's almost but not quite identical. Far too similar to be a coincidence, but the differences aren't simple copying errors. The insertion of 'of' in the first line might be, but in lines 4-5, for example, where this text has 'thow myghtest atteyn knowlege mete for a trew Cristen man', the 1533-4 text has 'thou myghtest attayne a vertuous mynde, accordyng to a true chrysten man'.

So what's going on? Well, hard to say until we've got the whole text published, and until the codicologists have had a proper stab at dating the thing. But it would be perfectly plausible for this to be an earlier version of the text later revised and printed in 1533/4. And since Tyndale remains the only known early translator of the Enchiridion ... well, on the face of it there is certainly something going on here, some new wrinkle in the textual history of the English translation, and it is entirely possible that Tyndale is somewhere in the mix.

If anyone has £242,500 burning a hole in their pockets and would like to buy it, that would be nice.

UPDATE: I'm told by Andrew Hope, who's examined the actual MS, that it's dated to 1523. And he reminds me that the source which describes Tyndale's production of the translation - in, pretty much, that year - also tells us that multiple fair copies were produced, in an attempt to seek patronage. (He also tells me the MS came from the duke of Northumberland's library, but since we don't know how it got there that doesn't help very much with provenance.) It starts to look genuinely plausible that this is the real thing.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The non-immigrant peril

Finally, in Britain's increasingly bitter and mean-minded grouchfest about immigration, someone has written something which doesn't just recognise that immigrants are human beings; it is also funny.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Aphrodisiacs, fertility and medicine

It's a particular pleasure to see Jennifer Evans' new book, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England, hit the newsstands:

If you really want to read a blog post about this book, you're probably better off reading one of hers, but my own stake in this was that I was the advisory editor for the RHS Studies in History series who worked with her on the book, and so I feel a certain avuncular pride in it.

With a title like that, it'll certainly sell (wait till you see the pictures). But the book has a deadly serious historical point. Modern scholars have been almost unable to write on early modern aphrodisiacs without being consumed by titillation (cheered on by publishers, naturally). At best, we think of them as part of what Faramerz Dabhoiwala calls the first sexual revolution. Jennifer's argument is that this fundamentally misses the point. Artificial stimulants to sexual desire were, in the early modern period, not solely or even primarily a means to debauchery or sensory gratification. They were a means to fertility, a human function whose connection to sex we are sometimes liable to forget. Infertility and subfertility were at least as sharply painful in the early modern period as they are today, and much harder to treat. But, unusually sensibly by early modern medical standards, the truism was that stimulating sexual desire would assist conception. Unlike plenty of other contemporary medical theories, this was, as far as it went, harmless. And perhaps a little better.

Jennifer's book carefully traces the uses of aphrodisiacs to treat fertility problems across the period, which is a useful corrective in itself, but I think also raises some more profound issues about the acculturation of sexual desire. It seems pretty clear to me from some of her sources that, in this period, fertility was itself desirable, and fertile sex was sexy sex. The modern world, which has for excellent reasons concluded that fertility and sexual fulfilment are almost in opposition to one another, is in a very different place.

In other words, this book manages the trick every good historian aims at: to make the past seem both familiar, intimately familiar in this case, and also very alien indeed. I recommend it.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Despatches from New Orleans

The Sixteenth Century Conference, this year in New Orleans, was as fun and stimulating as ever. The expected highlights included a terrific panel on scepticism featuring Peter Marshall, Alex Walsham and Phil Soergel. But the real fun is always to hear cutting-edge stuff from more junior people, so here’s my personal selection.

Amy Blakeway from Cambridge, who is positioning herself to be the bad girl of sixteenth-century Scottish history, did a lovely piece on the administrative structure of Scottish government in the 1530s. Stay with me. It’s partly that she can prove that King James V had a sort of official council when we didn’t know that before, and that’s just quite an impressive thing to discover. But it matters because Scottish institutions were wonderfully ad hoc and pragmatic, and it’s nice to see one swimming into existence in that way. James used it, apparently, to deal with the fact that he was always on the move, but he needed some sort of permanent executive in Edinburgh. And, as a bonus, he also used it the way bureaucracies are always used: to fob off unwelcome visitors. English correspondents who were trying subtly to denigrate James by implying that Henry VIII was his overlord got directed into a bureaucratic slow lane that seems to have been created specially for the purpose.

Brad Pardue, from the College of the Ozarks, gave a paper in a lamentably poorly attended session on the 1539 Great Bible title page, one of the best-known images in Tudor history:

I thought there was nothing more to be said about this (unless someone should discover something specific about how, when and by who it was created). But Brad, amongst other things, pointed out something which is obvious once he said it. Look again at the bottom third, the common people gratefully receiving the king’s gift of God’s word:

No books! Not even the preacher has one! The Word does go to the lay elite as well as to the bishops, but it stops there. It’s not just that the common people are only supposed to learn one thing from the Word, namely, long live the king. Just to ensure they get the message, they aren’t allowed actually to see it. In 1543 Henry VIII restricted the common people’s access to the Bible by law, to great outrage: but look, back in 1539 he as good as told them he was going to!

But for me, the paper of the conference was from Jon Reimer, also from Cambridge: a PhD student working on an old friend of mine, the bestselling and shamelessly self-publicising Protestant polemicist Thomas Becon. I thought I had ‘done’ Becon’s early works. Jon, however, has used the dedications in those books as the basis of some really detailed, impressively careful detective work, and managed to conjure up a whole network of Kentish aristocrats who were supporting Becon – even if some of them, especially the older generation, didn’t seem actually to agree with him very much. He’s taken a broad-brush picture that we used to have and given us some gorgeously specific detail, and in the process opened up a whole network of printers, gentry and preachers working together in a messy, pragmatic way. This is dirty-fingers history the way it ought to be done: I can’t wait to see the PhD.