Another Draft Afterword

7 Apr

Just a draft – comments welcome.


All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

-Monty Python’s Life of Brian

If you read the above quote, you might be forgiven for assuming that the plotters were a bunch of idiots.  Why would anyone want to throw the Romans out?  They brought so much good to Judea, right?  The whole idea of tossing them out on their ear sounds like a plan to cut one’s nose to spite one’s face.  And yet, if you look at the scene with any knowledge of history, it starts looking less stupid.  Indeed, the question might really be phrased as “what did the Romans do TO us?

Between the Third Punic War and the series of civil wars that ended with Augustus Caesar in firm control of the empire, the Romans conquered vast swathes of territory surrounding the Mediterranean.  Some kingdoms were effectively annexed, ruled by governors appointed by Rome; others were granted limited internal independence, as long as they behaved themselves.  The latter were luckier than the former, as the Romans were not nice imperialists.  It was often said, in Rome, that a governor needed to make three fortunes: one to bribe the voters so he’d get his position, one to make himself wealthy and one to bribe the judges during the inevitable trial for misconduct during his term in office.  They made themselves wealthy by extracting money from their provinces, which they did with extreme brutality.  It should not have been a surprise, therefore, that so many of their subjects were happy to turn on them, when given half a chance.  The Romans did make attempts to put their possessions in better order, but Roman internal politics often made that difficult.  Rome was, in the view of its subjects, a demon that had to be placated.  Cleopatra has been branded a whore – and other, less pleasant, things – for forming personal relationships with the two most powerful Romans of their era, but really … she had no choice.  She had to keep the Romans sweet or risk losing everything, including her life.

I don’t know how old Mary and Joseph were, when they were ordered to Bethlehem before Jesus was born, but they – and their grandparents – would be all too aware that Rome could turn nasty at the drop of a hat.  Indeed, they were going to Bethlehem because the Romans had ordered them to register so they could be taxed.  There would be good reason for them to resent and fear the Romans, even if the Romans had done a lot of good for their people.  And the Jews – and everyone else in the region – would want to be free of the Romans, if it could be done safely.  The Romans were, in short, people who’d been very nasty and simply couldn’t be trusted not to turn nasty again.

As Tacitus (or Calgacus) commented, the Romans “make a desert and call it peace.”

The desire for independence, to escape foreign domination, runs strong in the human mind.  Indeed, we often turn against outsiders even when the outsiders genuinely are better than the natives.  Events like BREXIT wouldn’t have gotten so much traction, for better or worse, if the EU hadn’t been seen as an outside power interfering in British politics … a view that may have little in common with reality, but one that caught on.  The BREXIT referendum itself was merely the culmination of a series of problems that no one in office dared admit needed to be fixed.  Put crudely, the EU fiddled while Rome burned (British public opinion turned against the EU) and discovered, too late, that it was seen as beyond reform.  Indeed, this was not Britain’s first BREXIT.  Henry VIII’s decision to cut ties with Rome in 1532 might have been spurred by his desire to sire a male heir, but it sprang from long-standing anti-papal sentiments that saw the Pope as a biased and therefore untrustworthy figure who could be – and was – far more easily influenced by France and Spain than England.  The papacy’s meddling in English – and Scottish – affairs was often seen as, at best, foolish; at worst, detrimental and greedy.  There was no sense, by the time Henry VIII took the throne, that the Pope was a neutral arbiter.  The more the ideal of the papacy got bogged down in real-world politics, the more it surrendered its claim to moral authority. 

Point is, outside powers simply don’t understand local matters.  It is easy for outsiders to influence their politics, but harder for locals to influence distant overlords.  This breeds resentment and eventual hatred, even with the best will in the world.  Something that looks very reasonable to the outsiders, whatever it might happen to be, doesn’t always look so reasonable to the locals.  The various attempts to regulate the British America lead directly to the American Revolution!

And outsider politics can make it harder for the locals to seek justice.  Brigadier General Reginald Dyer – often called the “man who killed the British Empire – presented his masters in Whitehall with a serious political headache after the Amritsar Massacre.  On one hand, Dyer’s actions were a political nightmare; they convinced countless Indians to turn against the Raj.  On the other, it was hard to convict Dyer of anything without giving the impression Dyer was being railroaded, something that would (and did) turn his supporters against the government.  Matters were not helped by confusion over who was legally in command, just how much authority had been devolved to Dyer, legal and military questions regarding what actions an officer could take to save his command and a somewhat odd set of excuses and justifications from Dyer himself.  There was no good answer.  It should not have surprised anyone, therefore, that India would seek self-determination and independence from that moment on.  Faith in the Raj’s justice died under Dyer’s guns.

And all of this assumes a degree of goodwill.  How do you think the East Europeans regarded Nazi and Soviet occupiers?

It is true, of course, that independence brings with it perils.  British India separated into two pieces upon independence (and Pakistan would separate again, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh.)  India did not fight a bloody war of independence, but it took time for matters to steady down and – of course – India and Pakistan would fight several wars over the coming decades.  And yet, India was relatively lucky.  Newly-independent African states devolved into tribal war and/or dictatorships as the glue holding them together.  The social structures to keep the countries united weren’t strong enough to survive independence.  And if one separates during a war, as the Confederate States of America tried, it should be obvious that one’s society (and attempt to build a new government) may not survive the war.  The CSA lost, at least in part, because the government was massively dysfunctional. 

These perils cannot go underestimated, despite the natural desire for freedom.  Those who seek independence must think about what they’ll do, the day after independence.  Most independence activists, in my view, indulge in wishful thinking, believing – for better or worse – that things will both change and yet stay the same.  The Scottish Nationalist Party is particularly guilty of wishful thinking, claiming to believe that oil revenue will remain high and there will be no economic hiccups (doubtful), that Scotland could remain in both the EU and NATO without any problems (really doubtful) and Scotland could continue to influence global affairs and – so to speak – punch above its weight (impossible.)  Any cold-blooded and rational assessment of the situation would point out that oil prices (and Scottish production) have been falling, that England would feel no obligation to purchase goods from Scottish industries (particularly at the expense of English industries), that NATO would be understandably annoyed at having to rewrite a whole series of treaties to accommodate an independent Scotland (not to mention the problems caused by splitting Scottish units from the remainder of the British military) and many EU member states would be flatly opposed to rewarding Scotland for gaining independence.  How many EU members have independence movements of one stripe or another?  The answer is probably bigger than you think.  Spain, for example, has quite serious movements.  Why would they want to do something that would encourage those movements? 

It is quite easy for intellectuals to dream up a political structure that works perfectly – on paper.  God knows both liberals and conservatives have devised perfect states that work perfectly … on paper.  The real world is rarely so obliging.  Their political structures tend to come with massive downsides that make themselves apparent when they run into trouble, downsides that tend to make dealing with the problem harder.  The structures demand a considerable amount of trust, yet the people promoting them act in ways that undermine trust and weaken society.  And once trust is lost – as the Romans discovered, once they started to forget their scruples – it can never be regained.

The problems plaguing our world today have many causes, but one of them – in my view – is the belief that governments have long-since lost touch with their people.  They mistake their preconceptions for reality, they listen to experts who are nothing of the sort (or are seen as being nothing of the sort), they let themselves be bullied by pressure groups, they let barmy bureaucrats run things … and, because of these failings, people want independence, to live their lives without interference.  Nationalist and populist politicians were elected because, at base, people want to be free. 

And this is not something we should take lightly. 

Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2020

12 Responses to “Another Draft Afterword”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 7, 2020 at 4:29 pm #

    Very good.

  2. Brian April 7, 2020 at 6:09 pm #

    Follow the money.
    Consultants and think tanks are not independently wealthy. They require money to pay the salaries. And the Golden Rule, He Who Has the Gold Rules.

    Right now in the US, China is spending enormous amounts of money to effect US policy. China spends enormous amounts in US universities, on Professors, placing “students” in grant work and skilled people in many of our US research companies.

    I realize I am singling out China, but right now, they are the ones that controlled the World Health Organization and had them spread false information like Covid19 can’t be spread from human to human. How many will have lost their lives to this lie. How many have lost their livelihood to this lie.

    But they are not alone. Special interest groups pay politians, consultants, think tanks and other influencers just like China.

    But follow the money.

  3. Henry Sherwood April 7, 2020 at 6:28 pm #

    Well writer !

    • Henry Sherwood April 7, 2020 at 6:30 pm #

      Well Written ! (auto correct, Sorry)

  4. PhilippeO April 8, 2020 at 8:05 am #

    Good Analysis, Wrong Conclusion.

    The People is the one who lost touch with each
    other. Rural vs Urban, North England vs SE England, Coastal vs Inland, Poor vs Middle Class vs Upper Class vs Ultra Rich, “Natives” vs hyphenated Citizens, FOX viewer vs MSNBC viewer, Boomer vs Youth, etc.

    Blaming government is convenient, but is fiction. Government is elected after all, and all those interest groups and mass media does have its supporters/viewer/reader.

    • Peke April 8, 2020 at 6:51 pm #

      “People are the ones that lost touch with each other”

      That line is utter crap.

      Normal people are usually only in touch with their immediate neighbors, their coworkers, and their family. Period. And these relations strongly correlate to geographical position. Thus, it is no wonder that a rural worker has little in common with an urbanite. This creates a completely unavoidable difference in mindset. The rural/urban divide (for example) is simply inevitable.

      POLITICIANS are the ones that are supposedly elected to be above all this, to have a broader sight and implement and enact policies that balance these differences into a maybe not perfect, but working whole. This requires THEM to have a working understanding of all these groups and their interests, and what makes them tick.

      So tell me, what to think when a politician tells a group, with a particular mindset, that they are “deplorables”? Or “racists, xenophobes and bigots” without even attempting to see their viewpoint, or refute their argument? THAT is a politician that has lost touch with the people he/she is supposedly elected to represent.

      • Hanno Frerichs April 8, 2020 at 10:40 pm #

        For the politicians aside from the prime minister or president, most Mp’s or senator’s are elected by a much smaller area that isn’t representative of the whole nation. ,

        If the nation is divided and one party aims to please certain areas while another big party tries to do the same for other areas it can form a clash. Many politicians might try to be above it.
        But many good politicians also serve themself or their own interests, when the interest for a balanced nation aligns with their interests they will do what is good for a nation with well balanced interests, but if their loose the home base if they start to rule balanced then they will usually not do it and do what the home base wants.

        Be it preaching diversity quotas and universal healthcare, or farming subsidies and lowered environmental controls.

        So yes at least the US is internally devided, into blocks of almsot equal power. the UK is not divided into blocks of equal power as far as I can see.

        @Peke actually the job has a much bigger impact then the area itself. a low income housewife in an rural area can sill relate to one in a city,
        And many jobs have a much higher chance to vote for one party then even areas would suggest.

        Truck drivers and Oil workers in the US will likely vote republican while union organizer’s are 99 democrats vs one republican.

        Chris Liberians will have a vote turnout of 91 dem vs 9 rep

        While of course many mainstream jobs like electrician or police officer will be close to 50/50, not all still.

        Personally i guess that statisticians have a reason to vote dem 83/17 to rep but that is just a side note.
        for the numbers as of 2016

        And of course it’s sad but true that some politically very important but systemically not relevant jobs are almost exclusively in the possession of one side.

        A broker will mostly live in New York, London,Tokio and a few others and they will have a lot of sway same for the leading Jonalist of major news and TV Channels. Or Actors and art film directors who live mostly around Hollywood.

        As for the bureaucrats most will have very little actual power, and just do what they are told to do by their government.. and the rules laid down by previous governments.. And that is mostly a good thing for society. Else we would have anarchy or despotic rule.

  5. James Jeffery April 9, 2020 at 11:28 am #

    This is a basic truth, that polititians, academics and idealists live in a bubble that views the rest of the world as theoretically governable, without any basis in reality.

    • Timothy A Schmidt April 9, 2020 at 5:35 pm #

      As if that doesn’t hold true for everyone else as well.

  6. Big Ben April 10, 2020 at 1:47 am #

    Someone once said (and I’m mangling it horribly), “The successful functionality of any system is inversely proportional to the number of people in it.” Or something like that.
    The more people in the system, the more dysfunctional it is.
    Small government is usually best – it’s closest to the people it serves. If you live in small town America (or anywhere else) you likely know your mayor, at least we’ll enough to say hello. If you have kids in school you (should) know your principal, superintendent and school board members. If you have a concern or an idea, these folks are easily accessible.
    Once you get to state-level politics people get more distant from each other, but there’s still a good chance that you’ve met your local state senator and representative, possibly attended a rally or two by the governor.
    Once you go national, you’re basically herding rabid cats.
    International? Rabid cats with schizophrenia and nuclear weapons.
    But it’s times like these that you realize the intractable error that nationalists / small government ideologues inevitably come to realize – there are some things so big that only big government has a chance against it.
    No state in the union has the capacity to make 50,000 ventilators in a hurry, or 100,000,000 surgical masks, or 7,200,000,000 doses of a vaccine … whenever they get that figured out.
    Or hundreds of millions of rolls of toilet paper, which fools evidently think is the cure for Covid the way they’re stockpiling it.
    Now if only there were any competent Big Governments anywhere in the world. Anyone? Anywhere? (… certainly not here.)

  7. G April 10, 2020 at 3:37 am #

    Well. Sorta the whole purpose of society in the first place is that two connected people can do what two disconnected people cannot.

    When there are two friends living next to each other they know what each other can do, has the tools to do, what they need and what they like.

    More people means more capability which means jobs actually need to be invented out of whole cloth to keep surplus population alive and not rioting. After all there’s only so much a landowner actually needs.

    Whatever, back to scottish independence movement. You remember how Blair joined the Roman Catholic church? After selling out Britain to catholics?

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think local rule is a terrible thing at all, but ‘one’ really needs to be clear about the why’s and wherefore’s. I mean, I don’t really get how a secessionist political party is not committing treason anyway, but ‘whatever.’ 🙂

    I mean, we can talk about nationalism and populism all we like, but that’s the pivotal fact. New Labour were so chuffed at winning an election they almost literally didn’t spend ten minutes to stop and think about policies… The Saatchi’s should of kept ‘that’ ad program running.

  8. Big Ben April 12, 2020 at 4:57 pm #

    I find it delightfully amusing that so many Brits voted to break with the EU, yet look with disdain on the Scots and Irish who want to break off from the British Empire for many of the same reasons the Brits divorced from the EU.
    And secessionists are only “treasonous” if they lose. By any objective metric, George Washington (born in 1732 to a fairly wealthy landowning family in the American Colonies, firmly part of the British Empire and therefore nominally a British citizen) was one of the greatest traitors in the history of the British Empire.
    … Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, on and on and on – wise heroes or vile traitors, depending on your perspective.

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