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Heroes and Villains in British History

A reader has drawn our attention to the British Prime Minister’s list of heroes and villains from British history, which is variously rather endearing and somewhat mawkish, as set out in a recent interview for the Mail on Sunday. The former include Churchill and Thatcher, Ian Botham, Big Issue founder John Bird, and Mr Cameron’s parents; the latter are Marx, Scargill, Tony Crossland, 1960s town planners and Richard Beeching (who, for the benefit of overseas readers, was the author of a 1960s government report which recommended that, what with all these motorcars about the place, it was probably unnecessary to maintain railway links to every village in the country).

Regardless, it is an entertaining opportunity to consider might be on our own list. We exclude John Wilkes, of course, as too obvious a choice here, and have come up with the ten heroes and five villains below. Do feel free to add your own in the comments… Read more

Quote of the Day: Burns Night Special

January 25th, no longer a time of tripe and incomprehensible poetry only (“skinkin ware that jaups in luggies”, forsooth), has become a broader celebration of Scotland’s past and virtues. In that spirit, we join with Uncle Jack in paying tribute to Scottish common sense:

“The house of Stuart, have been ever stigmatised as tyrants and cowards. The country, which gave them birth, has always regarded them in the true light; and the history of Scotland shews how little that nation is disposed to submit to any oppressions at home…[O]f 105 kings who reigned in Scotland, before Mary Stuart, there had been three deposed, five expelled, and thirty-two murdered.”

The North Briton, No. 36, February 5 1763.

On the Great War, and other Anniversaries

We have come across a rather eccentric debate which is exercising the minds of the great and the good in the run up to the hundredth anniversary of the First World War later this year. It began when British politician Michael Gove, somewhat belatedly spotting that the commemorations will inevitably be the usual kind of anæmic and ahistorical rubbish on the model of the 2005 Trafalgar anniversary, decided to put a column about it in the Daily Mail, a tabloid which runs features on celebrity diets and conspiracy theories about the late Princess of Wales. In it, he made the case that the Great War was “a just war to combat German aggression” rather than, as commonly portrayed, “a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch élite”.

Britain being a complete stranger to such things as a sense of proportion, there followed a series of more or less hysterical rebuttals and counter-rebuttals involving everyone from academic historians to people who once appeared in a BBC sitcom set in the trenches. Bizarre as these antics may be, there is in fact a real intellectual question here. It can not, however, be answered by reference to Sarajevo or the Schlieffen Plan or Pan-Slavism or the Kaiserliche Marine: rather, the origins, nature, and significance of the conflict can only be properly understood within the much broader perspective of western history over the last several centuries. As it happens, this year is also the anniversary of quite a few other historical events which illustrate that perspective rather well. Read more

Quote of the Day

Writing today in the Daily Telegraph, the egregious Peter Oborne defends the virtue of loyalty to bad governments. Criticising Tory MPs’ public disagreement with their leader, he writes of their principles as follows:

“[I]t is such basic common sense that I am sure a patriot such as the late Robert Boscawen would have agreed with every word. Yet I also feel sure that he would never have signed [it]. In matters of this kind, that generation would no more have thought of defying a Conservative prime minister than of disobeying orders on the battlefield.”

These are bad people with bad principles, and have been since Uncle Jack wrote this of them 241 years and one day ago:

“A Tory, in the true and original meaning of the word, not to gloss it over with vain and artificial interpretations, was a maintainer of the infernal doctrine of arbitrary power, and the indefeasible right on the part of the sovereign, and of passive obedience and non-resistance on the part of the subject…The Tory maintained, that the king held his crown of none but God; that he could not by the most flagrant violation of the laws, by the most tyrannical exercise of his power, forfeit his right; that the people were made entirely for him, and that he had a right to dispose of their fortunes, lives and liberties, in defiance of his coronation oath, and the eternal laws of reason, without the subject having any right to demand redress of their grievances, or if their demand was denied, to seek it in themselves.”

The North Briton, No. 33, January 15 1763.

Here’s to a Wilkite 2014…

In his New Year’s Day message for 1763, John Wilkes gave us a useful reminder that the personal and political qualities are often distinct. In this appropriate passage for anyone starting the new year with a hangover, he compares the great and virtuous William Pitt the Elder with Richard Rigby, an anti-Wilkite sinecure-artist who is chiefly famous for accumulating such a personal fortune from his public offices that it went on to form the basis of the enormous Pitt-Rivers estate in the nineteenth century:

“Mr. Pitt is abstemious, temperate, and regular; Mr. Rigby indulges more in convivial pleasures, is an excellent bon vivant, perfectly amiable and engaging in private life. Mr. Pitt by the most manly sense, and the fine sallies of a warm and sportive imagination, can charm the whole day; and as the Greek said, His entertainments please even the day after they are given. Mr. Rigby has all the gibes and gambols, and flashes of merriment, which set the table in a roar; but amidst his profusion of pleasures, and even amongst his roses, fierce repentance rears her snaky crest, and the day after a cruel head-ach, at least, frequently succeeds. In short, I wish to spend all my days with Mr. Pitt but I am afraid, that at night I would often skulk to Mr. Rigby and his friends.”

The North Briton, No. 31, January 1st 1763.