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Posts from the ‘History’ Category

Wilkes in America

Huge thanks to Joey Kemper and Jon Fann, who were kind enough to share with us their discovery of a genuine eighteenth century John Wilkes commemorative medallion found in an undisturbed road bed in Virginia, about 25 miles outside Richmond. Wilkes fans will know that Uncle Jack was tremendously popular in America, where his battles against arbitrary authority and unconstitutional government in the 1760s and ‘70s struck a chord at a time when the colonies were beginning to do the same, as they faced a series of measures by the same ministry which would ultimately lead to the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.

Until the Revolution, however, the dispute was not seen as Britain vs America, since those were not yet separate ideas – rather, Patriots on both sides of the water saw themselves as citizens of an Empire who objected to the political direction which they perceived the Empire to be taking. Wilkes’ various victories over the establishment – in the courtroom, in parliament and on the streets – were celebrated by Patriot societies throughout Britain and the colonies, particularly after his release from prison in 1770, which marked his victory over the notion that parliament could vote down the electors’ choice of representative – a principle that was later encoded in the American constitution. Read more

2016 – A Review

Somewhere or other (you don’t get proper footnotes at this time of year) Karl Popper urged anyone masochistic enough to be reading his stuff to guard against the fashionable disease of our time, viz.- the assumption that things can not be taken at their face value, that an apparent syllogism must be the rationale of an irrational motive, that our choices necessarily conceal some self-seeking ghastliness. It’s a reasonable guess that this warning was part of his well-known criticism of Freudian psychology as bad pseudo-science, and in the year of Brexit and Trump it assumes a particular relevance, as the usual carnival of commentators, analysts, pundits, think-tankers and other ‘experts’ queue up to add their own fluid ounce of pseudo-science to the already deep and sulphurous ocean of jejune rationalisations which, we suppose, keeps them and their kind in lucrative employment.

The British voters wanted to leave the European Union, and their American cousins wanted Donald Trump to be president. Just that. They were not expressing a complicated series of half-understood emotional responses to globalisation or economic change or multiculturalism or anything else – emotions which, lest they fall easy prey to something called ‘populism’, call for urgent analysis by credentialed social psychiatrists who have brought themselves to believe that observing and analysing their fellow citizens like specimens in a vivarium is somehow a legitimate form of intellectual inquiry, as opposed to (a) a bloody impertinence and (b) a manifestation of precisely the kind of social order which is being emphatically rejected. Read more

Club Outing: the Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe

There are few ways to spend a Bank Holiday Monday more worthwhile than in the footsteps of some eighteenth century hellraisers. Quite apart from anything else, it reminds us that the unlamented Bullingdon cabal so recently dragged from public office and sent back to the Cotswolds were in reality mere parvenus – smashing pianos and throwing wine bottles at scholarship swots or whatever it is that the Bullingdon gets up to, not to mention that thing with the pig, would have struck the well-born and well-connected of earlier and nobler times as rather meek ways of letting one’s hair down.

We are talking, of course, about the notorious Hellfire Club of Sir Francis Dashwood, or more accurately the Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe: ‘Hellfire Club’ was, in fact, a generic name given to an exclusive private society got up by a clique of sporting fellows for the purposes of drinking like pirates, dining like ogres, entertaining young women of negotiable virtue and generally giving the local vicar cause to suspect that he may not be getting his message across. Read more

Et tu, toupee…

We take no side in the seething debate within the Republican establishment as to whether Donald Trump is a fascist or a fraud or some unedifying combination of the two, but we are certain that their truly visceral hatred of The Donald has an entirely different source – one which is not so much Republican as republican in the classical meaning of word, being derived from the cold fear which grips the hearts of powerful élite groups when one of its members attempts to win power over the group as a whole by allying himself with the powerless millions outside it.

The Roman republic in its final years is, of course, the famous prototype, with the transition to empire largely brought about by the breakdown of the Roman oligarchy’s collective solidarity. As the expansion of Roman wealth and power made the potential prize of domination commensurately greater, some oligarchs became tempted to reach out to the lower classes for support in their competition with each other. The murder of Caesar in the Senate was merely the last of a series of tyrannicides where ‘tyrant’ was defined not as one who enslaved the people, but as a popular man who undermined the aristocracy by appealing directly to the people. Livy, for example, once described how one Maelius wickedly distributed food to the people from his own, rather than the Senate’s, account, and was in consequence bumped off by Servilius in order to rid the Republic of an incipient tyrant. Read more

Quote of the Day

It is easy to forget that we Whig-liberals and libertarians are the real socialists in the only meaningful sense of the word: we understand the nature of social relations and we want them to go on working, hence our opposition to the State’s gumming up of the works with its deranged schemes for perfecting them. It was a pleasure, therefore, to come across this passage in the Diary of a Pilgrimage, written in 1891 by Jerome K Jerome, the British humourist and accidental philosopher – and accidentally is the only way for a true-born Englishman to be a philosopher, since the English genius has always been to build institutions on insights derived from practical experience, rather than from abstract cogitation like a mere Frenchman. Jerome, musing on the nature of modern society while waiting for a train, shows an instinctive understanding of Adam Smith’s hidden hand and the self-organising character of complex systems:

“What a wonderful piece of Socialism modern civilisation has become! – not the Socialism of the so-called Socialists – a system modelled apparently upon the methods of the convict prison – a system under which each miserable sinner is to be compelled to labour, like a beast of burden, for no personal benefit to himself, but only for the good of the community – a world where there are to be no men, but only numbers – where there is to be no ambition and no hope and no fear, – but the Socialism of free men, working side by side in the common workshop, each one for the wage to which his skill and energy entitle him; the Socialism of responsible, thinking individuals, not of State-directed automata. Read more

The Croaking of a Boiled Frog

The European Union, an enormous and dysfunctional agglomeration of squabbling nations with less in common than the average cast of I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here, has a north-westerly sort of province called the United Kingdom. About this place the other provinces know little and care less, but they have a nebulous idea that it is inhabited by an uncooperative, usually inebriated and almost completely irrational collection of hideous-looking savages who apparently gave up on evolution after the invention of the deep fat fryer. Mysteriously, however, not only have these people somehow managed to be a bastion of freedom, pluralism and liberal democracy for centuries, but have even been responsible for either restoring or introducing those things to the rest of Europe, frequently after emerging victorious from yet another horrific war started by the other provinces themselves. Naturally, those other provinces chafe at any sense of obligation and relative failure vis-à-vis a people whom so many of them despise, but what appears to make some of them angriest of all is that many Brits seem to find the idea of living in a political union with other Europeans to be about as alluring as sharing a toilet cubicle with a rabid dog.

In fact, they are about to have a vote on whether or not to leave the Union! Just think of it, one imagines Guy Verhofstadt muttering to himself as he fiddles with the nightly dental floss: these greedy vulgarians are actually spurning us! Can you even conceive of the sauciness of a people like that deciding that they would be better off without being joined at the hip to Luxembourg and Bulgaria? In the interests of the eternal rightness of things, and also for their own good, they must be brought to see that they need to share a polity with the rest of the continent, through whatever trickery, bullying and bare-faced lies may be necessary. But fear not, Euro friends, for you have forgotten one important thing: these people are as insane as they are repulsive, and therefore will vote to remain in the EU even though they know perfectly well that it is a corrupt, undemocratic and remorselessly anti-British racket run by bungling nobodies whose institutional framework appears to have been designed by Coco the Clown. The JWC is here to reassure you about just how insane they really are. Read more