Monday, 9 September 2013

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free (SHUUUT UUUP!)

So, a while ago someone made a throwaway comment about a friend wearing a pith helmet looking like Don Estelle from 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum'. And that set me to thinking about David Croft and Jimmy Perry's less appreciated sitcom. Yes, they wrote 'Dad's Army', and we'll try to forgive them for 'Hi De Hi', but apparently the BBC, when considering during 2012 what shows they could repeat, took one look at 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' and decided that it basically could never, ever be shown again.

Now. Some of this is perhaps down to the treatment of transvestite gunner 'Gloria' Beaumont (although M*A*S*H got away with it), but I am sure that the main reason is Michael Bates' character, Ranjit Ram. Michael Bates is a white man (albeit of Indian ancestry) playing an Indian, complete with blackface (well, brownface, but still - not even Ben Kingsley could get away with that these days). Bates may have grown up in India and speak fluent Hindi, and the character may well be a largely sympathetic one, but he is still a figure of fun, and there is a bit too much of the aura of the 'Black And White Minstrel Show' about him. And fair enough - this is 2014, after all. But watching a couple of episodes tonight on YouTube, it strikes me that there's actually a deeper malaise at the heart of the show. It made me think back about the series and the way I had laughed at it as a young boy. I was eight when the series started, and nearly 16 when it finished, and by 1984 it was already a creature of another era, somehow belonging to the 1970s and 'Love They Neighbour' era, rather than the 'Alternative Comedy' of the 80s that seemed to speak to me and my generation. But in fact it was actually far older than that. The reason that 'Dad's Army' and 'Hi De Hi' felt authentic was that even in the 1970s and 80s they were period pieces, harking back to the 1940s and 50s, and Perry and Croft were obviously writing it based on their own experiences of that time. 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' was as much a creation of the 1940s and 50s as Anthony Eden, rationing and Brylcreem. And looking back on it, it seems to me no accident that this was the time of the retreat from Empire - the unravelling of a world-spanning power that before the war had stood for 200 years and people expected to last for many more. In a peculiar way, the programme is its own unwitting testimony to that era, and why the Empire was doomed.

Consider this: Ranjit Ram is a devotee of Britain. He speaks fluent English (albeit with plenty of dialect thrown in), he is in, or attached to, the British Army, serving the British Empire, fighting Britain's war against the Japanese. He even sings 'Land of Hope and Glory' during the closing credits of every episode (and is told to Shut Up in no uncertain terms by Windsor Davies' Welsh sergeant). Today, you'd have to ask the question; how much more British could he possibly be? He'd pass the Tebbit Test, and probably even most of the hoops that the Home Office makes prospective Britons jump through. And yet, when he says "We British" - and this is quite uncomfortable to recall today in 2014 - the 1970s studio audience laughs at his pretension to be something that he is, as far as they are concerned, 'evidently' not.

Empires rise and fall, and how and why they do is to me an interesting question. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers took an economic perspective, arguing that Empires rise to the point where the cost of defending and policing them outweighs the benefits, and he looked at Spain, Britain and the United States in those contexts, but what he didn't really examine was their social and political make-up. The most successful western empire that we know of, and the one that all western empires (even the Muslim ones) have ended up harking back to, is the Roman Empire, but for all of its classical columns and boys doing their Latin prep at Eton, it's belief that like the Romans they were spreading "civilisation", the British Empire was of a fundamentally different character to the Roman Empire, because the Romans were altogether more inclusive in a way that the British Empire never was. The Roman Empire progressively gave its citizens the same rights wherever they were, and allowed free movement throughout its borders. It tolerated and incorporated local religions and co-opted local elites. Yes, it could be ruthless with dissent, but provided you accepted a minimum standard of 'Romanness', it didn't matter whether you were Italian, Syrian, or even British (ironically, a by-word for barbarism in Rome). The British Empire did some of those things as well, but it never accepted Indians, Africans or even its American or Australian colonists as being on a par with the citizens of the motherland. There was no British equivalent of Augustus inviting the Gauls to send senators to Rome - no members of parliament for Calcutta West or Hong Kong - remember this was basically the straw that led to American Independence, which should have been the wake-up call for Britain. And as for an African leader, like Septimus Severus - the idea of a Nigerian prime minister would have been unthinkable for a 19th or even 20th century Briton.

So today, when Ranjit Ram says "We British", it's that mocking laughter that breaks my heart. Never mind any of the geopolitical arguments; that laughter is the reason why the British Empire is rightly confined to the history books, and the series is best confined there too.

Friday, 6 September 2013

This matter is rightfully not subject to imperialist meddling

In the late 1980s, I used to play a great little game on the Atari ST called 'Balance of Power'. It was as good a simulation as 128k of processing power allowed of a world of geopolitical manoeuvreing. You played as either the President of the United States or Premier of the Soviet Union, and got to intervene in a variety of foreign states, pushing your own agenda, sending financial aid, military aid, 'military advisors' or even just outright invading. All of this was fine unless the other side took exception to what you were doing, in which case a Crisis would result. This basically amounted to a poker game where both sides would escalate until either one side backed down (and lost Prestige - the game's victory points) or triggered a nuclear war (in which case both sides lost). For a largely text-based game with rudimentary graphics it could be very tense! The computer player had a degree of AI, but there was also a random factor, and you could never be quite sure which way they would react. One of the things I enjoyed was the diplomatic rebuffs that your computer opponent would give you. If you were up against the US, your actions as the USSR would be greeted with Pentagonese like "the United States considers this a key interest", but if you were the USA, up against the USSR your actions would generate some wonderful Cold War Soviet rhetoric like the title of this post; "this matter is rightfully not subject to imperialist meddling."

I was reminded of the game recently by the Syrian crisis. It feels like Obama effectively just got told: "this matter is rightfully not subject to imperialist meddling", and is backing down. Syria is still a Russian client state after all, complete with naval base, and for all of the rhetoric about "holding the Security Council to ransom", the Permanent Five get vetoes on the UNSC for this exact reason - so that nuclear-armed powers don't end up in military conflict over what they consider to be key strategic interests. The US has used it countless times to head off any criticism of, or international action over, Israel, including its long-standing flouting of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and really has no room for complaint here. But it also underscores the extent to which things have and haven't changed in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War. The world was once - by and large - a two-player, zero sum game; East vs West. Tito, Nasser, Nehru and Sukharno tried to create a third player - the Non-Aligned Movement - but they were only defined by being "none of the above", and had no real collective interest beyond making sure that nuclear armageddon didn't happen, nor did they have any ability to project power or enforce it. But things are changing.

The Balance of Power game unfortunately didn't really survive the end of the Cold War, but it did have a second edition, published in 1990 just on the cusp of the ending of the "old world order", which had a 'multipolar' mode. This simulated a world where not just the USA and USSR were taking action, but also a variety of regional and global players, from Britain, France, India and China to Israel, Iran, Cuba and South Africa. It made the game massively more complicated and enjoyable, but also much more frustrating, as supposed 'allies' could often mess things up for you or drag you into conflicts you didn't want to get involved in. But in fact the ending of the Cold War didn't turn the world into multipolar mode - it just removed one of the two main players. For two decades the world has been defined by a single superpower, and whether you were, in Dubya's memorable phrase "with us or against us". But now it feels like we're finally moving back into 'multipolar' mode. China's economic might is approaching that of the US, it is a major player in Africa, and its military capability is coming on by leaps and bounds. Russia went through a bad patch after the collapse of the USSR but has now re-emerged as an energy superpower in a world where oil prices are $100 per barrel. The EU still can't get its act together, but Britain and France have proved  - in our case over Syria, in France's over Iraq - that they are not just cheerleaders for the US. India and Brazil are up and coming, and a variety of regional players like Turkey, Israel and Iran are playing a chess game across the Middle East. I think the US has been stuck in 'single player mode' diplomatically for too long, and needs to start thinking about how it achieves its ends in a world that has grown more fragmented and complicated.