Saturday, 25 July 2015

DARK CONTINENT....EUROPE’S TWENTIETH CENTURY

This is the title of an excellent  book by Mark Mazower , first published in 1998, which I have just finished.

Among the fascinating questions prompted by reading it are

+ Why did democracy, triumphant in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, become almost extinct across much of continental Europe in the following 20 years?

+ Was the League of Nations policy to protect national minorities doomed to failure and was the  alternative policy of ethnic cleansing, practised at the end of the Second World War, thus inevitable? Even to this day, European countries have not devised a good way of creating a sense of belonging among national and religious minorities? In some European countries, minorities now make up a disproportionate share of the prison population. Sport seems to be one of the few ways in which minorities are integrated.

+ Why did the leaders of Britain and France assume that Hitler could be appeased with territorial concessions, when “Mein Kampf” had suggested his ambitions were much greater?

+ Was there an alternative in the 1920’s to the return to the Gold Standard as a way of combating the rampant inflation that had been fuelled by the financing of the First World War? In a sense the euro, like the Gold Standard, is also a method adopted by many countries of breaking away from a previous  vicious cycle of inflation and devaluation

+ Why was the Soviet model so effective in the period from 1930 to 1950, in industrialising Russia and enabling it to defeat Nazi Germany, so ineffective afterwards in meeting the consumer aspirations of its citizens?  Mazower says Stalinism was a “bad idea, implemented surprisingly well”.  Communism collapsed later on, because Communist Party members had ceased to believe in it, and Russia itself had become tired of subsidizing its East European satellites to the extent of 2% of Russian GDP through artificially cheap energy.

+ Why did Hitler make the mistake of killing so many people (including 3 million Soviet POWs) who could instead have been put to work in his labour starved armaments industries?  

+ What accounts for the surge in marriage and child births in the aftermath of the Second World War, and for the unsustainable decline in birth rates in more recent times?  As the author puts it, “marriage has become a choice rather than a duty”. 

+ Why did European countries diverge so much in the way they developed their welfare systems after the Second World War? The UK opted for a minimum income guarantee financed by taxes, whereas most continental countries opted for  pay related systems, whereby better off people paid bigger contributions to the state, but got bigger pensions on retirement. The result is that in many continental countries the biggest beneficiaries of “welfare” systems are the better off.
  
+ What will become of nation states, when so many of the important decisions have, in practical terms, to be takes at a multinational or supranational level?

As the author puts it “nation states are becoming mere shells, with no real hold over policy, while alienation from government has increased”. 
Mazower says the real victor in 1989 at the fall of Communism was “not democracy but capitalism”. 

But the problem we now face, as Europe tries to manage financial and banking issues, is that “capitalism does not create feelings of belonging capable of rivalling the sense of allegiance felt by most people to the state in which they live”.

European Electorates continue to see all problems within a national framework, even though many modern problems cannot be solved in that framework.



Tuesday, 21 July 2015

VICTORIA.....A LIFE

I  had not really expected to, but I greatly enjoyed reading the above titled biography of Queen Victoria, by A.N. Wilson, which was published last year.

Early in her reign, Victoria was much influenced by her highly intelligent German husband, Prince Albert. As well as being an energetic promoter of public works of all kinds, Albert had definite ideas about foreign policy. He wanted to use marriages between members of European royal families as a means of building a structure of peace and interdependency in Europe.  In his view, Royal marriages ought to serve the same purpose that economic integration serves in the EU today.  Thus his and Victoria’s children were married into the Prussian, Danish and Russian royal families. The focus of attention in Albert’s time was on Europe.

After 1861 the focus changed. When Albert died in 1861, Victoria went into a long and self indulgent period of reclusive mourning. When she emerged from this she came under the influence of Benjamin Disraeli, her Conservative Prime Minister.

Disraeli needed to come up with a project that would enable his party to win votes among the newly enfranchised working class . His project was the elevation of Imperialism to the status of a national and party ideal, and his means was the conferral on the Queen of the title “Empress of India”. She was delighted and became an ardent Tory.

The grandeur of this title, and the aspirations it entailed, appealed to the Queen, but also to the mass electorate that the Conservative Party wanted to win. 

Winston Churchill was a Conservative in this tradition, and one can even discern echoes of Imperial nostalgia in the anti European sentiment in the Tory party today. If one has given one’s heart to an ideal of “Empire”, how can one settle into a mundane existence as  just one of 28 countries in a European Union?!

This book is also the story of a family, with all its foibles and tragedies.  Victoria’s relationship with her son and heir was very bad. She got on well with all her Prime Ministers, except Gladstone, who she disliked greatly.

She was a prolific writer. A lot of her correspondence and diaries were edited, or destroyed, by her family after her death.  So the exact nature of her relationship with her Scottish manservant, John Brown, is not determinable. But she did ask to be buried wearing his mother’s ring, which he had given her.

Monday, 20 July 2015

ALEXIS FITZGERALD, FORMER TD AND SENATOR RIP

irishtimes.com

I wish to pay tribute to the memory of my friend Alexis FitzGerald,  former Dail Deputy and Senator,who died in the past hours.

Alexis and I were in school together so we have known one another for a very long time. He was immensely loyal to all those with whom he had been associated at school, in business, and in politics.  He had a deep sense of public service and great personal kindness.

In business, he was conscientious and attentive to his clients, which was the secret of his considerable success as an auctioneer.

I wish to express heartfelt sympathy to Mary and his children at this time of immense loss.