Tuesday, 10 November 2015

On Andrew Roberts and the Koh-i-Noor diamond

In the last few days, it has emerged that Bollywood stars and businessmen have united to instruct lawyers to begin legal proceedings in London’s High Court to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India. This is, as these things always are, a contentious issue, and one I don't want to delve into here. All I will say is that I find it very, very, unlikely that the diamond, much like the Elgin Marbles, will leave Britain any time soon.

The diamond in situ

What I do want to talk about it the response. It will be as no surprise to learn that the most idiotic of these was printed by the Mail on Sunday, quoting ‘historian Andrew Roberts’. Again, I don't want to go into what I think of this historian, the fact is he has sold more books and has more readers than I will likely ever have. So whatever his merits, what he says matters. Which is why it is such a disappointment that what he came out with was such utter rubbish. Here is the quotation (so you don't have to give the Mail any more traffic):

Those involved in this ludicrous case should recognise that the British Crown Jewels is precisely the right place for the Koh-i-Noor diamond to reside, in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.’

Now, the moral balance sheet of empire is a much discussed thing, and one can make points which suggest that as well as the horrors it perhaps did some good for some (and generally this is when we think about a counterfactual history of British colonies under other European rule). But to white wash (and perhaps this is an apt phrase) all horrors as Roberts has done is no just irresponsible but a downright lie.

The last thing on the minds of those working for the East India Company, the men who first took Indian land for Britain, was the good of the indigenous population. William Dalrymple argues brilliantly here as to why the Company were in fact ‘the original corporate raiders’: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/04/east-india-company-original-corporate-raiders. It is true that some Indians did well out of the British involvement, but again, this was to facilitate British rule. There was no other way do few white men could control such a large population than to integrate existing elite into its own power structure. But, and this is the crucial point, these were side effects of policies which allowed Britain to keep control of India whilst exacting as much from it as possible. If one wants an example of how much the British really cared for indigenous Indians, you only have to turn to the Bengal famine, which killed some ten million people. I would hardly call that agrarian advance. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Bengal_famine_of_1770)

Roberts also points to the linguistic uniting of India as a blessing from the British. Whilst this is a rather odd thing to see as an advantage (who is to say that this is better than the situation before?) it also ignores the fact that many of the geopolitical and religious problems in Asia are Britain’s fault. One only has to look at Kashmir, where the division made by the British left a majority Muslim population under the control of a Sikh power, to realise that Britain can hardly be lauded for its state making here. Moreover, one could argue that the Indian nationalism - at the very heart of state building in a cultural sense - was caused in opposition to British rule. I don't need to point out here why that opposition might have occurred.

What makes me most angry - and apologies that this is turning somewhat into a rant - is not that it is Roberts, and not those asking for the diamond back that is, to use his term, ‘ludicrous’, but that he is perpetuating this ridiculous myth to a public eager to lap it up. Nearly all those I know who have taught imperial history have had students who cannot comprehend why anyone would think it a bad thing. ‘But we gave them railways, a civil service, democracy’ we hear. This is a nineteenth century understanding of empire. It offers those people invaded and ruled against their will no agency. The white man knew best and brought them civilisation. And, of course, it ignores the major reason why the colonial powers brought these things. To line their own pockets, and to bolster their own control.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Why I do Movember

For the last decade, my dad and I have grown moustaches in November. People often assume this is because we have a personal connection (beyond being men, of course) to the cause. A decade of looking stupid for charity (and raising thousands of pounds, thanks to people like you) perhaps deserves explanation. So here it is.

Why? Because too many men die too young.

When we started out, it was a movement looking to emulate the success of campaigns like the ’Race for Life’ which did so much good for raising awareness and money for female cancer charities. It looked to raise money and awareness for charities hoping to save as many men from male cancers as possible. Hopefully, in a small way, we have helped. But the statistics are still shocking. So we do Movember every year: 

  • Because every hour one man dies from prostate cancer in the UK.
  • Because testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men aged 25-49 years.

More recently, the remit has encompassed men’s health more generally. In particular, it has looked at mental health as a major problem for men. Talking about problems, with friends, or with medical professionals, remains a huge problem for men. I am hardly innocent in this - I have had several operations because I brushed off injuries so I didn't bother my doctor. 

But when I suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, I did go to my doctor. Many men don’t, and won’t. And it the statistics for mental health in men that shock me the most. So we do  Movember every year:

  • Because 3 out of 4 deaths by suicide are men.
  • Because on average 13 men each day take their life through suicide in the UK.

This can’t go on. Being told, or telling ourselves, to ‘man up’ is not working. So, if you don't want to, or can’t afford to, donate, please take 5 minutes to read up on men’s health here: https://uk.movember.com/mens-health/general

If you are a man, know how to check yourself, don't be scared to go to the doctor if you think something is wrong. Talk to someone if you are feeling low, a friend, a family member, a doctor.

Keep tabs on your friends, those you work with, your neighbours. Offer to talk to people if you know they are going through a tough time. And, please, never say ‘man up.’

Thanks for reading.

If you can, you can donate to Movember Foundation UK here: http://mobro.co/stevengray

Monday, 14 September 2015

Battles of Britain?

Yesterday, the BBC launched an online poll to see which was the most decisive battle in the history of the British Isles. The link is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-31445081?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbc_england&ns_source=twitter&ns_linkname=english_regions

I won't dwell on the fact that it suggests that 1066 was 'The Last Invasion' (it wasn't even the last successful invasion, that was William of Orange).

What strikes me is that it is asking which was the 'the most decisive battle in the history of the British Isles', yet is limiting the choice to 'battle[s] ... fought here' (on British soil, although the Armada is included, as is the Boyne, in Ireland).

The list, therefore comprises of:
  • Boudica

  • Brunanburh

  • Hastings

  • Bannockburn

  • Bosworth

  • Armada

  • Naseby

  • Boyne
  • Battle of Britain 
Lots of early modern then, but nothing between Boyne (1690)  and the Battle of Britain (1940). This is easily explained by the fact that most of the truly game changing battles (Plassy, Nile, Trafalgar, Plassy....) occur outside the British Isles. But they are hugely important events (arguably more so than some of those chosen). Britain was (from the eighteenth century), and arguably still is, defined by its imperial identity.

To suggest that because these events happened overseas they do not count is very short sighted. I know it is just a quiz, but it links itself with many of the anniversaries of battles upcoming or recently passed (Waterloo, Battle of Britain etc.) Moreover, the BBC is a global brand with a huge reach. Although perhaps implicit, it is suggesting that we can explain Britain by only looking at Britain. If recent historiographical advances have told us anything, it is that exactly the opposite is true. Britain is influenced by its empire and its overseas actions as much as it impacts on the world. Plassy was the beginning of a huge Indian empire, and completely changed the nature of Britain's empire, trade, and domestic identity. The battles of the Napoleonic Wars not only guaranteed Britain's continuance as a sovereign state, but also defined what it meant to be British by juxtaposing it with France.

We cannot ignore the fact that Britain was as much shaped by those actions and people beyond our shores. To do so encourages an incomplete, nationalistic, parochial, and most importantly, incorrect, version of Britain's history.

Or as Salman Rushdie said: "The British don’t know their own history because it was made somewhere else". (Thanks, Dave)

Thursday, 30 July 2015

On Pigeonholing

Next week I will be taking up the post of Lecturer in the history of the Royal Navy (not the snappiest title, I will admit). This has got me thinking, because, as many of you will know, I am not always comfortable with being called a naval historian. This is mostly because I started out as an imperial historian, but also because the types of history I do (social, cultural, peacetime) don't always fit what most people would initially think of as naval history (rightly or wrongly). Yet it is undeniable that I am a naval historian in part at least.

Yet, if we take this year as an example, I have presented at a naval conference, and a geography conference, and will (hopefully) be presenting at a sports history and a history of science conference before the years end. This is nothing special, I realise, we are all interdisciplinary now. Yet, I work in a field which does have sub-disciplines. Whilst many academics will not like being pigeon holed into discrete categories, we undeniably work in a field which does have sub-disciplines. And the health of these sub-disciplines (and I realise that is hard to diagnose) does matter. I also sit on a editorial board for a maritime journal, and recently had a discussion about this. Go to a maritime conference these days, and you will find a myriad of different subjects, approaches, and disciplines. Yet many of these scholars would never identify as maritime historians. This is, of course, fine, but if these scholars are not writing for maritime journals, and lay outside the field in a professional capacity, does the field look to be in poor health? What are the effects of this? Will projects not attract funding? Will positions not be created? Will the subjects not be taught? Moreover, will the field be seen as archaic, and innovative and important work dismissed?

I wonder if I am over thinking this, but it does seem as if there is perhaps a paradox here. In becoming more interdisciplinary (and I have no doubt that is a good thing) are we inadvertently causing some sub disciplines to wither?

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

On Inheritance Tax and the history of tax

Much has been written about Inheritance Tax, since the Tories suggested they would raise the limit and UKIP announced they would abolish it all together. Many people see it as the state taxing someone twice (despite that person being, by definition, dead, and therefore it is the inheritors who are taxed once). Others see it as a punishment for those who have done well (although, again, those who inherit have not earned it), or the politics of envy.

These ideas go against how tax has been visualised by governments from around 1714, however.
After 1714, successive government increasingly preferred to rely on indirect taxation (VAT would be a modern example of this). This included excise duties, and taxes on home produced commodities. So long as a commodity had a steady demand, it was a relatively easy way to collect revenue. 

More recently it has been argued that these taxes were deliberately progressive – at least to an extent- in that, by design, the burden tended to fall on the rich. This was because items such as wealth and luxuries were taxed. As a result, most of the tax burden was felt by the middling orders and landed classes. Historians such as O’Brien have pointed out that this was a deliberate policy, that the authorities sought repeatedly and deliberately to avoid taxing necessities too heavily, as to avoid unnecessary hardship for the poor. Thus beer, candles, coal and soap, were taxed lightly, if at all, as an exception to the general rule. In the French Wars, at the end of the eighteenth century, this had become the norm, wealth and luxuries – such as coffee tea, silk, and wine, bore the heaviest levies. In theory at least, this ensured that each section of society contributed to the war effort to a reasonably fair and proportionate degree. As such, it has been calculated that over 60 per cent of the extra taxation gathered during the French Wars came from the ‘incomes, and spending patterns of the rich.’

This is not to suggest this was popular, attempts to extend tax to a wide range of goods caused a political crisis in 1733, and when cider was taxed in the 1760s it caused riots, yet despite this, it became a ‘major prop of government finance.’ 

So why does this relate to Inheritance Tax? Because tax has long been recognised as something which should be disproportionately levied upon those who can afford it, to help those who cannot. Inheritance does exactly that. It is levied on amounts which are far above necessities, and is used by the government to invest in those services which benefit society as a whole.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Arguments for fracking are nothing new

Fracking has been big news on both sides of the pond recently, and this is understandable. Many see it as an unnecessary and potentially dangerous assault on the landscape, and the people who live in it. Fracking companies are understandably keen, but so are some politicians. Some see this as a sign of MPs in the back pocket of big business, but often the argument from the pro-fracking camp is that not only are the dangers overstated, but fracking is also good for the state. As an Independent article last month argued:

‘A decade ago, the UK was self-sufficient in gas, but North Sea production has fallen sharply in the years since.  We now import around half our gas supply, and Britain’s import dependency is projected to rise to three quarters of consumption by 2030.  This is the key reason for developing shale gas – replacing imported gas with domestic gas’.

So is this about controlling our own gas supplies? It is certainly more complex than that, but the argument makes some sense. With crises in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Middle East perennially in turmoil, being able to control our own energy is surely a good thing. This is of course compounded by the dwindling supply of oil in the North Sea.  

This idea is, of course, nothing new. I argue in my work that it is Britain’s control of the best fuel for its navy; South Welsh steam coal, which enabled the navy full performance anywhere in the world. Not only this, but it also allowed Britain to deny its rivals the same advantage. Indeed, we see the effects of this multiple times during the nineteenth century. 

A salient example is during the voyage of the US Navy’s famous ‘Great White Fleet’. Denied the use of British naval coal and coaling stations, the ships limped from port to port, buying low grade coal where it could. Seeking to demonstrate growing American military power and naval capability, the world tour instead exposed the fact that ship numbers and technology mattered little without infrastructure with which to coal the fleet. To this end, Senator Hale was particularly embarrassed that ‘the greatest fleet of formidable ships that the world has ever seen’ had to depend on ‘the indulgence of foreign powers’.[1]
Of course, Britain soon found itself in the same situation as its warships shifted from coal to oil – something which it had no domestic supply of. Its solutions to this issue – many of them involving the Middle East – have had lasting implications, many of which are ongoing. 

A recent trip to the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University revealed that naval men in the 1930s were arguing a similar line about Welsh coal as we see today about fracking. A campaign, which was presented to the Cabinet, called for a return to the use of Welsh coal for the navy. Known as the ‘Back to Coal’ movement, it contained a variety of high ranking officers, and men of some political clout (in fact, the list of those men is worthy of a blog in itself, some have very interesting stories.) This group suggested, both through petitions and a published book, that Britain was in real danger in a future war, because it could not guarantee its own fuel supply for the navy. Of course, the campaign came to nothing, but in a way, they were correct, if only about the wrong state. The Allied Oil Campaign towards the end of the Second World War – which stopped supplies reaching Germany from Romania, has been argued by some to have been a key factor in the defeat of Hitler. 

In no way is this an argument for fracking, clearly environmental factors are of utmost concern, and we only need to look at the effect of mining in Wales so see that it had devastating effects on both miners and the landscape. But what I have tried to show is that this argument is nothing new, and for a state, being able to control its own energy in a world that is politically unstable is a very attractive one.

[1] Robert A. Hart, The Great White Fleet; Its Voyage around the World, 1907-1909 (Boston: Little, 1965), 33, 55.