From deconstructing BBC’s The Crown to fascism’s pre-Trump transatlanticism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Perspectives on History
Last year, walking through a quiet, cobbled neighborhood in West London, my girlfriend and I noticed that something around us had changed. The people had disappeared, and we were suddenly surrounded by vintage 1950s cars and replica gas streetlights. It became apparent that we had wandered onto a film set. When a man emerged, carrying a large piece of equipment, my girlfriend asked what they were filming. He told us in an American accent that he couldn’t say, so she asked him what it rhymed with. He hesitated, eventually blurting out, “the . . . brown?” Netflix’s high-budget costume drama The Crown, which depicts the first few years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, was to return for a second season, and we were accidentally among the first to find out. As historian Patrick Wright observed in On Living in an Old Country, there are moments when “the whole of British society” feels like it is “frozen over in an arresting display of the past.” This was one of these moments.
The Crown is one of many recent movies and TV shows that dramatize the lives of Britain’s aristocratic elite. Downton Abbey, a soapy narrative about a declining interwar aristocratic family written by a Conservative member of the House of Lords was, of course, explosively popular in Britain and the United States. This past fall, meanwhile, saw the release of Victoria and Abdul, an all-star comedy about a friendship between Queen Victoria and an Indian servant. Unlike many of its predecessors, The Crown has been praised for its irreverence and its historical accuracy. Rather than a proud war hero, Churchill, nearing death, is staggering and corpulent—wheezing and slurping, his jowls wobbling in rage. King George VI, meanwhile, is foulmouthed, stammering, and grumpy. The politicians and aristocrats are trapped by cruel formalities, confounded by a changing world that they fail to understand while they chain smoke in shabby drawing rooms. [continue reading]
Throughout the course of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) many tens of Spanish ships were captured either by British warships or privateers. The captures percipetated an obvious encounter between the crews of the ships, however, that was only the beginning of what was often a very long and drawn out legal process which required various types of encounters between British and Spanish citizens that would otherwise likely not have occurred. It is thanks to prize court beaurocracy that there are meticulous records of these encounters and their impact on broader Anglo-Spanish relations during this period.
The purpose of the prize courts was to adjudicate cases of ships captured at sea and taken as prize by the British navy and British privateers. The legality of the seizure was the crux of each case, and depended on the interpretations of existing trade treaties, states of war, and British prize law. The men interpreting the law and treaties were the judges, proctors and advocates of the prize courts. [continue reading]
There is an old joke that there may have been a group of Soviet spies at Oxford like the five Cambridge Spies, but unlike those from Cambridge, the spies from Oxford simply did not get caught. MI5 files released this week shed new light on the reality behind this joke. They show it is not as far-fetched as first might seem.
The five Cambridge Spies—Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross—were the most successful group of foreign agents ever recruited by the Soviet Union. In fact, they were arguably the most successful agents ever recruited by any power in history. However, they were not the only graduates from leading British universities the KGB recruited in the pre-war years. They were simply the five most successful agents from a much larger KGB recruitment pool. [continue reading]
During the Cold War, the choice facing ruling elites in Western countries was between perpetuating the interwar laissez faire system that had created working class misery, and which in turn threatened to create an opening for Communists, and building welfare states. Even for conservatives, that was an easy choice. Building North Atlantic welfare states in the postwar period was an explicitly counter-Communist political project shared by Christian and Social Democrats alike. Its explicit political goal was to marginalize the influences of the far Left.
In postwar Europe, Communist parties in France, Italy, and elsewhere routinely polled as high as 30 percent of the vote, and parties of the Left were everywhere polling at all-time historic highs. While the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency worked assiduously to undermine such political organizations, there was also wide recognition even on the Right that the material grievances that underpinned the appeal of socialism had to be addressed though public housing, mass education, universal health care, and welfare programs. There was also a grudging acceptance that these programs would have to be funded via progressive income taxes. These postwar years saw top marginal tax rates ranging from 65 percent in countries like France to over 90 percent in Great Britain and the United States. Far from being a sign of creeping socialism, the high marginal tax rates were designed precisely to fend off political demands for more profound redistributions of control over the means of production. [continue reading]
Liam J. Liburd
On 29 November 2017, Donald Trump retweeted a video shared on Twitter by one of the leaders of Britain First, purporting to show a ‘Muslim migrant’ beating up a ‘Dutch boy’. This was later reported to be fake news, with the perpetrator from the video being born and raised in the Netherlands. Founded in 2011, Britain First is a far-right group with a big presence on social media, where it posts a slew of memes ranging from the fairly innocuous to the crudely racist. Britain First has an estimated membership of around 1,000.
The move shocked and confused commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. Why was Donald Trump, current President of the United States, retweeting the leader of a British far-right group whose presence beyond social media is tiny? While the answer to this question will likely be debated for some time to come (or at least until Trump tweets something else) this process of far-right ideological exchange has a long history. [continue reading]