Beware pleas about Russia’s insecurity

As Russia prepared to attack, we were told that the country feels it is surrounded and is insecure.  But we have been told this many times over the years and we should be very careful with such claims.  Russia has considered itself to be insecure ever since it emerged from Tartar rule as the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 15th Century.  That emotion is what motivated it to conquer other territories and grow year by year and century by century, to become one of the biggest empires the world has ever seen – which it still is.

The Ukraine on the other hand – with few natural frontiers and historically a neighbour of powerful states such as Russia, Poland, Germany and the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires – has never had an enduring state of its own, while its 30 recent years of independence have been very uncertain all the way through.

So which of these two countries is the insecure one?  Huge, powerful Russia with a long imperial tradition that has developed over a period of nearly 900 years since Moscow’s foundation?  Or the Ukraine – in area, the largest wholly European country of all but always subordinate to whichever neighbour happens to be the strongest?

Which country looks surrounded and insecure, Russia or the Ukraine?

Now, a third of a century after the Ukraine finally gained independence, Russia’s ruler has declared that the nation does not even exist and its state is illegitimate.  This follows constant browbeating and interference since 1991, via television channels beamed across the border, financial pressure, cyber attacks and the manipulation of parts of the Ukrainian state itself.  (It may be President Zelensky’s attempt to purge his country of media disinformation from Russia that led to the present crisis.)  I witnessed some of this myself as early as 1994, when I monitored media coverage of national elections in Donetsk (mainly) and Kharkiv in the east of the country.  Those elections were very corrupt and at least partly fraudulent, with some evident coordination with Moscow.  Part of my report’s conclusion is quoted below.

Pub. by European Institute for the Media, October 1994

For the first two decades after independence, Ukrainian politics was deadlocked in a debate whether the country should face west towards Europe and assert its Ukrainian identity, or east towards Russia, acknowledging cultural connections with that country.  The deadlock ended suddenly in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and fomenting of armed revolt in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  Russian officials had insisted the Ukraine was their closest friend, but friends do not behave like that.  Ukrainians became hostile to Russia overnight.

Russia’s numerous attacks since 1917

These acts of aggression were far from the first since November 1917, when in the Constituent Assembly elections Ukrainians voted in a large majority for pro-independence parties, giving the Bolsheviks only 10 per cent support.  Since then, rulers in Petrograd and Moscow have taken the following actions against the Ukraine:

  • 1918-19: Bolsheviks attack and conquer, making the Ukraine part of the USSR in 1922 but managing to make Kyiv the capital only in 1934;
  • 1932-33: a savage famine (‘Holodomor’) among peasants, especially in the Ukraine, politically directed by Stalin (the Bolsheviks having little support among either peasants or Ukrainians);
  • 1939: invasion of the Western Ukraine (which was ruled by Poland) under the Hitler-Stalin Pact;
  • 1945: renewed invasion and reconquest as the Soviet Army drove the Germans out, provoking guerrilla resistance until the early 1950s;
  • 2014: renewed attacks by Russia, in a war that still continues;
  • 2022: recognition as ‘independent’ of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘republics,’ whose initial rebellion had been Russia’s doing.
Source: Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow (Arrow, 1988), p. 334

Modern Ukrainians point especially to the Holodomor, which was forlong described as an ideological drive to collectivise Soviet agriculture.  It was a particularly savage version of what would now be called hybrid warfare: aggressive attacks which take other forms than direct assault.  Since 1990 they have occurred frequently in Russia’s neighbours, with Donbass-like ‘frozen conflicts’ also in Georgia and Moldova, and cyberattacks in the Ukraine, Estonia and elsewhere.

Russia and Ukraine – separate histories

The name ‘Ukraine,’ which means ‘Borderland,’ still sums up the attitude of many Russians towards that country, whose history differs from Russia’s in that it escaped the mediaeval Tartar ‘yoke’ to remain under European influence.  To Russians of that sort, the Ukrainians are not in fact a separate people and their language is not even authentic.  They also maintain that Kyiv was the birthplace of the Russian state and nation.  Vladimir Putin places himself squarely in that camp, as was clear in his television remarks on February 21st, 2022.

However, the city-state of Moscow and Grand Duchy of Muscovy were in reality the local agents of the despotic Tartar rulers.  By 1480 Muscovy had conquered all the other city states of Russia, and Tartar rule was over.  The revolutionary Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, educated in Kyiv, later described the Grand Duchy at this time as ‘a Christianised Tartar kingdom.’  Unable to defeat the Poles, Lithuanians and Swedes in the west, Muscovy then rapidly expanded eastwards into Siberia.  To the south it faced repeated raids from Turks across the open country that is now called Ukraine.  In order to counter this, Muscovy placed popular subservience to its military needs above all other requirements and expanded gradually southwards, after each conquest creating a new buffer zone which in turn was later absorbed and integrated into Russia.  But Russia’s old nightmare recurred with invasions by Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941.

Meanwhile, in 1654 a young Ukrainian Cossack state under its chosen Hetman or leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav with Russia for protection from Sweden’s expansionism.  This turned into a process of gradual absorption under full Russian rule, completed before the end of the 18th Century.  Most Ukrainians were peasants (many of the landowners still Polish) and their culture was heavily repressed under the Tsars’ rule.

So beware pleas from Russia about its insecurity.  The US and UK made this mistake in listening to similar pleas from President Yeltsin in the 1990s.  This made them help him to disarm the Ukraine, removing its nuclear arms and handing to Russia the naval port and fleet of Sevastopol – which is now being mobilised against the Ukraine.  To get Kyiv to accept this, in 1994 all four countries signed memorandums in Budapest to ‘confirm’ the Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  But this meant nothing, as we saw when Russia brazenly violated the deal in 2014, to a tepid response from the two Western signatories.  Without that disarmament deal in place, Putin would never have stolen the Crimea or destabilised the Donbass 20 years later.

Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances, 1994, opening lines

Likewise, since the USSR broke up there has been a lot of Doublespeak about NATO membership.  The rhetoric is that the Ukraine, Georgia and other ex-Soviet countries are free to apply to NATO.  But everyone knows that their applications would be rejected or ignored.  So those countries which most need foreign protection – from a powerful, revanchist neighbour – cannot get it.  This tacitly connives in Russia’s imperious demand for a ‘sphere of influence,’ and gave Putin the confidence to invade.

Letter to a Prep School

Letter to a prep school (re-redacted)

This link is to a letter I sent a couple of months ago to a boarding school where I spent a year when I was twelve years old.  It explains why I have not been in touch with the school over the intervening 50 years and more.  (I have returned just once, in 1968, to return a gaudy silver cup which was my reward for winning a hurdles race the previous year.)

It is a very personal letter and it will have to be taken on its merits, whatever they may be. In it I comment that it took me nearly three years to write; but when I had completed it, I noticed that I had actually created the file, and therefore started to write the letter, exactly three years and seven days earlier, on March 5th, 2018.

My purpose in publishing it is to illustrate what a private boarding-school education could be like within living memory, under the habits of mind of the mid-1960s, and how it could affect one of its pupils.  The school in question was not an obscure Dotheboys Hall but one of the most prestigious preparatory schools (for boys up to 13) in the country.  My class included two boys who shared their family names with nationally known industrial companies, which their families had founded and ran; and the class won six scholarships and exhibitions at public schools that year, four of them being awarded by three of the most famous schools of all.  And only very recently it was nominated for a national ‘Best Prep School’ award.

Prep schools and what they do

The question of a public-school education and its impact on pupils has been discussed since long before I was born.  But criticism of it is most often levelled at the ‘public schools’ themselves, which provide secondary education between the ages of 13 and 18. However – and not only because of my own experience – it seems to me that what matters most is a child’s experience in the earlier formative years before 13, at the prep school which precedes entry to public school. This certainly applied to George Orwell, whose sardonically titled essay Such, Such Were the Joys chronicles his own miserable time at a posh prep school in Sussex, rather than when he was a scholar at Eton.

Among my letter’s sidelights on the boarding-school culture of the time I mention ‘sneaking.’  I also compare life at that school with life in prison, and this is the public-school version of the prison term, ‘grassing.’  I am sure it is no coincidence to find this practice taboo both among schoolboys and prison inmates.  I leave it to social psychologists, or maybe anthropologists, to explain why it could be viewed in the same way by a headmaster too.

In many ways these are much more enlightened times than the 1960s, and I am pleased to report that the addressee of this letter read it attentively and sent me a prompt and very sympathetic reply.  He even recommended me to visit the Everyone’s Invited website, which I had not previously heard of.  His positive response succeeded immediately in purging this old memory in my mind.

As the law requires in such cases, the headmaster informed the local authority, which in turn passed the information on to the police due to the legal offences I mentioned.  So, quite unexpectedly and only a few days later, I was interviewed for over an hour on the telephone by a detective, although I stuck to my opinion that there was little point in pressing any charges.  However, he pointed out that of the five events that I described as sexual assaults, only one would actually be seen as such under the law; the other four – including one which the letter refers to – were actual bodily harm.  Since the ones that I called physical assaults left no physical mark, for all I know they may in fact not belong in that category either.

However, of the seven attacks on my person, the one that actually was a sexual assault was the least degrading to me.  I think there is a lesson here.  We have heard much in recent years about child sexual abuse.  A few years ago the newspapers were full of reports of it.  But we hear much less about bullying and its impact on victims, even if we do more than in the past.  News headlines of it do not attract as many readers and viewers.  And yet its impact seems to me to be similar.  At any rate, when I first heard CSA victims describe how their experiences had affected their lives for many years and decades, it all seemed familiar to me.

Remove bullies from the scene

But I noticed one striking difference.  From time to time there are reports of children who are bullied at school and take their own lives – some of them when as young as ten or eleven.  In a terrible story reported in my local paper, the parents of one boy of that age discovered him hanging from his bunkbed, and this is by no means the only example I have come across.  It may be that there are children who are sexually abused and also take their lives at that time, but without diminishing the terrible impact that such behaviour has on them, I do not recall ever hearing of such a case.

However that may be, I feel sure that as much attention needs to be paid to bullying and its consequences.  As with sexual abuse, the first response should always be the immediate removal of suspected culprits from the scene, so that they can do no more harm.  And as an essential part of any solution, it should be the bullies that are expelled from school or dismissed from work.  But all too often bullying ends up with the victim moving on. Every time that this happens, the bully has won; and having won once, they will be emboldened to go on bullying again and again, maybe for the rest of their lives.  How many workplace bullies, I wonder, embarked on a long career of bullying while they were children at school?

P.S. (January 2022):

When I posted this blog eight months ago, I was satisfied with the response I had received from the school authorities.  They accepted my account without question and were generally very responsive and sympathetic.

But that has now changed, and I have therefore altered the editing of my letter (above).  This was after I asked the schools if they would be willing to contact my former classmates (where they had their addresses) and ask them, if they wished, to contact me with their thoughts about this letter and blog.  I was not looking for apologies but wanted them as mature men to be refamiliarised with what happened and ponder it: a version of restorative justice, if you like.

Later last year, after Mr Azeem Rafiq’s revelations about racism at Yorkshire Cricket Club, his experience seemed familiar to me, although our personal situations were very different.  The reason, I think, was that both of us were outsiders who had arrived in closed institutions and found we were rejected by them.  And I was impressed when he reacted warmly to former colleagues who wrote to offer their apologies.

That gave me my idea and it seemed to be well received.  Nevertheless, I had been alerted early on to the possibility of some fancy footwork from Stowe School – a nearby public school which had, in effect, just taken over Winchester House – when it reported my evidence, under a statutory requirement, to the police force of its own county of Buckinghamshire, not that of Northamptonshire where WHS is located.  They corrected this when I told them that I would like to speak to the police, and they referred it correctly to the Northants authorities.  I was also a little put out that it was the Headmaster of Stowe that I liaised with, not the head of WHS.  But I did not query that as I was not familiar with their new institutional arrangements.

When they pointed out last autumn that Winchester House probably had few pupils’ addresses from so long ago, I could also understand it well.  However, I noticed that my contact for sending the proposed letter was still the PA of Stowe School’s Headmaster.  At that point I did get concerned.  I wrote back to emphasise that I was looking for accountability, meaning the letter must be a matter for the school that I actually attended.  That was a month ago now, but I have not received a reply.

So I have removed all my redactions from my letter to the school, except the name of its addressee and some details in the postal addresses.  There has been a breach of trust and I feel free now to identify the school and restore all the names of the teachers and places of this 1960s tale.


A bargain-basement Churchill who is really the new Anthony Eden

For a long while Boris Johnson seemed to be playing a political blinder in tackling the corona virus pandemic.  Despite the manifest failures of government policy, the lockdown was being observed with little need for special bureaucracy or enforcement and he rode high in the opinion polls, while little attention was paid to Opposition voices.

But with tens of thousands now dead, criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis has grown and Sir Keir Starmer is winning media praise as the new leader of the Opposition.  The wonder is that Johnson scored so well in the early stages.  How did it happen?

The shifts of public opinion during the pandemic

Symbolically the high point might be seen in the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on May 8th.  The celebrations (note: not ‘commemorations’) were tacitly permitted to break lockdown rules – just like the Thursday evening applause on Westminster Bridge, with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner present, a few days after Johnson was discharged from hospital nearby. Displays of loyalty, it seems, took priority over the need to save lives.

And Victory in Europe (VE) Day fitted seamlessly into the government’s programme for the virus, which used every means available to evoke that war and the state’s military role in it. The whole effort focused on the imagined New Churchill in Downing Street speaking directly to the nation.  It reflected Brexiteers’ twin obsessions with relations with the rest of Europe and the World War.

Little experience

The current Cabinet had come into office in July 2019 with very little experience of government.  The Prime Minister had held only one ministerial post, as a markedly unsuccessful Foreign Secretary from 2016-18, after eight years as Mayor of London.  His greatest prominence came in the Vote Leave campaign in the European Union referendum in 2016 (whose director was Dominic Cummings, appointed as his Chief Advisor when he became Prime Minister).

At the end of January 2020 the Vote Leave team duly saw its dream realised in the formal ending of British membership of the EU and they expected to thrive on political celebrations of this for at least another year.  However, that very day the UK’s first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed.  Although Johnson had desperately wanted to be Prime Minister, he was singularly ill-prepared for the hard slog and adaptability the job requires: he did not seem to want to govern, merely to be at No. 10.  But suddenly he was faced with as serious and demanding a task of government as there can be.

The government reacted the only way that Johnson knew how: it procrastinated and then tackled the pandemic not as a complex and urgent requirement of administration but primarily as a campaigning opportunity. The aim was to advance its wider project and build up the government’s power and Johnson’s own political image.

Government by slogan and rhetoric

And so we had government by slogan, with rhetorical targets used to silence criticism.  I have just read a book about Russian revolutionaries in the run-up to 1917.  Whichever faction they belonged to, a major preoccupation was always to devise the right slogans to campaign with.  And so it is in Britain now.  After the three-word phrases of Take Back Control (June 2016) and Get Brexit Done (December 2019) we have tripartite slogans in Stay At Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives and now Stay Alert – Control The Virus – Save Lives.  To these we must add an enduring motif of the campaign, which is really another three-word slogan meant to plant a certain idea in voters’ minds: Follow The Science.

Early on, the government resorted to daily televised press conferences instead of announcements in Parliament.  Then Parliament itself was sent on a needlessly extended Easter recess, placing the political focus on a handful of ministers and their scientific advisors.  They pushed this bold move through with the Opposition demoralised after the election defeat in December 2019 and the Labour Party preoccupied with electing a new leader.  Another needless recess of a fortnight has just started.

Not content with this, Johnson also made direct addresses to the nation, after which the broadcasters generally forgot the convention of inviting the Leader of the Opposition to reply.  The Queen was wheeled in too, and she duly obliged with a sentimental reference to Vera Lynn, the wartime ‘forces’ sweetheart.’  This was perfectly in tune with the government’s bellicose talk of ‘defeating’ the virus and the VE festivities to come.

The avoidance of Parliament matches a general imperviousness to criticism, in a novel, aggressive form that seems to have wrongfooted many critics.  Every time another extraordinary failure is pointed to, ministers respond with an incredible promise of something else two or three months later: for example, successive, ever more ambitious promises of virus tests to silence questions about how far the government has fallen behind previous schedules.  This promise is then dutifully reported instead of the failure to reply to the criticism.  It seems to be Cummings’ inventive way of burying bad news.

A new Anthony Eden?

The mood seems to be changing now, despite continuing government successes in presentation.  They cannot hide their unsought position in the world’s eyes as one of the maladroit villains of the pandemic, alongside Donald Trump’s USA, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and, perhaps, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  In early April a health research institute in Seattle had already forecast that the UK would have the largest number of deaths in Europe – despite early crowing that the country had the best epidemiologists, was one of the best prepared for a pandemic and so on.

So, far from the country’s heroic self-image of standing alone in 1940, this is turning into a national humiliation.  Governments are rarely appreciated if they bring humiliation down on their country, especially if it entails great, avoidable loss of lives from hunger or disease.  This spring’s ugly events in the hospitals and care homes of England must surely catch up with the administration, just as the fiasco of Suez in 1956 did with Sir Anthony Eden’s.  Boris Johnson will find no fridge to hide in then. 

Will the corona virus save the Brexiteers’ skin?

As Rishi Sunak prepares his first budget today, an ‘unexpected’ stalling was reported in British economic growth in January.

In point of fact the accompanying data show a slowdown since the autumn of 2019.  But the notion of a setback has only been generally reported this week – and almost exclusively as a consequence of the corona virus epidemic.

Signs that economic crisis has already begun

So, while he and his Cabinet colleagues bask in their government’s political summer, Sunak faces one of the worst economic situations I can remember.  Three – or maybe three-and-a-half – major factors are converging to bring Britain down over the next year or so.  The emerging pandemic is only the latest of them.

Three factors converge to bring Britain down

The first dates back over ten years to the banking crash in 2008, when the authorities relied on ‘quantitative easing’ (QE) – a huge expansion in the money supply – as its main response, while doing little to prevent a repetition of the excesses of hedge funds and financial derivatives which led to the crash, or reduce the accompanying high levels of private indebtedness.

Since QE began in 2009, the economy has never been strong enough to put it in reverse, and it has been clear for many years that when the next downturn came, the monetary authorities would have run out of ammunition to tackle it.  Private debt has continued to expand, making the situation even more precarious than it was in August 2007, when the credit crunch initiated the great crisis.

In 2009 Gordon Brown’s government, to its credit, embarked on an unfashionable ‘Keynesian’ policy of fiscal expansion to revive demand.  Month on month, economic activity began to recover – but it suddenly stalled again when David Cameron’s Conservative government was elected in May 2010.  The new government slammed on the fiscal brakes with the 1930s-style policy of austerity, leading to the last ten years of stagnation.

And so, to the first element of the banking crash and excessive monetary expansion, the half-factor of austerity was added.

How Brown went one way, and then Cameron the other

Then in 2016 came the EU referendum.  General predictions of an economic reverse on leaving the European Union were shouted down by Brexiteers as ‘Project Fear’ – and they continue to be so.  But the actual shock of leaving has not been felt yet, as the UK remains in the Single Market and Customs Union until at least the end of 2020.  But a foretaste is there in the GDP figures of the last few months.

Already an air of crisis

Nevertheless, there is already an air of crisis as the stock markets crashed on March 9th, 2020 – only two days before Sunak’s budget.  The proximate cause is the non-economic fact of the gathering pandemic, reinforced by a collapse in oil prices after Saudi Arabia and Russia failed to agree on cutting output.

And that pandemic is Sunak’s third big reason to worry.  And it is all that we are hearing from most of the media about the pending state of the economy: the pandemic alone, the rapid progress of which naturally causes widespread concern on its own account.

Despite the Bank of England’s 0.5 per cent interest rate cut this morning, the authorities are in no position now to cope with any serious economic reverse by their long-preferred means, as a result of QE.  The only solution from macro-economic policy is to reverse austerity – and renew the fiscal expansion which stopped dead in its tracks just under ten years ago.  Even Johnson and Sunak seem to have understood that.

What does this mean politically for their new government?  Ten years of recovery from the financial crisis (much faster in other countries than the UK) have already lasted several years longer than most economic upturns, and a recession is overdue.  If it occurs – as seems more than likely now – the conventional expectation would be that the government’s popularity would slide.

But will it?  After all, Johnson, Sunak and Dominic Cummings have a ready excuse: the semi-fake news of attributing it all to the virus which came over from China.  The Remainers – or Rejoiners – might lose the opportunity next year to demonstrate that their predictions about Brexit were not fear-mongering at all.

The clamour will arise from Brexiteers that this is nonsense.  An economic crash may have been predictable well before the end of 2019, and yet when it happens they will say it had nothing at all to do with Brexit, or even austerity: it was entirely due to an Act of God.

What did Fascist Rome ever do for the Greeks?

A small corner of Europe celebrates Italy’s 1930s heritage

I am sitting on a shaded bench, almost alone in an Aegean public garden, happy to eat a couple of windfall mandarins in lieu of lunch.  This nameless little refuge, near the harbour of Kos, is open for just three hours a day during the week. 

In the corner, beyond the trees, is what looks like the foundation wall of an ancient stone building, unmarked and unexplained.  Signs elsewhere suggest it was a Roman bathhouse, the North Thermae – one of several such places in the town.

Numerous similar town-centre plots were left open to the public for relaxation, and also for future archaeological work, after a devastating earthquake in Kos in April 1933.  This delightful one was perhaps too small to be among the excavations carried out soon afterwards.

The Agora at Kos

Kos is the capital and the main port and tourist town of the island which shares its name, halfway down the Dodecanese chain in the south-east of the Aegean Sea.  At the time of the earthquake (in fact from 1912 until 1947) these islands were ruled by Italy, most of that time a Fascist state led by Benito Mussolini

It should be no surprise to find ancient remains in Greece, but I did not expect to see so much in a town which lives very well off the simpler attractions of the sun, the sea and pleasure craft.

Archaeological parks

Besides numerous well-marked ‘archaeological parks’ in the central area, other small plots with ancient remains are scattered around the town, and open to the public all day.  Many of them have no other indications, maybe because they were not excavated and therefore the nature of the former structures has not been identified.

But a huge amount of work was done between the big earthquake in 1933 and the outbreak of war in 1940.  And the people who got it done were the Italian occupiers.

The earthquake destroyed the old town centre next to the castle and harbour, exposing the remains of an ancient town below it.  In the authoritarian manner of Fascism, a new centre was built further away from the castle, leaving large areas to be explored systematically over the years that followed.

They include the agora, or forum, of the ancient town, which was founded in 366 BC and previously best known as the home of Hippocrates, the medical pioneer.  It was one of the biggest forums in the ancient world.

They also found the old port, fortifications, a large gymnasium, a misnamed ‘Nymphaeum‘ (actually public lavatories with marble columns) and later Roman remains such as bathhouses and the 36-room house of an important citizen, which was partially reconstructed and is now a very well-arranged museum.

The Gymnasium at Kos

Next to that house, a Roman Catholic cemetery contains large memorials dated 2002, which commemorate – in Greek, Italian, English and German – 103 Italian officers who were executed on October 9th, 1943, in the early days of the German occupation of Kos.  The Battle of Kos came one month after Italy had surrendered to the Allies.

Many splendid mosaic floors as well as statues, pots and coins were found here and there in Kos.  Much of this is displayed in a purpose-built Archaeological Museum in the rebuilt town centre.  Some of the ancient buildings were also reconstructed, at least partially, but they fell again under later tremors.  For this is a major seismic zone: in Roman times alone, the town was hit by big earthquakes again in both 142 and 469 AD.

Offices for the Fascists

The replacement town centre was built in an elegant Italian style, with houses, shops and a surviving kindergarten, still in use as a primary school.  A central square provided party offices for the Fascists on its west and a mosque on its east, flanking a fine market hall and the Archaeological Museum.  All were designed by Italian architects.

But other, damaged mosques were duly demolished.  A Greek Orthodox church, built in the centre only in 1932, survived that earthquake, but it too is now closed due to damage from a more recent tremor.

Besides that mosque I found no evidence of the long centuries spent under Ottoman rule – of Turkish residents or Islam – or even of the millennium or so Kos spent as part of the Byzantine Empire, ruled – as later by the Ottomans – from the city successively known as Constantinople, Byzantium and Istanbul.

The Market Hall in Kos

If it was not obvious anyway, this all provides clues as to the Italians’ motives.  Besides putting an Italian gloss on a distant corner of the Aegean Sea, these excavations redounded to the glory of ancient Mediterranean civilisation – and above all, the Roman Empire, which was central to Mussolini’s mythology.  The town’s ancient Greek features were investigated as much as the Roman ones – but the latter, being more recent, were more accessible.

Job done – and then abandoned

All of the archaeological information about Kos can be read on numerous panels by the pavements, with descriptions in Greek and English and photographs taken before 1933 as well as of the 1930s excavations, accompanied by plans and artists’ impressions of the ancient buildings.  Much of this excellent presentational work was financed by the European Union.

The panels lavish praise on the Italians – servants of a Fascist state – who rebuilt the town so painstakingly and imaginatively, and also set aside the archaeological zones and did the basic excavations.

Indeed it is hard to imagine any modern Far Right government embarking on such a civilised project even in its own country, let alone another one that it occupied.  That seems to be the measure of how far the current Far Right’s horizons have fallen, even from the grim standards of the 1930s.

But there is another conspicuous silence: about the Greek state and its activities throughout the seven decades since it absorbed the Dodecanese Islands.  In Kos there is a strong sense of a job done to the highest professional standards by foreigners – and then abandoned 80 years ago.

And yet what a centre could be made here for information and research, tracing the development of a major Aegean town through nine centuries of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, if only someone with suitable authority and enough money to dispense could take the initiative.  Archaeological techniques have moved on a long way and it is a shame if they are not applied in this historic place again.

But no doubt many ancient sites await excavation all over Greece.  After several years of enforced austerity, the country is probably in no fit state to take this any further for now.

Drafted in Kos, June 2019; edited and posted in Brighton, February 2020

‘I would scorn to be a slave, even to an idea’

A piece of juvenilia here!  Below this, I have typed in a school essay I wrote in 1972, not long before my 18th birthday.  Though the product of a teenage mind (with a major historical error in the second sentence), I enjoyed re-reading it and I think that overall it has aged pretty well.  My teacher assessed it to be ‘very good.’

I think it is not just a period piece.  Nearly half a century later, I am struck by two things in particular:

  • the way it chides politicians for ‘failing to see that it is this very sustained [economic] growth that has brought on many of our environmental problems.’  It is quite sobering that a schoolboy was able to see that so many years ago; and yet, as the crises of the climate and biodiversity deepen, most politicians and mainstream commentators remain ‘enslaved’ to the same baleful idea even now;
  • the fact that in Edward Heath’s Britain, it was also possible to write, in all seriousness, ‘that we are anyway moving towards socialism without revolution’ (and not receive any comment on this from my teacher!).

The essay’s title was chosen by the teacher – it is a quotation from a character in the novel we were reading in class.  I offer the essay unedited, for whatever it is worth.  It is the length of a newspaper opinion column.

‘I would scorn to be a slave, even to an idea’

– Joseph Conrad in Under Western Eyes

Human slavery has long been thought immoral by western society.  Feudalism in western Europe died with the Middle Ages.  Subsequently peasants relying on subsistence farming may have been slaves to the land and the weather, but they have not been at the beck and call of human masters.  One has a degree of choice whether to remain on the land or not, but to be treated as the thing of another man has been seen as the denial of God’s great gift, free will.  All one’s human dignity, so important to Renaissance and post-Renaissance man, is reckoned to have gone; one is humiliated.  Hence the feeling that one ‘would scorn to be a slave’ – it would be such a shame, a degradation, that one could not bear it.

But how can you be a slave to an idea?  Slavery to a man comes when he has absolute control over your body, your property and your actions; sometimes – at least in principle – he may even direct your thoughts.  Slavery to an idea comes when it not only controls, or motivates, your actions, but also governs all your other thoughts.  You no longer see the idea as your servant, helping you to achieve certain ultimate ends; it itself is now the guiding principle of your life.  For ideas, like machines, ought to be the servants of humanity.  They should be the product of reasonable thought about what our objectives must be and how we should reach them.  We ought to use them as means to our goals and be free to discard them when circumstances change.  They must not appear to be the goals themselves.  A good example of ideas getting such supremacy over men as to enslave them is seen in modern official economic thought.  Aims such as high growth and high productivity are no longer seen as means to material prosperity and therefore happiness but as ends in themselves.  After decades of worrying how to achieve the means, politicians have become enslaved to them and see them as ultimate goals of policy.  They now concern themselves over Britain’s place in the ‘growth league’ and the degree of change in labour productivity, while failing to see that it is this very sustained growth that has brought on many of our environmental problems, and that with a million unemployed, the average working man ought to be producing less – then there would be more jobs needed for the same production.  These politicians fail to register that circumstances have changed and that these are no long even valid routes to universal happiness; and they are certainly not happiness itself.

It is significant that they have ‘become enslaved’ to these ideas after ‘decades.’  You do not suddenly become the slave of an idea in the way that you can of a man.  First of all you yourself have to conceive it, and you are unquestionably its master then.  It can only gradually take over your mind.  It is this which is the most insidious aspect of slavery to ideas.  Since the change is so gradual, you are not likely to notice it – as yet politicians have not grasped just how they are trapped by the idolization of their policy of growth.  You will be likely to accredit the troubles brought on by this enslavement to other causes.  Imagine a revolutionary Marxist.  Somebody points out to him that the proletariat are no longer oppressed as they were in Marx’s day and that we are anyway moving towards socialism without revolution.  His reaction is very likely to be not a reappraisal of his political thought and a realization that Marxism is no longer valid, but possibly even a hardening of his views resulting from a determination to resist this ‘bourgeois propaganda.’  He is a slave to Marxism without knowing it.

But however unaware you may be of your enslavement to an idea, this enslavement is still your fault.  It is the result of a refusal to think clearly and objectively, if not at first, at any rate subsequently.  It shows a lack of self-control (the slave is too proud to renounce his ideas and so deifies them instead) and, ultimately, weakness.  It is therefore all the more pathetic.  When slave to another man you can maintain your dignity, even if your free will is removed: you can remain clear-headed about long-term objectives for mankind and preserve your ideals.  But when you are enslaved by an idea, you are mentally helpless, and you have, if unwittingly, lost at least some of your dignity.

If, then, he is helpless about it, can the slave of an idea scorn his predicament?  As I have already suggested, he does not know it exists – the modern politician cannot see the muddle-headedness of his macro-economic views, nor the Marxist the irrelevance of his doctrine today.  And since the idea governs its slave so closely, he is not likely to be detached enough to make observations on his condition.  If he could see the position he was in, no doubt he would scorn himself for it – such a circumstance is all the more shameful since it is your own fault.  But he would be likely to try to do something to change it; this a slave to another man cannot do.

Combating climate change – don’t look at me! *

I am certainly no angel when it comes to environmental action – for example, I have taken far too many flights in the course of my life.  I have been lucky enough to do a lot of international work and so to some extent this has been unavoidable, but I know it isn’t right.

However, when I heard of Unit-E – as Good Energy used to be called – soon after moving into my present house in 1997, I realised that this was an easy and effective way to reduce my carbon footprint.  I would not even have to instal any solar panels or windmills for myself!

A few years later I transferred my source of gas to Good Energy too, because I prefer dealing with this company than the big beasts of the energy market, which are only interested in money.  Maybe I should have converted my heating, cooking and hot water supply to electricity instead, but I didn’t.

Not long after transferring my electricity supply I scrapped my car.  This was a little odd since one of my reasons for buying this house was that it had a garage at the back as well as a couple of parking spaces where a front garden should be.  But after a while I discovered that living here, I had only driven 300 miles in a quarter, and so there was little point in continuing with the vehicle.

Now I walk or take a bus or train everywhere and I can’t imagine even wanting a car any more.  Why put up with the hassles and expense of driving when I can sit in a comfortable train seat and read a book or watch the world go by?  But I realise that I am fortunate to be in a position to choose.

Besides that, I buy organic food as much as I can, compatibly with my dietary preferences, knowing that the field rotations it requires help to sequester carbon from the atmosphere by fertilising the soil with manure rather than minerals or chemicals.

Nevertheless, I can see that restoring the climate and biodiversity are huge tasks which will require strong action by governments – far stronger than any hitherto – since we humans are fallible creatures.  Only the most acutely conscientious among us will do everything that we ought to off our own bats, so we need to be placed in a position where we have little or no choice.

  • This is a slightly edited version of something I’ve written to Good Energy (my energy supplier) since it asked its customers to tell them a bit about why they chose that firm and what other steps they are taking to combat climate change. They promised a prize draw for everyone who wrote in!

Five weeks with no checks on Johnson’s and Cummings’ behaviour

By Thomas Lines – September 8th, 2019

Yesterday I received an e-mail from my MP, Caroline Lucas, which says:

‘This week has seen politicians from all parties unite to block the Prime Minister’s plans for Britain to crash out of the EU with no deal.

‘It’s a huge achievement and Greens have played a leading role…

…we have called out his trap.’

This confident statement reflects the sense of buoyancy and even triumph on display among MPs on the rostrum and members of the crowd at last Wednesday’s rally in Parliament Square, which took place as the Commons vote on that bill was going through.

But hearing the news this morning I could not help thinking that, with Parliament about to close down, that mood is at odds with what is actually happening.  Today’s big story is Amber Rudd’s resignation, just as Friday’s was Jo Johnson’s.  Commentators are dismayed by the Prime Minister’s callousness and insincerity, and the devastating implications for the Conservative Party.

But I think this misses the point.  We need to consider what happens next, not look back on the latest outrage against the usual norms.  Here, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings remain one step ahead of their opponents.

Stories this morning from inside the government camp seem deeply sinister and worrying.  This should not surprise us, since it seems that both Johnson and Cummings are utterly ruthless and sinister men.

Sabotaging the EU’s business

Thus, it was reported that Johnson intends the government to do all that it can to sabotage the EU’s business over the next few weeks (since, after all, the UK is still a member), in order to provoke the other 27 into rejecting the request for an Article 50 extension.

Meanwhile, they will set about suborning the civil service as well as the Conservative Party to their own political diktats.  In this too, any resistance will be broadcast (I use the word advisedly) as acts of Remoaners and the metropolitan élite who are out to sabotage the People’s Will.

These reports came from behind the scenes and, of course, are impossible to verify.  But they are in keeping with the whole demeanour of the Brexit campaign since Johnson, Gove and Cummings collaborated in Vote Leave.

They are particularly sinister simply because Parliament will not be able to keep a check on them.  The means of achieving that were themselves instructive: Johnson manipulated a constitutional convention (that the Queen must always accept Prime Ministerial advice) to make her officially legitimise something that reminds me of nothing more than the fatal mistakes of her forebear, Charles I.  This is one of many signs that Britain’s antiquated institutions are not capable of constraining a man with Johnson’s character (see my blog of August 6th below).

Applauding the Leader

Inside the anti-Brexit bubble it is easy to ignore how well last week’s events – and Johnson’s personality in general – seem to have gone down with some of the public.  Many people are not holding up their hands in horror but applauding a Leader who is At Last Getting Things Done.  One man on Twitter on Friday said how much he was warming towards Mr Johnson with his ‘alpha-male’ character.

I am sure that is not a majority of the population.  I doubt strongly whether it is the 40 per cent or so that are usually required to get a British government elected (another outmoded mechanism in a situation of multi-party politics).

But to all appearances it is something like one-third of voters.  And as long as the opposing parties are electorally divided, while (conversely) the pro-Johnson media can continue to represent them all as playing to the evil Jeremy Corbyn’s tune, it is probably enough to win a good majority in a forthcoming election.

What leads to these reactions from people?  I think there are two sources.  The first is the cult of the Leader, which has been a factor in British politics since Mrs Thatcher’s time.  When people feel uncertain and insecure, many put their faith in a Strong Leader whose demagoguery seems to offer reassurance than in the tedious processes of democracy.  This is as true in Britain today as in Germany in the 1930s or, it seems, Russia nearly all the time.

Secondly, we cannot dismiss the real sense of grievance felt by many in the fact that, over three years on, the UK is still in the EU.  This cannot be as easily dismissed as the mostly specious arguments we’ve heard for leaving the EU itself.

Pro-European commentators tend to look on hardline Brexiteers as people from another planet – deluded, wild-eyed fantasists who want to have their unicorns and eat them.  But we must not forget that many Leave voters dismiss the alternative case just as firmly, as no more than diversionary tactics from Project Fear.

Wanting to see the back of us

Moreover, it is now looking entirely likely that the 27 other member states will reject the request for a further extension of Article 50 – with or without any further provocation from Johnson.  The week before last, there were reports that they were thinking of offering an extension without being asked, as a way of undermining Johnson’s cause.  But it did not happen.

Instead, in the last few days we have heard that some of them just want to see the back of this country.  France in particular is making noises to that effect.  This of course would play directly into Johnson’s hands.  But in their state of utter exasperation with it all – and contempt for what they already know of Johnson the politician – whoever could blame them for that?

We are about to enter something quite unknown in modern Britain: a month in which Parliament has been constitutionally debarred from scrutinising the government.  If indeed the UK crashes out without a deal, last week’s new law notwithstanding, the best hope might be now that the consequences of that event will finally reveal that all the warnings were not Project Fear but fully justified.  A mid-November election might then circle around how to repair the colossal damage wrought by three years of political hooliganism from the Brexit camp.  And that, perhaps, is the optimistic scenario.

Now is the time for democracy, not a fictional Parliamentary sovereignty

By Thomas Lines – August 6th, 2019

In the early years of membership, British opposition to the ‘Common Market’ was led by constitutional conservatives of the Right and the Left, such as Enoch Powell and Tony Benn.  They argued against its deficiencies in democracy, which gave them affront in comparison with the United Kingdom’s parliamentary tradition.  They thought that parliamentary sovereignty – the fulcrum of British constitutional tradition – could only be upheld by leaving the European Economic Community.

However, since then the EEC has evolved into the European Union, which has a proper democratic shape due to the real power and direct accountability of the European Parliament.  I would suggest that its institutions are at least as democratic as those of the United States (with which they have much in common) and a lot more so than the UK’s, with its centralised structure while composed of three-and-a-bit different countries, its appointed and hereditary upper house, distorted electoral system for the House of Commons and hereditary head of state.

And here lies the rub.  Unlike other parliamentary democracies, a new British government does not have to win Parliament’s approval before it takes office: confirmation of a new Prime Minister by the Queen suffices.  That even applies in mid-Parliament in a situation where the single governing party represents only a minority in the Commons (although supported by the DUP’s confidence-and-supply arrangement), while MPs have already rejected the main plank of the new government’s policy – the threat of crashing out of the EU without a deal.

No confidence but no resignation

But with only a few weeks to go till October 31st, those MPs must now wait for an opportunity to express a lack of confidence.  Moreover, we have just learnt that even after a vote of no confidence, a Prime Minister is under no obligation to resign: he can hold on in the hope that the two weeks provided by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act will not be long enough for the formation of a new cross-party government, and then call a general election at a time of his choosing.  And before that election takes place, he will be able to take the UK out of the EU without a deal and without having to seek parliamentary support for it.

I was taken aback yesterday when I read that Dominic Cummings – who seems to be the real leader of the government, Boris Johnson being its political front man – asserted that this was so.  But it was calmly confirmed on the BBC’s Today programme by Lord Sumption, a retired Supreme Court judge and constitutional authority.  An Old Etonian and former advisor of Margaret Thatcher’s political mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, recent remarks of his nevertheless suggest that Sumption is not a fan of Boris Johnson.

But how can this be?  If the elected chamber expresses no confidence in the Prime Minister shortly after he takes office, how can he be in control of the events that ensue, including a general election as well as a fundamental constitutional change, to be achieved by gravely damaging means that to all appearances do not have majority support in the country either?

The answer lies in the two bulwarks of the British political system: parliamentary sovereignty and constitutional monarchy.  Parliamentary sovereignty has gradually morphed since 1689 into government by Cabinet and, most recently, centralised personal rule by the Prime Minister – all this in a typically British way, with little or no debate or expressed opposition to the changes.  And then, eight years ago, we had an important constitutional change in the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, passed as ever by simple majorities in Parliament to serve David Cameron’s short-term desire to lock the Liberal Democrats into a coalition for a full five years.

A problem of Hindenburg-esque proportions

This Act allows the follow-up to a statutory vote of no confidence to be controlled by the rejected Prime Minister him- or herself, not a politically detached authority such as an elected President.  This brings us to the position of the Queen.  It is established practice – another of those far-reaching but unwritten conventions on which British politics relies – that the monarch cannot intervene politically.  This has come to mean that in general they must do whatever the Prime Minister of the day advises.  This self-serving governmental interpretation of impartiality means that the Queen cannot exercise any power or discretion even when it is most needed, such as a constitutional crisis of the sort we may be about to face.  This could become a problem of Hindenburg-esque proportions.

In other countries, if a Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence, they have to resign immediately and the constitutional head of state determines what happens next.  Usually, the same person will run a caretaker government, while the President discovers whether there is parliamentary support for a replacement government or if an election is needed instead.

This happened last year in the constitutional monarchy of Spain, where the King used his discretion to ask the previous opposition to form a government after Mariano Rajoy lost a vote of confidence.  Unlike his British counterpart, the Spanish monarch is protected from suspicions of bias by the circumscription of his role in a formal, written constitution.

Essential safeguards do not exist

However, no caretaker government in other countries is permitted to pursue any partisan or controversial policy: that has to wait for a replacement government to emerge according to the procedures.  Least of all can they carry out a big constitutional change, such as taking the UK out of the EU without a deal.

But if Lord Sumption’s interpretation of the arrangements is correct, such essential democratic safeguards do not exist under the purported Mother of Parliaments.

Some people have called Boris Johnson’s accession to office last week a kind of constitutional coup d’état.  However that may be, it seems clear that the ragbag of political conventions and statutes which passes for a constitution in this country is not up to the task at this time.  The means provided by the 2011 Act for votes of no confidence seems to have too many loopholes through which a failed government can pass, while the British version of constitutional monarchy provides no protection from such manipulations either.  The best we can hope for is that the Speaker of the House of Commons will stand firmly by the rights of Parliament, just as his predecessor had to in the early 1640s.

My time in newly independent Azerbaijan

An interview by Cavid Ağa

First published at on July 11th, 2019. Azerbaijani translation posted at

(I have made a few minor sub-edits here and indicate them with square brackets.)

Did you have any opinions about Azerbaijan prior [to] visiting?

Nothing firm.  I worked for a few weeks in Russia (mainly Moscow) in the spring of 1992, and when I later told my Russian friends that I was going to Azerbaijan their typical reply was, ‘Тебе не страшно?’ (‘Aren’t you afraid?’).  So before going there, I bought a wallet with a chain which attached it to my clothes, as a precaution.  In general it has been very useful and I still use one like it (because of it, I always know which pocket my wallet is in!).  But I did not require it for security in Azerbaijan (or anywhere else).  What those friends said to me revealed more about Russian prejudices than the reality I found in Azerbaijan.

As for politics, I had followed the break-up of the USSR for my previous job in 1990-91, and Soviet politics generally for over 20 years before that, and I was familiar with the specifics of several countries, including the Baltic states and the Ukraine as well as Russia.  In the previous two years I had made working visits to all of those countries as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, but nowhere in the Caucasus region, and so I knew very little about what I discovered to be a very interesting situation in Azerbaijan.

How would you describe [the] socio-political situation during your stay?

Very unstable.  I arrived in September 1992, not long after President Mutalibov was overthrown and replaced by President Elchibey of the Popular Front, and then I lived in Baku through the worst of the war in Dağlıq Qarabağ [Nagorno-Karabagh].  I was evacuated back to Brussels during Heydar Aliyev’s slow-motion coup d’état the following summer, and returned for a few months before finally finishing my job there in about November 1993.  Despite the military reverses and political turmoil Baku never felt like a city at war or in serious crisis, but it also lacked the fervour one might expect in a small country that had gained independence for the first time in 185 years.  The atmosphere was quiet – almost too quiet in the circumstances, I thought – but subdued.  I put that mood down to the defeats in the war, which were reflected in the sad visits that people made to the memorials to fallen soldiers in the city centre.  But falling living standards [amid] economic and political confusion after the collapse of the old system may have contributed as much to it too.

Do you remember any interesting events that you found odd?

I’m sure there were lots of them!  That’s why I loved being there.  After all, I was in a distant country for the first time, I did not know the national language and the country was going through a very difficult time of change.  Perhaps the oddest thing was that, as it seemed to me, no foreign visitor would have guessed the country was at war if they had not known it.

Two other things occur to me right now.  One was the experience of working in an office in part of the former Soviet Union for the first time, because the arrangements and even some of the tools and equipment were very different from what I knew.  For example, the secretaries and typists who used to play a big role in Western office life were entirely absent, except for the occasional ‘референт’ [‘referent’], as were their accompanying skills such as touch-typing.  The same for some basic stationery, such as sticky tape: papers were attached with pins or glue or string.  And when the head of my office once wrote an important letter to a senior official, he showed me the draft.  I was struck by how little it said and how much space it took to say it, filled with flattery for the official.  That revealed something to me about the nature of official relationships, at least within the civil service, in what until just recently was the USSR: back home, business letters and memoranda deal with facts and generally in as few words as possible.  But in the outgoing culture facts and opinions were dangerous to set down in writing.  That, at least, is how I interpreted it.

My final oddity is a little incident in December 1992.  I returned to Baku after a couple of weeks at home feeling rather low, being in an unfamiliar place with a new job which had not been set up well by my employers.  The first morning I flagged down an old [two-door] Zaporozhets car for a lift to the office (under the system of the time in which private car owners used their cars as taxis to earn some money).  I had to sit in the back seat as the front passenger seat had been removed to make way, as far as I can remember, for a load of eggs.  My spirits immediately rose with that reminder of people’s lively spirit of improvisation and ‘making do.’

What about your contacts with dominant political figures? Have you personally met Elchibey or elder Aliyev? How would you describe them?

My relations were not that high up.  Unfortunately I forget the names now, but the most senior people I met were the acting Prime Minister (Ali Masimov?) and the President’s chief economic advisor (Mammedov?) in early 1993, in Elchibey’s time.  Meetings with the latter were due to my own work, while with the former I was an informal interpreter for a couple of EU officials who were visiting in connection with humanitarian aid.  But I do not remember very much about the meetings or what the personalities were like.

How was your relation with locals? By what means did you communicate with them? How many of them spoke English?

My relations with local people were good, conditioned by the strong Azeri and Muslim traditions of hospitality, which would always have protected me from any harm that might arise (but in fact never did).  At that time there were very few people from the western world in Baku and we could be immediately identified as such from our style of dress and so on.  I made particularly good friends with a young man in our office and his young family, who I visited several times.  By training he was a physicist but he had moved to that job like many people who had to change career paths suddenly in that era (while others simply lost their careers); he was very intelligent and interesting to talk to.  Very few people spoke any English but it did not matter because I spoke good Russian.  I tried to learn Azerbaijani but did not get very far because not only at work but in the bazaars and everywhere else everyone knew Russian, so it was not easy to try out the little Azeri that I learnt.

Did you monitor events in Azerbaijan after your departure? If you did, how would you evaluate [the] Western media’s view of early Azerbaijan? Positive? Negative? Curious?

I have remained curious about Azerbaijan, but at a distance.  When I returned home I had to look for other work somewhere, and the next jobs I did, in the first half of 1994, were in the Ukraine [and] Serbia/Montenegro.  In the end by 2000 I worked for at least a short time in every ex-Soviet country except Armenia, as well as Mongolia and some countries further west, so Azerbaijan was only one of many countries that I became acquainted with.  However, it was special as my introduction to a very interesting series of experiences.  So I have fond memories of the place.

As for the Western media, I would describe their attitude as incurious but also negative, in spite of that lack of knowledge.  The USSR had always been seen through Moscow’s eyes and the wider world had little understanding of its many complexities.  To this day, that Russian viewpoint often colours the understanding of the Ukraine, let alone smaller and more distant countries.  In England, the famous Azerbaijani linesman in the 1966 football World Cup Final was until very recently remembered as Russian: people did not distinguish between Russia and the USSR.  The large Armenian diaspora (especially in the USA and France), Azerbaijan’s Turkic and Muslim associations and the rather closed nature of Azerbaijani society (with almost no contact with the world outside the USSR) all led to further prejudices and misunderstandings, and probably still do to some extent.  I find all of that very regrettable.

Something of this arose only this spring with the Armenian footballer Mkhitaryan’s refusal to play [for Arsenal] in the Europa Cup Final in Baku.  English journalists made no attempt to understand the politics of the situation, or what Mkhitaryan had himself done to earn Azerbaijan’s displeasure.  They just assumed that he was right and the Azeri authorities were wrong – even though, as far as I could see, they behaved very correctly throughout the affair.

What do you think about current situation of Azerbaijan? How much did it change?

Since I have not visited Azerbaijan since 1993, I find it very hard to say.  While I was there I sympathised strongly with the Popular Front government in spite of its failings.  Alongside it, I was impressed by the deep roots of the country’s independence movement when I found out about it, with (as I understood) working class [people] much more involved than in other Soviet republics, where the demands for political freedom and independence came mostly from middle-class intellectuals.  Naturally I was disappointed by Aliyev’s return to power, even though he was a very experienced politician and managed to restore order in an unruly situation.  I remain saddened by authoritarian rule there, but enormously impressed when I read of the determined spirit of some activists and journalists in spite of it all.

Would you like to visit Azerbaijan again?

Of course!  I have fond memories of a small, remote country trying to make its own way in the most adverse circumstances.  A few years ago the England football team played a World Cup qualifying match in Baku and I thought about going there for it, but unfortunately it wasn’t a practical proposition.  Baku is a beautiful [and historical] city and I would love to see it again, although it was in a very poor condition after several decades of neglect at the time.  (I am a keen student of architecture.)  From everything I hear it has been transformed in the intervening period, with some world-famous new buildings that I would love to see.  I would also love to try the fresh sturgeon, the pomegranates, the wonderful fruits, nuts and vegetables, Azeri plov and so many other delicacies again!

Reference to Azerbaijani translation added on July 23rd, 2019.