Category Archives: history

Out on a limb

It’s all about geography.

For most of their history, the states located on the British Isles have been peripheral and on the margins of their civilisation, that is to say Europe. To an extent, this has also reduced their exposure to that civilisation’s wars and allowed their societies and institutions to develop in more continuity than, say, Poland’s. This has bred a sense of exceptionalism and insularity.

For a brief period, as our civilisation perfected maritime travel, our peripheral states flourished as we exploited our geography to enrich ourselves. For a couple of centuries, this put us at the heart of our civilisation as opposed to its periphery. This brief period in our history is over, but many of us haven’t grasped that yet because it is still within living memory, just. This further feeds our sense of exceptionalism.

But the reality is that we are just another collection of European states, nothing special except insofar as that in itself is special. We are back at the periphery, and actively doing all we can to exaggerate our peripheral nature, isolating ourselves from the mainstream of our civilisation, limiting our influence and interest, turning in upon ourselves.

Geography can’t be changed. We were lucky in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. But this is the 21st and we’re back to where we’ve been for all the other centuries – out on a limb.

29 March 2017

Today the hammer falls and I feel sick. The decision to pull the UK out of the EU, and also the way in which the UK government has gone about it, leave me in a state of constant grief and anger. I am very bitter. I find myself with many of the symptoms of depression, but I’m aware of it and trying to tackle it. Writing this blog post is one of the ways.

I’m sure some people find it hard to comprehend how a political event like this could have such a profound effect on me personally. I’m quite sure that very many of the people who voted to leave last June took the decision very lightly without really giving it any much thought at all, or acting on the spur of the moment. Well, let me try to explain.

I’m both British and German, and I grew up in 1970s England. TV, comics, books, everything still seemed obsessed with the war. My parents and grandparents all had war stories, from opposing sides. At the same time, we thought we’d die in a nuclear holocaust when the Cold War went hot. (We really did.) My holidays were spent driving down to southern Germany and spending time with my family there. Europe, and Europe’s divisions, meant something very concrete and real to me, with heavy emotional significance. As I grew up and became politically aware, so European integration became an issue, the issue, that meant most to me. And, as a student, I watched Thatcher’s reign disintegrate over the issue. I joined the Young European Movement, I went to federalist conferences, I idolised Jacques Delors and dreamed of working for the EU one day. And I did it. I passed the famous ‘concours’. In 1995, I realised my dream and came to work for the European Commission in Brussels.

Like all dreams, it didn’t live up to its billing. It’s a job. I could rant for a week on ways in which things could be improved. But this is also, still, a vocation, and I believe in it as much as I ever did. I have no doubt at all that the people of Europe need to come together if they want to be more secure, and have a better quality of life. Effective government at the European level seems to me to be more important than ever, as I look around the world. So this monstrous idiocy on the part of the country where I grew up leaves me reeling. I still can’t really believe it, I don’t want to believe it. All this energy which should and could have been spent on making things better and instead it’s being used to destroy.

So here comes the uplifting closing section of this post. Here is what I’m telling myself. I know it’s true, and so it ought to help me deal with it.

The UK is leaving, but the EU is still here. This isn’t the end. Life for most of my colleagues continues more or less without interruption – I’m struck by how, for most people around me, Brexit is just another issue which is happening to other people, like Syria, or drought. Yes, there are implications for the EU, and we need to work up policy solutions, but already the UK is seen as something outside which is in big trouble of its own making but it’s not our problem any more, we just need to find ways to defend our interests. I don’t think they are being complacent, but they are being realistic, and they have a sense of perspective which I don’t. Brexit carries considerable risk for the EU but it also brings opportunities. We have a job to do to minimise the risk and maximise the opportunities. Meanwhile I have a cause that will occupy me in my home country for the rest of my political life. Theresa May wants the country to unite behind her as she rips the UK out of the EU. Not as I live and breathe will she ever get that wish. Never. No way.

European consolidation and disintegration, past and future


I spent last week walking along the line of Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, the fortification built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian to mark the Empire’s northern boundary. I took it as an opportunity to reflect on a united Europe and a fractured Britain (then and now).

For a bit of fun, here is a map of the Roman Empire at around the time the wall was built and a map of the European Union as it might look a few years from now. Spot the key differences on the north-western periphery!


Roman Empire c 120AD


European Union c 2020AD

Katie Low wrote about the eerie parallels between ancient Roman and modern British politics on this blog a couple of months ago. Spotting parallels and patterns is one of the reasons we find history so fascinating. At its peak, Rome delivered a period of prosperity, stability, and security unrivalled in Europe’s history until the mid-20th century. It did so through a complex political structure which delivered effective administration and the rule of law throughout its diverse territory made up of many nations, all of whom enjoyed (from 212 AD) Roman citizenship.

Political consolidation might not appeal to nationalists but it makes a lot of sense for anyone in search of peace and prosperity. What’s more, it is inevitable. Take a look at this map of conflicts throughout recorded history. Note how concentrated they are in Europe compared to, say, China with its much longer history of political consolidation.


4,500 years of human conflict

Rome’s period of peak success was relatively short-lived, just under a hundred years from the succession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. The EU has had around sixty years. Its citizens have enjoyed a period of high quality of life which we now take for granted. Again and again we hear from anti-EU nationalists the argument that we don’t need the EU any more, that any success it has had in resolving centuries-old conflict among European states is now baked in and irreversible. Any student of history should know better.

(Some more photos of my walk along Hadrian’s Wall are in this Flickr album.)

Two Breakups and a Funeral

In the last year I have gone through two traumatic breakups and a painful bereavement.

A year ago my father died. The loss of a parent is devastating and life-changing. But he had lived a full and long life, he was suffering, and so was my family. We all have to go one day. My dad’s day had come. My grief was laced with relief and acceptance.

Earlier this year, my partner of three years ended our relationship. I fell into a (thankfully short-lived) depression. I felt for a while as if my world had disintegrated, I felt rudderless. But on some level I knew that it had been necessary, that better times were ahead, that my ex had been brave to act, and that she was hurting too.

Last week the UK chose to leave the European Union. This doesn’t feel the same. I don’t love the EU like I loved my father and my partner. But I do love it, and this is personal. I believe in the EU. I work as an EU public servant because of that belief – it is, to use an unfashionable word, my vocation. For at least thirty years it has been the leitmotiv to my life. And now my homeland has rejected it, possibly fatally wounding it. I am beside myself with anger and grief. This isn’t the euthanising of a loving but flawed relationship, nor the end to a loved one’s terminal suffering. This is a cold-hearted killing. The trigger was pulled by people who had no real understanding of what they were doing, and the gun was being pointed by cynical, manipulative narcissists and psychopaths. Around me I see shocked people in denial, anger, grief. I don’t know if I will ever progress to acceptance.

[Guest Post] Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts

A bit of a departure for this blog – and a very exciting one – here is a guest post by my friend and fellow former classicist, Katie Low, on parallels between modern British and ancient late republican Roman politics.

As a British citizen living in Brussels, I have observed the events in the UK of the past week with dismay and, from Thursday afternoon onwards, utter horror. Some very striking historical parallels have been drawn: most notably, many people have compared the ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by UKIP on Wednesday with images from a Nazi propaganda film. A consciousness of the past is only one of the many things that will, I hope, prevent what happened in the 1930s being played out again today: the apparent simplicity of such parallelisms is both helpful and unhelpful. History leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Being a western European born in the mid-1980s, however, with all the privilege that implies, I am struggling to find a frame of reference for what is happening. In no context have I ever witnessed the febrile atmosphere, the stunts that go beyond parody, the  hateful rhetoric expressed both in formal contexts and in a thousand different variations in the streets and online – and what now looks like the willingness to kill for (abhorrent) ideological reasons – that have gripped the UK. In my previous career I studied Roman history and historiography, and it is in the ancient past that I am trying to make sense of all this.

As I read about the past week’s events and the opinions they have generated I keep thinking of one particular period: the late Roman Republic, roughly the years between the defeat of Rome’s main rival Carthage in 146 BC and the civil wars ultimately won at the battle of Actium in 33 by the man who became the first emperor. Of course, as with the 1930s, ancient Rome cannot be easily mapped onto the present, and it is highly unlikely that the UK will end up with an Augustus of its own. But there are many individual points of comparison.

Several ancient historians supposed that the defeat of Carthage meant Romans could no longer focus on an external enemy and thus fell to fighting each other: in the UK, while polarised politics are of course nothing new, the ‘reliability’ of the Cold War has been replaced by perceived and real threats from many different sources. Then, as the first century BC drew on, powerful leaders such as Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar outgrew the confines of the hierarchical political system that the republic had maintained for centuries and began to establish their own popular power bases. Finally, while making a glib link between the unutterably tragic death of Jo Cox and the assassination of Caesar in 44 would be entirely wrong, I would stress that the latter event foreshadowed subsequent  political murders of emperors that achieved no systemic change and were generally carried out for less than noble motives.

It was another assassination, however, that the terrible thing that happened on Thursday first brought to mind. In 91 BC, another Roman politician was murdered, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus (once again, I am not drawing  a detailed parallel with recent events: the specific cases are far more different than similar, but the broader similarities are what interest me). At this point, Rome was a troubled place. After the attempts of the 130s and 120s by the reforming tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus to ease inequality in Roman society had ended in civil unrest and their violent deaths, tension had continued to build, and additional strife was brewing amongst the city-states on the Italian peninsula who were allied to Rome but did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship.

Drusus, who as tribune represented the common people but, like virtually all magistrates, came from the upper classes, seems to have pursued a mixed programme. He proposed measures to reinforce the authority of the senate, but also a law that would have provided land for the impoverished working classes, and he also intended to grant citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. The sources for this period are not comprehensive and his motives not entirely clear (he was not a straightforward popular champion), but his assassination by an unknown assailant unleashed armed revolt by the allied cities who saw no other way of gaining full recognition from Rome. The subsequent Social War (socius is Latin for ‘ally’) lasted three years and was destructive and bloody. Historians have disagreed over whether the independent confederation established by the allies was their ultimate aim or simply a base from which to fight for citizenship, but although it was eventually granted to them, the conflict segued into a full-blown Roman civil war, a precursor to the ones that ended the republic itself.

Once again, I do not believe this will happen in the UK: 91 BC and AD 2016 are very far apart in all kinds of ways. But I can’t help thinking they have elements in common. Inequality and disenfranchisement, mass and elite alienation, identity politics – indeed, the dichotomy between the Italian allies wanting to join Rome but on their preferred terms, and seeking to ‘go it alone’ as an independent nation, looks oddly familiar amid the current debate over British membership of the EU. As I said, history tends to provide more questions than answers. It suggests, though, that once conventional political stops offering solutions, things may never be the same again.

The Age of Unlightenment

This was the advice from my friend Mary this morning:unlightenmentA snapshot of where we are on the morning of 14 June 2016: a disturbed man apparently driven to self-hate murders fifty people in a club; populist politicians clamber over the corpses to score points; religious fundamentalists claim the atrocity for their own. A law firm boasts of its victory over families trying to secure a future for their children who have already been dealt a shit hand by life. And my country seems intent upon an unimaginably stupid act of self-harm, egged on by charlatans, liars, demagogues, and self-serving narcissists.

I feel as if I’m watching our civilisation’s lights dim. The Age of Unlightenment.

Architecture and islamophobia

The UK far right’s indignation at the imagined encroachment of Islam into British life has given us some great comedy moments, including this week’s snafu by UKIP berating the BBC’s liberal bias for staging a vox pop in front of a mosque in central London, better known as the gorgeous Westminster Cathedral in Victoria. And who can forget this priceless EDL rant against the Muslamics for building a huge mosque near the sea front in Brighton?

Westminster Cathedral


The fact is, Islamic civilisation has given us some stunning architecture, a source of inspiration to Western architects and artists for centuries. The Brighton Pavilion is one such building, but there are countless others. The inspiration flows in the other direction too; I doubt there’s a major city anywhere in the Islamic world which isn’t chock full of western-influenced buildings, from gothic to neo-classical to post-modern. I wonder if pilgrims to Mecca post angry Facebook rants about the Puginesque Clock Tower overshadowing the Ka’aba?

Clock Tower Mecca

Big Bennish

Our cultures have mixed and mingled throughout their illustrious histories, much to our mutual benefit. There are mosques that have become churches; and churches that have become mosques; and they are all the more interesting for it.

Hagia Sofia Istanbul

Church that became a Mosque

Cordoba Cathedral

Mosque that became a Church

So what exactly is it that the far right find so threatening? Is it the foreign architectural style which seems so out of place in frigid England? Then let’s say goodbye to Winchester Cathedral and York Minster, which use exotic imports from Islamic architecture such as the pointed arch and the rose window. What happens when British Moslems build their places of worship in the local architectural vernacular? Is that OK with the kippers and Britain First?

Tahir Mosque, Catford

Is this OK, UKIP?

When challenged on the Daily Politics, Nigel Farage made the excuse that his party’s activists “are not wholly trained”. Wholly trained in what? Architecture? Let’s call this spade a spade: this UKIP activist’s reaction betrayed her islamophobia, and the only training she lacks is how to hide it from public view. In this, she is not an exception, she is absolutely typical of every kipper I’ve ever encountered. UKIP is an islamophobic party. Who can doubt it?

(Postscript – if you’re interested in learning more about Islamic architecture, you might enjoy The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron and In Xanadu by William Dalrymple. Non-Amazon link.)

The EU: a union of state bureaucracies?

Jean Monnet said that we are not building a coalition of states; we are creating a union of peoples (“nous ne coalisons pas des États, nous unissons des hommes”).  So no, in response to @brunobrussels, we are certainly not a union of state bureaucracies; or, at least, that’s not what we aspire to.

But what’s the reality? Has the EU successfully delivered Monnet’s vision?  Or has it fallen short?

I think I answer that question partially in my previous post (Institutional Imbalance), but I still feel that Bruno deserves more of a reply.  I detect in his reaction – and I hope he’ll correct me if I’m wrong – the premise that power belongs more naturally with nation states and national parliaments, and any move to transfer sovereignty to a higher tier than the nation state effectively strips sovereignty away from its democratic home.

In his excellent book ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’ Jared Diamond describes how people have historically organised themselves in ever-more-complex configurations: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states; and then those states evolve into ever larger structures, with ever larger numbers of citizens.

Diamond argues that humans have a strong interest in forming part of ever-larger state incorporations; but also that they tend to have a strong vested interest in the status quo.  As a result, they tend to resist upward incorporation even at the expense of their own longer term interests.  External pressure is usually needed to force the upshift to broader political structures (again, see my previous post); but, when this is realised, it tends to benefit all members of that new, larger, political structure.

To my mind, Diamond’s thesis offers a clear understanding of the tendency towards euroscepticism but also why this tendency is an historical dead end.

The nation state is no more ‘natural’ a political unit than any other, including the EU.  Arguments against the EU which are premised on the notion that the nation state has more legitimacy qua nation state than any other political structure are, I strongly believe, fundamentally flawed, and guilty of historical subjectivity.

Of course, there are those who argue that the EU’s structures are less democratically accountable than its Member States’, and that this means that sovereignty should revert to those Member State structures.  But this isn’t an argument against the EU.  It’s an argument – right or wrong – for reform of the EU’s structures so that they become more democratically accountable.

(Aside: I managed to squeeze the above into five tweets, but thought it preferable to go long form rather than spam people’s twitter feeds. This shows how useful Twitter is as a tool for forcing you to get your point across in as few words as possible.)

Update added at 15.46 CET 20/2/13:

It’s been suggested that I don’t really address the question of whether Monnet’s “Union of People” has been achieved.  What many eurosceptics fear is that the EU represents Big Government washing out the power of individuals.  It has also been put to me that the EU is an elite project which seeks to remove politics above society.  Let’s take these charges one by one.

Does the EU seek to remove politics from society?  This one is easy: of course it doesn’t.  If it did, why would so much money and effort be put into attempts to legitimise the EU with its citizens?  You might argue that those efforts are not very effective, but you cannot deny that those efforts are made.

Is the EU an elite project?  I see this as a meaningless question.  Restructuring a society’s political system has always been the task of an elite; Robespierre, Trotsky and the Gracchi belonged to an elite.  Popular support, or democratic legitimacy, is of course a different matter, but let’s save that one for another day.

Is the EU “Big Government”?  As Diamond argues, government has a tendency to become bigger over time, if by bigger we mean extending into more areas and bringing more people under its wing.  But what about ‘big government’ in the passive-aggressive, dismissive sense used by certain libertarians who fear that citizens are excluded from the decision-making process, or that government takes decisions about citizens which are none of its business?  In this respect, the EU is no worse, and probably a lot better, than most of its Member States.  EU competence is very clearly defined in a Treaty which has been negotiated by the Member States and ratified by the Member States.  There is double democratic legitimacy: firstly, through its Member States which are all representative democracies and which both appoint the executive and form one chamber of the legislature; and secondly, through the directly elected European Parliament, forming the second branch of the legislature.  I’m not going to address the question of whether this democratic legitimacy is sufficient, except to say that I personally think there are flaws; but to paraphrase Churchill, no-one pretends that EU democracy is perfect or all-wise.  It’s the best we have, until we put our heads together to make it better.

Does the EU wash out the power of individuals?  As soon as humans started organising themselves into political structures larger than the family, individuals gave away some control over their own lives in return for a higher degree of security.  Modern political structures attempt to find a compromise between the benefits which accrue from collective decision-making and the desire we all have to make independent decisions about our lives.  In this respect, too, the EU is no worse and probably a lot better than most nation states.

One final point: far from excluding the individual, the EU is there to benefit the individual citizen.  This is hard-baked into the Treaty.  The EU provides its individual citizens with many rights and freedoms which are guaranteed by the Treaty.  Those rights and freedoms should not be taken for granted.  Outside the EU, they might come under threat.