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Thoughts on the politics of coastlines

Samizdata is a blog about ideas and about the human institutions that result from, embody, and spread ideas. Which ideas are good, which bad, and why? Almost every day at least one of us here will be telling you, or quoting someone else telling you, about some small or not so small aspect of this huge agenda.

But reality itself also has very contrasting consequences, in the form of the different versions of reality that prevail in different places, and in the form of the sort of the contrasting ideas that these contrasting circumstances encourage and discourage.

Consider coastlines. My friend Roger Hewland, who runs the CD shop where I must have bought about half of the enormous classical CD collection I now possess, is fond of saying that it makes a huge difference to a country how much of a sea coastline it has. Being a little older than me, Roger Hewland was born just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the difference between Britain and Germany, in terms of the lengths of their coastlines, is a favourite example he offers of this contrast. A thoughtful child living through WW2 was bound to wonder why that huge war was happening. That Germany has only a rather short coastline compared to the length of its other borders, while Britain is surrounded by the sea, became part of Hewland’s answer. I disagree with Hewland about many things, what with him being a socialist albeit a congenially entrepreneurial one, but we agree about the political importance of coastlines.

This contrast, between seafaring and land-based powers, has dominated political and military history, both ancient and modern. Conflicts like that between Athens and Sparta, and then between all of Greece and Persia, and the later conflicts between the British – before, during and since the time of the British Empire – and the succession of land-based continental powers whom we British have quarrelled with over the centuries, have shaped the entire world. Such differences in political mentality continue to matter a lot.

Throughout most of modern human history, despots could completely command the land, including all inland waterways. but they could not command the oceans nearly so completely. Wherever the resources found in the oceans or out there beyond them loomed large in the life and the economy of a country or empire, there was likely to be a certain sort of political atmosphere. In places where the land and its productivity counted for pretty much everything, and where all communications were land-based, a very different political atmosphere prevailed.

→ Continue reading: Thoughts on the politics of coastlines

950 years ago today…

950 years ago today in 1066, after arriving in England a few days earlier, my ‘migrant’ ancestors rode up Senlac Hill to introduce themselves to the waiting locals 😀

I say chaps will you be voting IN or OUT?

“I say, chaps! Will you be voting IN or OUT today?”

Haig’s greatest mistake

On 15 September 1916 tanks made their debut at Flers-Courcelette, one of the many engagements which took place during the Battle of the Somme.

The battle marked the beginning of a sorry chapter in British military history because the truth – a truth that to this day few seem prepared to acknowledge – is that the First World War tank was useless.

The list of its failings is lengthy. It was slow, it was unreliable, it had no suspension and it was horrible to operate. The temperature inside was typically over 100°F and as exhaust gases built up so crew effectiveness collapsed. It was also highly vulnerable. Field artillery could take it out easily. Even rifle ammunition could be effective against it. While normal bullets might not be able to penetrate the armour they could knock off small pieces of metal from the inside – known as spall – which then whizzed round the interior wounding all and sundry.

That the tank was the brainchild of Winston Churchill from his days as head of the Admiralty should have alerted senior commanders to the possibility that it was yet another of his crackpot schemes. But they persisted. For his part, Haig being a technophile put a huge amount of faith in the new invention. His diary is littered with references to the tank and he seems to have made great efforts to secure ever more of them. In consequence, huge amounts of effort went into a technological dead end when it would have been far better spent on guns, shells and fuzes.

Not that such efforts were ever likely to satisfy the snake-oil salesmen who made up the ranks of the tank enthusiasts. In the face of tank failure after tank failure they simply claimed that their beloved weapon just wasn’t being used properly.

Of course, like all good conmen they liked to take credit for other people’s successes. So, when a huge number of tanks were used at Cambrai in 1917 and the initial phases went reasonably well they were happy to put it all down to the tank. The fact that within 3 days an initial tank force in the hundreds had been whittled down to single figures by mechanical failures and withering German artillery fire was glossed over.

The credit should really have gone to the “predicted barrage”. As with so much to do with artillery this needs a little explaining. If your artillery barrage is to be effective you need to know where your shells are going to land. Although manufacturers attempt to build guns with uniform characteristics this is an extremely difficult thing to do. Worse still every time a gun is fired the barrel experiences wear and its characteristics change. Before Cambrai the answer had been “registration”. Guns would fire shells at the enemy and observers would spot where they landed. The drawback was that the enemy could tell that an attack was on its way. In a predicted barrage the gunners worked out in advance where the shells would land so the first the enemy would know about an attack was when he was hit by a full-scale barrage. This meant that for the first time since the beginning of the war surprise could be re-introduced to the battlefield.

Cheaper than a Great War tank and about as useful.

Cheaper than a Great War tank and about as useful.

As a Londoner myself, this resonates rather strongly


How Brexit has unified the Conservative Party

A friend of mine reckons that Ex-Prime-Minister David Cameron’s plan was, all long, to extricate Britain from the EU. This theory reminds me of the similar things that were said about Gorbachev and the collapse of the old USSR. If Gorbachev had been a CIA agent, working to contrive the exact USSR collapse that happened, what would he have done differently? Very little. It’s the same with Cameron and Brexit. How could Cameron have done a better job of contriving Brexit than he actually did do?

You may say: Cameron might actually have argued for Brexit, in public. But if he had done that, then many of those north of England Labourites who hate Cameron might have voted Remain instead of Out, just to stick it to those out-of-touch Etonian bastards, the way they actually did feel they were sticking it to the Etonians by voting Out. And Britain might now be chained to the sinking ship that is the EU rather than liberated from it.

But, whether by design, as my friend thinks, or by accident, as most others assume, Brexit has unified the Conservative Party. With that observation, I move from the territory of undisprovable speculative diversion into the land of out-in-the-open truth. And I am not the only one who has noticed this.

For all of my adult life, the Europe issue has divided the Conservative Party. Until now.

→ Continue reading: How Brexit has unified the Conservative Party

Maybe there is no tradeoff

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

It has been fifteen years. Throughout that time most people, however much or little they valued liberty, have talked as if a loss of liberty were the price of increased security. Even Benjamin Franklin’s famous words quoted above assume this tradeoff.

What if it were not true? In what ways could more liberty bring about more safety?

1916’s summer blockbuster

In 1916 Geoffrey Malins, a cinematographer, toured the Western Front filming what he saw. The footage was edited into an hour-long film that was shown in British cinemas. The Battle of the Somme was an extraordinary success with some estimating that it was the most watched movie in British history. Clips from it still regularly turn up when TV people want to refer to the war.

But it didn’t please everyone. The Dean of Durham has this to say:

I beg leave respectfully to enter a protest against an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctities of bereavement.

The bereaved – or at least some of them – had different ideas:

Well, I have lost a son in battle, and I have seen the Somme films twice. I am going to see them again. I want to know what was the life, and the life-in-death, that our dear ones endured, and to be with them again in their great adventure.

My guess is that the Dean of Durham is referring above all to one particular scene; that scene, the famous scene, the one we are all familiar with, the one that above all others has come to represent the First World War. This one:

Sadly, I wasn't able to track down the actual clip which has more evidence of fakery but even in this frame the puniness of the barbed wire and the lack of large packs suggest this was shot some distance from the front.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to track down the actual clip which has more evidence of fakery but even in this frame the puniness of the barbed wire and the lack of large packs suggest this was shot some distance from the front.

Which is a pity. Because it is a fake.

As time goes by

People vote for socialist policies. Time goes by. Things get worse. Time goes by. People vote out the socialist policies. Time goes by. Things get better. Time goes by. People forget what it was like before. Time goes by. People vote for socialist policies. The fundamental things apply…

Here’s why renationalisation won’t make the trains run on time

When Owen Smith was asked at his Labour leadership launch about his stance on railways, he replied, “I would re-nationalise our railways tomorrow.” Needless to say, this went down well. In August last year, a YouGov poll found that 58% of the British public support renationalising the railways compared to just 17% who oppose it. The irony will not be lost on followers of the Labour party who may remember that renationalisation of the railways was Corbyn’s first official policy as Labour leader. Recently, Corbyn has thrust this issue back into the spotlight, jumping on the recent troubles of Southern Rail.

To set the scene, until 1994, the railway network in the UK was operated by the Government-controlled and owned British Rail. The Railways Act 1993 started the break-up of British Rail and the privatisation process concluded in 1997. The operation of passenger services is now contracted out under a system of franchising.

Twenty one years ago today…

… Croatia’s Operation Storm was in day two of a rapid offensive to recapture the bulk of its territory from Belgrade backed separatists. It was the largest European land battle since the Second World War, ending on 7 August 1995 with the reoccupation of 4,000 square miles of territory. This was a dramatic demonstration of how effective the Croatian Army (HV) had become compared to just a few years earlier, and Operation Storm also represented a strategic victory for the Bosnian government as it broke the long siege of the Bihać enclave.

Like all wars, it was not pretty, but it ended as it started, as an ethnic struggle with winners and losers and there is no point in thinking otherwise, and the less bad guys won in my opinion.

Although Op. Storm did not end on August 5th, many Croatians see the HV recapture of Knin on this date as the most symbolic. It feels strange to me to tag this as ‘historical views’ as saw a great deal of that war first hand. I am getting old 😀

Have they brought back the window tax?!?!

If you type “window tax” into google, and click on “images”, you get images like this one:


That being the first image that wikipedia shows you, in their entry on the Window tax.

Says wikipedia about this tax:

The window tax was a property tax based on the number of windows in a house. It was a significant social, cultural, and architectural force in England, France, Ireland and Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. To avoid the tax some houses from the period can be seen to have bricked-up window-spaces (ready to be glazed or reglazed at a later date). In England and Wales it was introduced in 1696 and was repealed in 1851,

London, and presumably all the other cities of Britain, still contain many such bricked-up windows, that date from this time.

But yesterday, I saw a new block of flats, still in the process of being constructed, just a few dozen yards from my own front door.

The front of which looks like this:


Let me be clear. There is a vertical row of bricked-up windows there, in between the real windows. And you can clearly see that this is a brand new building, not even yet occupied.

Here is a close-up shot of an individual bricked-up window:


I have long known the bare outlines of this window tax story, as I guess most of my fellow Brits do also, especially if they live in towns or cities. Windows were taxed, so people filled the windows in, to avoid paying the tax.

So, my first – outraged and spasmodic – reaction to this new building, when I saw these non-windows was: My God, have they brought back the window tax?

But, on further reflection, I further guess that this is isn’t the first time that recent property developers have created bricked-up windows, or what look like bricked-up windows, to create, pretty cheaply, the suggestion of antiquity in an otherwise blandly modern building.

When I see other bricked-up windows, I will no longer assume that they date from the time of the window tax. Maybe they merely allude to this time.

But, am I missing something? Is there a more practical purpose to such non-windows? Is it helpful to create windows that can later be un-bricked-up (bricked-down?), at some future date? Does it help to think about maybe wanting a window that you don’t want now, beforehand, just in case?

Is this a mere part of the construction process. Will these bricked-up windows all turn into real windows very soon, before anyone even moves in?

Or are there quite different reasons for making a new bricked-up window, which I am unaware of? Perhaps so. In fact, probably so. And if so, I hope that commenters will perhaps enlighten me.

Ofir Haivry on the current state of Middle East

Via Mick Hartley, I came upon this summary of the state of the Middle East, and in particular of the bloody shambles that was the attempt to unite Sunni Islam, aka: the Arabs. It’s the best background briefing I have recently read on that deeply depressing region of our otherwise moderately undepressing world. Although, that doesn’t say much for I am no sort of Middle East expert, nor even much of an observer of it. Too depressing. But I read all of this piece, by Ofir Haivry of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, at one sitting as soon as I encountered it, which is quite rare for me and my crumbling attention span.

I haven’t much to say about all this, but one thought does occur to me, which is that it seems rather wrong for Americans to blame other Americans for this bloody shambles. (Haivry himself does not blame America.) The next silliest thing to believing that your country is an unchallengeably magnificent superpower that never ever errs is to believe that your country’s mistakes and crimes are overwhelmingly more important and blameworthy than those of any other country, these two attitudes being far more similar than those who indulge in the latter one typically realise. The Middle East would surely now be a bloody shambles whatever the Americans had recently tried to do about it.

If there are imperialist villains to be blaming, how about Britain and France? But one suspects that, again, even if those notorious “lines in the sand” had never been drawn around a century ago, what would be happening on top of this sand would still now be a bloody shambles.

The only rays of light that Haivry discerns are in the form of the various little non-Islamic and anti-Islamist statelets that are starting to form, such as the newly emerging Kurdistan. The Kurds aren’t the only ones doing this, apparently. Good to hear.

And then of course there is the continuing success of Israel. A particular reason I am convinced by this article is that Israelis cannot afford to be wrong, and in particular they cannot afford to be sentimental, about what is going on around them.

Talking of sentimental, “Lawrence of Arabia” gets a well-deserved swipe of criticism.

Act I, Scene II. A public place.

The Great Leader

Flourish. Enter CAESAR; ANTONY, for the course; CALPURNIA, PORTIA, DECIUS BRUTUS, CICERO, BRUTUS, CASSIUS, and CASCA; a great crowd following, among them a Soothsayer.