Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont

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Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont is a student of Stuart history. She is a widely read deep political thinker who has an extensive grasp of the history not only of England but the world. She is not afraid to speak her mind on issues that are contentious. She is also extremely well read in fiction. Her analyses of current and historical situations are individual and outside the stereotypical tired political thinking that is prevalent. If my opinion is worth anything her historical analyses deserve to be widely read. She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about government and politics.

I made sure the sommelier fetched and decanted the finest Gevrey-Chambertin from The Slaughterhouse cellar.

John Locke, known as the Father of Liberalism, developed his theory of the social contract which looked at appropriate relations between individuals and their governments. What do you think of his analysis of the state and how would he have viewed the liberty granted or denied by the Big Society of Britain today?

Richard, for the long answer I would refer you to I must be free or die, a piece I wrote on my blog at the beginning of December last year The most pertinent extract is as follows;

I believe in freedom; I believe the state to be an intrusive imposition, an attempt to place limits on freedom. Still, we life in communities and communities have to be ordered, so I accept the state as a necessity, just so long as it is kept at a maximum distance. I dislike any form of welfare or state subsidy, which I believe to be corrosive of self-respect and economic freedom. More than that, the high levels of taxation they require do much to bleed the life out of enterprise, impacting on the very people that welfare is supposedly meant to help.

I think Locke would have been horrified by the development of the modern state, particularly the degenerate form created by the previous government, intrusive and authoritarian to a quite obnoxious degree. I still have no clear idea what our present Prime Minister means by the Big Society, undefined and nebulous, the intellectual child, I suspect, of the woolly-minded Philip Blond, that well-known ‘Red’ Tory. I do not want the big battalions; I want the little platoons that Edmund Burke placed so much reliance on, a point on which I think Locke would agree. I’m in the process of discovering the work of Frédéric Bastiat, whose views on liberty and the state accord so much with my own.

In ‘Manufacturing Consent’ Chomsky put forward the theory of the Propaganda Model, which posits that corporate-owned news mass communication media distort news reportage because they are businesses subject to commercial competition. To what extent do you think Britain today is subject to these distortions and how effectively do you think the propaganda machine is working?

I could easily make out an argument to the contrary, that insofar as corporate owned media are in competition with one another, and with other sources of communication, a premium is placed on gathering genuine news, on not distorting stories for simple political ends. Rupert Murdoch may be politically motivated but he is a business man first with enough sense to leave news gathering to professional journalists.

Journalism is a cut-throat profession and we have seen from some of the less scrupulous newspapers that people will break all rules to get a story, or create a story where there is none. That’s a form of distortion, I suppose, but it’s on the margins, the kind of thing one sees in the newspapers I never read. Newspapers as pure propaganda would quickly end up dead. People may be stupid, but not so stupid that they are blind to a message, blind to the fact that they are being manipulated. Josef Goebbels was a propagandist of genius because he recognised this simple fact. Consent can never be manufactured. I have to say, as a general principle, I’m far more concerned by super injunctions and the invidious effects this legal tactic is having on free expression.

Laurence Sterne’s innovative novel ‘Tristram Shandy’ uses John Locke’s ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ to explore his theories of empiricism and raise the question of how much we can really know of ourselves. Do you think his theories still hold good today and are we living in an age of heightened narcissism?

Is this an age of heighten narcissism or degenerate narcissism? The latter, I suspect, the age of reality TV, of Big Brother, of a succession of mediocre celebrities, of people famous for being famous. How Locke would have hated this unreflective time and its unreflective people, whose empiricism, if I can even use that term, is one without any interior examination, simply an animal-like response to one bogus stimulus, trend or fashion after another. Maybe Sterne would have understood better:

With all this sail, poor Yorick carried not one ounce of ballast; he was utterly unpractised in the world; and at the age of twenty-six, knew just about as well how to steer his course in it, as a romping, unsuspicious girl of thirteen.

Do you think under current anti-terrorism laws it is arguable that burning Guy Fawkes is incitement to terrorism and if you were alive at the time of the gunpowder plot how would you have legislated against the plotters?

Sorry to burden you with yet another reference but I give you to this, a piece I wrote last year, a response to an article by Frank Skinner calling for the scrapping of Bonfire Night.

Actually, people burning Guy Fawkes, by contemporary lights, should really be pursued for incitement to hatred against a religious minority. I’m sure there must be something under the previous government’s laughable blasphemy legislation.

It’s impossible to legislate in advance against plotters, for the simple reason that their schemes are devised in secret. If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded it would have wiped out virtually the whole of the English governing class, causing monumental political chaos. In 1605 legislation against traitors like Catesby and Fawkes was already in place; there would have been no need for any additional measures. But if I had been alive then, and in a position of influence, I would certainly have argued against a general campaign against all Catholics, few of whom were traitors in words or deed.

In ‘Metahistory’ Hayden White posits the theory that a historian begins his work by putting together a chronicle of events which is organized into a story before the material is put into a plot which is latently expressing an ideology. As a historian what do you make of his theory and how do you avoid narrative prejudice when writing history?

It’s a good question. If I understand White correctly he seems to be saying that the whole process is already mapped out before a single document is examined. Of course no researcher comes to a topic in the raw, so to speak, as she or he will have already gone through the background literature and to that extent have already formed a broad impression.

However does this necessarily mean that a strict explanatory framework is already in place, that there is necessarily a narrative prejudice or an ideology determining how the evidence is interpreted? I’m not saying this can’t happen but the best, the most original historical writing, is free, or should be free, of any marked political or philosophical bias. I would like to think that my argument would always be driven by the evidence; that I can, with the right approach, understand what motivates a Whig as much as a Tory.

Elias Canetti in ‘Crowds and Power’ writes ‘No political structure of any size can dispense with order, and one of the fundamental applications of order it to time, for no communal human activity can take place without it. Indeed one might say that the regulation of time is the primary attribute of all government.’ What do you make of his observation?

Right, OK, this is a difficult one for me because I have such a poor opinion on Canetti! I’ve read Crowds and Power and Auto-da-Fe, his novel, and was impressed by neither. But I had already been soured, I suppose, by a reading of P. J. Conrad’s Iris Murdoch- A Life. Here is what I wrote a couple of years ago about the relationship between Canetti and Murdoch:

Elias Canetti lived in England for nearly forty years, seemingly hating the experience. In his resentment he turned on Iris Murdoch, with whom he had had an affair, seeing in her all of the perceived faults of the country. She was, in his eyes, a ‘complete Oxford parasite’. She dressed badly, her figure was wrong; she was promiscuous, bisexual and religious. She was a person who had enjoyed ‘vulgar’ success, in novels that were far too Oxonian, with characters that were merely caricatures of her friends and pupils. She was, unlike him, an illegitimate Poet or Master of Transformation. And so his memoir continues in this sour and silly tone. At one point he uses literally hundreds of words to criticise a revealing blouse she wore to attract Sir Aymer Maxwell, who, though homosexual, was grandson to a Duke of Cumberland.

It all reveals so much about Canetti’s character. It also, perhaps, reveals some lack of judgement on Murdoch’s part in ever entering into a relationship with such a shallow egoist. As far as I am concerned his writings, both his fiction and his non-fiction, are amongst the most grossly overrated of the last century.

So, there you are! Sorry, I’m getting so far from the point of your question. I think the regulation of time has precious little to do with government. Government has existed for centuries, back to a time when time was no more than the rhythm of the seasons. If time has become quicker and more intrusive that’s because of the general changes within society that emerged with the Industrial Revolution. Time gets faster by the minute, if that makes sense, too fast often for government to keep up let alone regulate.

How do you think matriarchal and patriarchal social structures differ?

In answer to your question all I can say here is that patriarchy is a practice and matriarch merely a hypothesis. I imagine matriarchy, understanding this to be a society run specifically by mothers, would be a lot less competitive and far more nurturing. By that definition Amazons are not matriarchs; they are just female patriarchs! Feminism, I should add, is not really part of my intellectual makeup. I can see and I can understand the artificial barriers that a society dominated by men erects against the advance of women, but the higher the barrier the greater the challenge. I suppose I must be something of an Amazon too.

As a historian specialising in Stuart history you are dealing with a period in British history where there is an Interregnum. During this period England was dominated by Puritan literature and official censorship, as exemplified by Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ and his later retractions of that statement. Although some of the Puritan ministers of Oliver Cromwell wrote poetry that was elaborate and carnal, such as Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, this poetry was not published. What do you think the literature of the period reveals about the time and why do you think the Commonwealth failed?

My focus has chiefly been on the political literature of the period, particularly the polemical pamphlet, in which the age excelled. To some extent these still colour our view of the whole period: we are still influenced by some of the myths, as you will discover if you keep your eye on my blog! I will be publishing an article in a day or so showing how modern day perceptions of the Puritans continue to be influenced by John Cleveland, a minor Royalist poet.

Generally speaking the literature of the period, thinking specifically of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, is quite barren, setting Marvell and Milton to one side. Censorship, despite Milton ’s appeal, was the dominant force, not just political censorship but also the censorship of artistic expression. The previous golden age of the theatre was brought to a juddering halt by Puritan intolerance. The sterility of the Interregnum with what went before, and what was to come with the Restoration, is quite startling. Even Milton ’s greatest work came in the reign of Charles II.

By the Commonwealth I’m assuming that you mean the whole period of the Interregnum, from the execution of Charles I to the Restoration of Charles II? The experiment failed simply because it was impossible to find a permanent political settlement, one that was not backed by military force. By the time of its dismissal by Cromwell in 1653 the Rump of the Long Parliament was hopelessly unrepresentative, even of that narrow part of the nation that was allowed to vote. It was also self-serving and corrupt. Its successor, the Nominated or Barebones Parliament, was ineffectual.

What then? Why the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, a restoration of the monarchy in all but name. He was even offered the crown shortly before the creation of the Second Protectorate, only refusing because of the hostility of the army. Although Cromwell was not a dictator in the modern sense, in that he continued to seek parliamentary legitimacy, his power did not depend on his narrowly selected legislatures but on the New Model Army. The rule of the Army, particularly in the period of the Major Generals, was hugely unpopular and ruinously expensive.

With the death of Oliver Cromwell he was succeeded by Richard, for no better reason than that he was his father’s son. But Richard had no legitimacy whatsoever, no power base in either parliament or the army. His fall in 1659 was succeeded by complex political manoeuvring, but in the end it was obvious that the only real solution was to restore the monarchy and the ancient constitution of the country, subverted by Cromwell and the Puritans, a far greater threat to English liberty than Charles I had ever had.

To what extent do you think the problems between Israel and Palestine were exacerbated by the Balfour Declaration?

So, on to Balfour. Did you know that Robert Cecil, his predecessor as Prime Minister, was his uncle? When Balfour succeeded in 1902 people clearly amused by this perceived nepotism invented the expression “Bob’s your uncle.” Doubtless you knew this already.  🙂

I think there would always have been problems between Jewish incomers to Palestine and the Arabs who already lived there. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 – made when he was Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s government – was a clear hostage to fortune, a promise made under a particular set of circumstances, a political investment that was to flower into some truly intractable problems for the British, especially after they obtained the Mandate of Palestine. It was simply impossible to reconcile the two sides. A promise made and then cynically ignored made the British look hypocritical and untrustworthy, a fact that made a final settlement all the more elusive. To encourage Lawrence and the Arab Revolt while promoting Zionism (incidentally in the belief that this would keep Russia in the war because the country was supposedly dominated by the Jews) was a monumental miscalculation. The Jews and the Arabs may have hated one another, but they ended up hating the British more.

Do you think New Labour was bordering on totalitarianism and how many elements of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ do you see in their policies?

I wrote a piece in May of last year I called Bad Law, a gloss on Philip Johnston’s book Bad Laws. Since we are on the subject of Stuart history, and since I’ve already mentioned the rule of Cromwell’s Major Generals, I think this provides a more pertinent example of the forms of killjoy governance favoured by Blair and Brown than the totalitarian tyranny of Nineteen-Eighty Four. BB they may be but they were not BB, if you take my meaning!

Yet, as I wrote in Bad Law, there are some parallels with Orwell’s dystopia and New Labour Britain. The Religious Hatred Act effectively introduced thought crime into English law. The various pieces of anti-terror legislation created a greater threat to our liberty than Al-Qaeda ever could. The Regulation and Investigatory Powers Act, something that could have been put in place by O’Brien of the Thought Police, allowed officials to read private correspondence and monitor the movements of even the most law-abiding citizens. The spread of CCTV meant that we were all under closer observation than even the citizens of Cuba or North Korea . I concluded my argument with another Stuart reference;

…each and every one of us has become a potential suspect, guilty until proved innocent. Sweep the lot away, sweep away the legacy of a dreadful thirteen years, either that or reintroduce Royal Absolutism, my favoured solution. We were much freer under its gentle guidance.

Yes, we were.  🙂

Thank you Ana for a brilliant and refreshing interview.

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Anastasia’s blog; Ana The Imp

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