Is ‘Ever-Closer Union’ The Right Path for the EU’s Survival?

Depending on whether you supported the UK leaving or remaining in the European Union, you might presume that the EU is either an undemocratic mess destined to fail, or an international organisation bound to grow and strengthen in a world where cooperation is key. The problem is, in the long-run, it really is impossible to tell which possibility will prevail. 

One the one hand, this last decade has seen a rise in nationalistic sentiment and a resurgent hunger for the principles of sovereign independence; Brexit, the election of Donald Trump accompanied by the slogan ‘America first’, and Orbán’s rule in Hungary serve as just a handful of examples of such a sentiment. On the other hand, it may seem impossible that any nation could fully address its challenges alone in an age of unprecedented interdependence and interconnectedness (and the pandemic speaks for itself here). 

Since its beginning, the EU has been guided by the latter view; states must share resources, work collaboratively under formal rules, and pool their sovereignty in order to survive and prosper in a globalised world. Indeed, the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into what we know today as the European Union, was formally established in 1951 with the aim of regional integration in order to avoid war between France and Germany following the horrific conflict of World War II. Underlying all this was a simple perspective: without internationally agreed rules and standards, states would inevitably compete and conflict, and so overarching structures were necessary to prevent this. 

Flags at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. (Credit: Wiktor Dabkowski, action press, via Flickr)

This may appear surprising, as in recent years we’ve often heard from leave campaigners that the EU was originally a mere free trade bloc which morphed into a political union over time. However, the language of ‘political union’ and ‘ever-closer union’ has been in the treaties right from the start, and those ideas have increasingly manifested themselves. Illustrating this, just recently the German Foreign Minister went so far as to call on the EU to abolish the veto power of individual member states when it comes to foreign policy. It seems, therefore, that the EU is set to continue on its pathway towards ever-closer union and increased integration between its member-states. But is that the right path for the union to follow?? 

Despite major challenges – namely the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, and even Brexit – the EU has succeeded on its slow march towards integration and expansion, and public support across the region has held steady. Whatsmore, continued access to the world’s largest single market area is a great benefit of EU membership, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic and its economic effects. The EU also remains a key player in global governance, attending and influencing the G7, giving the member-states a collective power that they would otherwise lack as independent nations. 

However, increased integration and ever-closer union are not guaranteed to succeed. There is t a possibility that continued allegiance to those principles could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the EU. Vaccine access and roll-out across the EU during the pandemic highlighted the weakness of the EU in dealing with crises as a large collective, resulting in major dissatisfaction with its leaders, as well as reducing public confidence in the vaccine itself. 

Furthermore, the UK’s future success or lack-thereof as a post-Brexit independent nation will play an important role in shaping perceptions about the benefits of an ever-closer union. If the UK is seen to succeed as a nation unbound by a supranational authority in areas of trade, security, and global leadership, then the integrationist approach of the EU will be put under the spotlight.

Crucially, the sense of Europeanism among the population will likely play the key role in determining just how much further EU integration can go, whilst succeeding. If there is a strong enough European identity, as there is now, then further integration is likely to succeed. However, as we witnessed with Brexit, the electorates of Europe will not sit quietly if they feel that their national identity is being significantly displaced on the altar of ever-closer union. For now it seems as though the current path is working, and public support is holding steady. However, in the long term, the future of the EU is impossible to predict.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

NATO summit: How to Avoid a New Cold War?

The 28th NATO summit on Monday, 14 June 2021, saw the members of the Organization step up their tone regarding China and Russia. Both powers have demonstrated a certain aggressiveness in their foreign policies while also forming alliances that pose threats to the international alliance of 30 European and North American nations.  

The summit could certainly be deemed successful from a diplomatic point of view: the essential task of agreeing a common strategy until 2030 between the Allies was completed. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg noted that “[t]o do more, Allies agreed that we need to invest more together in NATO”. This investment is to be made in the military, civil and infrastructural sectors of the alliance to ensure it is ready to “face the challenges of today and tomorrow”. 

NATO summit in Brussels, 14 June 2021. (Credit: CSactu)

Among these challenges feature cybersecurity, terrorism and the rise of authoritarianism. The summit centered on the imminent problems relating to Russia and China in particular. Notable among these is their aggressiveness on the international scene and the threat they pose to European and American security. The Allies however reaffirmed the importance of defending “our values and interests”, especially “at a time when authoritarian regimes like Russia and China challenge the rules-based order”. This strong separation between Russia and China on one side and NATO countries on the other hand is polarising; the words “Cold War” do not seem that far out of reach. 

When looking back at history, we can notice an astounding number of parallels, but also of differences, with the political tensions of today. The Cold War was born out ofof the most horrifying conflict of the twentieth century and left the world barely a minute of peace before the separation into Eastern and Western blocs began. Yet as in the twentieth century, political powers find themselves in similar camps: the influence of the US under Biden has grown, and its alliance with Europe is thus stable; Russia, successor to the Soviet Union, stands again in defiance of the traditionally “Western” nations, and large parts of Africa and South America function once more as zones of influence and battlefields of obscure conflicts between the two traditional opponents. Of course, there are differences between the civil war in Syria, which sees Russia aiding the regime and Western powers indirectly supporting rebel forces, and the Vietnam War; yet they both fall into the category of proxy wars, which, ultimately, are a sign of continuing tensions between Western and Eastern powers through their relations to respective opponents in such national conflicts. One difference that must be noted however, is the threat of nuclear war so directly associated with the Cold War. While this threat has, in relative terms, not at all diminished today, nuclear armament became a symbol of the period between 1950 and 1970, when notably the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

With these events still very much present in the political and military memory, communication from NATO during the 2021 Summit has thus been very specific: a new Cold War is to be avoided at all costs. Ideally, this would best work through cooperation with respective opposing powers to ensure global peace as effectively as possible. Cooperation is however not always a given, especially with regards to China and Russia. NATO thus faces a difficult balancing act between marking its territory on the international scene and de-escalating potential conflicts with aggressive counterparts. 

Concerning Russia, NATO is trying to follow a dual approach of diplomatic dialogue and defence. The effectiveness of this approach has however been less than satisfactory until now; it has neither deterred Russia from attacking Georgia in 2008, nor annexing Crimea and supporting separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. While NATO troops are present in the Baltic states and Poland to defend Europe’s borders, this has not kept Moscow from conducting menacing military manoeuvres on its side of the frontier.

China on the other hand is a relatively new and different threat, as its power has considerably increased over the last few decades in comparison to its role in the Cold War. In stark contrast to the 1970s, China is now being considered an actual enemy by the US and Europe, whereas it was once seen as a possible ally against the Soviet Republic. Nowadays, China does not share a direct border with NATO members, unlike Russia; yet this does not mean that it has not become a military threat. While it does not have the traditional status like Russia of being the “West’s” – and especially America’s – enemy, it has shown the same expansionary ambitions and defiance as Moscow. The situation today is thus different from the second half of the twentieth century; China has taken over Russia’s role as the communist power defying the US, yet has to co-exist with Moscow, which has only stepped up its expansionary attempts. In a bid to compete, Chinese aggressions reach from territorial threats towards Taiwan and Hongkong to oppressing the Uyghur minority; China thus makes clear that the world is no longer led by a “small group of countries”, as Chinese officials said following criticism from the G7.

There lies perhaps another problem. Even though NATO is formed of nations with similar interests and sometimes long-standing histories of alliance, it is far from unified. Its individual member states still have differing objectives and approaches to foreign policy and matters of defence. This makes a globalised approach to security concerns difficult. The agreement on the 2030 Agenda suggests however a willingness for more cooperation and more specific goals for the alliance. It is to be hoped that nobody outside NATO seeks military escalation; after all, a new Cold War would be in nobody’s interest. Not even Russia and China, ostensibly aggressive, would wish for a global conflict on that scale, contrary to the escalations between 1950 and 1960, when the threat of war became once again very real for the world. However, it will take a joint effort from NATO and those outside of the alliance to ensure global peace as it is now.

Cristina Coellen, History in Politics Contributor

Book Review: The Great Imperial Hangover, Samir Puri

Samir Puri’s The Great Imperial Hangover provides a fresh assessment of the oft over-simplified historical phenomenon of empire. In it, Puri pulls apart the ‘intersecting imperial legacies’ that provide the undercurrent of modern politics, and demonstrates that those legacies continue to manifest in the greatest issues of our times – from Blair and Bush’s rehashing of the old imperial ‘white man’s burden’ in the Middle East and Africa, to the debates around the legitimacy of China’s borders. Such questions are often thorny ones, as British readers will know from the vehemence of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protest movement that has engulfed Oriel College in recent years. Yet Puri manages to show that the legacies of empire are too complex to ever be classified under a catch-all categorisation of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are a foundational component of the modern political landscape, with fluid and mixed meanings dependent on their audience and subject to interpretation and reinterpretation based on political utility and shifting moral parameters.

Empire was the default in human history before the nation states that we have come to take for granted displaced them during the twentieth century. Puri points out that whilst for most nationalism meant the fracturing of the old empires, the Chinese republic (formed in 1911) was unique in its incorporation of the borders created by the expansion of the Qing empire into the new nation state, under the founding principle of ‘Five Races Under One Union’. If we accept the interpretation of China as an empire-in-disguise, the plight of the Uighurs – resettled by the Qing to Xinjiang following the extermination of the region’s Dzungar people in the 1750s – appears not as the plight of a mistreated minority, but as the systematic cultural genocide of an entire colonised people. The next chapter in a saga of imperial expansion and assimilation that spans thousands of years.

Front cover of The Great Imperial Hangover. (Credit.)

This domestic imperial inheritance is but one of the ways that Chinese politics remains in the shadow of the country’s empire-riddled history. Another – one that Puri singles out for particular analysis – is the legacy cast by the clash of the Qing with the European empires during the nineteenth century, and the influence that this has had on China’s self-perception relative to the West. As China emerges from its ‘century of humiliation’, Puri argues that clash of empires will remain China’s historical point of reference. It represents a low point in its history of competition with the western imperialists against which it shall seek to define itself as it vies for global supremacy with another great empire-in-disguise, the USA. Empires never went away, they simply recast their modes of operation to fit the mould of the modern world.

The Great Imperial Hangover is a fantastic book that provides ample justification for the use of history as a paradigm through which to view current affairs. Puri – a former diplomat and RAND employee – makes no attempt to hide his work’s didactic purpose. To remain ignorant of our imperial past, to seek to tarnish it all with the same brush, or simply to attempt to cover it up, as has so often been the case, is to severely limit our understanding of the modern world’s diplomatic roots. The imperial legacies that structure modern politics warrant close analysis, and Puri’s work should provide a starting point for both the interested observer and those in the diplomatic profession whose job it is to manage our relations with those who view such legacies in ways that often differ from – or directly oppose – our own.

Sam Lake, History in Politics Writer

Work Environment and Culture

With workplace culture once again becoming important as people begin returning to the workplace, it is the perfect time to examine the differences between working in Asia and the UK. Despite inter-country disparities, work cultures in Asia share quite a few common traits. For one, employees in Asian countries such as India, China, Taiwan and Singapore work an average of 2100+ hours per year, compared to the 1700~ average in the UK. This amounts to an extra 8 hours per week. The culture of Asian countries offers a partial explanation where there is a heavier emphasis on work and less so on having a fulfilling work-life balance. Starting work at 9am and finishing at 9pm is often the norm, especially in places that have seen drastic economic improvements, such as China and Singapore. What results from this ‘pressure cooker’ work culture is that employees often report consistent poor physical and mental health, as reported in a study by Rand Europe. 

In tandem with the mental health stigma in many Asian countries, workers avoid seeking professional diagnosis or help for fear of social ostracisation. The culmination is a lack of productive labour and low living standards. Whereas in the UK, labour productivity is significantly higher than its Asian counterparts despite much lower working hours. In fact, research conducted by the OECD into the most labour-productive countries, only 2 Asian countries featured in the top 15. This is despite their consistently ranking high for number of hours worked annually. 

Street to Askakusa Shrine (Credit: roger4336, via Flickr)

Beyond employment, Asian living standards are comparatively lower than in the UK. This is partially caused by an intense work culture and exacerbated by high living costs in densely populated areas, such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, leading to young people being unable to purchase property, having poorer physical health and experiencing a generally lower standard of living.

Rare, tragic cases like that of Nayoa Nishigaki, where overworking has led to their death, are still prevalent in several Asian countries. Despite some countries’ labour laws prohibiting employers from requiring their employees to work beyond a certain number of hours, the corporate cultural difference in how an employee is valued leads to employers and employees correlating hours worked with dedication and usefulness.

The intense work culture and social stigma around mental health issues all further contribute to the mental health crisis in Asia, with many Asian countries having a high proportion of their population suffering from mental health disorders yet never receiving treatment. A particularly severe example is South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate amongst OECD countries, and the second-highest number of hours worked.

It seems the occasionally toxic work environment and culture will not see any improvement until the fundamental culture surrounding work in Asia is changed. This could be done only through collective action, forcing a whole new mindset on work, its role in leading a productive and fulfilling life, and destigmatising the conversation around mental health. With the normal habits of work being disrupted worldwide due to Covid-19, it seems now is the best time to ignite the conversation around existing work culture and its priority in our lives.

May Lam, History in Politics Contributor

The Painful Struggle for Transparency in British Politics

Dominic Cummings’ breath-taking appearance at the joint session of the Health and Social Care Committee and the Technology Committee in the last week of May was one of the most revealing insights into the inner workings of Westminster on record. The combination of blunt personal remarks and detailed descriptions of the Government’s strategy posed a stark contrast to the historical veil of secrecy that has guarded British governance for over a half a century. 

The culture of secrecy was heavily embedded in Britain for the duration of the second half of the 20th century, stemming from the infamous Official Secrets Acts, and favoured a system of non-disclosure. There was no right to information from public bodies, and without action from Parliament the disclosure of information was left to the will of the executive – clearly an unhappy system. 

The notion that open government is better government is well regarded and is a mantra that should be followed by governments worldwide. Not only to avoid serious abuses of power or violations of human rights, but also to ensure that proper daily governance is in operation with a key contemporary example being the scandal over the procurement of PPE for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dominic Cummings (Credit: Reuters, via BBC)

Cummings himself has acknowledged the importance of transparency in government numerous times, often stating it in his committee appearance, aligning himself with the general trend since the turn of the century. Following the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act under the Blair administration, the public now have a right to information and can make requests for disclosures. 

This drastic change in the British attitude towards transparency was crucial in kickstarting a trend favouring openness, with the aim that more would be done to advance transparency in the future. However, what has followed can be seen as a pushback against the change started under New Labour, most recently the proposed plans to reform judicial review, which is a key tool for government accountability in the UK.

Whilst Cummings’ appearance can be seen as a signifier that the attitude in Westminster is still tilting towards openness and not secrecy, it is important not to overstate its significance. Cummings’ testimony could still appropriately be dismissed as the fulfilment of personal vendettas. However, it may lead to the development of an expectation by Parliament to have these types of hearings, upon which significant media attention is granted and provides the political incentive for their occurence.

Any further development of transparency will require significant support and demand from the electorate, which due to other current crises seems unlikely to arise any time soon, notably due to the upheavals of Brexit and coronavirus. However, scandals which showcase the importance of transparency are always in good supply and will help to maintain at least the current status quo in terms of openness. All that is needed is a good opportunity and some excess political power to encourage further serious reform of transparency.

Cummings’ appearance, the biggest since Rupert Murdoch’s during the phone hacking scandal, has reminded the public and press of the power of Select Committees. This has emboldened the theme of transparency in British politics whilst this level of access would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. The Select Committee appearance serves as a strong reminder of what the British public now expects in regard to governmental transparency, even if a similar appearance is unlikely to occur in the near future.

Aidan Taylor, History in Politics Contributor

The Politics of the Past: How Divergent Interpretations of History Shape East Asian Diplomatic Relations in the Present

David Cameron’s refusal to remove his poppy for his 2010 visit to China was revealing of a stark contrast in the significance granted to history in politics between himself (and the British political establishment as a whole) and his hosts. Whilst history has often played the role of a footnote to contemporary politics in the UK – as reflected by the severe lack of meaningful authority being granted to historians in any government department barring the Foreign Office, and even then only recently – it is central to the national self-portrayal of the Chinese nation. The ‘Century of Humiliation’ narrative that plays such a pivotal role in the story of the nation, as painted by the Chinese Communist Party, is one that the West would do well to take more notice of. Meanwhile, in Japan and Korea, the legacy of the Japanese colonial project looms large in contemporary relations. Perhaps as the ‘victors’ of modern history it is easy to relegate the past to that which went before. In Asia, where the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were ones of humiliation and soul-searching, it is impossible to simply sequester the past – it is intricately bound to the politics of the present.

China’s relations with the West underwent a radical shift in the Great Divergence of the nineteenth century, as European powers and the United States came to dominate the globalising world order. The reversal in fortunes suffered by the Qing Empire and, later, the modern Chinese state, has served to inform Chinese foreign policy and education ever since. Chairman Mao linked the Japanese imperialism of the early twentieth century to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth, and the same wars were used to justify Communist China’s ‘reaction’ against their Western oppressors. The Chinese national imagining has therefore come to be defined in opposition to, and in competition with, a West that remains stained by its past, a point of nuance that David Cameron failed so visibly to grasp in 2010, and one that continues to underlie the diplomatic fallacy that we are able to negotiate any sort of equal standing with the Chinese government. A competitive national consciousness has been fostered that means that ‘the West’ will always be cast as the natural point of comparison for China’s past failures and current successes, leaving them and the likes of the UK at polar ends of a dichotomy that western governments, until very recently, have failed to fully grasp.

A Nationalist officer guarding women prisoners likely to be comfort women used by the Communists, 1948.
(Credit: Jack Birns, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images)

Elsewhere in East Asia, the memory of the Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’, who were drawn from across the Empire through the course of the Second World War and forced into what can only be described as sexual slavery, retains a pervasive political potency. The majority of these women were Korean and though estimates vary, they seem to have numbered in at least the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands. Indeed, such a range in estimates comes as a result of the topic’s controversial nature in the context of the countries’ poor diplomatic relations in recent years. The plight of the comfort women and the allocation of responsibility for the crimes against them has come to represent a clearly drawn battle line between the two countries – Japanese nationalists, the recently departed Shinzo Abe amongst them, seeking to play down the extent of official sanction for such atrocities, whilst Koreans pursue justice not only for the victims, but for the Korean nation as a whole. In order for the nations’ relations to reach some level of normality, the governments of both must look to find a compromise between what are currently polarised memories of the Japanese Empire. Forgetting those years is a luxury that only the oppressors may take, yet it is clear that in Korea too a way must be found for the nation to move on from the scars of their past.

Both of these cases demonstrate the historical dimension of diplomacy in the East Asian political sphere. A history of ruptures, clean breaks and colonial exploitation has bred national imaginings in which the traumas of the past play a central role. This significance is one that can be easily underestimated by those of us in the West for whom history has taken on an almost trivial status, as a backdrop to the present. Cameron underestimated it and it appears that our current leaders are also misunderstanding the inescapable threat posed by a Chinese leadership that places itself firmly in the context of historical competition with Western ‘imperialists’. Such cultural ignorance not only offends those whose culture is being ignored, but also hamstrings those guilty of that ignorance. Without a clear understanding of the other side’s thinking, diplomatic blunders like the poppy controversy are not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

Book Review: The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards

Steve Richards’s writing is detailed, concise and accessible: perfect qualities mixed into his book on leadership from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson. Defined as the “television age” of Prime Ministers, Richards looks at the qualities needed to lead a country in a job that is notorious for failure. It is ideal for anyone looking to understand how we have ended up where we are today, as well as the real, though often flawed, people who have led Britain.

Looking through the ten Prime Ministers, Richards identifies common themes and criteria on which to judge these individuals. These broad ideas are then expertly woven into specific examples that highlight the author’s years of experience in the world of politics. One of the most engaging criteria he notes is the concept of being a “political teacher” with the ability to carry the public on the path the government is pursuing. Richards points to Thatcher as a prime example of this, with a specialist ability to simplify complex themes into accessible lessons, even where they may not be logically sound. An interesting example of this is Thatcher referencing her father’s grocery shop in Grantham; she argued that he could not spend more than he earned, and so neither should the country. Of course, Richards argues, the state is an entirely different unit in comparison to a shop, but Thatcher’s ability to create a simple story captivated the public.

The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson paperback cover. (Credit: via Waterstones)

Naturally, there are those figures who do not possess these key skills. Continuing the idea of the political teacher, Richards notes that Theresa May was reluctant to give a running commentary on Brexit, preferring instead to give a number of high profile speeches but in doing so, allowing others to take control of the narrative in the interim. This, he posits, is the result of applying the same tactics as were deployed in her successful period in the Home Office: relying on familiar tactics in a job that was not designed to accommodate them.

Richards expands more widely and engagingly on this theme, tracing Prime Ministers’ actions and instincts – both positive and negative – back to their personal and political upbringings. For the 1970s leaders who grew up with the Great Depression, fear of unemployment was almost crippling and coloured their dealings with trade unions. Enter Margaret Thatcher – free of such inhibitions – and tactics changed markedly. Of course, these were not the only factors, but they have helped Richards develop a nuanced picture of our Prime Ministers.

This is why the stories are so compelling: they give a rich picture that goes beneath the popular myths: Wilson’s exiting office on his own terms, Thatcher’s luck in facing a fractured Labour Party in 1983, Brown’s fear of being a “tail-end Charlie” realised in 2010. Being Prime Minister is exposed as being contingent on a huge number of factors, many out of the individual’s control, for example the media, which Richard paints as having almost imprisoned Blair and Brown in their desperation to keep the newspapers of traditionally Conservative Middle England on their side. Prime Ministers are too often seen as all powerful, whereas Richards expertly outlines the complicated maze each must navigate to achieve their aims.

Overall, these detailed accounts of leaders’ personalities and careers show that they are never adequately classified by the binary good or bad metric, as so many seem to picture them. These are characters with huge expertise, experience and a human side that is often lost in popular memory. Having known or interviewed the figures he writes about, Richards is uniquely placed to track the paths to power of the ‘modern’ Prime Ministers, and it shows.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

Merkel’s Immigration Policy: A Failure?

Many highlight Angela Merkel’s policy in relation to the 2015 migrant crisis as the beginning of her downfall. In that year, Germany’s net migration figure was 1.1 million, just under double the previous year’s total. As Europe struggled to cope with refugees, Merkel made her country the continent’s biggest destination, despite the Dublin Agreement mandating that refugees should seek asylum in the first country they entered. Even today, the refugee crisis is pointed to as a key moment in Merkel’s premiership, and the moment she began to lose her grip on power. But was her immigration policy actually a failure?

When thinking of Germany and immigration, a notable example is the Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, programme which began in the 1950s. These guest workers were invited to help rebuild West Germany after the Second World War, with the main source of guests through this period being Turkey. Many workers never returned home, remaining in Germany with their families. Such people are no longer known as guests, but as Germans.

As Chancellor, Angela Merkel has spoken at length about her view of immigration. She has a markedly positive attitude on the subject, at odds with many in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, talking of those who come to Germany as “enriching” society. She has always been clear on her approach to refugees: that there is a “moral obligation” to help those fleeing war, persecution or terror. It was this positive approach to immigration that culminated Germany’s policy during the 2015 refugee crisis.

 German Chancellor Angela Merkel receiving flowers from a Lebanese refugee; Migration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz looks on from the right, June 2018. (Credit: Reuters)

Since then, Germany has homed over 1.5 million refugees, in comparison to the 450,000 by France and 300,000 by Italy. This huge influx of people into Germany proved a huge task for both local and national government, with issues such as providing German classes and wider education, as well as integrating the new arrivals into German society. As a logistical challenge, it is clear that Merkel and her government, in combination with state bodies, handled the refugee crisis robustly and commendably. Language classes were provided by the government and an effective programme of enrolling young children into nurseries to begin their education was introduced. 

There is, however, a darker side to the consequences of this policy in Germany. On a national level, the most obvious of these has been the rise of the far right and explicitly anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which surged in the 2017 Bundestag elections and in state elections since the crisis. This has led to the erosion of CDU support and, arguably, to the circumstances amongst which Merkel stood down as her party’s leader in 2018. The future of that party is now in doubt, with right wing candidate Friedrich Merz, a fierce critic of Merkel and her immigration policy in particular, finishing second in both the 2018 and 2021 leadership elections, narrowly losing each time.

Merkel’s successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was forced to resign after CDU state parliament members in Thuringia defied her authority to vote with the AfD. Armin Laschet, the new leader, is seen as a moderate in comparison to Merz, but ran with health minister Jens Spahn, labelled the “anti-Merkel” for his fierce criticism of her handling of the 2015 crisis. Her moderate legacy in the CDU may be safe for now, but the future remains uncertain as there are fresh elections to contend in September, in the aftermath of disappointing results in March’s state elections.

Merkel’s immigration policy was a divisive path which sowed the seeds of her downfall, while providing refuge for millions fleeing war. In the short term, it has arguably been pivotal in her resignation both as CDU leader and Chancellor, while fracturing her party as it struggles with internal battles and the imposing presence of the AfD. In the long term, however, history will surely look kindly on Merkel: the Chancellor who brought millions in from the cold despite the political consequences and remained steadfast in her commitment to her instincts. A political failure but a moral success, and one which may be remembered as positively as the Gastarbeiter are today.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

Judging the Past: Can We Really Afford Not To?

University of Edinburgh historian Donald Bloxham has provided much food for thought in his recent article for the March edition of BBC History Magazine, entitled ‘Why History Must Take a Stance’. In it, he challenges the dogmatic insistence on neutrality that pervades the historical profession. Instead of feigning an unattainable neutrality, he argues, historians should take ownership of the judgements they make and the moral ‘prompts’ that they provide to their readers. Proclaiming neutrality is misleading, and possibly dangerous. I am inclined to agree.

Whilst neutrality is an honourable and necessary ambition for any historian, it is an ideal, and it is folly to suppose otherwise. No morally conscious human being can honestly claim to provide a totally neutral account of British imperialism, for instance. We tell a story in the way that we want to tell it, and there are plethora ways of telling that story, all of which have moral implications in the present. Language, as Bloxham observes, is a key factor. Can a historian who writes about the ‘exploitation’ and ‘subjugation’ of millions of human beings as a result of the Atlantic slave trade truly claim that they are providing a ‘neutral’ impression to their reader? These words carry weight, and rightly so. To talk about the past in totally neutral terms is not only impossible, but also heartless. The stories of the people whose lives were torn apart by past injustices deserve to be told, not only out of respect or disengaged interest but because they bear lessons that exert a tangible and morally didactic hold over us in the present.

The Lady of Justice statute outside the Old Baily. (Credit: Into the Blue)

That is not to say that historical writing should take the form of a moral invective, lambasting the behaviour of dead people whom we can no longer hold to account. Nor is it to argue that historical relativism is not a vitally important and foundational principle of the profession. What I am proposing, however, is that when Richard J. Evans claims, in his otherwise brilliant ‘In Defence of History’, that we should refute E.H. Carr’s argument – that the human cost of collectivisation in the USSR was a necessary evil – in the ‘historian’s way’, by undermining its ‘historical validity’, he seems to be suggesting that we are not doing so with a moral purpose in mind. Indeed, suggesting that the costs outweighed the benefits is itself a moral judgement, for is it not judging the value of people’s lives? Whilst Evans claims that it is the reader who must infer this conclusion, not the historian, his economic argument (that collectivisation was no more successful than the policies that preceded it) is surely intended to ‘prompt’ it.

Evans, like most people, clearly opposes the morality of Carr’s argument, and his way of communicating this is in the (highly effective) ‘historian’s way’. But his purpose nonetheless is to influence the opinion of his readers, not simply to fulfil the role of historical automaton, providing those readers with every fact under the sun. The process of omission and admission is one that, try as we may to temper it, will always involve some degree of value judgement about which facts matter for the purpose of our argument and which do not. Such a value judgement will inevitably, at times, operate on a moral criterion.

This debate may, as is often the case with those that take historiography as their subject, appear somewhat academic. In a world in which our history does so much to define the identities of (and relations between) ethnic, social, cultural and political groups, however, it is anything but. What we can call the ‘neutrality complex’ runs the risk of imbuing the historical profession and its practitioners with a sense of intellectual superiority, forgetting the political consequences of its output. One can find little fault in Bloxham’s assertion that certain histories carry less moral weight, and are therefore more conducive to neutral assessment, but subjects with as much emotional resonance as the history of slavery, the Holocaust or Mao’s Great Famine cannot but be judgemental in nature. 

‘Neutrality’ can be a mask for the covert projection of nefarious ideologies and interpretations. Presenting something simply as ‘fact’ is irresponsible and shows great ignorance of the moral dispositions that influence what we write and how we write it. There is space and need for some degree, however tentative, of self-acknowledged judgement in historical writing. We owe it to our audience to declare our judgement and to justify it. The crimes of imperialism, genocide and slavery are universally evil. The historian has a concern and a duty to show their audience why those that claim otherwise, who hyperinflate relativism and claim neutrality, are guilty both of intellectual hubris and moral cowardice.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

The Environment Has No Ideology: Debating Which System Works Best is Inherently Flawed

It is often assumed that we in the ‘West’ are the arbiters of environmental policy, that we simply ‘care more’ than the rest of the world. ‘China’, for many, evokes images of flat-pack cities and rapid industrialisation synonymous with the stain left by humanity on the natural world. It is lazily viewed as an outlying hindrance to the global goal of sustainable development, whilst we remain wilfully ignorant of our own shortcomings, both past and present. Instead of viewing Chinese environmental negligence as unique, I argue, within the lingering paradigm of the ‘capitalist good/communist bad’ dichotomy, that a more bipartisan assessment of the root cause of environmental degradation may be in order. Our planet, after all, cares little for politics.

Many of China’s environmental failures have historically been attributed to the communist policies of the ruling party, particularly under Mao, whose ‘ren ding shen jian’, or ‘man must conquer nature’ slogan has been presented by the historian Judith Shapiro as evidence of the Communist Party’s desire to dominate the natural world, even at the expense of its own people and environment. Of course, there is merit to this argument – the collectivisation of land and the Great Leap Forward’s unattainable targets  wreaked havoc on the land and contributed in no small part to what Frank Dikötter has termed ‘Mao’s Great Famine’, which is estimated to have killed up to 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It can be easy, therefore, for us to assume that this environmental exploitation is one peculiar to China’s communist system of government.

A factory in China by the Yangtze River, 2008. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Without excusing the undoubtedly detrimental and inhumane policies of Mao’s government, we should  view the environmental impact of the Chinese state’s rapid development in a more contextual manner. After all, did not the rampant capitalism of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom lead to the explosion of soot-filled cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham? All of which were centres of heightened industrial activity that harmed both their human population and the surrounding environment. London’s death rate rose 40% during a period of smog in December 1873, and similarly, we can look to the Great Smog of 1952, which the Met Office claims killed at least 4000 people, possibly many more.

Industrial potteries in North Staffordshire during the nineteenth century. (Credit: StokeonTrent Live)

Geographically closer to China, the Japanese state has also shown in recent years that pointing to ideology might be mistaken. The post-war Japanese growth-first and laissez-faire mentality left the likes of Chisso Corporation in Minamata to their own devices, and the results were devastating. From 1956 through to the 1970s, first cats, then human residents of  Minamata began coming down with a mysterious illness, one that caused ataxia and paralysis in its victims. It would transpire that what came to be known as ‘Minamata disease’ was the result of Chisso’s chemical plant releasing methylmercury into the town’s bay. This was absorbed by algae and passed up the food chain through the fish that local residents (both human and feline) were regularly consuming. Government inaction was deafening, despite the cause being known since 1959, and change only came after it was forced by  non-capitalist union pressure in the 1970s. If this seems like a problem confined to the past, one need only cast their mind back to the Fukushima disaster in 2011, ultimately the result of the irresponsible decision to pursue a nuclear energy policy on the disaster-prone Pacific Ring of Fire.

This article does not wish to make the case for either the capitalist or communist system’s superiority in environmental affairs. Rather, it should be clear that the common thread running through all of these disasters – from the Great Smog to the Great Famine and Fukushima – is a policy emphasising economic growth as the paramount standard of success is a dangerous one that will inevitably lead to environmental destruction. The style and severity of that destruction may be influenced by ideology, but if we are to live in harmony with our environment, we must be willing to abandon the ideals of gain (collective or individual) and competition, that have placed us in our current quandary, whatever the tint of our political stripes.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer