May Ignores Heath Folly and Pays the Ultimate Price

A couple of months ago, I mused in these pages whether Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election would backfire, as it did when her predecessor Edward Heath took a similar decision back in February 1974.

As it transpires, May’s gamble has not paid off. Although her Conservative Party garnered the most votes in the 8th June election and remains the largest within the House of Commons, a surge by Labour has resulted in a hung parliament and the end of the Tory majority.

Theresa May’s tenure at 10 Downing Street looks increasingly untenable

The prelude, campaign and results of the 2017 general election mirror those of 1974. Tory overconfidence against a seemingly disunited opposition, a lacklustre campaign compounded by policy errors and weak manifestos, and ultimately a hung parliament (although it is worth noting that Heath’s Conservatives were not even the largest party, losing by 4 seats to Harold Wilson’s Labour).

As in 1974, also, the immediate future is unclear. May has vowed to soldier on as Prime Minister, even though her minority government is now reliant on an unlikely kingmaker to pass its desired legislation: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP sits even further to the right than the Tories on the political spectrum, its Eurosceptic, socially conservative views at odds with those of much of the British populace.

For years the DUP was led by the formidable Ian Paisley as a staunch opposition to Republicanism in Ireland

Even were May to win a loose alignment with the DUP – necessarily giving the Northern Irish party influence way beyond its 10 seats – she would still need to maintain the loyalty of Tory backbenchers, certainly not guaranteed.

The alternatives, however, are hardly appealing. May’s resignation would trigger a Tory leadership contest and probably another general election, something the British electorate is unlikely to have energy for.

Alternatively, there is the prospect of a minority Labour government under the stewardship of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has proved himself a competent campaigner, his skills honed by years of futile protesting against almost every policy any government has ever advocated. The chances of him being an effective PM, however, are slim, with Labour’s wild campaign promises surely not capable of being fulfilled in government.

Corbyn has hailed Labour’s election defeat as a victory, yet it is unlikely that he would be able to live up to his campaign promises were he to become Prime Minister

Mrs May will know that Heath’s attempts to form a coalition government in 1974 failed, prompting his resignation. Wilson’s minority Labour government hung on until a second election of the year (held in October) delivered him a narrow majority.

With Brexit negotiations yet to begin in earnest, threats to Britain’s security seemingly increasing by the day, and economic recovery still ponderous, all we know for certain is that the country is in for an uncertain few months.

How Mrs May must regret not taking heed of history and allowing her majority, albeit narrow, to steer Britain ahead through the choppiest of waters.

Edward Heath heads to the polling station in 1974. He would be out of office within days

1492 vs 2017 Islam in Western Europe: Assimilation or Expulsion?

The recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester have reinforced the idea that the greatest security threat in Western Europe today is ‘Islam from within’, homegrown Muslims perpetrating atrocities against their neighbours. It follows on from similarly harrowing events in France, Belgium, Sweden and Germany in the last couple of years.

Terror in Manchester: many of the victims were children

Several of the terrorists have been second or third generation children of earlier immigrants, their targets being their countrymen.

This sickening threat continues to materialise even 525 years after Islam lost its last political foothold in Western Europe. In 1492, the year Columbus discovered the New World, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon – the sainted Catholic Monarchs – completed the conquest of Granada and united the Iberian Peninsula under a Christian banner.

Ferdinand and Isabella

This momentous event marked the end of Al-Andalus – or Islamic Iberia -which had begun in the 8th century with the Ummayad conquest of the Visigothic kingdom of Hispania and the subsequent establishment of the Caliphate of Cordoba.

At its peak Al-Andalus encompassed almost the entire Iberian Peninsula and part of southern France. During the Middle Ages, Islamic commercial power stretched beyond Iberia into central Europe, connected by the Mediterranean and the North African trade routes to the great cities of the Middle East like Damascus and Baghdad.

Art flourished in Al-Andalus, with garden scenes a particular Muslim favourite

Hopes of a Christian reconquista developed almost as soon as the Islamic crescent landed in Western Europe. But the Muslim powers were too strong, with the victory of the Almoravid forces at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086 proving decisive. Islam was here to stay.

Christian dreams now rested on the constant upheavals in the Berber world, with invaders regularly moving into North Africa from the Sahel and then on to Al-Andalus, prompting dynastic change.

This ultimately hampered the stability of the Islamic chokehold on Iberia, and the turning point would come during the Almohad Caliphate. In 1212 an alliance of Christian princes defeated the Muslims at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. The momentum gained proved unstoppable, Cordoba and Seville falling to the cross in 1236 and 1248 respectively.

The Cross triumphed at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

Only the Emirate of Granada (the Nasrid Kingdom) held on for another 250 years, a southern outpost that could be easily supplied and reinforced from Muslim North Africa. By the late 15th century, however, the Emirate was crumbling, with a united Spanish kingdom under Isabella and Ferdinand taking advantage of the political chaos within the Nasrid dynasty, hampered as it was by succession crises and political intrigue.

In 1492 the city of Granada fell, its leader Boabdil fled and the Iberian Peninsula was once again Christian. There has been no dominant Islamic polity in Western Europe since this point.

The final frontier of the Reconquista – Granada

This is not to say that Islamic strongholds don’t exist in Western Europe today. From Paris to London, Birmingham to Berlin, Muslim enclaves have developed as a result of prolonged and intensive immigration, precipitated both by the end of colonialism and war in the Middle East. It is such ‘hotbeds’ that have tended to produce the homegrown terrorists now so feared by the public in European countries.

So what to do?

In 1492, the majority of the defeated Muslims were expelled from Spain. Their flight was not a long one, however, for most could peacefully settle in the Berber territories of North Africa.

At the same time, however, an equally important development occurred in Spanish, indeed European, history. Isabella and Ferdinand issued an edict expelling the Jews from their lands.

Jewish people had been an important part of Al-Andalus culture for centuries, providing a commercial zeal and pragmatism valued by both Muslim and Christian princes. Their expulsion was tempered – or so the Catholic Monarchs saw it – by the fact that they could remain in Spain should they apostatise. Indeed, the edict may have been a ploy to encourage this.

Boabdil rides out to surrender to the Catholic Monarchs

Many Jews had, in fact, already renounced their faith, perhaps sensing that the imminent Christian unification of the peninsula would unleash a wave of religious fervour from which they would not escape.

These converts – or ‘conversos’ as they were derogatively known – encouraged the spread and intensity of the notorious Spanish Inquisition, whose leaders distrusted the genuineness of the Jewish (and in fewer cases Muslim) conversions.

The methods of the Spanish Inquisition included torture

Despite the fear provoked by the Inquisition, the majority of Spanish Jews took their chances in 1492 and publicly declared their faith in the Catholic God and his divinely-appointed monarchs. It was a more appealing future than risking life in Muslim North Africa, hardly a bastion of tolerance, then or now.

The gradual assimilation of the Jews would prove to be of great benefit to the nascent Spanish state, their commercial enterprise and financial sophistication way beyond what the Christians could initially offer.

Today, as in 1492, there seem to be two choices regarding how to deal with the Muslims of Western Europe:

1) Assimilation

2) Expulsion

The former option has been the one favoured since mass immigration began after WWII. Indeed, many of the initial immigrants were successfully integrated into their European societies, becoming a pioneering force in modern multicultural life.

Unfortunately, this peaceful assimilation has in many cases been overlooked and dismissed by later generations of Muslims, who have come to feel isolated within a culture that they do not perceive as their own. Recent immigrants from the Middle East and Africa – whilst on the whole respectful of their host country – have in larger numbers perpetuated radical views and acts.

Some Muslims advocate Sharia law for the UK

Should we, therefore, launch our own inquisition? Wiretapping mosques, increasing police presence in radical areas, and carrying out random interrogations of all ages of Muslims might seem unsavoury. Yet coupled with the influential input of peaceful Muslim leaders it might encourage a greater degree of cultural assimilation.

If this is a futile or unconscionable endeavour then expulsion surely has to be considered. Muslims guilty of, or even suspected of, supporting terrorism – and this is obviously a problematic definition in itself – must be forcibly removed, deported to a country willing to take them; asylum seeking in reverse if you like.

Most of the recent attacks have been carried out by people ‘known to the security services’. This begs the question: why were they allowed to stay and commit these atrocities?

The fear of infringing human rights and the desire not to radicalise other Muslims by seemingly victimising their brethren seem to be overwhelming factors. But do these considerations offset the bitter regret and genuine sadness of the ruling elite when dozens of innocent, law-abiding citizens get wiped out?

The prolonged battle to deport Abu Hamza showed the barrier human rights can raise against reason

These questions have been forced to the forefront of the general election debate in the UK, with people due to go to the polls on Thursday. Which party is going to be able to stand up to the terrorist threat, without further alienating an already disconcerted Muslim populace?

Forget Brexit, security is what is dominating the concerns of the average Briton today. Looking back to 1492 one revisits the question: Expulsion or Assimilation? Embrace diversity and reap the benefits of different worldviews? Or accept division and wait for the inevitable horror?

To which vision do you subscribe?

Caxton, the Printing Press and the Disintegration of Communication

A researcher at the University of Reading has made a startling discovery. Pasted into the spine of an unrelated text Erika Delbecque found a double-sided leaf of paper thought to have been printed on one of William Caxton’s first presses, probably in the 1470s.

One of the beautifully-preserved Caxton pages

The pages are from a book called the Sarum Ordinal, a guide book for priests detailing the feast days of English saints. They are thought to be unique, with no other known copies in the world. Indeed, the only other eight pages from the text believed to have survived are currently housed in the British Library.

Such a seminal find is not only incredibly rare but also illuminating, particularly pertinent in our modern society of instant communication.

William Caxton (1422-1491)

Caxton was a merchant who had spent much of his career in the Low Countries, where he had been exposed to the new printing technologies pioneered and perfected by the German Johannes Gutenberg during the mid-fifteenth century.

In 1476, Caxton brought his own press to Westminster and started printing a range of British and foreign literature. Amongst his early focuses were Chaucer, Malory, Gower and Lydgate. By reading these literary titans, Caxton claimed in his 1477 Book of Curtesye, one improved his social education. The work of Chaucer, he noted, ‘enlumened hast alle our bretayne’.

Caxton demonstrating his printing press to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth

The importance of the establishment and expansion of the printing press and printing houses in Europe during the 15th century cannot be overstated. Volumes and volumes of treatises, religious texts and prose were no longer the preserve of the monarchy, the clergy and the ennobled. The dissemination of the printed word – particularly when published in the vernacular – made a greater contribution to the spread of ideas through societies than any other invention in the late medieval period.

Not only books but pamphlets began to proliferate, allowing radical theories and doctrines uncensored by the authorities to find a path to the less enlightened. It was of little relevance that illiteracy rates remained high; it only took the voice of one who could read to impart upon the masses the myriad terrors and delights of the new printed form.

Extract from the Gutenberg Bible

This, in turn, fostered a greater intermixing of the previously segregated class structures, as the influential realised the power of print over the unprivileged. In many cases, this increased social cohesion. The folk tales of old, many now committed to parchment, were embellished by the great stories of European literature. Whilst for agitators like the Protestant reformers, a platform for their eventual triumph over the forces of tradition had been created.

It is the nature of technological development that in some industries change is gradual, whilst in others it is both explosive and tumultuous. The printing press undoubtedly falls into the latter category and, indeed, the communication of the written word barely changed for the 500 years after its inception.

Books, pamphlets and (from the early 17th century) newspapers remained the primary sources of information for a mass audience into the late 20th century when the next tumultuous change occurred; the invention of instant messaging.

Starting with computers and progressing through mobile phones and the internet, the ability to communicate information to billions of others instantaneously has altered the course of history. Now with Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Snapchat, anyone with an internet connection has access to almost limitless news and knowledge at the touch of a button.

An unmistakable symbol…Twitter has changed the way we communicate and read news

The process of communicating with one another has never been easier and yet, if anything, social cohesion has diminished. People no longer need to interact in the flesh, living their lives as keyboard warriors at the forefront of technical change. Whilst in some instances this has brought people closer together, people who would otherwise never interact, in too many cases the results are negative.

It is surely a fact that a person is less likely to spread hate and abuse in person than they are online? How many men and women would be openly homophobic, sexist, racist or generally unreasonable when face-to-face with their apparent adversaries? How many would publish their views in a book, a pamphlet or a newspaper? The norms of conventional society have simply yet to translate to the world wide web, where vitriol and anger is the order of the day.

Caxton and his fellow pioneers would doubtless be horrified by the gradual diversion away from their beloved presses, whose transformational importance is symbolised in the beauty of the early printed works. The masters of the trade knew the sanctity of their craft.

Perhaps this is why the Reading discovery evokes a poignancy equal to its historic value. We must remember how precious the art of communication really is.