Yesterday’s Heroes

Just outside Budapest there’s a place where yesterday’s heroes stand, like children doing penance in a corner. Memento Park contains most of the monumental statues erected between 1949 and 1989 by Hungary’s Communist regime. I remember them well from the late 1980s when they stood proudly on the main roads into the city, welcoming travellers to a socialist utopia, or in the largest public spaces. Just like the red star that topped the cupola of Budapest’s glorious Parliament building, everyone thought they’d stay where they were forever. And then a helicopter removed the star, and almost in the blink of an eye, in the early 1990s, yesterday’s heroes were all gone.


It’s a sad place, a reminder of tyranny and cruelty, but also of colossal human folly, committed by many in good faith. You’ll see Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, the heroes of the 1919 revolution (which, like so many revolutions, deteriorated into horror), and statues commemorating the liberation of Hungary in 1945 by the Red Army, and the sacrifice of thousands of Soviet lives that it entailed.


The park is an uncomfortable reminder of a past that was often cruel, but it’s also an example of crude revisionism. Were Marx and Engels bad men? They didn’t foresee tyranny. Should the sacrifice of millions of Russian lives in defeating fascism be forgotten and their symbols reviled? True, many of these statues are crudely propagandist, emblems of tyranny, but not all of them.

I’m reminded of this issue by the controversy that surrounds a statue of Cecil Rhodes that stands above the entrance to Oriel College in Oxford, to which Rhodes made a large donation, and which many now want to remove. The Oxford Union, a student debating chamber, last night voted narrowly in favour of its removal, but I don’t think the vote binds the College or the University. Another statue of Rhodes was recently removed from the University of Cape Town. He offends current sensibilities, his British and white supremacism no longer acceptable. Oriel College is resisting, but has pandered to modern sensitivities by placing a disclaimer on its outside walls.


What’s the right thing to do?

The first question to ask is ‘what are statues for?’

  • Some are intended (as at Oriel College) to honour their subjects
  • Some are deliberately propagandist. They promote and celebrate a particular political or religious idea. Many of the statues in Memento Park fall into this category.
  • Some celebrate the victors in a zero-sum game, and the virtues they extol depend on which side you’re on
  • Some reinforce the power of a single living individual such as Stalin, Kim Jong-un, etc.
  • Some adorn graves and thereby have a special ritual or religious significance
  • Some promote ideas that have universal appeal (think of Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais)
  • Some might stand as a warning to others (Ozymandias)
  • Some deliberately remind us of the iniquities of the past

And, does their significance and purpose change as time passes and deeds recede, or as values change?

Is removal a sensible way of expressing disapproval? Removal by destruction, or by altering a statue’s context (as removal to the Memento Park does)? How bad does someone have to be to be erased from public view?

  • Statues of Jimmy Savile (a pioneering and popular DJ) were immediately removed when it was revealed that he was a serial molester of children.
  • Saddam Hussein’s status was joyfully hauled down in Baghdad following the disastrous American-led invasion
  • The largest statue of Stalin in the world was removed from Prague in 1962 after his crimes were quietly acknowledged by Khrushchev.
  • There are countless statues of wicked medieval kings and queens. Should they, too, be removed, or has so much time passed that they have now become morally neutral, no longer an expression of approval or disapproval?
  • Churchill didn’t get everything right. He never paid his tailors and he shared many of Cecil Rhodes views on race and empire. I suspect, though, that his statue will stand in Parliament Square until the universe winds down.
  • Oliver Cromwell stands nearby, a much more dubious figure (he killed a King, presided over a military dictatorship, and committed acts of appalling cruelty against Catholics in Ireland and Scotland).
  • There are no statues of Hitler on public display in Germany, but there are images in museums, and a bust of Hitler on display at a military museum in the USA.

It is a matter of historical interest how a sculptor expresses an idea, whether his or others’, and we should always be reminded of the distorting power of propaganda. But after how long, or in what context, does a statue become an item of historical interest rather than an expression of current (ever more global) attitudes?

On balance I believe it would be foolish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College. He is part of our history, neither wholly bad nor wholly good. We know what he was, what he did, and what he believed, and it does us no harm to be reminded of his achievements, whether they are to be praised or loathed. But he is surely no danger.


Inequality, Oligarchs and Faith

A couple of weeks ago I shared a beach with an oligarch. Actually, shared is the wrong word. From the moment of his arrival, the oligarch, together with his wife and family, servants and bodyguards, entirely dominated the beach.

I was at the Aman Sveti Stefan, a wonderful resort hotel on the coast of Montenegro. In my defence I can only say it was a late season deal (they closed on the day we checked out) and the cost wasn’t anywhere near list price. I’m rarely on shoulder-rubbing terms with oligarchs, royalty and tennis stars (Djokovic got married there last year). It’s just not my sort of thing and I don’t have the clothes for it.


Though it was late season, and the beach was almost empty, the early Autumn sun was just about strong enough, and the sea just about warm enough, for a northern European like me. It was a good time and place to sunbathe incognito if incognito is your thing.

That, I suppose, is why the oligarch chose it. His motor yacht, reputedly the most expensive in the world, at more than 300 Million USD, and certainly one of the largest, was anchored a mile or so out to sea, so the party arrived by motor launch. The beach, being a private hotel beach is firmly closed to non-residents, but, as I heard later that evening from the hotel manager, the oligarch simply bought a few rooms to earn the right to an afternoon on the beach.

He and his family lounged in the sun and took the occasional dip in the slightly chilly water. Their servant stood behind them, and their bodyguards sat in the shade of the trees. A minimum of fuss.

When they marched onto the beach (around ten of them altogether) they did so without acknowledging either the other hotel guests or the hotel’s beach attendants, and they remained in utter isolation for the entire afternoon. The beach attendants were instructed not even to approach them. It was my last day and I took some photographs of the cove as I left, only to be informed by an anxious bodyguard that his clients were ‘sensitive about photography’. That is what I mean by ‘dominated’.

This oligarch, as I later determined, is amongst the two hundred richest men in the world. Indeed for the last few years he’s been in the top ninety. He’s many thousands of times richer than I am and could probably have bought the resort and its beaches that afternoon without really noticing it.

I’d been chatting with the beach attendant earlier. Most of the staff at the Sveti Stefan resort are students or recent graduates, and speak many languages. This young man was studying to become a corporate lawyer.

‘Perhaps you’ll be a guest here one day,’ I said.

‘Never,’ he said, though whether because he believed he wouldn’t ever have the money or because he knew too much about the place to want to be a guest, I don’t know. But I pointed out that twenty-seven years earlier I’d stayed in the village next door and had walked by the beach, a private beach even during Communist times, never imagining then that I might be a guest a few decades later.

Inequality, at least financial inequality, that afternoon, was stark. The spending gulfs separating beach attendant and me (a more or less prosperous guest), and me and Russian oligarch, were vast.

Inequality is very topical, almost more so than poverty these days, and it’s striking how economic ‘scientists’ put forward starkly different theories as to why inequality has grown in recent decades and how it might be addressed (I suppose most people, except the trickle-down theorists, believe it’s generally a bad thing).

There’s Thomas Piketty, who thinks it’s the result of policy, and can be addressed by higher taxes on assets rather than income, and there are others who believe it’s a matter of demographics. The latter argue that as the baby-boom generation came of age and as new markets opened up in Eastern Europe and China there was a glut of available labour and the proportion of those of working age supporting those of non-working age rose, peaking in 2012. Wages at the lower end fell, in consequence, but will rise again now that populations are ageing.

I don’t know who’s right, but what’s fascinating is that from the dismal science of economics (if science is what it is) can emerge such radically different theories. How do we decide between them? It’s not as if it doesn’t matter. Policy follows from theory and explanation.

Thomas Piketty certainly assembled a wealth of evidence in his vast Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but his opponents counter with equally compelling counter-evidence, for example, that comparable inequality can be found in nations where very different taxation policies have been applied.

People often say that of the three huge theories of the nineteenth century (the Darwinian theory of evolution, the Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, the Marxist theory of economics) only one has survived. I am schooled to believe that science must be ‘predictive’, not just in terms of what you might go out and find but in what the result of experiment might be. It must also be explanatory in terms of underlying mechanisms. Bacteriology is science, homeopathy and acupuncture are not (even if they work).

Darwinism isn’t exactly an experimental theory, because time moves too slowly, but certainly its conjectures have been subsequently strengthened by plausible underlying mechanisms (genes, mutations, and so on).

Psychoanalysis fails on every count. The ‘evidence’, even that recounted by Freud, is dubious, it’s unsuccessful as predictive theory, and there’s no underlying mechanism to point at (where exactly can we find the ‘id’?).

Economics fails, perhaps, because its subject matter, human choice, is too elusive, and the underlying mechanisms are too complex. It’s predictions are insufficiently precise, and conditions are never controlled enough for proper experimentation. So whether you end up believing in tax or demographics as an influence on inequality would appear to me to be a matter of faith.

I doubt it is such uncertainties that disturb the sleep of the oligarchs.

Lovely, but Unelectable

There is much to admire in these three undoubtedly lovely men, all stalwarts of the ‘old’ and principled Labour Party, all unelectable.

tony benn

Tony Benn (1925 – 2014)

michael foot

Michael Foot (1913 – 2010)

jeremy corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn (1949 – )

Of these three, only Michael Foot has so far led his party into a General Election (1984), losing disastrously with the fewest votes for half a century or more. If the polls are correct then Jeremy Corbyn might soon win the chance to do the same.

Though each is of a different generation, and each came to his radicalism by a different route, all three share some of the same qualities.

  • They’re not in it for themselves (Jeremy Corbyn, for example, claimed fewer expenses in 2010 than any other MP)
  • They care deeply about inequality, poverty, injustice, etc., and oppose it vigorously, seeing Labour’s policy as the best suited to alleviate disadvantage
  • They are anti-establishment and anti-elitist
  • They have a fond belief in the essential goodness of humanity (except perhaps that of ‘capital owning humanity’ whom they see as rapacious and essentially selfish)
  • They believe that state ownership and state intervention are the route to a more equitable and a more efficient society

Michael Foot’s convictions were formed during the conflicts of the 1930s, when capitalism and socialism were stark and incompatible opposites, and when capitalism seemed to tend inexorably towards Fascism (as a young journalist he vigorously opposed the appeasement policies of the Chamberlain government). He was an intellectual socialist, and he stuck to the belief that socialist economics could work. He campaigned throughout his life for nuclear disarmament (even unilateral disarmament) and it was probably Labour’s disarray on this topic that lost him the election in 1984. He was a notably kind, funny, personable, man.

Tony Benn nearly became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981, but profound influence on the policies of the Labour Party in Government ultimately eluded him. He, too, was convinced of an old-fashioned, ideological, class-warfare kind of socialism. He was happiest in the company of union officials, drinking mug after mug of tea (not for him the fine clarets and champagnes of New Labour). Perhaps, like Marx, he believed that socialism could transform human nature and resolve the conflicts that arise from personal or class interest. He was also a notably kind, funny, personable, man, and, even in his later years, still a man of the people, travelling to Parliament and back by bus.

Jeremy Corbyn is an activist, allied to all the radical (and often admirable) causes of the last thirty years, including nuclear disarmament, opposition to the Iraq War, the extradition of General Pinochet, and many others. He has never been a member of the Shadow Cabinet, and was, during the last Labour Government, the most rebellious Labour MP. He has never been a Party man, and clearly never fed at the Westminster trough. I’m not sure he is as witty, warm and personable as Tony Benn or Michael Foot, but he comes across as an ordinary, soft-spoken, even if passionate man.

But none of these three is imaginable as Prime Minister.

The fact is that there are some truths about the world that in their goodness and idealism these lovely men don’t see. Perhaps it is because they have never worked extensively in the commercial world. Take this passage from Tony Benn’s diary from 1965 (when he was Postmaster General and obsessed with the idea that the Queen’s head should be removed from postage stamps):

This highlights in my mind one of the great difficulties of being a socialist in the kind of society in which we live. The real drive for improvement comes from those concerned to make private profit. If, therefore, you deny these people the right of extending private enterprise into new fields, you have to have some sort of alternative. You have to have some body which wants to develop public enterprise, but our present Civil Service is not interested in growth.

Benn rightly sees ‘private profit’ as an engine of growth, as motivating ‘improvement’, and he’s struggling, in painfully good faith, to come up with a substitute for this in state-owned industry. But he completely misses the point. Private profit leads to improvement only if there’s competition (it doesn’t work if there’s a private monopoly). Competition is the point, not profit. Profit is the means, not the end.

This point, blindingly obvious to most of us, just doesn’t occur to this well meaning, but naïve and, in terms of practice, inexperienced man. Yes, it’s certainly hard to see how competition can be fostered within or between state-owned enterprises. The shabby unproductive factories of Eastern Europe are witness to the lack of it. ‘Growth’ and ‘improvement’ cannot be directed, even by the best motivated Civil Service in the world, or by the most well-meaning Government. Benn seems to know that something is lacking, but doesn’t see what it is.

And all three of these lovely men are still devoted to the old class-war rhetoric that talks of ‘working people’ as if these are still the oppressed. exploited manual labourers toiling in mines or in Satanic mills. They forget that capitalism isn’t any longer unfettered (and never should be), that there’s the national health service (which could be better), there’s free education (that could be better), there’s a minimum wage (that could be higher), and myriad health and safety regulations that protect the ‘worker’ (whether struggling with a machine or at a call centre) from the mercilessness of capitalist greed. And they forget that everyone, whether ‘worker’ or not, aspires to better his or her lot. Whether you believe that the balance should be tipped more in favour of the disadvantaged or not, there’s no class war being fought, is there?

Admirably, none of them has the slick establishment gloss of the career politician, the pragmatic, non-ideological, unprincipled, deal-making skill that the likes of Tony Blair, David Miliband, David Cameron, even Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown possess.

But what do we want our politicians to be? Good men, unsullied by the realities of the world, averse to compromise, certain of their mission and clearly principled? Or realists?

There is currently a global, certainly European, aversion to establishment politicians. Conviction politicians, and anti-establishment parties of both the left and right are winning the votes of the disaffected, whether old or young. Syriza, in Greece, is a case in point. But what are the realities of power? Alexis Tsipras has, finally, been forced to accept a deal that is worse than the one his people rejected earlier in a referendum.

Labour party members or affiliates must ‘get real’. Unhappily, I agree with Tony Blair, that Jeremy Corbyn would be another disaster for the Labour Party. As Gordon Brown said yesterday, the Labour Party must be credible, radical and electable.