John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Books

WILLIAM T COSGRAVE…FOUNDER OF THE IRISH STATE

I recently read “Judging WT Cosgrave” by Michael Laffan.

Published by the Royal Irish Academy this is a very well written, and entertaining, account of the life of the founder of the Irish state.

It is illustrated with a great collection of photographs, of people who figured in William Cosgrave’s life, and of documents on the time, including of the death sentence passed on him for his participation in the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin.  The sentence was commuted but he did go to prison.

WT Cosgrave was born in James Street in Dublin and his family had roots in Kildare and Wexford.

He joined the Sinn Fein Party of Arthur Griffith and was first elected to Dublin Corporation for that party in 1909 for the area in which he lived.  He took a deep interest in housing policy, at a time when many Dubliners lived in terrible conditions.

Released from jail after the Rebellion in early 1917, he was selected to stand in the by election for the Kilkenny City  seat in the House of Commons, that arose from the death of John Redmond’s closest friend and Parliamentary colleague, Pat O Brien.

Such was the dominance of Redmond’s Party until then, that O Brien had been re elected unopposed in the two previous General Elections. The Kilkenny City constituency was the smallest in the country, with less than one tenth the population of the largest (East Belfast).

The by Election took place 100 years ago on 10 August 1917. WT Cosgrave defeated the Irish Party candidate, a member of Kilkenny Corporation, John McGuinness , by  772 votes to 392.

Interestingly, notwithstanding the 1917 defeat, the McGuinness family are still prominently involved in Kilkenny politics at both local and national level.

In accordance with Sinn Fein policy, WT Cosgrave did not take his seat in the House of Commons. He did continue to be an active member of Dublin Corporation.

In his book, Michael Laffan deals with Cosgrave’s work in the shadow government established by Dail Eireann in 1919. This government was illegal in the eyes of the authorities, and its members lived in constant fear of arrest.

WT Cosgrave took no direct part in the negotiation of the Treaty of 1921, which provided the legal basis for the establishment of the Irish state. But within the Dail Cabinet, his vote tipped the balance in favour of acceptance of the Treaty, much to the disappointment of Eamon de Valera, who had been close to Cosgrave up to that.

During the subsequent Civil War over the Treaty, Arthur Griffith died, and Michael Collins was killed. As the most experienced surviving political leader the role of leading the pro Treaty government fell to WT Cosgrave. He prosecuted the Civil War to a successful conclusion and built a strong and stable state, on what appeared at the time to be very unpromising foundations.

He abandoned Collins’ policy of destabilising Northern Ireland.

As early as 1922, according to Laffan, Cosgrave

argued that military or economic pressure against the Belfast government would not bring about reunification, while a peaceful policy had at least some chance of protecting Northern Catholics.

During the Civil War, pro Treaty members of Dail and Senate were targeted by opponents of the Treaty. 37 houses belonging to Senators were razed. Cosgrave’s own home was burned. His uncle was murdered.

Even after the Civil War was officially over, on one night in 1926, 12 Garda barracks were attacked by the IRA. The cost of security and reconstruction after the Civil War made austerity in other areas of government spending inevitable.

Cosgrave was a constitutional democrat who accepted the results of elections, unlike many who held power in other European countries in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

As President of the Executive Council (Taoiseach), he had less power than one might expect. Under the Free State constitution, he could not, at his own sole initiative, sack Ministers, who were supposed to serve for the life time of the Dail. He did persuade a number of them to resign.

Cosgrave wanted to stamp out jobbery in the public service, and was responsible for the setting up of the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commissions, which provided for recruitment on merit rather than on the basis of political connections. This was vitally important, as recent experience in other countries, like Greece, shows.

While Cosgrave was a robust and witty election campaigner, right up to the time he eventually stood down as Fine Gael party leader in 1944, he was not much interested in the details of party organisation.

He stuck rigidly to the terms of the Treaty, and did not use it as a stepping stone to further independence as his successor, de Valera, did.

After his retirement, he served as a member of the Racing Board. He was a man of deep religious faith and counted members of the clergy among his closest friends.

This is an excellent book and well worth reading.

A Commemorative lunch to mark the centenary of WT Cosgrave’s victory in the Kilkenny City by election on 10 August 1917 will be held in Langton’s Hotel, John Street, Kilkenny  on Saturday 15 July.

The guest of honour will be WT Cosgrave’s son, Liam Cosgrave.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE LATE JAMES DOWNEY

Recently I read

“In my own time, inside Irish politics and Society”

by the Irish political journalist, James Downey, who died in 2016.

Downey was from Dromahair, Co Leitrim, and the son of a teacher who was widowed when the author was only two years old. His account of his early life, and of the social and political conditions in Leitrim in the 1930’s and 1940’s is good.  His family were split politically and his mother’s people were anti Treaty, whereas the majority of Leitrim opinion supported the Free State.

But his father was apparently approached to stand for election by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, so divisions of allegiance may not have been all that stark. Mr Downey senior declined both opportunities.

Jim Downey attended Newbridge College, as a boarder,  and was good at writing English essays.

He always wanted to be a journalist and got his first job with the Carlow Nationalist. He subsequently worked for the Irish Press, the Irish Times and finally the Irish Independent.

He was politically active in Clann na Poblachta, supported Noel Browne in the 1950’s, and stood for the Labour Party in the 1969 election, as a running mate for Frank Cluskey in Dublin Central.

A great part of the book is taken up with the internal politics of the Irish Times, of which Downey had hopes of becoming editor at the time that that job went to Conor Brady in 1986. He gives vivid, but probably jaundiced, pen pictures of some of the personalities involved.

I found the part of the book dealing with the Arms Crisis of 1970 to be the most interesting. Downey is highly critical of Jack Lynch, who seems to have vacillated, and trusted nobody, on the Northern issue. He  ignored, or took no interest in, the dangerous activities of his Ministers, Neil Blaney and Charles J Haughey.

Haughey seems to have believed Blaney represented the authentic Fianna Fail vision and followed his line of the troubles in Northern Ireland on that basis.

Downey says the sacking of Miceal O Morain by Lynch, at the same time as Haughey and Blaney were sacked in 1970 , was completely unfair. It associated O Morain in the public mind with activities in which he had no part.

Downey’s own contradictions emerge in how he deals with the role he played, along with the  Irish Independent editor Vinny Doyle, in writing the front page editorial of the paper, just before the 1997 General Election. The editorial was entitled “Payback Time” and called for the ejection of the then government.

This front page editorial was a radical departure for the paper, and this departure was designed to  get attention and influence the election result. This might have been understandable if it arose from an analysis of the political and economic situation that had good grounds in fact. But this was not so.

The editorial promulgated the myth that the public had been “bled white” by the taxation policies of the outgoing government, in its short two and a half years in office. It excoriated the fiscally careful policies of the Rainbow Coalition and called for “payback”, in the form of tax cuts that it supposed would follow from by the election of Fianna Fail .

 Although he wrote much of the editorial, Downey also claims that he also supported the fiscally conservative policies of the outgoing Finance Minister, Ruairi Quinn.  This is self contradictory.

To the extent that this editorial assisted the coming to office of Fianna Fail and the Progressive democrats in 1997, on a populist wave of anti tax sentiment, it contributed to the fiscal recklessness, and the inevitable crash, which followed .

It was remarkable that, in  Ireland at that time, that a major newspaper would have adopted such a populist fiscal policy, when the memory of the consequences of similar populism in the 1977 election was so fresh in their minds. It shows that errors can be repeated over and over, without lessons being learned, even by those supposedly following public affairs closely

The Irish Independent seems to have believed that , if Fianna Fail made tax cuts, they would then also make (unspecified) spending cuts to pay for them. In this, these supposedly hard boiled and realistic journalists showed an innocence that is really hard to credit.

It also shows that errors can be repeated over and over, without lessons being learned.

This episode is worth thinking about, as we face the possibility of another election in the next year or so.

 

AN ITALIAN MILITARY HERO

“Amedeo, the true story of an Italian’s war in Abyssinia”, by Sebastian O Kelly, should be made into a film.

It is the vivid and action filled life story of Amedeo Guillet, a member of the Italian nobility who was a show jumper, a soldier and a diplomat.  His family was  closely associated with the monarchy of the House of Savoy, under which Italy became a united country, and his loyalty was the that family rather than to Mussolini.

Amedeo fought in the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936, in the Spanish Civil War in 1938, and in the Italian defence of its East African Empire (present day Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia)  against the British in 1941.

During the last of these wars he led the last successful cavalry charge in modern warfare.

When the Italian conventional forces were eventually defeated, Amedeo continued a guerrilla campaign against the British. He was able to recruit Eritreans, who feared , correctly, that British victory would place them under Ethiopian rule. In a sense the Italo/ British war of 1941 was a precursor to the long and bloody Eritrean war of Independence which lasted until quite recently.

When the tide of war turned and his guerrilla campaign was achieving little, he sought refuge in neutral Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea. There he became a trusted advisor of the Imam.

After the end of World War two, Amedeo Guillet entered the Italian diplomatic service and was, successively, Italian Ambassador to Yemen, to Morocco and to India.

He had a lifelong interest in horses and had been a founder of the successful Italian Show jumping team, which took part in the 1936 Olympics. When he retired, because of his love of horses, he came to live in Kentstown , County Meath. He hunted with the Tara Harriers and the Meath Hunt up to an advanced age.

Sebastian O Kelly befriended Amedo late in his life, and has written a fascinating life story.

BALKAN GHOSTS

While all eyes are on the looming conflict between the United States and North Korea, it is worth remembering that sources of conflict are still to be found in Europe, notably in the Balkans.

Mercifully these do not involve the possible use of nuclear weapons, but have the potential to take many lives, as did the war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

I have just finished reading “Balkan Ghosts, a journey through history” by Robert D Kaplan.  Kaplan, an American, spent many years of his life in the Balkan peninsula, including Greece.

This book is a look at the roots of the many and varied conflicts in the Balkans, through the eyes of some of the vivid personalities Kaplan met in his travels through Croatia, Serbia,  Macedonia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In the last few days, I met some politicians from the former Yugoslavia, and was struck by how concerned they are at the possibility of military conflict in one the countries on the list, Macedonia.  

Macedonia is a country shared between a Slav majority and an Albanian minority.

They had an ethnic civil war in the early 1990’s, but were able to put together a power sharing administration after the war, which was something of a miracle.

The two communities are divided by religion and by language.

Their neighbours are not much help to them. Bulgaria originally claimed the country as part of Bulgaria and fought a war to achieve that goal in the early years of the 20th century. Some Albanians feel part of Macedonia should be part of a greater Albania, and Greece vetoed Macedonia’s membership of NATO, simply because the country calls itself Macedonia.

The current crisis in Macedonia has arisen because the President refuses to appoint the Prime Minister because the proposed Prime Minister’s coalition is based on concessions to a party representing the Albanian minority, which were negotiated at a meeting in Albania rather than in Macedonia itself.

Kaplan’s book explores Croatia’s troubled history in World War Two and the case of Cardinal Stepinac.  Stepinac was accused of collaboration with the Nazis but  his record seems to me to have been a lot better than that of most German bishops at the time.

He chronicles the decline of the Romanian monarchy under the playboy King Carol II, and the subsequent Iron Guard and Communist regimes. He visited Transylvania(part of Romania) where German, Hungarian, and Romanian speaking communities uneasily co existed.

He writes about the appalling treatment meted out to their Turkish speaking minority by the Bulgarian Communist regime, revenge perhaps for Turkish atrocities against Bulgarians a century earlier.

Finally he deals with the extravagances of the Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  He sees Greek politics as an expression of its Byzantine and Balkan heritage rather than as a reflection of the supposed glories of ancient Greece. Many of the policies that made the Greek state financially unviable in 2008, were introduced by Andreas Papandreou twenty years earlier.

All of this history is brought alive through the personal stories of individuals in each of the countries, which adds colour and human interest to what would otherwise be a depressing tale of nationalist over reach, religious bigotry, and avoidable conflict.

 

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS ……A STORY THAT ILLUMINATES PRESENT DAY POLITICS

I bought Antonia Frasers biography of Mary Queen of Scots, in a second hand bookshop in Paris, a few years ago, and eventually got around to reading its 667 pages over the Christmas period.

It  is a riveting personal story of a woman who became Queen of Scotland  as an infant,  and  who spent her childhood and teenage years in France, where  she  married the King .

Then, after the King of France had died, and she was still only 19 years old, she returned to Scotland in 1561 to take up her responsibility as monarch of her native country.

Politics was different then.

In Scotland, much the real power rested with the nobility, who controlled the land and its revenues, and who could, and did, dictate to the monarch. Parliaments were often no more than a vehicle for the power of the landed nobility.

Religion added a new source of contention, especially if the monarch and her subjects had different religious beliefs. Mary was a convinced Catholic, while the majority of her subjects had recently become Protestant followers of Calvin and Knox…Presbyterians.

She did not attempt to force her Catholic religious views on her subjects, in stark contrast to the policy followed in England by the monarchs of that country, both Protestant and Catholic.

In Scotland the drive for religious conformity came from the bottom up.iin England, it came from the top down.

Mary also had a claim on the English throne, through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor, a sister of Henry XIII.

So when all  Henry VIII’s offspring had no children, Mary would have been the uncontested  heir to the English throne too, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

In fact, she could even claim precedence over Elizabeth, because , in Catholic eyes, Elizabeth was illegitimate, because her mother, Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII took place, while his first wife, Catherine, was still alive. As we know, the Pope did not agree to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine.

Interestingly Mary’s own grandmother, Margaret Tudor, a staunch Catholic, had had an annulment of her marriage to her second husband, the Earl of Angus.

Mary herself had numerous half brothers and sisters, because her father had had active relations with women, other than Mary’s mother.

So Mary’s person, and her choice of husband (she had three), became an instrument in the  politics of Europe, and in the struggle for predominance between France, Spain and England, and between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Although she was a charming intelligent and generally cautious ruler, the forces with which she had to contend eventually became far too great for her.

She was forced to abdicate in 1567, attempted to regain the throne by force, and was defeated. She had to quit Scotland, leaving her infant son,  James, who was eventually to become King of both England and Scotland, behind, never to see him again. She was only 25.

But, instead of fleeing to France where she would have been well received and had many powerful relatives, she fled to England. This was a fatal and foolish mistake.

In England, she became an acute embarrassment to her host, Queen Elizabeth, who feared , with reason, that, as a legitimate claimant to the English throne, Mary would provide a rallying point for English Catholics and their continental allies, who wanted to dethrone Elizabeth, and restore the Catholic faith.

Eventually, after twenty years imprisonment, Elizabeth had Mary executed in 1587, when she was still only 44 years of age.

This tragic story brings out the deep historical, political and religious differences between Scotland and England. It exposes the roots of the suspicion between England and the continent, a suspicion that is not prevalent in Scotland. States were much weaker then than they are today.

It reminds the reader how different were the priorities of political actors 500 years ago. Heredity and religion were much more important than trade and economics. Only the pursuit of power is a constant.

 

DIANA MOSLEY AND MARGOT ASQUITH

During 2016, I read and enjoyed two books by the British biographer, Anne De Courcy.

One was a life of Diana Mosley, the wife of the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Diana was one of the well known Mitford sisters, one of whom, Nancy, became a noted author and another, Unity, became a noted devotee of Adolf Hitler. Oswald Mosley, who married their sister Diana, emerges from the book as an extremely egotistical man.

Diana left her first husband, Bryan Guinness, one of the brewing  family, to live with and marry Mosley. Diana met the already married Oswald Mosley in 1932, when he was already a well known politician, but also a notorious philanderer. He had all the glamour, daring, and vitality her husband lacked

Bryan Guinness had liked a quiet domestic life, whereas his wife preferred a busy, intellectually stimulating, social life. Mosley provided  that in abundance.

 Diana and Mosley remained together through  his tempestuous political career in the 1930’s when he tried to turn Britain to Fascism. She also stayed with him during their internment during the Second War,  his failed attempt to launch a new Fascist Party after the War, and  their eventual voluntary exile in France. In her eyes, he could do no wrong.

The books throws light on the appeal of Fascism to well educated and aristocratic people in Britain during the 1930’s, and, in this, it helps us understand the appeal of authoritarian nationalism in our own times.

The other book, entitled “Margot at War, Love and Betrayal in Downing Street , 1912-1916” is an account of the life of the wife of the then Prime Minister, HH Asquith. It gives a  very good account of life in 10 Downing Street during the early part of  First World War.

As a devoted wife, Margot had to cope with the fact that Asquith, at this time, had become totally infatuated with Venetia Stanley, a friend of one of his daughters by his first marriage.  His obsession with Venetia  became well known to his political colleagues, and was a source of mortification and humiliation for his wife. It also undermined his authority as Prime Minister.

As de Courcy puts it, Asquith’s colleagues saw him

“bland, well fed, calm, scribbling letter after letter to Venetia  in the Cabinet  Room ,as vital questions of war were being debated,  and men were dying in their thousands”

This self indulgence contributed to the undermining, and  to the eventual replacement, of  Asquith as Prime Minister,  by his  Liberal Party colleague, David Lloyd George. This coup created a split that led to the virtual disappearance of the once dominant Liberal Party in the next twenty years.

Both books give a well written account of the historical background of the times, during which these two personal stories evolved, and are interesting for that alone.

Political power in Britain, in both eras, was exercised within a small aristocratic or intellectual circle. The characters entertained one another, frequently and lavishly, even when there were shortages.

Both Diana Mosley and Margot Asquith used their social contacts to advance their husband’s careers.  Thankfully, Margot Asquith had the greater success.

 

THE STRUGGLE FOR THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

As Russia and Turkey broker a Syrian ceasefire without the involvement of the United Nations or the United States, some are wondering if the axis of  influence  in the world is shifting from the Atlantic to the centre of Asia.

Like many others, I enjoyed reading the best seller,   “The Silk Roads, a New History of the World”, by Peter Frankopan.

The period  the book covers runs from the time of the Babylonian Empire right up to the present day.

The area it covers is everywhere between Ireland and Vladivostok, and between the Indian and Arctic Oceans.

The centre of that world is somewhere near the Caspian Sea. The constant theme, through the whole time, is a struggle within this huge area, for resources, and for  the  means of contact with the outside world.

The rivalry between the Roman and Persian Empires is described.

So is the  rise of Islam, and the  claim is made that Islam succeeded partly because it  provided Arabs with a unifying identity, in places of the rival religions and heresies that predated it.

The claim is made that Jews in Palestine initially welcomed Muslim rule. Indeed it is noteworthy that, 700 years later, Jews, fleeing Christian Spain found refuge in then, Muslim ruled, Greece.

The role of Genghis Khan is described and it is claimed that, after the initial disruption, Mongol dominance gave relative stability to Central Asia.  The Mongols did not come all the way to Western Europe because they found much richer lands to conquer in India and China.

Russia’s constant  fear of being encircled, or hemmed in, within the Eurasian landmass is also examined. After its defeat in the Crimean War in 1856, peace terms were imposed on Russia, by the victorious British, French and Turks, which closed the Black Sea to the Russian Navy. This was despite the fact that the Black Sea was the exit route for a third of Russia’s exports. This remained a huge grievance for the Russian leadership, and a similar feeling of being hemmed in lies behind Russian tactics today, in respect of Crimea and Syria.

Hitler, who remembered the starvation in Germany during the First World War, was determined, as one of his war aims, to seize the grain growing regions of Ukraine and Southern Russia. His plans in this respect were well signalled in his book Mein Kampf, which he wrote in the 1920’s and which Stalin had read.  But Stalin did not draw the logical conclusion and was caught off guard, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941.

The thesis of this book is that world politics rotates around the struggles for control of resources of food, energy, and minerals on the Eurasian land mass.

This is in contrast to a view that would see the Atlantic as the axis of political and economic power.

From the very beginning of this story, peoples in Eurasia were changing sides, finding new allies, and adopting different religions. Inconsistency was the one constant among the players of this great game.

For example, in view of the present   obsession in the United States and Israel with the possibility that Iran might have nuclear capacity, we are reminded that, in 1974, President Ford agreed to sell American nuclear reprocessing technology to Iran. That was in the time of the Shah, who was overthrown five years later, but the geostrategic risk of proliferation inherent in selling such a technology to Iran under any regime was the same then as it is now.

Interestingly President Ford’s Chief of Staff at the time was Richard Chaney!

As we move towards an more uncertain world, reading this book will help one to be a little less surprised by what happens, because one will learn that something rather like it will have happened before.

 

WHAT ARE THE HISTORIC ROOTS OF BRITAIN’S CONTINUING ANGST ABOUT EUROPE?

Britians Europe.inddWhy has Britain always had such an ambiguous approach to being involved in the EU?

Why did it refuse to join the Common Market in 1957, only to apply to join in 1961?

Why has it felt the need to opt out of many EU policies, and why is making a  modest contribution to the EU budget so controversial in Britain?

 I have recently read

 “Britain’s Europe,  A thousand years of Conflict and Cooperation” by Brendan Simms, an Irish historian,  who is Professor if the history of International Relations in Cambridge University in the UK.

In this excellent book, he explores the deep historic roots of Britain’s attitudes to the continent of Europe.

His underlying thesis is that England’s abiding concern has been to protect itself from unwanted intrusion by continental European powers.

Even Britain’s imperial expansion into other continents, and its development of the dominant navy in the world, were designed, Simms believes, to bolster its position vis a vis Europe.

England interfered in Ireland and Scotland, and invaded them, to prevent them being used as a base by its continental enemies. These motives, Simms argues, lay behind the Acts of Union of 1707 with Scotland, and  of 1800 with Ireland.

England made alliances with lesser powers on the continent to curb whichever was the continent’s biggest power.

First it did so to curb Spain, later to curb France, and most recently to curb Germany.

Its policy was to create a balance of power on the continent so that no one continental power would be strong enough to threaten Britain.

It always felt vulnerable to invasion from the continent, and indeed it was only thanks to luck, or to unfavourable winds, that many planned invasions did not happen. The last successful invasion was by the Dutch in 1688.

To deter invasion, England always wanted to ensure that the dominant continental power did not control the “Low countries”, now Belgium or Holland. Britain went to war against France in 1792, and against Germany in 1914, to prevent the dominant European power controlling the Low countries.

British statesmen have not been opposed to European unity on principle.

For example, Edmund Burke favoured a “Commonwealth of Europe.”

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Castlereagh favoured regular European Summits.

The problem for England is that a united Europe would make the British policy or backing lesser powers to create a balance of power impossible to operate, unless, of course, Britain could do this from INSIDE a united Europe. But that would trammel its historic freedom of action.

Its continuing inability to decide on which of these contradictory options to pursue explains why “Europe” is such a toxic issue in British politics.

Brendan Simms argues that Britain “cannot be compared” to other European powers because of

  •  its economic strength,
  •  its permanent UNSC seat,
  •  its nuclear deterrent, and
  •  the size of its conventional military.

He believes that the Euro Zone will have to create a fully fledged Federal state to sustain the Euro. He believes the UK would stay out of this.

While I agree with this last point, I find both of his other arguments unconvincing.  Britain is not that different, and the euro can be sustained without a fully fledged Federal state being created. I attempted to show how, in a previous posting on this site.

This is a very timely book and deserves to be read in all European countries, including Ireland.

The balance of power thinking that motivates British policy was relevant when Europe had 25% of the world’s population and 50% of its wealth. It makes much less sense now, when Europeans are only 7% of the world’s population and have a declining share of global wealth.

Nostalgia is nor a sound policy, for Britain or for Europe as a whole. That is why UK voters should remain in the EU.

JAMES THE SECOND

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I have just finished reading a book that I bought many years ago, “James the Second” by Maurice Ashley (published by JM Dent)

James is remembered in Ireland as the King who supposedly displayed a lack of courage and thereby lost the fateful battle of the Boyne in 1690.

 In England he is seen as the King who had to be overthrown in 1688 to preserve his subjects “religion and liberties”, as the banner of his opponent King William claimed.

Neither view is fair or accurate.

 James became a Catholic as a young man, as did his brother King Charles the Second. But, whereas Charles kept this a secret until he was on his death bed, James was open about it.

 Charles tried half heartedly, and without success, to remove the disabilities suffered in England by Catholics and by Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England. Oliver Plunkett was put to death during the reign of Charles the Second in 1681.

 James, on the other hand sought to make toleration and freedom of religious worship the central goal of his reign when he succeeded Charles in February 1685.

 He  also made it clear that he wanted this to happen while preserving the position, as the State Church, of the Church of England. Ashley, who has studied all the documents, including those from before James became King, is adamant that this was the case. He was for all round religious toleration.

As to his prowess as a soldier, Ashley shows that, in his earlier career, James had been a brave and resourceful military commander

Against advice from his French military advisors to retreat across the Shannon when William arrived with his army in Ireland in 1690, James, although outgunned and outnumbered 3 to 2, decided to make a stand at the Boyne.

 He rightly understood that his volunteer army would melt away if he was not willing to put up a fight.

 James is criticised for leaving his army after the battle and going back to France rather than staying on to fight in Ireland. His departure is partially explained by the fact that he was hoping to get French help for an invasion of England, and by the fact that his enemies controlled the sea lanes and he could not easily be resupplied, if he retreated and reassembled his army west of the Shannon.

This book does not, however, absolve him of criticism.

 He was extremely tactless in his handling of the Church of England Bishops. His attempts to introduce sweeping religious toleration, by use of royal prerogative without parliamentary approval, showed that he had learned nothing from recent history and from the fate of his father, Charles the First.

He was overthrown in 1688 because he was deserted by his closest Lieutenants, and by his two daughters, both of whom were in turn to replace him on the throne. Perhaps the most justifiable criticism of him is that he did stand and fight against William in England in 1688, where he might have been able to rally support in much of middle England against the Dutch invader. Then he might never have had to take a stand at the Boyne.

Although he was a strongly religious man, he was also a serial philandered who had a succession of mistresses.

This book brings to light the flawed humanity of this sincere, but tactless and unlucky, man.

JEREMY THORPE

41S4Lg8J1+L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_I recently read a biography of the former leader of the British Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, written by Michael Bloch and first published in 2014.

Thorpe was an old Etonian and a member of a circle of friends who were used to having enormous influence in the political, legal, and economic destiny of Britain. He was a barrister.

The Thorp family were originally from Wexford, where they had settled as part of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

His great grandfather, William, joined the Dublin Metropolitan Police in 1856, as a constable. He rose through the ranks to become a Superintendant by the time of his retirement in 1890.

He had nineteen children, one of whom, Jeremy’s grandfather, became a clergyman in the Church of Ireland. Later he moved to England where he rose to become an archdeacon in the Church of England .

One of the clergyman’s sons, Jeremy’s father,  John Henry Thorpe, became (briefly) a Tory MP in 1919, before Jeremy was born.

Jeremy’s parents were close friends of the Lloyd George family, and it was through that connection that Jeremy, who always saw himself as a future Prime Minister, gravitated towards the Liberal Party and a political career.

He became involved with the Liberals at a time when the Party was in a very weak condition, where all but one of the seats  were held, only because the Conservatives did not contest the constituency at all, and allowed the Liberal MP a free run against Labour.

Jeremy was a flamboyant campaigner and had a knack for attracting publicity. He employed this to good effect put the Liberal Party back on the political map. He won several by elections.

He came close to power when Edward Heath contemplated coalition with Liberals, led by Thorpe, as a way of staying on a Prime Minister after an Election in which the Conservatives had lost seats.

Thorpe, although a married man, was apparently being blackmailed, through a good part of his political career, by a former homosexual lover. This was at a time when homosexual acts were illegal. He was later accused of conspiring with others to have his blackmailer murdered.

He was acquitted but never recovered politically from this scandal, which provides the most interesting material in this biography of an otherwise shallow and insubstantial political figure.

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