Wayne’s World

Whatever the economic imperatives behind imperialism, every empire invariably generates a rhetoric of superiority, which supposedly entitles and even obliges certain countries or societies to acquire territory, dominate and conquer others or impose their system of government through direct or indirect means.   Such superiority might be cultural, religious, racial, or systemic, but it often translates into a sense of ‘mission’ or ‘destiny’ which presents empire as some kind of altruistic project.

Some empires are cured of such delusions slowly and painfully.  For Spain, the process of imperial disintegration and collapse began in the seventeenth century and culminated in the Spanish-American war at the end of the nineteenth.   Other empires have experienced a more sudden and traumatic collision with reality. The thousand-year Reich and Japan’s empire of the sun underwent a process of imperial expansion that lasted roughly fifteen years, and which ended with the destruction of both Germany and Japan and the humiliation of occupation.

Partly as a result of such devastation, both countries have to some extent come to terms with their respective imperial pasts and have learned to be suspicious of the narratives of superiority that once sustained them.  Here in the UK things have turned out rather differently. Britain’s protracted ‘retreat from empire’ has never entirely cured the British ruling classes – and a significant section of the public – of the belief that the UK has some kind of special destiny that is different from other nations.

Suggest, as Danish Finance Minister Kristian Jensen did in June, that  ‘there are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations’ and that we might belong to both categories, and you will get the British Ambassador to Denmark Dominic Schroeder angrily denying that Great Britain is ‘ a diminished or diminishing power.’   Suggest that we might do better economically as members of the European Union than we would by leaving it, and you will hear a great deal of lofty pontificating about how we were once ‘ a great trading nation’ and could become one again.

Few of those who make such arguments will talk about how Britain became a ‘great trading nation’ in the first place.   You won’t hear many references to gunboats and the British navy, the East India Company’s wars, famines in Bengal, the collapse of the Bengal textile industry, the Opium Wars, the Irish famine, Mau Mau concentration camps, to mention but a few of the darker episodes from our imperial past.   If such things are remembered at all, they are likely to be remembered as aberrations in the acquisition of our ‘accidental empire.’

Even Orwell, the great imperial critic, once noted that the British empire was ‘ a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.’  Well yes, compared with the Nazis and Japan’s ‘Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Scheme’ we don’t look that bad, but really such comparisons aren’t something to go around feeling superior about, and they certainly shouldn’t induce us to hanker after what we have lost.

This curious and dangerous combination of imperial nostalgia and imperial amnesia that continues to define and distort our politics.   I’ve been reminded of this combination many times in my lifetime, but never more so than during the last twelve months.   Brexit is absolutely marinated by this remembered past – together with a sour streak of English hyper-nationalism.   It isn’t that we want an empire again, it’s just that we want to be as ‘great’ as we thought we were when we had one.

That’s why we can’t stand foreigners telling us what to do, even if we voluntarily agreed to join an organisation in which we also tell them what we want to do.   It’s why we describe the EU as a ‘dictatorship’ and talk of starving ourselves to be free of it so that once again we can become the great trading nation we were always destined to be.

After all, as  a woman on Question Time recently reminded viewers,  ‘ For thousands of years, Britain has ruled in a wonderful way.  We’ve been a light to the world.’  And this week, in an incredible interview ‘Wayne from Chelmsford’ told LBC presenter James O’Brien that he still supported Brexit despite mounting evidence that it may be an economic disaster, not only because he didn’t believe it would be, but because we used to ‘own 3 thirds [sic]of the world’.

How did we get to ‘own’ these ‘3 thirds’?   Wayne probably doesn’t know, and he clearly doesn’t care.   Asked whether leaving the EU might make it difficult for Brits to go to France, he replies that ‘ I don’t want to go to France’.   He doesn’t want to go to Greece either, because ‘ I’ve heard you can’t go to certain beaches because they’ve got full of tents with migrants on them.’

There are a lot of things to be depressed about it this alarming interview: the unapologetic xenophobia; the deep hatred of migrants; the ignorance and complete indifference to facts, arguments or evidence.  But once again Wayne’s view of our imperial past expresses a nostalgia and romanticism that is at the core of Brexit.  Before you reach into the standard Brexiters’ book of clichés and accuse me of snobbery or looking down at the working classes, I should point out that this view is not restricted to ignorant bigots from Chelmsford.  On the contrary, our newspapers and our ruling classes are absolutely steeped in it, as Theresa May’s ‘global Britain’ speeches and the Eton-educated buffoon Boris Johnson consistently prove.

In short, we are witnessing a textbook example of what can happen when a country succumbs not only to its worst prejudices, but also to its most foolish and most inflated delusions.   The former will be hard enough to crack, but in the end, there may only one thing that cure the country of the latter, and that is the very painful encounter with reality that John Harris suggested in the Guardian today, in a piece which attributed Brexit to ‘ an ingrained English exceptionalism, partly traceable to geography but equally bound up with a puffed-up interpretation of our national past, which has bubbled away in our politics and culture for decades.’

As Harris observed:

‘The likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have used it for their own ideological ends; in the kind of post-industrial places long ignored by Westminster politicians it turned out to be the one bit of pride and identity many people had left. It runs deep: even if the economy takes a vertiginous plunge, it will take a lot longer than two years to shift it.’

Harris also argues that

‘The only way such delusions will fade is if they are finally tested in the real world and found wanting, whereupon this country may at last be ready to humbly engage with modernity. And in that sense, to paraphrase a faded politician, Brexit probably has to mean Brexit. That may result in a long spell of relative penury, and an atmosphere of recrimination and resentment. By the time everything is resolved a lot of us will either be very old or dead. But that may be the price we have to pay to belatedly put all our imperial baggage in the glass case where it belongs, and to edge our way back into the European family, if they will have us.’

There are a lot of ifs in this scenario, and none of it is much to celebrate or look forward to.  I hope these bleak possibilities don’t materialize, because a lot of people will suffer if they do, and national political and economic traumas do not always produce a positive – let alone a redemptive – outcome.

I still hope that the country will come to its senses, and that there can some kind of revisiting of the referendum result, either through an election or a second referendum on a final deal.  I hope that we can find our way to a better future that is not based on the selective reinvention of our imperial past.  Perhaps then we might conclude that our collective interests could be best served by remaining in the – flawed – organisation that we voluntarily chose to remain and that we are foolishly choosing to leave.  

And perhaps we might finally learn to stop looking down at the rest of the world, and come to terms with the fact that we were not as great or as special as we thought we were,  and accept that empires do not repeat themselves, and finally say good riddance to the one we had.

A Cautionary Tale

Bear with me readers on what is an unusual and longish post, because I really think that this is something that needs a public airing.  The tale begins on Thursday morning when I was sitting at my desk and received the following comment on a blogpost which I posted on April 11 last year, entitled ‘Thatcher’s Golden Years: remembering the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’,  from someone called John Harris:

Great picture of the mounted police attack – who took it Matt?

 [stextbox id=”alert”]

Dear Matt,

A quick bit of research would tell you it is a very famous picture from the miners strike 1984/1985 and nothing to do with the Battle of the Beanfield…I own the copyright in this photograph, and you have neither sought nor obtained my permission to publish it. Accordingly, you have infringed my copyright under the terms of the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act.

As a journalist and author your infringement is flagrant. You have also exposed me to further loss. Have you published it in any other form?

Please give me your address so I can invoice you accordingly, and we can bring this matter to a speedy conclusion. Please confirm you have removed my picture and destroyed any copies of it you have made.

Kind Regards
John

[/stextbox]

I love that ‘kind regards’, don’t you?  A few minutes research proved that Harris was right.  The picture was taken by him, and it was a picture of the miners’ strike – something that was immediately obvious when I saw the picture outside the ‘beanfield’ cluster where I had first encountered it.     I was nevertheless shocked by the tone of the email, with its suggestion of a ‘flagrant’ infringement of copyright and also by the demand that I should be invoiced.

I have never knowingly infringed anyone’s copyright and did not realise that including a photo that was readily available on the Internet could be regarded as such.  I therefore rang Harris up, since his phone number was included in the email, and tried to explain to him that I had made an honest mistake. No chance.   He immediately accused me of being ‘aggressive’ and said that ignorance was ‘no excuse’ and that I was ‘wasting his time’, before hanging up.   I then wrote him another email, in which I denied that I had been aggressive, and suggested that Mr Harris’s ‘ threatening email…was far more aggressive than anything that I said.’

I  told Harris:

[stextbox id=”alert”]The mistake in the image was clearly mine, and I have removed it and added a disclaimer. I do not understand why, when you realized the image was on my website, you didn’t simply inform me what it was and tell me to remove it. Had you done so, I would have reacted immediately, as I have now. I’d like to point out that my blog is not a commercial activity and that I would never in a million years use anybody else’s work for profit. [/stextbox]

I also wrote:

[stextbox id=”alert”]Of course I haven’t published it in ‘any other form’. It was merely there to illustrate a piece on the evils of Thatcherism, something that you yourself once powerfully photographed. Given these circumstances I simply don’t understand why you have taken the line you have, and why you appear to be so intent on taking me to the cleaners. Is it because you don’t like my political views as expressed in the blog? Is it a question of principle? Or do you simply regard me as a ‘journalist and author’ and therefore who might be able to pay you?.[/stextbox]

Regarding the principle, I argued:

[stextbox id=”alert”]You say that ignorance is no ‘excuse’ in legal terms. Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly ought to be in ethical and moral terms, particularly between individuals who at least at one time were singing from the same political hymn sheet. I myself have often allowed other people to use my work for free when it was for causes that I agreed with, and if I found out that they were doing so without my knowledge I would simply ask them to remove it.

I hope therefore, that you will do the same, and be content to let the matter rest at that.

Yours sincerely,

Matt Carr[/stextbox]

Harris was not content to let the matter rest at that.  Hardly had I sent the email than I received this:

[stextbox id=”alert”]Dear Matt,

I’m surprised you have phoned in such an aggressive fashion, it was most upsetting. A more apologetic tone would have been more appropriate, I’d not asked you to use my picture you know.

At this point it is really important to deal with this in a quick, timely and helpful manner please. You really cannot assume that just because you “found it on the internet” that you have permission to use others work to promote your own writing. [/stextbox]

As far I was concerned this was the classic response of the coward-bully.  It was apparently ok for Mr Harris to pretend to be a curious reader.  Ok to threaten me with legal action.   But it was not ok to question any of this.   As for the accusation that I used others work to promote my writing, this was a complete misrepresentation of my own motives in using the photograph, not to mention a wild exaggeration of the commercial impact of my blog.

By this time it was clear to me that I was talking to someone who was either tonedeaf or determined to misrepresent anything I had to say.   I nevertheless tried once again, and sent this reply:

[stextbox id=”alert”]Dear John,

You will have seen the email that I just sent you. I still do not understand why you thought I was aggressive, and I’m sorry that I upset you. That was not my intention. Misunderstandings can easily take place on the phone especially when emotions are heated. Of course I am sorry that I used your picture, but you should understand that it was a genuine error, not a deliberate attempt to exploit anybody or use anybody’s work for my own benefit – something that I have never done and never would do.

But I genuinely wasn’t aware that posting photos on the Internet was a breach of copyright, and as you see from the image I sent you, there wasn’t an obvious name in any case. Obviously I will not assume that I can use photos in the future, but the images I used were not intended to ‘promote my writing’ but to enhance the political points I was trying to make.

I hope that you can accept my apologies.

Matt[/stextbox]

Mr Harris did not accept my apologies.  Instead he sent this:

[stextbox id=”alert”]

Without prejudice save as to costs

Dear Matt,

I didn’t call you, you called me and immediately started saying that it was “unfair” that you couldn’t use my work for free which is why I really didn’t want to listen to you I’m afraid! It really is utter rubbish. What is unfair is 1) that you have used my image in this way, 2) that you are wasting my time with long emails about it, and 3) what would be really unfair would be if those diligent in arranging licensing & use in the correct way pay, whilst those using my image without license got away with paying nothing at all.

For your information the reason I saw your infringement was because you have been quoted as the source for a further and even more serious infringement by a third party in a hardback book who has repeated your mislabelling etc. & who appears to even claim copyright. Non bylined/non credited & mislabeled use has exactly that “knock on” effect… I don’t want to be dealing with any of it but have a responsibility to myself and others to do so.

I don’t like your “at least at one time singing from the same political hymn sheet” as if my standing up for my rights is evidence of my “selling out” – that is a cheap shot and untrue. That is the second time you have impugned my integrity. Furthermore, whether I charge for use for causes I agree with or not is at my discretion not yours.

I haven’t said anything about “taking you to the cleaners” for your use, albeit one which is clearly promoting your publishing work – and indeed all of your books do look very interesting. I am correct in the terms I use, infringement by someone who is in publishing/journalism/business will be held as “flagrant” in law and I may be entitled to claim further damages in this & other respects.

I require your contact details by return. In the interests of resolving this matter quickly and with good will for both of us I am, at this stage, willing to make a without prejudice offer to waive my rights to damages from you with respect to your breach for a payment of £120 incl VAT, provided that you accept this offer in writing within the next 7 days and provided that such sum is received on my account within the next 14 days. That is a very kind offer on my part. This does not grant any license to use the image.

Should I not receive notification of acceptance of this offer within the period described above and subsequent payment of our invoice I shall pass the matter into other hands. If I have to take this claim further, I reserve by right to add other losses resulting from the breach, the costs of lawyers’ fees, court fees, and other expenses will also be added to the cost of the claim. There is now a court set up especially for this purpose.
[/stextbox]

At no stage did I ever say that it was ‘unfair’ that I could use not Harris’s work for free.  This was a complete misrepresentation.  Nor do I have any idea what ‘third party’  he is referring to.   What I was trying to suggest that a) I had not profited from Harris’s work nor attempted to do so and b) that it was not necessary to force me to pay for what was essentially an honest mistake.

I did consider ignoring his threats, and I received various opinions suggesting that I should not give in to them, and that a court would agree that I acted in good faith.  But I have been sued before, and the risks to my family were too great if everything went pearshaped, so I was forced to accept his ‘kind offer.’

And that readers, concludes and ugly, nasty little tale which leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.   So writers and bloggers should take care.  Because just because something is on the Internet doesn’t mean that it is public property, and there will always be someone out there willing to use the law as an instrument of extorsion, regardless of whether you acted in error or with malicious intent.

And I can’t help wondering at the bizarre irony in which a writer denouncing one of the most savage episodes of police brutality during the Thatcher era should have invited such a ruthless response from a photographer who once took pictures denouncing another.  Harris can proclaim his ‘rights’ all he likes, but he had other means of upholding them, and I am disgusted and appalled that he didn’t take them, and chose instead to target me as if I were some kind of thief.