October 03, 2009

Interviewing the Regius

An interview with Quentin Skinner, who though he never taught me, has taught me through his books and articles and who has been incredibly influential on my approach to history and to thought. I would urge watching it- some of it is personal to Skinner and his circle but much of it is about the world of learning he inhabits- Machiavelli, Hobbes, Wittgenstein and Collingwood- and furthermore the argument he has developed about liberty. Skinner, for those who haven't come across him, was Regius Professor at Cambridge until this year. He is incredibly important as a philosopher of the history of ideas, basing his arguments upon John Austin's theory of illocutory action. He is also an important scholar: for example he traced a concept of liberty back through time which he argued was different to our current one- liberty as a non-dependent state (rather than as an uncoerced action)- this concept Skinner argued was the principle legacy of ancient Rome through the digest of law to early modern philosophers like John Milton. He sees Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan as a sophisticated demolition of that argument. His work though includes much more- and in these interviews he surveys both it and his influences.

October 02, 2009


Ok this is wanton ego boosting- but Norman Geras asked me to do one of his Normblog profiles and he's put it up on his website- I was pretty stunned to be asked, still am pretty stunned to be honest. Some of the questions are answers I'd change today- like what's your favourite blog, that changes depending on the day of the week- others might have been the product of my mood on the day. But you might find it interesting so here's the link!

October 01, 2009

Review: The Tyrannicide Brief, a life of Justice John Cook

John Cook was Soliciter General of England, Chief Justice of Munster, friend of Oliver Cromwell and several of Cromwell's allies and the lawyer who prosecuted Charles I for treason. He was also a key protagonist in pamphlet debates during the English Civil War, publishing a series of arguments about law reform and one of the most important republican pamphlets- Monarchy No Creature of God's Making- of the interregnum. He deserves a good biography- unfortunately the latest biography of him, by Geoffrey Robertson the human rights lawyer significantly fails to appreciate Cook's role in the English revolution. Robertson is dismissive of the period in which Cook lived, evaulates purely as a modern lawyer rather than demonstrating any political or historical nous and demonstrates at every page his ignorance of and contempt for the many great historical works written on the period. Some of his errors are mitigated: he briefly thanks George Southcombe of Lincoln College Oxford for doing some of the research as well as Ian Wilson- my guess is that Messrs Southcombe and Wilson are responsible for some of the better judgements and most of the research in Robertson's biography whereas Robertson himself is responsible for the overall tenor and some of the most lamentable mistakes.

To start with, Robertson draws a portrait of Cook that is heavily anachronistic and severely biassed. For him Cook was a modern law reformer: we are told that Cook anticipated modern ideas about debt, the NHS, the right of defendents, the union of equity and law and democracy itself. What Robertson never seeks to do is to ask why Cook believed in these things- whether they ressembled accurately what we have today and what Cook was responding to- for him the important thing about Cook is how he anticipated Robertson. This is perhaps the crux of the book for Robertson does not really see Cook as a figure in the historical past but as Robertson avant la lettre: Cook was we are told the man who lit a blaze under tyrants, a blaze that would continue to the days of Milosevic and Pinochet, that he argued that a military commission could not acquit someone of a crime (something Robertson directly relates to the former Yugoslavia) and that he destroyed sovereign immunity. No matter that nowhere in the trial of Charles I or of the rest of the royalists tried and executed in the early months of 1649 was the modern concept of war crimes mentioned, Robertson still beleives that they believed in war crimes in exactly the same way as we did.

Robertson is alert to the fact that Cook focussed on the Bible more than moderns did- a testament possibly to the influence of Southcombe and Wilson- but he is unwilling to note the concommitant, that Coke believed in a godly and not a secular order. Robertson for instance notes that independent Calvinism was a tolerant creed without noting that it was a creed which mandated the exclusion of those who were not saved. The distinction between a national Presbyterian or Anglican Church and the Independent Church supported by Cromwell and Cook was not purely the distinction between a Church which tolerated and one which did not, it was also a distinction between a church which said that all could be saved and everyone should be targetted for God's ministry and one that consigned those that would not hear to everlasting perdition. But there are worse blindnesses than that. Robertson does not understand the arguments for regicide, so much so that he ridicules the chief argument for regicide that the King had behaved against the public interest as an argument 'fit for a tavern'.

Perhaps most damagingly Robertson is incredibly partial. No perspective but that of the puritan (apparantly Presbyterians weren't puritans- a discovery we are all indebted to him for) gets a fair hearing. This is most evident in Ireland. According to Robertson at the seige of Drogheda in 1649 'Civilians were not killed' (p. 229). This is contrary not only to most modern historical opinion- John Morrill, Michael O'Siochru and almost every historian with the exception of Tom O'Reilly who has studied Drogheda agrees that civilians were slain- it is contrary to Oliver Cromwell's own evidence. Cromwell wrote to Parliament saying that many inhabitants were slain and there are accounts from the time that demonstrate that an atrocity did happen and that, contrary to Robertson's account, Cromwell did not act 'reasonably' the day after but the slaughter continued. Morrill and others including myself would argue that Cromwell was not neccessarily the uncomplicated ogre of Irish legend: but a human rights lawyer ought to be more wary of suggesting that there was no abuse. Furthermore though Robertson for instance is right to state that in his declaration of Clonmacnoise Cromwell vowed that Catholics might keep their private beliefs, he fails to quote passages in which Cromwell also said that they could not publically profess their faith. Priests were excluded from surrender terms explicitly. Robertson also passes over the Irish act of settlement with hardly a murmur- a Parliamentary act (of which Cromwell did not neccessarily approve but plenty of those close to Cook did approve of) which condemned the Irish to travel to Connaught in the harvest season. Cromwell in Ireland was not a pleasant man- he may not have been a demon but to paint him as an angel stretches credibility in ways that Robertson, in other contexts would condemn.

But this is of a piece with the rest of his work. Robertson is given to immature and snide comments about those who opposed Cook- the Rump Parliament in 1658-9 were 'good old boys supporting a good old cause'. He says those who opposed the army and Cook in 1647 were 'representatives of war profiteerers'. Bizarrely he even attacks their lack of a sense of humour- as though one might tell at the distance of several centuries! His attachment to his subject means that Robertson is the only author I have ever come across who says that John Cook wrote the Remonstrance of the Army, wrote the act that declared England a Republic, convinced Oliver Cromwell not to take the crown (to be fair he actually says it was Cook's arguments) and had an influence on the US Constitution! Every biographer falls in love to some extent with their subject, but this is infatuation. Robertson has very little perspective on Cook's place in the regime- he was an important lawyer but his arguments were not neccessarily original or unusual, he shared many with the group who employed him to charge Charles. Robertson also makes other mistakes- he mistakes Robert Lilburne for Richard Lilburne, he says that Mary Queen of Scots was guilty of the murder of her husband and says that Cromwell had decided on Charles's trial on the 16th December 1648, not knowing that a peace offer was made with Cromwell's permission by the Earl of Denbigh on the 18th. Such mistakes might be admissable: if Robertson was not also addicted to unfounded speculation, how he can know that John Cook's class decided that James I was a terrible King because he had executed Raleigh, how can he understand that Cook decided it would be better to marry than burn- presumably overcome with lust- and hence married his wife. Where is the evidence for either statement?

This is bad history and bad biography. It is redeemed by a couple of good judgements- Robertson does understand that English Republicanism was biblical and not always Machiavellian, he does understand the importance of the theatre of John Lilburne's trials but there is an arrogance and stupidity that wins out every time. Ultimately Robertson writes this book as a partisan hack might, someone who came to praise John Cook not to understand him. His understanding of the past is occasionally good but more often mistaken and his work is filled with errors. John Cook deserves a good biography- this unfortunately is not the biography he deserves. He was a crucial figure in the history of his period- the pamphlets that Robertson cites are important and in some cases Robertson treats them well- furthermore his record in Ireland deserves further study because Cromwell and Cook believed it was the model for England. But this is not the biography Cook deserves: I try in general when reviewing books to supply a summary of the argument and what it has added to my knowledge, in this case I was merely depressed by Robertson's false judgements and faulty understanding. Furthermore, he needs to learn how to use footnotes- they are used sparingly and randomly in his work and it is difficult to trace assertions back to a source.

There are some very good historians who were not academics- one thinks of Jonathan Sumption or Elliot Vernon in the present generation, Cecily Wedgewood in the previous- but Geoffrey Robertson is not one of them.

September 30, 2009

Merchants and Citizens

Veselin Kostic's recent article in the Dubrovnik Annals brings out something about early modern England and immigration that its worth realising. He has accumulated the records of three cases- two in Chancery and one that proceeded to Parliament- and discusses with reference to them the condition of Ragusan merchants in London. His discussions I think reveal two sides to the treatment of immigrants in early modern England. The first two cases he discusses are about adultery and tresspass: in both cases a Ragusan merchant appealed to Chancery for justice when an Englishman had accused him of adultery. What is interesting about both cases is that in neither was the merchant convinced that a jury trial would afford him justice. Both merchants thought that a native jury from London would be biassed in favour of the citizen who had impeached them- hence they raised the matter to the courts of equity. The last case concerns a murder- in this the international outrage seems according to Kostic to have forced the English authorities to proceed extraordinarily in order to resolve the murder and preserve London's reputation. What we see here are two mechanisms therefore: one which makes the situation of foreigners in Early Modern England very dangerous (the jury trial- a jury normally drawn straight from the tightknit community in which the 'crime' was committed and who would not know and have sympathy with the Ragusan) and the other in which a mechanism, rough and ready, existed to coerce the English state into protecting foreigners- ie the nascent free market in trade. This dynamic between local justice and international reputation is a fascinating one revealed by Kostic's article and definitely something that deserves attention.

September 29, 2009

Roman Polanski

Something worries me about the Roman Polanski case- and it is not his arrest, it is the reaction to it. As far as I can see, Polanski admitted to comitting a crime thirty years ago, he then fled before he could be punished- now at last justice has caught up with him. You may think that there should be a statute of limitations as in Italy and that is a fair view but it is not a view to be argued about right now because of the emotiveness of this case. There seems to be no doubt that there is no miscarriage of justice involved here: simply put a fugitive from justice has been arrested and placed in a cell prior to extradition to the jurisdiction which originally condemned him. It is for the courts to decide what punishment to administer.

And yet apparantly petitions are being drafted, the French society of film actors is talking about freedom of speech and Whoopi Goldberg about rape rape as opposed to rape. I find this rather strange. There is no freedom of speech issue here: Mr Polanski's crime was to have sex with an unwilling teenage girl- rape is not as far as I can remember freedom of speech and nor is it included in any meaningful definition of this film. Secondly the petition: again what injustice are they petitioning about- if Mr Polanski were not guilty of the crime or if he were being prosecuted for something that should not be a crime I could understand it, but the petition is being drafted apparantly because he is Mr Polanski. He is a child rapist full stop- you either believe that child rapists should face punishment and therefore that Mr Polanski should or you do not, can we take it that anyone who signs this petition- Mr Scorsese, Mr Allen, Miss Argento and others- beleive that child rape is acceptable? I do not think they do, but their actions are worrying.

I do like some of Mr Polanski's films- Chinatown is a masterpiece- and I believe that Mr Polanski has hard a harsh life, with a spell in a concentration camp and the murder of his wife to contend with, but he committed a crime. It is for the courts not for me to weigh up his circumstances against his crime and apply the law. I do not believe that American justice would be partial in this regard: the Great Republic may have flaws but it does with errors also have many virtues and judicial independence is one of them. The signatories to the petition would not sign the document were this not Mr Polanski- they seem to make the argument that travelling to a film festival gives one diplomatic immunity, I do not see how any account of ethics or common sense makes that plausible. This is a pathetic argument and special pleading. They too suggest that there is a free speech issue- something chilling in the air- as though prosecuting a 'moral case' about rape would lead inevitably to film makers being unable to make political or other films, again this is arrant nonsense.

The truth is that there should be equality between all citizens before the law. Mr Polanski committed a crime- it may be a long time ago but he committed it and unless a statute of limitations is brought in for all (even those say who murdered his wife) he should face trial and committal and resume a term in prison. To argue otherwise is either arrant hypocrisy based on artistic arrogance or intellectual flimsiness of the first degree.

September 28, 2009

Twilight Samurai

During the 19th Century Japan went through vast and important changes. The introduction of Western Influence through the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 and the Meijj restoration of the 1870s set Japan on a course to the twentieth century. The social impact of those changes was also vast. But Japan at any rate had been going through changes which were just as profound: the hereditary samurai caste gradually were becoming civilian civil servants, their ethos of honour changing as they swapped arrows for accountancy. Twilight Samurai is about a man at the intersection of those moments- set just before the Meijj Restoration, the film concentrates on Twilight Seibei. He is a samurai working inside a castle governed by a lord as a clerk of some type. He is called 'Twilight' because unlike his fellow workers he feels he has to go home to his two small daughters and his aged senile mother, rather than carousing through the streets. The story is in part about the development of a relationship between him and his childhood friend Miss Tomei and also about the development of him himself as a person caught within the feudal culture of Japan and the clerical world of the Castle.

It is the latter I want to concentrate upon: but that is predicated upon the former in the story. Miss Tomei has been divorced- and her former husband, a drunk, insults her and Twilight Seibei's friend her brother. Twilight steps forward to challenge the husband to a duel and turns up with a stick in his hand with which he proceeds to knock the other samurai stone cold unconscious. The point of this little episode is to demonstrate the way in which a Japanese cult of honour still requires duelling and violence in order to perpetuate itself. Miss Tomei appears to live in her former husband's compound- she cannot escape him. Twilight must avenge the insults by fighting- there is no other way. The husband takes up his offer and imagines a real duel- but Twilight fights with a stick instead thus offering a double humiliation, both by defeating the husband and refusing to fight with a sword. His victory is a triumph of his own ethos which is clercial not chivalric: he undermines in a sense the potency of the duel itself within this world by disrespecting it- but crucially he can only do that by turning the duel into a comedy, by using a stick not a sword, he must still risk death.

Hearing of this encounter, the clan which is in political turmoil investigates Twilight and finds out that he can fight. They then commission him to fight someone that they need killed- who has been ordered to commit suicide but refuses to do so. Twilight has to accept because the threat hangs over him that if he does not, he too will be killed. We saw that he could in the earlier example turn a private duel into a masquerade- he can punish the other samurai through humiliation and yet not kill or destroy another life. However this is not true in the second example- he must kill or be killed. The political pressure of a code of honour is too much for the samurai- ultimately he is a fighter not a clerk, that is his hidden value to the clan and to his family. There are obvious touching scenes as he leaves possibly to die with his children and Miss Tomei- the centre of which must be that like a clerk he prioritises the relationships with his family over the honour of his clan. Caught in this dilemma, Twilight has to continue being a samurai- and the ultimate destiny of being a samurai is to die young and kill often. His eminence therefore creates his own eventual death and in a final duel we see an emblem of how all lives of honourable violence end.

Amongst the many questions at the heart of the film is whether Twilight is right or not. Whether his civilian values, the values of a new Japan, in particular a post-1945 Japan, are preferable to the values of the older feudal Japan. The film is ambiguous about this because of course despite preferring the newer values Twilight becomes an embodiment of the older values: his daughter closes the film in retrospect by telling us she thought her father lived a good life, I can't help thinking that the closure of the film is subtle and ironic. The daughter is validating the fact that her father was loved- as he would desire to be- but also that he died young and enjoyed his life. She has told the story of Achilles- Twilight appeared to want to be Odysseus in a society that would only let him be Achilles, that was his tragedy, something his daughter ironically appears by the end of the film to have forgotten.

September 27, 2009

Justice for Chartists in Sheffield

Catherine Lewis has written an interesting article in the new Crimes and Misdemeanours Journal about the Chartist Samuel Holberry. Lewis argues that Holberry, who was arrested in 1840 for seditious conspiracy, imprisoned after a trial and who died two years later in prison, was unjustly held by the state. He was not guilty of the crimes that he was charged with and the process that was used to convict him illustrates the partiality of the English court system. She brings in as evidence the fact that evidence favourable to Holberry was excluded from his trial, he seems not to have been allowed legal counsel during his interrogation, the state used spurious charges in order to manufacture witnesses (one chartist Thompson only gave evidence when the state charged his father- charges that were swiftly dropped) and that Holberry was not allowed to summon his own witnesses nor give evidence himself. Some of her speculation, including the fact that there is good evidence Holberry was planning to hold a lecture and debate on the day after he was supposed to be planning armed insurrection demonstrates the strength of her point. Holberry was not served well by British justice of the 1840s.

It is in asking why this happened that I think we could go further than Lewis's article does. She cites two things- both important- one of which is the judicial system and the other is the attitude of the police. Let us start with the first: the British judicial system, contrary to opinion, is not timeless and has been in constant development to meet with new changes in society. I've described work on some of those changes in the way that it worked to meet the challenges of 18th Century urbanisation elsewhere. Basically the justice system meets two demands upon it: firstly to deal with an immediate new problem- crime in urban areas, political unrest or even today terrorism- and then the protests of those who are motivated by miscarriages of justice. In a sense with the chartist Holberry we see the first activity, the judicial system had caught up with the fact of radicalism's existance and was beggining to offer justice to those terrified by the radical threat- it had not developed structures to allow radicals to defend themselves. Furthermore one could argue that it was still developing post-Fielding structures of defence to accomodate the new powers of the prosecution thanks to the development of a police force.

The second point is about the police themselves. Lewis does acknowledge that they were driven by paranoia- but I think she makes this point too weakly at the end of her article and in the rest of her piece the state appears to be an agent. I am not sure this is true in the 19th Century context- it would be easier for anyone designing a criminal justice system if it were true that the police convicted the innocent for political or wilful reasons. They were in receipt mostly of information from informers- in this case Allen- that they could not prove. The incentive for those informers was to produce a crime- to earn their wages. The problem that we all face, at any moment in history, is not that those charged with bringing people to prosecution will wilfully convict the innocent- or at least if that is a problem it is easily dealt with- it is that those charged with bringing people to prosecution have neccessarily a single responsibility. They are there primarily to protect the public by framing a case against the accused- and that means that their bias will always be to there own invention, whether true or not, the case. oo. In a sense, the police have a duty to be paranoid: they must suspect and it is for other parts of the system to protect.

Lewis's piece is valuable- I did not know about Holberry's trial and definitely had a higher view of the system than I should have had having read what she writes. She brings out the bias against Holberry visible in the trial- evidence not presented, evidence coerced and improved upon in order to secure the safety of the witnesses. Her article powerfully suggests that Holberry was convicted wrongly and died unjustly. It takes its place in a history of English justice that would put evolution not consistency at the heart of its account.