An Empire of maps – ‘Artist and Empire’ at Tate Britain

What is the enduring image of the British Empire? Pith helmets and red coats? Sweating Colonial Officers drinking gin in button on collars? Packed ships sliding out of port, destined for foreign shores? The grand buildings that the wealth and manpower of empire left behind in London and Liverpool?

Or is it a map?

Those great, coloured maps with the pink of Britain’s colonies covering swathes of the globe. The, quite literal, picture of an Empire upon which the sun never sets. Even to those born decades after the end of Empire, there is possibly no more powerful evocation of the the size and power of Britain’s global domain. That is, of course, if you are British yourself.

The Tate’s new ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition, which opened this week, certainly places maps at the centre of the Imperial story. The very first of the six rooms the exhibition takes you through is dedicated to the cartography of Empire. Its power as propaganda and as a tool to erase local cultures and customs and replace them with, well anything the map maker wanted.

The Navy League Map of the British Empire from 1922, in the first room of the Tate’s ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition.

But there is so much more. As you’re led through the exhibition you’ll find layers of complexity in the art of (and from) the Empire that you didn’t know existed. You’ll be reminded of bits of history you’d forgotten (if you ever knew them) and be confronted by some awkward questions.

Did you know that Tangier was given to Britain as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry when she married Charles II? Are the Mughal style miniatures, commission and paid for by officers of the East India Company symptomatic of a cultural exchange or cultural appropriation? How long will it take you to notice that the early, fading photographs of the Opium Wars contain (deliberately) only Chinese dead?

The art and artefacts brought back from distant shores, such as prints of rare fungi or Maori clubs and portraits, may feed the idea of the Empire as being forged as one of discovery and science. Gentleman explorers traveling the world in sturdy wooden ships, discovering new lands and bringing enlightenment. That is certainly how the Victorian architects of the Empire liked to be seen, and it is telling that well over a century since the Empire’s peak, their art can still be propaganda. As William Dalrymple says in his (much better) review of the exhibition, ‘We actually still live in it – for we still reside in a globalised economy dominated by rich nations. Today’s international politics have far more in common with the days of General Gordon than with those of Neville Chamberlain’. 

It can be a little overwhelming. There is so much to take it, from so many places. Some of the rooms feel a little cluttered and harder to make sense of. But once you’ve toured the six compartments for the first time, retrace your steps and stand in the room full of images of the Empire at war. The last stand at Isandlwana, the death of General Gordon in Khartoum and Elizabeth Butler’s harrowing, haggard image of William Brydon, the first and supposedly last man to make it to Jalalabad after the 1842 retreat from Kabul. It should be a challenge to look at them in the same way as when you first passed through. That alone is worth the price of a ticket.



No, Cameron’s speech wasn’t ‘left wing’ but then it wasn’t aimed at you…

Where were you when David Cameron became the leader of the British left?

I was at a desk in west London, wondering if I was watching the end of the Labour Party. Not because I believe Cameron will be taking up an office in Brewer’s Green any time soon, but because when he’s done I’m not sure there will be anyone left to vote Labour.

David Cameron at the Tory Conference.

Cast your mind back a few years. Since 2010 David Cameron and George Osbourne have presided over some of the most draconian and austere law making in recent British history. Everyone on the left knows this and watched on in horror as it happened. They also failed on a number of the goals they set themselves (such as debt reduction) and went into the last election perceived as in real danger of losing.

So how have we ended up with David Cameron as the new face of compassionate Britain and George Osbourne his anointed successor? When did He Who Loves Pigs become a fist clenching leftie?

Well, of course, that hasn’t actually happened. The speech David Cameron gave today wasn’t left wing and and politics nerd know it. It was however quite extraordinary, showing an ideological openness and pragmatism that few on the left like to believe the Tories possess. To listen to it was amazing and terrifying in equal measure.

What the last five years have done is to move the notional ‘centre’ of politics a considerable distance to the right. Dark anti-immigration rhetoric, attacks on Trade Unions, tax cuts for high earners and assaults on welfare have become normal and, as the result in May shows, a majority of voters accept, if not approve, of these measures. This is why a fairly middle of the road, centrist speech like Cameron’s can appear so radical.

I’ll let you in on a secret. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a bit of a nerd. You’ve got an interest in politics that a lot of people don’t possess but you might not know it yet. If that is the case, take a moment and look at the whole board.

Was David Cameron’s speech ‘left wing’? No.

Were all the promises he made achievable considering the scale of cuts still to come? No.

Does he, or his successor, intend to keep every promise made today? Probably not.

Does any of this matter? No.

Today’s centre ground land grab wasn’t aimed and me or you. It wasn’t designed to convince Labour members to burn their membership cards or Greens to buy a Hummer and hunt foxes in the environs of Brighton. It was aimed at ordinary, apolitical voters who are sick to the back teeth of the nuances of party politics and were completely ignored by Jeremy Corbyn in his speech to the Labour Conference. They probably don’t like the idea of spitting as a political protest as well. Call them what you will, floating voters, moderates or even shy Tories (because if you’re not for us, you’re a Tory these days), they are the people you need on side to win an election.

So stop worrying about what Cameron’s speech should be labeled as and get terrified over what it was meant to do. Sure it was full of lies, double standards and spin but it was still a piece of genius. It positions the Tories on Labour’s front lawn while also keeping them firmly rooted in their conservative heartland and, unless Labour find some way to kick them off our grass, they’re doomed to repeat the misery of the past.

Jeremy’s Politics – more no brand than new brand

Not long into the Labour leadership contest I made a decision. I decided to stop writing about politics and, by extension, about anything. Scroll down and you’ll see the evidence of that. The election of a new Labour leader was dominating a lot of my spare thinking time, but there were a whole brigade of writer who, through contacts, experience or skill (and often all three), were much better suited to write about it than I was. So I simply sat back and watched the chaos unfold.

Now I guess I can start again? Is that ok?

Labour’s new ‘happy warrior’…

In the last three days, Jeremy Corbyn has managed to preside over possibly the shortest honeymoon period in political history. One day, Saturday, was all he got. After that, calamity.

Two cancelled national media appearances (at a time when everyone under the sun seems to recognise the need for Corbyn to ‘define’ himself before the Tories do it for him), a bungled Shadow Cabinet announcement, a quiet first PLP meeting and an incomprehensible speech to the TUC. The new Labour leader is scoring own goals in places it should be impossible to do so and he’s making the Tories’ job far easier than it should be.

It was always going to be problematic to have a man who has called members of Hamas and Hezbollah his ‘friends’, invited the IRA to Parliament during the Troubles and has a strong belief in homeopathy leading Labour. Disregarding any context or the views you, the reader, might have on these subject, there is a lot of ammunition to be presented in a way that makes Corbyn look, at best, like a far left eccentric. This was never going to be easy. What is baffling is how simple Team Corbyn is making it for their man to be mocked.

Corbyn, and those around him, have presumably known for weeks that he would win. The polling, the massed rallies, the lethargic campaigns from this opponents. They all suggested he was on course for victory. Perhaps there was an understandable wish to avoid looking arrogant (this is a ‘new brand’ of politics after all). But the chaos that has greeted his first days in power suggests that no one near Corbyn was prepared for victory.

Why was the Shadow Cabinet seemingly formulated on the back of am envelope, with the Labour leader having to call MPs late into Sunday to persuade them to take important jobs? Why was there no thought as to how failing to appoint any women to shadow one of the four ‘great offices’ of state might not square with the campaign pledge for the most diverse Shadow Cabinet ever? Why did someone apparently decide that briefing the press about a mooted ‘Minister for Jews’ would be a great way to tackle the accusations of anti-semitism that have dogged Corbyn’s campaign?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions and I suspect there are many within the Labour Party who share my bafflement.

I’m also baffled by another aspect of Corbyn’s disastrous three days. He appears to be making no attempt to really challenge the image of a one dimensional, bearded bogeyman he is being painted as.

I’m not talking about politics here, just simple PR. Getting lost while walking onstage at the TUC (and coming on after a rendition of ‘Hey Big Spender’…), failing to sing, or even mumble, the national anthem at a service commemorating the Battle of Britain and struggling to do up his tie properly for his first appearance on the Labour front bench. These may all seem petty or trivial, but they are very basic own goals that only reinforce the negative messaging being broadcast by the Conservatives and the more right wing press. No wonder he is being begged to hire a Press Officer

So, ignoring his policies (which I am, in many ways, far more inclined to approve of than the way he is going about them), Jeremy Corbyn is in trouble. Perhaps it is harsh to judge him after only a few days, but considering how long he had to plan for this moment, I feel dubious that he’ll improve over time. He is making it far too easy for his political enemies to define him and he doesn’t seem to care. Admirable, in many ways, but having a serious ‘brand’ is part and parcel of winning in politics. So far, Jeremy Corbyn’s new brand of politics has no brand at all.

Labour are right on Libya, but when will we get serious on foreign policy?

The first major foreign policy moment of the General Election is barely a few hours old and already, it has become just as tribally divided as the weeks of campaign that preceded it.

Today, Ed Miliband gave a speech where he connected the humanitarian nightmare in the Mediterranean with the slow, violent disintegration of the Libyan state. Chaos in both Libya and in the Med, he will say, could have been avoided if Britain had ‘…played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing by the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle’.

Like most of his speeches in this campaign, it is a measured and well written text. If elections were won on the quality of prose put out by each campaign, Labour might have a healthier lead in the polls. But any comment on the merits of Miliband’s words has been lost in the reaction to them from the right.

Labour’s contention, that the government should and could have done more in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, is hardly revolutionary. A military intervention that leaves behind it chronic instability, the murder of a foreign ambassador and a de facto civil war can hardly be classed as successful. The British and French led group of nations who intervenes seemed willing to pour little more than munitions into Libya. David Cameron was happy to take the applause for helping to topple Gaddafi but then didn’t want to perform the encore expected of him.

But the faux outrage that has greeted the advanced copy of Miliband’s speech shows, however, not some deep divide between the two party’s on foreign policy but rather the sad, secondary status foreign affairs now holds in Britain.

It has taken half of the election campaign for the Leader of the Opposition to make a serious comment the world outside of Western Europe. Even then, his comments were sparked by a massive human tragedy (which, like the fighting in Libya, has been ongoing for some time and been largely ignored). And in response the government, rather than giving a measured counter argument or attempt to refute his accusations, has been to scream outrage and to talk of ‘blood on hands’ and underhand tactics. In the press, commentators sneer that the man who voted against intervention in Syria (‘because Diane Abbott told him so’ is a popular refrain here), shouldn’t open his mouth on Libya.

If the last decade and a half of foreign affairs has taught us one thing, it should be that intervention is a terribly complicated business. We should see it debated properly, not treated as an election ‘dead cat’ issue. There has been no comment on how incredibly different the situations in Libya and Syria were, or just how comprehensively the West abandoned the new government in Tripoli. If the government have any defense to offer, they seem loathe to present it. But likewise, the opposition has taken awfully long to start talking about any foreign policy, let alone Libya.

It all begs the question, where have all the statesmen gone? Labour’s own Douglas Alexander has spent more time planning election strategy and fighting to hold his own seat than talking about the world at large. Since William Hague was quietly moved on, Phil Hammond has been a better ambassador for grey suits than he has British interests. David Cameron appears disinterested, although he looks increasingly bored with governing as a whole, not just foreign policy. Even today’s speech comes with the caveat that any Labour policy towards the current Mediterranean crisis will be delivered by a government that has tied one hand behind its back by the ‘Controls on Immigration’ manifesto pledge. I won’t even begin to ask what Nick Clegg’s input has been…

We deserve a better debate on foreign policy. No, scrap that, we need a better debate on foreign policy. But when will we get it?

One hundred days of misery: a guide to the General Election

There are exactly one hundred days until the general election and they’re not going to be pretty. A lot can happen in three and a half months, and a lot will happen, but the chances of any hopeful changes in British politics between now and May 7th are slim, if not already gone. Don’t believe what you may have heard. It is more than likely that today simply sees the rounding of the final corner in a five-year race to be the people’s least unpopular politician.

Two party politics is, for now, over. But you wouldn’t think that from the way both Labour and the Tories are carrying themselves. Much like the people they govern, politicians in Britain are no more used to the idea of coalitions and minority rule than they were in January 2010. Both major parties are focusing their campaigns on the elusive goal of a Parliamentary majority. Both hope, against the odds, to avoid another forced political marriage. Should they fail then it will be the first time since the early 1900s that Britain has been governed by two coalitions in succession.

Labour hopes their focus on healthcare (‘100 days to save the NHS’) and inequality, coupled with their small but stubborn poll lead will carry them over the line. The Tories are relying on their more charismatic leader and the slow economic improvement that they have engineered. Both parties have major problems in terms of trust from the electorate. Labour’s association with the 2008 crash and the suspicion that a Conservative government would enact cuts far deeper than the party has so far suggested are key issues here. Both parties are also struggling, so the polls suggest, to improve on their share of the vote from the last election. A few years ago members of both parties would have been quietly counting on winning over support from disaffected Liberal voters yet now that seems like a distant, naive dream.

The collapse of the Liberal Democrats, who if recent polling is accurate will be left in sixth place and with only one Welsh MP come May, has been spectacular. It is perhaps the greatest collective fall from grace in British political history. No one likes Nick Clegg and no one trusts him. One can now suggest that the moment Clegg walked out onto the Downing Street lawn in 2010, the final nail was driven into coffin of two party governance. The Lib Dems had prospered, both in 2010 but also for long before, on being the alternative to the often-stale battle of Labour vs. Tory, Left vs. Right. In many ways they’re continued, moderate electoral success had kept the system balanced. Now dissatisfied voters, who exist in greater numbers than ever, have to look elsewhere.

This elsewhere comes in the form of UKIP, the Green Party and for Scottish voters, the SNP. All three parties have gained more than anyone could have predicted even twelve months ago and all three are claiming that they will be the ones to hold the balance of power come May. The increasing support these three parties have gained from voters outside of the traditional Labour or Tory bases has been the defining narrative of the last two years. It will continue to define the last hundred days of this government. The SNP, with their projected triumph in Scotland against a Scottish Labour party lead by Blairite MP Jim Murphy, are most likely to be king makers but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that, in a very tight Parliament, the Green or UKIP might be called upon to pass or block legislation (as could the DUP, one party constantly forgotten in Westminster commentary). On one hand this diverse break from two party slogging matches over the dispatch box sounds like a welcome change. On the other, the thought of either the Greens or UKIP being able to influence laws is somewhat alarming.

This then, is the landscape of the last hundred days. A messy, disjointed world of swing voters and marginal seats and contradictory polling. We’ve already seen the party election machines warming up for what almost every commentator agrees will be one of the dirtiest elections yet. A race to the bottom as well as a race to the electoral finish line. At some point there will be a televised debate, probably with seven or eight party leaders shouting well honed attack lines at each other. Don’t expect nuance and don’t expect clarity. Don’t expect the big parties to play fair and don’t expect their smaller alternatives to stay ‘nice’ for long. Welcome to one hundred days of televised misery.