To be in Tokyo during the cherry blossom season is to be reminded of three things. First, the transience of all natural beauty. Second, the possibility that a modern city can be truly lovely. Third, the achievability of political stability in the 21st century. To a visitor from London it is the third of these that is the most enviable.
After all, the UK capital has pretty good blossom at this time of year. And parts of it — I think of Highgate, jewel of the city’s lofty north — are still strikingly beautiful. But political stability? The unhappy Briton can only gaze in admiration at the serene condition of Japan today.
Bear in mind that despite the bitter war they fought in the 1940s, Britain and Japan have much in common. Both are densely populated island nations off the vast Eurasian landmass. Both were once mighty empires. Both are still quite rich. Both are constitutional monarchies.
Much that one sees in Japan today has its origins in the Meiji era, when the nation’s leaders modernised their country by copying as much as they could of what they saw in the industrial West. Britain was one of their principal role models. It is no accident that the Japanese word for a suit — sebiro — derives from “Savile Row”. And a striking proportion of Japanese politicians look as if they still get their suits tailor-made.
Yet while Britain today is in a state of acute political crisis, Japan seems a model of political stability. Is this a matter of personalities — the sad fact that Theresa May is a talentless leader, and Shinzo Abe a gifted one? Partly. But there is more to it than that.
The Japanese, crushed in 1945, conceded only a superficial Americanisation of their culture and institutions. To a remarkable extent, Japan did not change. It merely jettisoned the hysterical nationalism that had come to the fore in the 1930s and reverted to the Meiji era. Not only did the emperor survive, but so did the country’s social elite. It accepted land reform, but retained political power. The same applied to corporate Japan.
The continuities of Japanese history are exemplified by the political pedigree of the prime minister. Mr Abe’s great-great-grandfather was a general in the imperial army. His maternal grandfather was a member of Hideki Tojo’s cabinet during the Second World War and prime minister in the late 1950s. His other grandfather served in the country’s House of Representatives (and was an opponent of Tojo). His father was Japan’s foreign minister in the 1980s.
The continuities also manifest themselves in the complex system of manners that governs Japanese social life. Nowhere else will you encounter such politeness. After two days, my back hurt from bowing, and I had said “Arigatou gozaimasu” (“Thank you very much”) at least a thousand times.
The contrast with Britain’s postwar history is striking. Victorious in war, we jettisoned as much as we could of our Victorian and Edwardian heritage. A new class entered politics from state schools and redbrick universities, greatly diluting the hereditary element. Today a bespoke suit of the sort favoured by Jacob Rees-Mogg looks quaint in the Commons, as if he had wandered in from the set of Darkest Hour.
As for our manners, which were once famously strait-laced, there has been a precipitous decline into vulgarity, so that Americans now seem polite by comparison. Last week, according to Newsnight’s political editor, Nicholas Watt, a cabinet minister responded with, “F*** knows,” when asked why Theresa May was holding yet another Brexit vote. Earlier this month Boris Johnson declared that money spent on investigating historic cases of paedophilia was being “spaffed up a wall” — a term new to me. Even members of the elite now talk like louts.
In many ways, you might think, Japan has much bigger problems than Britain. According to the World Bank, the old-age dependency ratio in Japan — the ratio of people over 65 to those of working age — is 46%, the highest in the world. The UK ranks 17th in the senescence league table.
Japan’s gross public debt is now 238% of GDP, again the world’s highest proportion. Britain’s is 87%, according to the International Monetary Fund, putting us in 29th place. We lead Japan in terms of innovation, economic and political freedom, ease of doing business and even happiness.
And yet consider the political states of the two countries. In Japan the main question is whether Abe — who has been prime minister since 2012 and has led his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to three successive election victories — should stay on beyond 2021, when his term as LDP leader is supposed to end. The other big question (to be resolved tomorrow morning) is what the name of the new imperial era will be when Emperor Akihito abdicates to make way for his son Naruhito.
Meanwhile, in London, a political crisis of 17th-century magnitude continues to unfold. Three years ago I warned in these pages that it would be much harder for Britain to leave the EU than the proponents of Brexit were claiming. I underestimated the degree of difficulty. I did not imagine the Brexiteers would end up voting against Brexit, as many did for the third time on Friday.
So badly has May bungled Britain’s great divorce that she could not even get her withdrawal agreement passed by promising to resign if MPs voted for it. The result is that Britain’s political fate now depends on . . . the EU, which gets to decide whether to grant Britain a longer extension than the 12 days currently remaining before we leave the EU without a deal and enter an economic crisis of unknown scale and duration.
There was something touching and at the same time terrifying about last week’s exchange between Rees-Mogg and Sir Oliver Letwin, when the former asserted the prerogatives of the Queen’s ministers and the latter insisted on the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons.
This Tudors-and-Stuarts argument would not have been out of place in an Oxford history tutorial, but in the Commons it seemed at once frivolous and reckless. If such fundamental questions now divide Conservatives, the party seems destined for defeat at the next general election, especially if that is to happen sooner rather than later.
Why are Japan and Britain in such different political states? The superficial answer is there was never an Asian Economic Community that Japan chose to join in the 1970s. Across the water is just the vast authoritarian superpower that is China.
A more profound answer is that while Britain has embraced immigration, Japan has resisted it. True, there has been a quiet increase in the number of foreigners residing in Japan since 2014. There are now almost 1.3m foreign workers in the country, most from other Asian countries. But the foreign-born share of the population is just 2%, according to the World Bank. The figure for the UK is 13%.
Future historians will wonder why the Tories decided to commit seppuku over Brexit. But perhaps conservatism itself is just incompatible with immigration on this scale and the Brexit breakdown is merely a symptom. The Japanese probably think that — but they are too polite to say it.
Niall Ferguson is the Millbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
It is more than a quarter of a century since Bosnia descended into a bloody conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Since the massacre of 50 Muslim men, women and children in Christchurch, New Zealand, nine days ago, I have found myself wondering: is the world turning into a giant Bosnia?
The break-up of Yugoslavia — as the life imprisonment of Radovan Karadzic reminded us last week — was not the result of “ancient hatreds” mysteriously resurfacing, as was often claimed at the time (not least by the Foreign Office). It was the result of the spread of pseudo-history.
Pseudo-history plays an important part in justifying massacres by giving perpetrators the idea that their enemies are not quite human and that exemplary violence will accelerate their expulsion. The communist president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, lit the fuse in 1989 with a rabble-rousing speech to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. The watchword of Milosevic’s campaign was that the Serbs who lived in Bosnia and Kosovo were “endangered”.
The plan to partition Bosnia, hatched in March 1991 by Milosevic and his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, was always genocidal in its intent. As Tudjman himself later remarked, there would be “no Muslim part” after the carve-up, even though Muslims accounted for about two-fifths of the Bosnian population. But it required pseudo-history to legitimise such large-scale “ethnic cleansing”.
One clue to Milosevic’s motivation lies in Yugoslavia’s prewar demographic trends. In Serbia the population hardly grew in the 1980s, whereas in Bosnia and Kosovo the Muslim populations increased by, respectively, 15% and 30%. Between 1961 and 1981 the Muslim proportion of the Bosnian population rose from 26% to 40%. It was upon the Serbian minorities’ resulting insecurities that Milosevic played.
The Bosnian War was marked by a string of exemplary massacres — what the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin called “propaganda of the deed”. In the spring of 1992 a group of Bosnian Serbs calling themselves the White Eagles unleashed hideous violence against the Muslims of Visegrad, who accossunted for three-fifths of the population. Thousands of men, women and children were killed, many driven to the middle of the historic bridge over the Drina and shot, their bodies thrown in the river.
This is the repulsive tradition to which the Christchurch killer, Brenton Tarrant, belongs. His 74-page manifesto, The Great Replacement, is a grab-bag of pseudo-history that casts Muslims in the western world as “invaders”, invoking past battles between Muslims and Christians.
The difference is that Tarrant did not need a modern equivalent of Milosevic to feed him this drivel. Unlike in 1992, it is now possible for a mediocre underachiever to educate himself by wandering through the wormholes of the internet, going wherever Google’s algorithms may lead — which is generally from Wikipedia to the most febrile conspiracy theories and then on to alt-right message boards such as 8chan. New technology (GoPro plus the internet) also enabled Tarrant to live-stream his slaughter of innocents on Facebook, confident that it and YouTube would be unable to prevent the resulting snuff video from going viral. If the Bosnian Serbs had been able to do this kind of thing, they doubtless would have.
Reflect on this for a moment. Within 24 hours, 300,000 videos based on Tarrant’s original recording were uploaded on Facebook, with a further 1.2m blocked in the attempt. Not for the first time, the combination of content moderators and artificial intelligence could not play whack-a-mole fast enough. There are a lot of sick people out there who want to see a “first-person shooter” game played with live ammunition and real, living, breathing, screaming, bleeding, dying victims.
In Bosnia retaliation followed aggression, creating a cycle of aggression. Can we now expect that to happen globally? I fear so. Within days of the Christchurch massacre a Turkish-born man shot three people dead on a tram in the Dutch city of Utrecht and a Senegalese-born driver tried to burn 51 children to death in a school bus near Milan. The gunman has admitted a “terrorist intent” in the former case; the latter act was intended as retaliation for drownings in the Mediterranean blamed by the perpetrator on Italy’s immigration policy.
In 2006 I published a book called The War of the World, warning that we might go down this road. But I did not expect to get to global Bosnia so soon.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch horror the bad-faith brigade has been busy trying to assign blame to anyone who has ever criticised Islamic extremism. This is precisely the kind of idiocy that Tarrant set out to encourage, as his semi-sarcastic manifesto makes clear. Let’s spell it out. Massacring people is always evil. It doesn’t matter who does it. They can be jihadists or white supremacists. They can be Maoists or Buddhists or Bosnian Serbs or members of the Provisional IRA.
As it happens, Islamists currently lead white supremacists by a large margin when it comes to the victim count. According to the Global Extremism Monitor, published by Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change, about 84,000 people — nearly 22,000 of them civilians — died as a result of violence by Islamist groups in 2017. The report counts 7,841 attacks in 48 countries, with Syria the country worst affected.
An alternative estimate comes from the US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (Start). In 2017 there were 10,900 terrorist attacks around the world, which killed more than 26,400 people. The top three perpetrators were Isis (7,120 deaths), the Taliban (4,925) and al-Shabaab (1,894).
The obvious point — which makes a nonsense of the alt-right narrative — is that most of the victims of the jihadists were Muslims. The deadliest terrorist attack of 2017 was in Mogadishu, where more than 580 people were killed by a massive truck bomb. More than half of all deaths due to terrorism were in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The representative act of violence last week was not in Europe but Pakistan, where a student stabbed a professor to death in Bahawalpur because the professor intended to host a welcome party for male and female students. According to one account, the murderer shouted: “I have killed him. I had told him that a gender-mix reception is against Islam.”
The average Muslim has more to fear from such fanatics than from white supremacists. As for “Islamophobia” — a cant expression designed to conflate criticism of Islam as an ideology with prejudice against Muslims — you will find much more in China than in the West. The Communist Party’s campaign to “deradicalise” the Uighurs of Xinjiang has led to the internment of up to 1m people in “vocational training centres”. As a result the population of the region’s capital, Urumqi, fell by 15% in 2017.
If you seek the Srebrenica of today’s global Bosnia, look no further.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
One highlight of 2018 was the story of the Dutchman who wanted an age change. Born on March 11, 1949, Emile Ratelband was perfectly content with that day and month. It was just the year he proposed to alter — from 1949 to 1969. “We live in a time when you can change your name and change your gender,” Ratelband argued. “Why can’t I decide my own age?” He was even willing to give up his pension if the Dutch courts would recognise his desire to identify as a middle-aged man, rather than an old one. Of course, being Dutch, the judge said no.
If only Ratelband had been born in the United States, he would surely have had more luck. For most of her academic career, Senator Elizabeth Warren claimed to be of Native American origin. Had she not made the mistake of taking a DNA test, she might one day have been hailed as the first Cherokee president.
From December 1987 until August 2013, Bradley Manning was a male American. The day after Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for espionage, however, his lawyer announced that his client was in fact female. My mentioning that for 25 years Manning was a bloke called Brad will doubtless lead transgender activists to accuse me of “deadnaming”.
Last week it was reported that Brighton and Hove city council had issued new guidance to teachers advising that “menstruation must be inclusive of all genders” because “trans boys and men and non-binary people may have periods”. If we are to believe that menstruation is now a matter of personal choice, then why not age, too?
It is only as I reflect on this and other absurdities that I realise what is really going on. It is not just Emile Ratelband who wishes to turn the clock back. The whole world appears to want to go back in time.
The year 2018 will be remembered for our collective attempt to make believe that it is, in fact, 1973. In the United States the administration of Donald J Trump took several significant steps towards re-enacting the Watergate scandal. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election, has so far indicted or secured guilty pleas from more than 30 people, including four of the president’s advisers and his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.
By losing control of the House of Representatives, the Republican Party opened the path to the president’s impeachment, although the Democrats will start the ball rolling with congressional investigations. The resignation of the defence secretary, Jim Mattis, last week was just the latest flashback. In the course of 1973 Nixon got through four defence secretaries.
Meanwhile, the government of Theresa May approached the conclusion of its near three-year mission to return the United Kingdom to 1973 — the year Britain lapsed from its historic greatness by joining the European Economic Community. By rejecting the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May, proponents of a “no-deal” Brexit hope to restore per capita income to its level in that year.
In China, President Xi Jinping continued his effort to return the government of the people’s republic to its pristine state of 45 years ago, when Chairman Mao Zedong ruled as a red emperor unconstrained by term limits, the rule of law or economic rationality.
His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, faces a bigger challenge, as the Communist Party to which he once belonged was dissolved in 1991. Nevertheless, by recklessly violating the sovereignty of neighbouring Ukraine and by brazenly interfering in the presidential election in the United States, President Putin has managed to get such severe sanctions imposed on his country that he may yet return Russian living standards to their 1973 level. The recent slump in the price of oil will help.
All over the world, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Saudi Arabia, political leaders are engaged in time travel. It is like a global race to see who can be as odiously corrupt as the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, generally recognised as the worst kleptocrat of the 1970s, or as barbarically cruel as Idi Amin of Uganda.
Of course, not everything in the Great Rewind is as easy as this. The 1970s were a time of rapidly rising inflation. The past 10 years have seen the developed world teeter on the brink of deflation. Even with the unemployment rate at its lowest level for 45 years, US consumer price inflation is still a meagre 2.2%. But Venezuela’s repulsive Chavista regime — for so long the toast of champagne socialists from Mayfair to Malibu— has pulled it off: according to the International Monetary Fund, inflation there will exceed 1,000,000% this year.
The biggest challenge, however, has been cultural. Just a year or two ago it would have seemed impossible to return mankind to the customs of the early 1970s. Over 45 years, real social progress had been made in so many ways. Women had been liberated. Men had realised how absurd they looked with long hair and beards. Disco music had largely been obliterated. Smoking had ceased to be tolerated. And the internet — no more than a twinkle in the eyes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in 1973 — had transformed the world by giving a majority of humanity access to all knowledge ever.
Yet our genius as a species was equal to the challenge. By 2018 the internet had become a toxic wasteland dominated by a handful of monopoly companies indiscriminately selling advertising and a horde of purveyors of clickbait. Smoking had been successfully reinvented as vaping. Music even worse than disco had been devised. (It’s true. I have listened to God’s Plan by Drake, the year’s bestselling track and a wholly mind-numbing dirge.)
My friends, it’s 1973. Manchester United have sacked their manager. Liverpool are going to win the Premier League. Their star striker, Mohamed Salah, has hair that Kevin Keegan must wish he still had.
Yet the greatest accolade goes to the #MeToo movement, which has successfully made working with women so dangerous for male executives that — according to Bloomberg — the new Wall Street rule is: “Avoid women at all cost . . . No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.” According to one wealth adviser, hiring a woman is “an unknown risk”. Now that’s what I call turning back the clock.
It’s true that I don’t feel as if I’m nine years old, any more than Emile Ratelband would have felt 20 years younger if the Dutch courts had upheld his age change. But I don’t care. It’s 1973 again, in my mind if not my body. And so I’m leaving it to Noddy Holder of Slade to say — as he did for the first time in that happy old year — Merry Xmas Everybody.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
To my 19-year-old son, the First World War — which ended 100 years ago today — is as remote an event as the Congress of Berlin was to me when I was 19, Lloyd George as distant a figure as Disraeli. To my generation, the First World War was not quite history. My father’s father, John Ferguson, had joined up at the age of 17 and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of more than 6m men from the United Kingdom who served. Of that number, 722,785 did not come back alive. Just under half of all those who lost their lives were aged between 16 and 24 — a fact that never fails to startle.
John Ferguson was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned. But, like more than 1.6m other servicemen, he did not come back unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage.
My grandfather’s most vivid recollection of the war was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced, he and his comrades fixed bayonets and prepared for the order to go over the top. At the last moment, however, the command was given to another regiment. So heavy were the casualties in the ensuing engagement that my grandfather felt sure he would have died if it had been the Seaforths’ turn.
As a schoolboy, reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen, learning to shoot an antiquated rifle in our school’s Combined Cadet Force, I could readily imagine the raw fear of awaiting that order. I wonder if my son knows that sensation.
His generation is not only more distant from the war than mine. It has also been exposed to a great deal of nonsense on the subject. Here are just a few examples I have encountered in recent weeks.
1) Despite the enormous sacrifices of life and treasure, the war was worth fighting. (No, as I argued in my book The Pity of War, an unprepared Britain would probably have been better off staying out, or at least delaying its intervention.)
2) The peace of 1919 failed and was followed just 20 years later by another world war because there wasn’t enough European integration in the 1920s. We learnt our lesson after 1945 and that’s why we haven’t had a third world war. (No, we haven’t had a third world war mainly because of Nato.)
3) The peace failed because of American isolationism. (No, it failed because Woodrow Wilson’s belief that Europe’s borders could be redrawn on the basis of national “self-determination” was naive.)
4) Today, 100 years later, politics in both Europe and the United States is afflicted by the same pathologies that destabilised Europe after the First World War. (No, populism isn’t fascism.)
Let me counter with 10 points that I would like all my children to understand about what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation.
1) The war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires — the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman — that broke out because all their leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.
2) It was not fought mainly by infantrymen going over the top. It was fought mainly with artillery. Shellfire caused 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as improvements in artillery tactics (the creeping barrage, aerial reconnaissance).
3) The Germans were not doomed to lose. If the French had collapsed in the first six months of the war — when 528,000 French soldiers were permanently incapacitated — it could have been 1870 or 1940. French resilience was one of the surprises of the war. Even so, by mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force. German submarines were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by the revolution, American investors saw a German victory as possible as late as the spring of 1918.
4) True, the Germans were handicapped in many ways. Their allies were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria. Their generals used methods — submarine warfare, in particular — that made American intervention likely, if not inevitable.
5) Economically, too, the German side was at a massive disadvantage. Britain and her allies had bigger empires (the population ratio was 5.3 to 1), bigger economies (3.6 to 1) and bigger budgets (2.4 to 1). Moreover, even before the US entered the war, Britain had access to Wall Street.
6) However, the Germans were formidably superior at killing (or capturing) the other side. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s. The German soldiers were effective enough to win their war against Russia in 1917.
7) The Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Was it patriotism? Did they simply believe in the official war aims? Or was it because British propaganda was so effective — and British military justice so harsh? Perhaps all of these played a part. But it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and fags; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals” and “mates” endured.
8) The German army finally fell apart in the summer and autumn of 1918, after it became clear that British tenacity and American intervention made a German victory impossible, and after Bolshevik ideas began to spread westwards from the eastern front. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (August 8-11, 1918), the Germans lost the will to fight and began to surrender in droves.
9) The war was followed not by peace but by pandemonium. The dynasties toppled: Romanovs, Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Ottomans — all gone. Their great multi-ethnic empires also disintegrated. The Saxe-Coburgs survived by renaming themselves “Windsor”, but still lost the lion’s share of Ireland. Not only in Russia but all over the world, red revolution seemed unstoppable. To cap it all, an influenza pandemic struck, killing roughly four times as many people as the war had.
10) Not until the advent of a new generation of nationalist strongmen — starting with Jozef Pilsudski, Kemal Ataturk and Benito Mussolini — was it clear that belligerent nationalism was the best antidote to Leninism. Some called it fascism. However, few of the interwar dictators regarded the peace treaties drawn up by the wars’ victors as legitimate. Most of the treaties were dead letters long before war resumed in 1939.
Today, please do observe the two-minute silence, at least, in memory of all those whose lives the Great War ended prematurely. But don’t just zone out, as it’s easy enough to do. If only for 120 seconds, just think of your grandfather or great-grandfather as a boy, in a trench, mortally afraid. And ponder how he got there.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford