Friday, 22 February 2013

The tactical annals of patronage

I have just finished Piers Macksey's The War for America. So, for no particular reason, here are some of my favourite parts. macksey writes a cutting and elegant assesment of character. Sometimes over pages, somethimes in one line.

Lord North

Neither appearance, nor character, nor interests equipped Lord North to dominate a war administration. His figure was clumsy and his movement awkward. A large tongue thickened his articulation. Two prominent myopic eyes rolled about in his face to no purpose, and with his wide mouth, thick lips and inflated cheeks 'gave him the air of a blind trumpeter'. His skills were those of peace. He was a man of culture and personal charm; of patience for dull understandings, wit which never wounded, humour which never ridiculed. He was proud of being a good manager of the House of Commons, and few surpassed him in the political art: the manoeuvre by which he jobbed his half-brother into the bishopric of Winchester ranks high in the tactical annals of patronage. Almost single-handed he defended his Ministry in Parliament year after year against the bitter invective and dialectical brilliance of a ferocious opposition. His knowledge of the House, his accessibility, his even temper and his aptitude for raising a laugh baffled and infuriated his rivals. But of war this civilised man knew nothing: 'Upon military matters I speak ignorantly, and therefore without effect.' He did not enjoy war; nor was he ever confident of victory.”

This man was Prime Minister for almost the entire length of the War of Independence. He would hide in corners to avoid discussing things. 'The tactical annals of patronage' might be my favourite sentence in the whole book.

Germain – The American secretary and as close as Britain ever got to a strategic head for the American war. Mackesy writes for several lovely pages about this odd man but the most pertinent and powerful is his final line “... for all his talents, he lacked the magic gift of Pitt: the power to frighten and inspire.”

A cabinet meeting -

North and Bathurst fell asleep at once, Hillsborough nodded and dropped his hat. Sandwich was overcome at first, but then rubbed his eyes and looked attentive. Stormont read the papers aloud and discussed them with Thurlow and Germain, while Amherst sat awake but as usual silent. The others then woke up and approved the proceedings.

This may indite the business methods of the North Ministry and the general habit of taking important decisions as an appendix to dinner...”

At the time Britain was locked in war with two world Empires, fighting a rebellious colony abroad, soon to start another fight with the Dutch (because why not?) and was being regularly threatened with mass invasion. It is a fucking miracle this country is still here.

There are multiple occasions where the empire is in immediate danger and a decision has to reached immediately but no-one can find the cabinet because it's summer and they have gone home for the holidays. The secretary of war, at one point, complains that he has only one day per week for personal business. Excuding weekends.

Don't fuck with the American secretary, he will draw on you bitch.
The occasion was seized by the Opposition to provoke Germain. Temple Luttrell compared Burgoyne's conduct favourably with that of the American Secretary, who he said had been promoted for disobedience and cowardice. Two years earlier Germain had sat quiet under a similar shower of Luttrell insults; but now he started up in a rage and denounced him as an assassin of the most wretched character and malice. 'Old as I am', he continued, 'and young as the hon. member, I will meet that fighting gentleman and be revenged.' There was an immediate uproar and two hours of confusion. Germain retracted, but Luttrell had to be ordered into custody before the two men would satisfy the House with an apology.”

The French Fleet -

Provisions were low, the sick in the French ships equalled the healthy, and so many dead were going overboard that Devon gave up eating fish.” - I hope to Christ this means that they were freaked by the bodies washing up and not that they were eating the bodies.

Rodney – our most corrupt, lucky and most competent admiral

Ones view of Sir George Rodney depended on whether one was a politician, a creditor or a friend. He was a sociable man. Women and play were his pastimes; and his elegant, slightly effeminate presence was well-known at the dinner table, voluble and indiscreet. Like Wolfe he fought his future battles over the mahogany, always returning to his favourite subject, which was Sir George Rodney.”

Some tiny grain of resolution had momentarily asserted itself in the Prime Minister.”

But in strategy tidy arguments are usually achieved by ignoring the complex of facts and guesses which form decisions.”

One of the many strange inversions of the book is that you end up respecting King George a lot more than you thought you would. The leader of a corrupt system can be the least corrupt member of it.

It's also the least whig history history book I have ever read. It manages to reasonably propose a strong alternative to events as they were but with enough rigour to avoid collapsing into the abyss of counterfactuals.


  1. Obfuscating stupidity: the Brits may not have invented it, but they raised it to an art form.

    That, and incompetence jujitsu. ;)

  2. Another book for my list. It'll be interesting to see the Revolutionary War from a British scholar's point of view. My high school classes presented it as a Victory For Freethinkers Everywhere And An Inevitable Product Of The Enlightenment, and while I am as a rule not a fan of empires, I imagine it was a bit more complicated than that. What's the general view of the Revolutionary War in the UK?

    1. It's hard to tell exactly as I may be a bit outside the mainstream. I think it orbits between two broad poles.. There's the BBC'ish 'what a bunch of vital, aggressive murdering bastards, lets feel obsurely proud we did something great at some point and lets also be glad its over as a lot of murdering was done.' And the Nial Fergussenish 'At least you got railroads. free markets and a cheap trip across the atlantic. Better than other empires at least! (Soz about the deaths)'

      Its a great book if you can tlerate long long lists of ships going back and forth and long cabinet arguments bout ships, wheich seems to be what most british strategy was about. Its awesome on the capturing of some individuals. Especially the ruinously incompetant swarm of british army commanders.

    2. Reading history makes me oscillate between wondering at how little individuals can do in the face of an entire civilization and and boggling at the ability of a handful of people to wreck shit up across countries and decades (continents and centuries?).

      Cabinet meetings and long lists of ships might be a refreshing change of pace. My friend has induced me to at least try to read Simulcra and Simulation, and so far it wobbles back and forth between being utterly impenetrable and being the sort of thing a disheveled street preacher might shout at you.

    3. Tch, I read the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article of that book. He's wrong.

      Check out Ian McGilchrist's 'The Master and His Emissary' it will cure you permenantly of brain-damaged philosophers who think that 'human experience is a simulation of reality.'

      The first Sea Lord is effectively shut down for a week when the woman he loves (not his wife) is unexpectadly shot in a theatre. No-one knows what to do without him. The Prime Minister breaks down during questions because his two-year old child has just died. Cornwallis only returns to America because he went home to see his wife. She died. He went back to the was because 'her death had made England intolerable for him'. He was our best general. And because he was our best he attacked, and because he attacked, he was trapped and we lost. A mediocraty wouldn't have done it.

      Where are your 'Simulacra' in that Baudrillard you silly tit?

    4. I think he does have some interesting ideas. Symbols that occlude the fact that they don't refer to anything anymore.

      On the other hand, he has the frustrating habit of not considering things on their own terms. He has a particularly odd section where he criticizes ethnologists for cutting off access to the native Filipino Tasaday people, because even though he concedes that modern society had a toxic effect on them, they would only be a simulation if their were to live undisturbed in their preserve again. He didn't object to it because it was paternalistic, and he didn't care or address the fact that their culture would be damaged if they weren't protected. He just didn't like simulation.

      The whole Tasaday restoration thing was just bizarre. A fair number of people evidently think that they are a hoax put on by a Filipino government official so he could start a scammy foundation, but that's unrelated to Baudrillard's argument.

    5. You'd think he'd be thrilled since its a binch of people being paid to pretend to be something that is valued precisely because it doesn't exist. They are a symbol leading to nothing.

      Has no-one ever tried to 'Baudrillard' Baudrillard by pointing out his book about a world of empty symbols is actually made of symbols and is itself a symbol therefore we should reasonably expect his argument to fold itself out of space and time in a puff of green smoke?