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Posts about reviews (old posts, page 9)

How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations

How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations

Gavin Esler

2021


An analysis of the state in which the UK finds itself, with some policy prescriptions as to how to address the issues without breaking-up the state.

If only the UK were a properly federal state! Many other countries have similar tensions, but have proper constitutional structures in place to balance them (and to adjust those structures over time). The UK, by contrast, relies on the "good chap" theory of governance by which role-holders' actions are supposedly limited by their reverence for the norms and conventions of office. If people gain power who don't respect these limits, there are no checks and balances to prevent their misbehaviour. The "unwritten constitution" seems like it should be flexible and able to juggle competing interests, but turns out to be rigid in the hands of those determined to force a chosen outcome.

Esler correctly identifies "the vow" as emblematic of the problems. This was a public undertaking, given by the leaders of all main all-UK political parties before the last Scottish independence referendum, to move towards greater devolution if independence was rejected (which it was). But the vow was jettisoned in the light of the changing circumstances that led to the EU referendum, leaving Scotland bound to the UK and not to the EU: exactly the situation that the independence vote sought to avoid.

Esler is a Unionist, and sees a constitutional convention and federalisation as the way to save the Union. It's an opinion many have shared, but that many no longer do. His prescriptions strike me as logical, sensible – and unachievable given the history, politics, and individuals in play at the moment. And perhaps not even desirable given those constraints.

5/5. Finished 16 August 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Orkney: A Special Place

Orkney: A Special Place

Richard Clubley


A collection of anecdotes about life in Orkney, from an outsider who's decided it's the place for him. A little too glowing to be taken entirely at face value, but nonetheless full of human and historical detail.

2/5. Finished 10 August 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Shards of Earth (The Final Architecture, #1)

Shards of Earth (The Final Architecture, #1)

Adrian Tchaikovsky

2021


A superb start to a space opera coming from an unexpected place: Earth is already destroyed, and the culprits are known but largely uncontacted and impossible to understand. A small number of other species seem to know something more of what's going on (but aren't sharing). Factions abound.

There are a lot of strands in play in this book. What will the effects be of human gene manipulation, and what happens when some (but not all) are willing to accept it? What sort of reactions will extreme threats provoke, and will there be a backlash against even what seems to be the most sensible plans? In that sense this is very much a book of its time, taking themes from modern right-wing revival politics and anti-vaccine rhetoric into the scenario of alien invasion.

5/5. Finished 03 August 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

Greg Grandin

2009


A story that's hard to categorise.

In the early 20th century, Henry Ford needs rubber for his car tyres. He is persuaded to set up a plantation in the Amazon, where rubber originated, and thus to bypass the global market for rubber that's dominated by rubber grown in Malaya from purloined Amazon seeds.

But rather than simply do this, Ford also attempts some major social engineering. And not for the first time: other Ford facilities offer great wages, but at the cost of intensive domestic surveillance to ensure workers' compliance with Ford's social theories. As a result the master of capitalism falls foul of capitalism at work in providing services for his workers that he'd rather they didn't have access to.

The most amazing thing about this story, to my mind, is exactly how little time Ford's men spent on the problems of actually growing rubber, compared to the time they spent on labour relations that could easily have been side-stepped. The people trusted with managing the task were loyalists without strong technical backgrounds, and it's hard to see them surviving in roles that were more central to the Ford enterprise.

4/5. Finished 27 July 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides

Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides

Adam Nicolson

2001


An elegy to a Hebridean island through time.

The author is the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and son of the man who last purchased the Shiant Islands (pronounced shant) that sit in The Minch off Lewis. The book is an homage to them. Not, as might be expected, a tale of living on the islands, which Nicolson never does for any extended period of time. Instead it tells the story of finding out about when they were inhabited, and how that habitation came to an end around the turn of the nineteenth century as the cash and market economy took over from the more self-sufficient one that had previously been in place. It's hard to say this was an improvement for the islanders, but equally hard to say that many would now seek out the kind of life they lost.

The main resonance here is with The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, in which Robert Macfarlane covers a lot of similar ground (and water). It makes no attempt to "sell" island life for what it isn't, and is dismissive of attempts at "structured" conservation in place of enlightened private ownership. It's hard to accept this argument, or at least hard to feel safe assuming that all future generations will be enlightened in the same way – although that's perhaps true of government quangos as well.

4/5. Finished 09 July 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)