Friday, 3 July 2015

589 Days Without a Government

A protest against the lack of action to form a government in Belgium

Between 2010 and 2011, Belgium spent 589 days without an elected government. During this time, they broke the world record for the longest time for a democratic country to go without an elected government, overtaking Cambodia’s record of 353 days set in 2003 to 2004.

The general election on the 13th June 2010 produced fragmented results where 12 different parties were elected to the Belgian Chamber of Representatives from 11 electoral districts. None of these parties had more than 20% of seats. The largest party (the Flemish Separatist Party) controlled only 27 out of 150 seats in the chamber. The next biggest party controlled 26 seats. Therefore, a complex coalition had to be formed to create a majority government. But, the deep division between the Flemish community in the north and the poorer Walloons in the south, made this impossible. The opposing groups were unable to agree on policy issues and form a coalition. Negotiations between all the parties quickly became repetitive and then deadlocked. However, a new election was not called as it was believed that this would produce either exactly the same results or a significant rise in the popularity of populist parties.

During this period, a caretaker government was put in charge to deal with the day-to-day running of the country. It was led by the former Prime Minister, Yves Leterme. A government of this kind is not allowed to implement any major changes, as there is no majority to vote them in – only urgent policy changes or small alterations are allowed. So, in this case, ordinary Belgians noticed few differences in their lives. There were some benefits, however, as the economy continued to grow, exports increased, Belgium contributed to the NATO bombing of Libya and trains were more often on time than previously. Nevertheless, a caretaker government creates some long-term risks. For example, in 2011 Belgium’s debt was 96% of the country’s GDP, and the caretaker government could do nothing to control the situation, so it just got worse. At this time, a survey by GfK found that 57% of Belgians listed the political situation as their most important worry.

Finally, at the end of 2011, Elio Di Rupo (the new Prime Minister) formed a fragile six-party coalition government. This occurred two weeks after an event occurred threatening to plunge Belgium into a debt crisis. Previously the negotiations had been deadlocked, but they all realised how severe the situation had become. The new government was sworn in on the 6th December 2011, marking the 589th day without an elected government. But it is believed that Belgium will split into two nations in the near future, as the division between the Flemish and Walloons causes so many problems and there is a physical language barrier between the two nations, creating significant differences.


Sunday, 17 May 2015

British Hong Kong

In July 1841, Hong Kong was ceded to the British in perpetuity (for an indefinite length of time) after the First Opium War. Following a few months of fighting between the British and the Chinese in China, the Emperor Tao Kuang was alarmed when Beijing was being threatened by soldiers. So, he sent his envoy to negotiate with the British. The envoy (Qi Shan) agreed to give up Hong Kong Island to Britain if they withdrew from Northern China. However, this proposition was accepted by neither the Chinese nor the British. So fighting continued. Until, in June 1841, the city of Nanking came under threat. The Chinese did not want to lose this strategic city, so this time they agreed to Britain’s terms in the Treaty of Nanking. This treaty ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain and exempted British nationals from all Chinese laws, among other conditions.

Then, in June 1898, following mass migration of Chinese from mainland China, the British government petitioned for a land extension for Hong Kong to support the growing population. They were given a larger area than was expected, which increased the size of the colony by 90% as part of the Convention of Peking. However, this land was on a 99 year lease which would come into effect from the 1st of July that year.

In the 99 years that followed, Hong Kong suffered turbulent and testing times. For example, Japan occupied Hong Kong in 1941 during the Second World War, causing food shortages and consequently many people fled to mainland China. After the war, the population dropped to 650,000 from 1.6million. Additionally, in 1967, Maoists rioted in Hong Kong for seven months, at the same time as the Cultural Revolution was happening in China. However, Hong Kong became an incredibly successful colony and in the 1980s, it became one of the world’s top ten economies.

In September 1984, Britain and China discussed Hong Kong’s future following the handover in 1997. An agreement was signed then following years of negotiations, outlining what would happen to the colony. This arrangement led to Hong Kong Island being handed back to the Chinese as well as the islands that were part of the original 1898 lease. The two nations also decided on a ‘one country, two systems’ idea, allowing Hong Kong to keep its capitalist system and to be self-governed for at least 50 years after the handover. Then, on the 1st of July 1997, the highly anticipated handover occurred peacefully and Tung Cheehwa was put in charge.


Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Breaking History

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis made history. In a short space of time, Germany had gone from an impoverished and politically unstable nation to a great power set on the domination of Europe. The Second World War and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust sent shockwaves across the world, while the alliances and grudges formed in this conflict set the stage for the Cold War, which brought with it a whole new manner of problems for Germans to face.
The Nazi regime set Germany on a new course: self-sufficiency increased, the economic hardship of the 1920s faded away, and new networks of schools, hospitals and roads stretched across the country. Yet a lasting image of Nazi Germany will always be the grainy, black and white footage from Berlin, May 1945. Under the cold light of a grey sky, women bestride the fallen buildings like stepping-stones, clearing away the rubble. These Trümmerfrauen (‘rubble women’) have pixelated faces, but the camera still picks up their stony expressions. When their eyes occasionally flit towards the lens, they betray nothing. Today, these women are a symbol of Germany rebuilding itself without complaint after the war, though less than 5% of the female population of Berlin actually got involved.

Trümmerfrauen in Berlin (Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

 But it was not just the German cities and dreams of a thousand-year Reich that lay in ruins. The Nazis did not only make history, they brought about its destruction.

In one respect, this was definitely the fault of the Nazis themselves. Their culture of propaganda and censorship famously destroyed or otherwise did away with thousands of priceless artefacts and works of art. Also, the fire that burned down the Reichstag building in 1933 – if one accepts that the Nazis were indeed responsible for starting it – would have destroyed decades-worth of invaluable parliamentary records and archival material.

But the harm done to History runs deeper than that. It was not merely the physical evidence that was damaged, but our attitudes towards History itself. It remains a problem both in Germany and here in Britain.

Since the 18th century, much has been made by historians of the German Sonderweg (‘special path’). The premise of this idea is that Germany developed in a different way to the rest of the western world, through its placement of moral and cultural values above politics. Politics was considered a science – concerned with the outside world – while literature, art and philosophy were superior practices that concerned themselves with the soul and innermost nature of mankind. This division in society created apathy towards politics, and so this Kulturvolk (‘cultured people’) did little to either support or condemn the actions of German politicians, including the two World Wars.

The strength of the Kulturvolk - and whether or not the Sonderweg existed at all – is still up for debate, but Germany’s rich culture was no doubt impoverished by the Nazi takeover. In 1933, Germany had the greatest intelligentsia in the world. More Germans had won the Nobel Prize than the British and Americans combined, and the great age of physics was about to be ushered in by Germans: Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner, among others.

However, much of this is now forgotten. A culture of guilt and reticence still permeates German society. Even now, German flags are only ever brought out at football matches, in case an overt display of nationalism would hearken back to the days of the Third Reich. There is in Germany a perceived moral responsibility to remember the horrors of the Nazi regime. It is significant that the largest public monument in the centre of Berlin is the Holocaust memorial, made up of 2711 stone slabs resembling nameless tombstones.

The necessity for Germans to look back and learn from their Nazi pasts has cast a shadow over all that came before. The successes of the Kulturvolk seem insignificant in comparison, and aspects of it have been tainted. Let us consider the words of journalist and writer Florian Illies:

Anyone who still said that they liked Caspar David Friedrich stood accused for decades of not being sufficiently critical with regard to German history.

Caspar David Friedrich was an acclaimed landscape painter at the turn of the 19th century. He has been hailed as the greatest romanticist of his generation, and in many ways was the German equivalent of JMW Turner. His work became less popular as the 19th century drew to a close. Art had become less contemplative and more reflective of an increasingly industrialised society, a society that no longer saw green pastures and stormy skies as relevant. This was to change when the Nazis rose to prominence in the 1930s, and Friedrich’s symbolic landscapes were claimed as icons of German nationalism. From its association with the Nazis, Friedrich’s work was subsequently looked upon with distain. Only recently has he been lauded by art historians once again as one of the greats.

One is inclined to describe the Third Reich as an historical mirror: it places a barrier between the 1930s and ‘40s and the more distant past. One cannot see beyond it, and instead sees themselves reflected in it.

In Britain, too, the Nazis have overpowered all other views we hold about Germany. In 2004, when a survey asked 10-16 year olds what they associated with Germany, 78% mentioned the Second World War. Similarly, the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Holy See sparked a media outcry in Britain on account of his Nazi past. Headlines like the Sun’s ‘From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi’ prompted Franz Joseph Wagner in Berlin to write angrily that ‘anyone reading your British popular newspapers must have thought Hitler had been made pope.’

Our obsession is understandable. It is not only the Germans who have sought to take moral lessons from these events, and the Third Reich therefore remains a cornerstone of the national curriculum. We also love sensationalism in history. The three most popular topics in A-level History have always been the Tudors, Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Germany. Whether it’s Henry VIII or Hitler, it seems our curriculum needs some sort of despot to keep people entertained.

The Second World War also forms a large part of our collective identity. For many, the efforts on the Home Front are seen as a golden age of British patriotism. A far cry from our modern society’s focus on the individual, the 1940s saw men, women and children of all backgrounds banding together to defeat the Nazi menace. One only needs to check the TV listings to find at least five documentaries per week about some aspect of the war, as well as reruns of Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers or ‘Allo , ‘Allo. It is clear to see that the Second World War – for better or for worse - has dominated popular culture.

The world is still slowly moving on from the events of 70 years ago. Close connections between Britain and the Germany have begun to dismiss the stereotypes of the German people, so that, even if it is still often viewed as a nation of car-manufacturers and sunbed-stealers, Germany is no longer perceived as a nation of Nazis. That shadow is beginning to lift. The anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen have also prompted a re-evaluation of the Holocaust, bringing both sides of the war together in widely-publicised services of remembrance.

The anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, celebrated last week, has also allowed us to reflect on the damage caused by the war on both sides, and to what extent the rift has been bridged. In his address at the VE thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey on Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury said:

Our gratitude is not simply for victory-in-Europe, but also reconciliation-in-Europe that followed, neither obviously nor automatically. Peace is more than the end of war: reconciliation dismantles the hostilities which previously separated and alienated us from one another and from God.

These ‘hostilities’ and stereotypes might be fading, but more must still be done. Perhaps in this special anniversary year we can make an exception, but there is so much more to German history than Hitler and the Nazi Party, and we should make a more conscious effort to discover it.



Thursday, 7 May 2015

Could The Hustings Change People’s Minds?

Thursday 6th May 2015

Natalie Bennett, Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood

Well, what do you know- it’s Election day and things are getting tense! All the parties are doing all they can in the final hours to persuade as many people as possible to vote for their party. You may have seen posters around Nonsuch telling you to vote for the different parties- however, were you there on Wednesday lunchtime to watch the Hustings? Nonsuch has adopted the style of the leaders’ debate (some of you may have seen this on television not too long ago.) If you missed it, here’s what happened...

Each of the Nonsuch party representatives attented this debate to give everyone an overview of their pledges and to persuade people to vote for their party. Three topics were discussed in the entire lunch hour (Education, NHS and Economy), everyone had a huge amount to say!

The first topic to be discussed was Education. Now, this election may seem irrelevant and unimportant to the younger generation (i.e: us), however, the elected party will make changes to the education system, affecting all of our lives, including yours. The Green Party, represented by Hannah in year 12, went first and wanted to “scrap tuition fees for universities” and wants all teachers hired to have qualifications. On the other hand, Lib Dem representative Kerry stated that tuition fees for universities could not be reduced as this would result in universities going into debt. Seems like she’s done her research, but has the Green Party considered the universities fund?

The Labour Party representative, Ayah in year 8 seems to have repeated the same pledges that were in fact made in 1936 by the Labour Party, but were not accomplished. This was pointed out by Sophie from the Tories. She has a point- if the Labour Party couldn’t accomplish their promise back then, should we trust them to try again? Sophie also added that “the main problem is deficit, which Labour created.

The next topic was the NHS and the debate gradually heated up. Both the Lib Dems and the Tories want to fund £8 billion to the NHS by 2020. However, to beat them both in this political race, the Green Party has propsed to fund £12 billion to the NHS. Is this the truth or is this too good to be true? This is the amount the NHS needs to be stable financially, yet it has not been made clear where they are going to get the money from.

An interesting point that was made in this discussion by Ayah was that the NHS was first founded by Labour politician Aneurin Bevan in 1948, July 5th. Ayah repeatedly tried to put her point forward to the other parties that “the NHS was perfect, until the Tories came to power”. The Tories had apparently spent £3 billion pounds, doing nothing but wrecking the NHS, therefore bringing the NHS into this position. Yet, the Tories representative Sophie replied to Ayah saying that the NHS has many “flaws” and could not have been perfect. If it was perfect, then how did these problems arise?

Finally, the representatives came to discuss the UK’s Economy. Lib Dems said that they would borrow less money than the Labour Party and would cut less than the Tories. But is this necessarily a good thing in all cases? Does this mean that funding for the Government will be restricted to improve the country? The Lib Dems wish to re-introduce the Corporation Tax, along with the Green Party. Hannah from the Green Party stated that this was a necessity as they needed “to fund it back to the Government to give to poorer people”.  However, there were replies from other representatives saying that major banks have threatened to move abroad to avoid this Corporation tax. Sophie also pointed out that last year, HSBC, one of the world’s leading banks, had to pay £760 million for the Corportation Tax and were thinking of moving to Dubai or Hong Kong. What are the two other parties going to do about this?

Labour, on the other hand, wanted to focus on the wages of people and one of their pledges is to increase the minimum wage to £8 by 2020 for everyone. Now, this may seem like a good idea for struggling families but why is this not motivating people to vote for Labour? During this debate, Sophie revealed a letter that was sent from the Labour Party to the Chief Secretary saying: “I’m afraid there is no money.” What does this mean for Labour’s future? If Labour comes to power, then there may be no money again, putting the UK at serious financial risk!










The Hustings continued with questions from the audience, including one about the possibility of the parties having to join forces with another. Green Party representative Hannah would rather join with the Lib Dems or Labour not the Tories. Labour was very adamant that it would not join hands with the Tories (which is evident from the conflicts they had during the debate).  The Lib Dems and Tories surprisingly agreed to on a combined leadership if the situation should arise. Is this going to be the result of the Election?

The candidates concluded the Hustings by saying why they believe you should vote for them in the Mock Election. One final remark was made by the Tories when asked why they think Labour is focused on finding faults in the other parties: “The reason why they are criticising every other party is because none of their pledges are any good.”

So who are you going to vote for? Ayah’s Labour Party? Sophie’s Conservatives? Kerry’s Liberal Democrats? Or the Green Party’s representative Hannah? Don’t forget to vote on Thursday lunchtime in the hall!

By SM & TC

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Thoughts on UKIP

In a recent poll, 31% of voters said they would vote for UKIP, if they knew they had a chance of winning.

The main question that comes to mind is: WHY? Why are UKIP so popular?

Firstly, UKIP capitalises on the public's distrust of Westminster politics. This means that the antiestablishment notion of "ordinary folk against the political class" (a direct quote from UKIP's first election broadcast) seems extremely appealing. UKIP's "People's Army" therefore increases with more and more of the politically disillusioned.

Ironically, Farage is far from our shared image of an "ordinary bloke." A white, middle aged straight man, educated in a private school, previously a city broker and now funded by various Eton graduate investment bankers, there does not seem to be much to distinguish him from the other parties it claims to be an alternative to. It seems his strongest link to being an "ordinary bloke" is his ability to balance a pint on his head, and have an "open, easy-going personality" (according to my friend).

In addition, most of UKIP's policies seem to be policies for the rich - their plan to scrap inheritance tax, for example, exacerbating the problem of the rich keeping the cycle of inherited money within a family, and their 35p income tax pledge may actually punish the moderately well-off at the expense of the even richer.

Although recent studies have shown that migrants actually contribute £25 billion to the UK economy, UKIP are most famous for their policies on immigration. Perhaps intentionally, they have exploited the public's fear of immigrants, how they're using our resources, taking away jobs and housing, not paying taxes and exploiting us. They demand "an end to uncontrolled unskilled migrant labour coming into Britain," taking the jobs that Britons could have occupied (yet the only kind of jobs that would be freed up by not accepting any more unskilled migrant labourers would be the kind of jobs not many are attracted to - ie. unskilled labour).

UKIP's immigration policy would also include controlling the "quality" of those who enter the UK - including their health, as well as their ability to work. He even stated that those with HIV should not be allowed into the country.

This scapegoating has increased hatred towards migrants even more than previously, which does nothing for the unified, unprejudiced, and accepting society that Britain should be. Innocent people who just want a better life are being demonised, for problems out of their control.

Many unsavoury characters have been attracted to these policies, including those such as Kevin O’Doherty, a UKIP council candidate who has said that there is "no such thing as a benign Muslim," and has been pictured with tattoos containing Nazi imagery. Another (later fired) joked that storms were caused by the government legalising gay marriage, and Farage himself has said that women who take maternity leave are "worth less" to their employers than men. Although most of these claims are the fault of individuals and not the party as a whole, it still goes to show which party racists and homophobes choose to join.

These are obviously just thoughts about UKIP, their exponential popularity and a few of their policies. You're entitled to your own opinion, but I'd advise you to think twice before you vote UKIP.


Thursday, 16 April 2015

Rocking UR Teens Report

On Thursday 12th March I had the pleasure of attending a Teen Empowerment Conference at Thomson Reuters in Canary Wharf which I had been invited to speak at by the Rocking Ur Teens company as an #iwill Ambassador along with other young girls and women. This conference was the first event held by the company and it was an amazing opportunity for 13-14 year old school girls to learn about opportunities available to them, meet girls from different walks of life and to be challenged to make a difference and realise their own power.

The day started off with a welcome from the quirky young presenter Remel London and a Keynote Speaker session. This session included speeches from Emma Barnett, the Women’s Editor of the Telegraph, Yasmin Ali, Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2013, and Grace and Amelia Mandeville (The Mandeville Sisters), Presenters and two of my favourite YouTube Vloggers whom I was lucky enough to get to sit next to for most of the day! These women shared how they became successful and how they approached opportunities in their careers. Hearing how they got to where they are now was encouraging and inspiring to me and hopefully to the other girls too.

After this, the students had time to learn more about leadership, entrepreneurship, jobs and making good choices, through workshops in different rooms. While this was going on I was still in the main hall with the other speakers trying to gather the courage to speak to The Mandeville Sisters, that is until my mum took action and introduced me to them for me (thanks mum). A little off topic but that just made the whole event even better! I also had the chance to speak to Remel London about her career and it was incredible to hear how much she has achieved such as graduating with a BA Degree in Broadcast Journalism, becoming a presenter and interviewing celebrities, actors and music acts, including Jessie J, at just 25 years old!

We then had lunch before hearing from graduates, interns and school leavers about corporate life and their involvement. It was helpful to learn how these women chose their courses and how they started life after education. We also heard from Marsha Powell, founder of BelEve UK, and she gave everyone steps to making good choices for future success. Marsha’s speech got everyone thinking about choices and how we make them and everyone learnt the same thing from her speech, make decisions for yourself and make choice that make you happy.

The last set of speeches for the day was by #iwill Ambassadors (myself and two other young women), we were there to represent the Step Up To Serve charity and to talk about our social action journeys and how we have made a difference through volunteering. This was my first ever public speech and to be completely honest, I was so nervous that I don’t even remember what I said! I just spoke about my role as a mentor and how that has opened so many opportunities for me that I would not get any other way. Through volunteering as a mentor, I’ve become a proud ambassador for a national charity, I’ve spoken at an important event and I have spoken to Prince Charles! I believe that my social action journey proves that even the smallest action can make an enormous difference in a community and even in your own life.

At the end of the conference we had a special musical performance from Tendai and then it was over. Before I left I got to speak to the founder and co-founders of Rocking Ur Teens and they offered me more opportunities! One of the co-founders, Jenny Garret, suggested that at the next conference I could have my own workshop to present and Jenny also said it is likely that Nonsuch will be invited to attend next year’s event!

Being at this conference and speaking has taught me so much about myself and how I can make my future better as well as helping others. I’ve realised that every opportunity is important, if you want something and you have the chance to get it, take that chance because it could be the only one. I have also learnt that every mistake counts. I know the women who spoke to us did not become so successful easily and they must have been turned down or disappointed many times before they found the opportunity for them and it’s the same for everyone and it’s so important to embrace mistakes and to learn from them, especially in your teenage years.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Review: 'When Christ and His Saints Slept' - Sharon Penman

The so-called Anarchy of the 12th century – the civil war in England and Normandy between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda - is an exciting yet surprisingly neglected period of history. It often appears only as a background for the story of Henry II, Matilda’s son, or as a brief sidenote in Tudor history textbooks, using Matilda to comment on the perceived calamities of having a Queen Regnant.
In the second half of the 20th century, with the discovery of the second half of the Gesta Stephani (a very important contemporary chronicle) and the subsequent publication of RHC Davis’ King Stephen, still considered to be the ‘Bible of the reign’ (Jim Bradbury, 2004) the Anarchy has finally received a bit more attention.
Sharon Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept isn’t the only popular work of literature to be set during the period. It is portrayed reasonably accurately in  Ellis Peter’s Cadfael series, and less accurately in the nevertheless acclaimed novel The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. At a hefty 900 or so pages, Penman’s novel is the first to focus on the key political players rather than characters on the periphery, and does so with commendable accuracy.

The narrative begins in 1120, with the sinking of the White Ship, a disaster that claimed the life of William the Æthling, the only legitimate son of Henry I, thus throwing the royal succession up in the air. In 1126, King Henry ordered the barons to swear an oath of fealty to Matilda (known in the novel by the vernacular version of the name: Maude) as his heir. She was then married to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, enemy of the Normans. Fears of being ruled by a woman, and of having an Angevin as the King, the barons did not offer Maude their support when Henry I died in 1135. Instead, they offered it to her cousin Stephen, who quickly sailed from France to claim the crown for himself.

The novel then details, from various perspectives, the 19 year civil war that ensued. Two thirds of the way through, our attention switches to France, to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Having heard snippets of her story through the gossip of other characters, we now see for ourselves marriage to Louis IX disintegrate, and Henry of Anjou’s successful bid to wed her himself. The novel closes with the death of Stephen the accession of Henry and Eleanor as King and Queen of England. Saints is actually the first novel in a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it finishes with an annoyingly prophetic ring of triumph for dramatic effect.

The 21st century has already seen significant progress in revising Stephen’s reign and the extent of the chaos it caused. Published in 1994, Saints obviously doesn’t include this, meaning that behind the heavy research woven through the text, there remains the underlying assumption that Stephen was a kind man but an utterly hopeless King. In its bare essence, this is true, but it would have been nice to see a more open attitude to the Scottish truce in 1148, or the appointment of Theobald of Bec as Archbishop of Canterbury. Stephen had sensible reasons for making these decisions, no matter how disastrous the consequences. There is also some debate as to the strength of Maude’s power base, and the equal weighting Penman gives to Stephen and Maude may not have been strictly the case, but the lack of evidence and a division of historical opinion for some leeway here.

Obviously, Penman is a novelist, not an historian, so perhaps this nit-picking on my part is unfair. However, she researches her novels better than most other novelists, and so I feel inclined to raise the bar.

Something that intrigues me about Penman’s writing is her decision to switch suddenly between fiction and non-fiction at the end of chapters. Occasionally, she will give us an overview of what happened, accompanied with a quotation from a contemporary chronicle. Sometimes this works to the novel’s advantage, allowing the reader to consolidate what they know, and reminding them that these are not merely characters, but historical figures. It encourages reflection and caution when reading. At times, however, all it serves to do is pull the reader out of the narrative. Also, I’m a great lover of monastic chronicles, and they aren’t nearly as inaccurate as some people make them out to be, but planting extracts in the novel creates unhelpful melodrama. England was not completely desolated by the Anarchy, and the chronicles give the opposite impression.

One of the peripheral characters in the novel is Ranulf, an illegitimate son of Henry I and staunch supporter of Maude, though his past in Stephen’s service allows him to be more open-minded than some of the other characters. Ranulf does not exist in the historical record, but is an original creation of Penman’s. As she writes in her author’s note: ‘Since Henry I is known to have sired at least twenty illegitimate children, I decided one more wouldn’t hurt!’ Thankfully, his presence does not upset the historical narrative. Instead, he is a charming and relatable character, who endears himself to us early in the novel. Even I – who tend to dislike original characters in historical fiction – found myself growing rather attached to him.

The problem comes when Ranulf runs away to have adventures on his own. These adventures in Cantebrigge (now Cambridge) and Wales were entertaining in their own right, but as someone who picked up the book to read about the actual historical personalities involved, it did grow tiresome when none of them appeared for 50 pages at a time. I didn’t come to the novel for romance and heroism – as important as those things were in the 12th century anyway – but for political intrigue and siege warfare. Thankfully, these were also in abundance, and were covered in extraordinary detail. The pages dedicated to the Rout of Winchester were a tour de force in world-building.

Another aspect in which Penman has done an admirable job is in naming her characters. The medieval nobility were notoriously unimaginative in naming their children, and Penman has managed to juggle four Matildas, two Henrys, two Theobalds and an uncountable number of Williams around in such a way that one is rarely confused. It took a while for me to accept that the Empress was called Maude, not Matilda, but I had 900 pages to warm to the idea.

Historical novels are always a drag when you already know the story, a fact that is not helped when the book is heavy enough to use as a weapon. It’s heavy-going, but if you’re fond of the period, Saints is definitely worth a read.


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Sweden's Political Crisis

Sweden's prime minister Stefan Lofven
As a result of having Swedish family and therefore spending a lot of time in Sweden myself, I have found myself increasingly aware, and interested in, the current political crisis in Sweden. It is also extremely relevant to us in the UK with the upcoming general election, as British political analysts are afraid that the same situation could occur here.

After the Swedish general election in September 2014, no one party had the majority of the vote. The Prime Minister of the new government (and leader of the Social Democratic Party) had to create a hurried coalition of small, unpopular parties to be able to support the government. However, this coalition still only had 38% of support from MPs. The only party able to make a substantial difference to this and create a majority government was the Sweden Democrats who received 13% of the vote. However, the Sweden Democrats are an extremist, anti-immigration party, whose British equivalent would be UKIP. No party, therefore, was willing to cooperate with them and the only option was to form a minority government. Political analysts say that this could have worked, but…

On the 3rd December 2014, a vote was held at parliament to vote in the budget. In Sweden, unlike Britain, each block of parties puts forward its own budget for a vote. Traditionally, though, the proposed budget of the current government is voted for. This time, however, the government did not have the majority support and the Sweden Democrats found themselves with the deciding vote. They voted for the opposition coalition party’s budget. This was because the Social Democratic-Green coalition’s budget did not comply with their aim to decrease immigration in Sweden by 90%.

The Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, could not ignore this vote and the huge power for parties with more extreme views, as his government collapsed as a result. Therefore, in a hope to rectify the situation, a re-election has been called for the 22nd March this year – the first mid-term election in Sweden since the 1950s. This sudden political instability in a country which has had very stable, predictable governments for decades has scared other European countries and warned them of the rise of populist parties. In particular, British politicians have become wary. Recently, a new act was passed stating that a new election can only be called if two-thirds of parliament agree to this. It is thought that the timing of a new election will never suit two-thirds of parliament and it will not be possible to hold a new election. The main parties are afraid that if the general election of this year goes badly for them, but well for UKIP, they will find themselves in the same position as Sweden. But with no way of getting out of it. 


Friday, 20 February 2015

Cynicism and Broken Promises

"Sir, have you got any flame-retardant pants for your office? It's that whole liar liar pants on fire thing."
I recently watched An Idiot's Guide to Politics, presented by Jolyon Rubinstein, co-presenter of The Revolution Will Be Televised. Both programmes bring a brilliant satirical edge to political pranking, and I seriously recommend watching them. What I found most striking was how seemingly apathetic the young people interviewed were to politics, some of whom recognised Kim Kardashian, but not David Cameron. In response to the question, "What's more important than politics," one answer was, "Getting on with your life." 

But apathy and boredom definitely isn't the main factor. The main factor is that there exists a dichotomy between whichever party is in power, and whether or not life actually changes. Politicians make whatever promises they need to get elected, they then break that promise. An example of this which is definitely of importance to our future lives is Nick Clegg and his broken flagship pledge not to raise student tuition fees. That being said, however, it seems to be impossible to get into power without making exaggerated claims. Those parties who do not are considered bland and do not appeal to the masses. This means that the process of making and breaking promises in such as way that they are exaggerated enough to be popular, yet vague enough to be easily broken, has, among politicians, become an art form in itself.

Mistrust towards politics isn't helped by corruption, including phone hacking, and controversy over party backing. These scandals have highlighted the falseness of the popular complacent assumption that corruption is an issue only in other, developing countries.

Suspicion of politics is summed up in a nutshell by this quote from Russell Brand:
"I believe democracy is a pointless spectacle where we choose between two indistinguishable political parties, neither of whom represent the people, but the interests of the powerful business elites that run the world."
Brand is essentially the epitome of political cynicism. Worst of all, thousands of young people look up to him and follow suit on his refusal to choose the lesser evil (which is stupid, because one of these "evil" parties is going to win anyway, so you may as well vote to prevent the greater evil. Not voting is essentially half a vote for them).

I asked some of my friends about their view on politics. Some were disinterested and labelled the system "crap." Others didn't really understand how it worked, while some said politics was interesting, but felt like the political system had never been explained clearly enough to them - for example, one friend said she didn't know what the political spectrum was and said "I'd say I'm right, because that's my gut instinct." She then said: "maybe I'll vote for a really unpopular party so that they don't feel bad and my vote doesn't affect anyone." Another view was that none of the parties had "outreach policies to make the younger generations more interested."

To many young people, politics in the UK is little more than cynicism and broken promises, yet this belief does nothing but provoke a self-perpetuating cycle. The fundamental basis of democracies is that power lies with the public, and we need to realise that although it doesn't seem like it, we do have a voice. This voice comes to us in the form of the vote - and people have died to ensure we have access to it. By not using your vote, you lose the right to complain.


Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Technology in History

Hello, the new History innovators have found some examples of how History is incorporated within technology, whether it is games, TV programs or websites. So we've created this nifty little blog post to inform you of our findings. If you are on a budget, don't worry we've got you covered. You can still enjoy History without spending any money. There are so many apps available that will expand your historical knowledge but won't cost you anything: •History (TV) app-FREE, available on iPads, iPhones, windows and android mobiles. You can watch History shows, clips and topical videos. •Streetmueseum: Londinium-FREE, available on iPhones and iPads. It allows you to access a timeline of Roman London, "Excavate" finds, 3D drawings of famous landmarks and video and audio recordings •Today in History-FREE, available on iPhones and iPads. you can click on a date and find out what events happened at that time If you're constantly on the internet, why don't you get on these History websites instead of checking your latest Instagram feed: • • • • • •