Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

My Address to Election Candidates

I was invited to address General Election candidates standing in the constituency of Cheadle in Stockport, Greater Manchester at a hustings organised by 38 Degrees and held in Stockport Art Gallery. This is what I said:

I am very pleased to be here today to ask the Candidates a question on energy policy, because you can’t talk about energy without discussing Climate Change, and there is surely no issue in the world right now which is more important to the future of human civilisation, yet where political leadership is so obviously lacking. 

The integrity of the science that warns of the danger is constantly being reinforced, whilst those that deny the problem are regularly shown to have none. The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, led by a Climate Change sceptic and partly funded by Climate Change deniers, confirmed the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whilst the astrophysicist Willie Soon, a prominent critic of the scientific consensus in the media, turned out to be fully funded by the fossil fuel industry.

We have been aware of this problem for more than a quarter of a century, yet our efforts to deal with it have come to nothing. Market based solutions have conspicuously failed. Indeed, Sir Nicholas Stern has called Climate Change the  greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”.

The politicians have done a little better than the business leaders. In 2008 the previous UK government passed the Climate Change Act which requires an 80% reduction in Greenhouse Gas emission by 2050, but then this year the current government passed the Infrastructure Bill which includes the legal requirement to ‘maximise economic recovery of UK petroleum.’

Meanwhile the fossil fuel industry continues to benefit from billions of pounds of state subsidies much of it hidden. British companies mine the tar sands of Canada, explore for new oil in the pristine wilderness of the Arctic or look to exploit the shale gas in the rocks beneath our feet in Greater Manchester.

Internationally the politics is stalled. Negotiations to get a global deal come of age this year with the COP21 meeting in Paris, yet we are no nearer a stalled. Few people would argue with George Monbiot’s description of the process as “hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives”.

And it’s not as if we don’t know what needs to be done. Renewable energy, better public transport and more insulation in our homes is pretty much all that is needed. What’s more, whilst a cleaner air, less traffic and warmer houses are all desirable things in their own right, the Campaign Against Climate Change has shown that making this happen will create one million new jobs, meaning the solution to our climate crisis can also be the solution to our social crisis. 

It will take a fair bit of investment, but less than it took to save the financial system after the Credit Crunch. If the banks were too big to fail, then the climate definitely is.

So what is to be done?

The Guardian newspaper, our only newspaper not owned by a billionaire, is putting its weight behind the fossil fuel divestment campaign and efforts to keep the carbon in the ground the case for which, says editor Alan Rushbridger, “is becoming an overwhelming one”.

So my question to the Candidates is in three parts; do they accept the science of Climate Change, do they agree that what we have tried so far to solve the problem has failed and most likely will continue to fail, and will they support the campaign to keep fossil fuel fuels in the ground by saying no to imports of Canadian tar sand oil, stopping British companies drilling in the Arctic Ocean and ending the rush to frack for shale gas?

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

How Britain Made Greece Free

Revolt in the Levant

A revolution breaks out in the east of the Mediterranean. Volunteers from Western Europe rush to join the rebels lured by romantic dreams of a noble cause, but when they arrive they find themselves in the middle of a genocide, fighting alongside religiously inspired fanatics with a taste for beheading their opponents. The Great Powers consider intervention but decide to stay neutral. At first they ignore their citizens who go to fight, but eventually they fear trouble at home and take steps to stop the volunteers leaving.

No, not Syria today, but Greece nearly 200 years ago.

The Greek Revolt, which broke out 194 years ago today, was a curious business. Although it only concerned the fate of a small population on the fringe of Europe, it was always an international affair. The flames of the revolution were fanned not from within Greece, where the Orthodox Church was on friendly terms with the Ottoman Empire, but by Greeks living abroad who wanted the Byzantine Empire back, and by the non-Greeks who supported them and dreamed of a return to the glories of the days of Pericles. These were the Philhellenes.

Greece and Britain are at opposite ends of the European Union and politically seem to have little in
common. We send them our tourists and in return they send repeated requests to return their Marbles.

Yet it is strangely the case that probably no-one did more to create the modern Greek state than the British. I suppose I should add "except for the Greeks themselves" but, as we shall see, that may not actually be the case. Britain produced more Philhellenes than anywhere else and, in one of the many ironies of the situation, it was in no small part because we had the Parthenon Marbles that so many were inspired to help Greece.

This is a part of our history we have largely forgotten for far too long, so here is the story.

British Greece

A ship of the East India Company in Corfu harbour
Britain had acquired the Ionian Islands from the shattered Venetian Empire after the Battle of Waterloo. They were the last outpost of Christianity before the Moslem world began. Corfu was the largest and most heavily fortified island, but they also included Ithaca, the legendary home of Odysseus, and Lefkada, from whose cliffs the poet Sappho is supposed to have thrown herself to her death.

It was always unfortunate that for the Classically trained Englishmen than ran the show that the British Empire mostly consisted of places they'd never heard of. However in the Ionian Islands they were in their element. Unfortunately the reality of a marginal life on a small island meant that the actual Greeks they bumped into rarely fitted their preconceptions of Homeric heroes and Sapphic beauties. "The constant use of garlic and the rare use of soap, impress an Englishman very disagreeably," wrote one disappointed administrator.

British rule was mildly benevolent despotism. The enlisted men of the garrison seemed to spend most of their time drunk on the local wine, thus setting the trend for the British tourists that would arrive 150 years later, whilst their social superiors promenaded in the sunshine. Enough Greeks tries to copy the latter that new Orders of Chivalry were created to reward them and the rules of cricket were translated into Greek (απο ξυλα means 'bowled' apparently).

Lord Guilford
Some of the Brits who travelled out to the islands did though put some serious effort into improving the lot of the locals. Lord Guilford, a convert to the Orthodox Church and fluent speaker of both ancient and modern Greek, was so shocked that there was no university in Greece that he founded one in Corfu. It opened its doors in 1824 and had a library of 25,000 books.

Guilford, like most of the other Brits in the Ionian Islands, was sympathetic to the Greek cause, but maintained the strict neutrality that his government demanded.

The islands provided a haven for thousands of refugees from the fighting and a vital postal service that allowed the beleaguered Greek rebels to communicate with the outside world, but otherwise could not help Greeks in their fight.

Commodore Gawan Hamilton

HMS Cambrian by Jack Sullivan (1976)
The British government though was not prepared to just follow the action from the sidelines in Corfu, they wanted a man on the spot.

That man was the Royal Navy's Commodore Gawan Hamilton. Hamilton is a bit of a mystery to the historian. He breezes in on his frigate HMS Cambrian, spends five years sailing round the war zone, turning up when most needed, dispensing sage advice to both sides, and keeping his head when all about him are loosing theirs, sometimes literally. He then puts down a nest of pirates in Crete and disappears from history. We know very little about him, but he appears to be a remarkable man even in a navy that was, at that time, full of remarkable men.

In 1823, for example, he arrived in Napflio just as the town has fallen to the rebels and the victorious Greeks were getting ready to massacre the Turks. Hamilton persuaded them to let the Turks leave in chartered ships, taking 500 to Smyrna in his own frigate.

Edward Trelawny
Then, in 1824 Lord Byron's friend Edward Trelawny found himself lying seriously wounded in a cave on Mount Parnassus, having been shot in the back by an insane fellow countryman. His life was saved when a British doctor arrived in the nick of time, dispatched from the Cambrian by Hamilton.

The next year Hamilton was back in Nafplio. The revolt had just suffered a major defeat and the army of the Turkish vassal the Pasha of Egypt was closing in on the seat of the revolutionary government, which was paralysed with fear. But when the Egyptians arrived they found three ships bearing the White Ensign moored in the harbour and a rumour sweeping the countryside that the British had orders to fire in the defence of the town. The Pasha withdrew, the revolution survived and Hamilton sailed away again.

Finally he appears again in1827. Two main factions each claiming to be the legitimate government of Greece, each with their own base, and the revolt was paralysed, with neither party prepared to back down. Once more the Commodore arrived in the nick of time and once again he managed to sort things out, arranging a meeting at a neutral venue where, even though they failed to sort out who ran the country, they at least managed the vital task of agreeing who was to lead the Army and the Navy.

The Legion and the Regiment

The Battle of Peta
For all the help that Hamilton gave the revolt, he always kept to the letter of the law of strict neutrality. For many across Europe though, this just would not do. The romance of the Greek adventure was too much for many, especially the thousands of demobilised soldiers from the Napoleonic wars knocking around with nothing to do.

Volunteers from across Europe flocked to the Peloponnese with dreams of fighting alongside a modern Leonidas in a new Battle of Marathon. When they got there they found themselves in a confusing guerilla war alongside bandits-turned-rebels, who often as not turned back to bandits again, and who cared nothing for chivalrous warfare and even less for military discipline.

In the mountains of Greece these methods worked well, whereas the standing-bravely-shoulder-to-shoulder tactics of the volunteers proved suicidal in the face of superior Turkish numbers and artillery. The first Regiment was wiped out gloriously in battle in an insignificant village called Peta. A few disillusioned survivors returned to Europe to warn of the futility of it all, but still people volunteered. Proving that the krauts did used to actually like the Greeks once upon a time, the next unit formed was called the German Legion. It went out six months later and suffered the same fate as the Regiment.

When this disaster failed to stop the exodus of hopeful heroes the French authorities took action and shut the port of Marseilles to volunteers.

The Crown and Anchor Committee

The Crown and Anchor
Whilst these naive romantics were fighting and dying in Greece, a far more organised group were meeting in the Crown and Anchor Tavern in The Strand, London. Long since demolished, the pub was then a home to meetings of Radicals and other reformers.

The London Philhellenic Committee meant business. They had access to vast quantities of cash in the form of loans and bonds and they would eventually end up sending to Greece both Britain's greatest poet and her most famous sailor, as well as commissioning the most potent fighting ship then afloat.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron lands in Greece
Lord Byron was on the face of it an unlikely choice to send to Greece, but to be fair to the committee they never actually asked him to go there, just to help them distribute its money.

However nobody who knew him could have believed he would have been happy just to be the banker of the revolution. Stopping off in the Ionian islands on the way, where he contemplated buying Ithaca, he eventually landed in Missolonghi, where one of those claiming to be leading the revolt had his HQ.

Byron soon acquired an entourage of Albanian bandits who were happy to take his money and strut their stuff, but who all promptly ran away when he tried to use them to attack the Turkish fort at Lepanto. He was contemplating the utter failure of his plans when he fell ill and, after bloodletting failed to make him any better, he caught sepsis and died.

Whilst it was certainly a death in Greece and probably a death because of Greece, it was hardly a death for Greece. Byron had absolutely no desire to pop his clogs in such a depressing manner. But it was a death, and the Hellenic Republic still celebrates Byron as the foreigner who died to free their country; a pity really, because there are many better candidates, the chief one of which we are about to meet.

Frank Abney Hastings

A quick look at a map shows that anyone who wants to fight in Greece must have a navy. If there's one thing the Greeks can do apart from fall out amongst themselves, it's sail. The sea is part of their heritage and when I started learning the language I quickly realised they have as many words for boat as Inuits allegedly have for snow.

The Greek Revolutionary Navy was a nautical version of the guerrillas of its Army; small, lightweight vessels that could run rings around the lumbering Turkish men-o-war. The leaders of the Hellenic Navy were a colourful bunch, the most outlandish of which was a woman called Laskarina Bouboulina who was supposedly so ugly she had to take her lovers at gunpoint. Well, that's the story, but I suspect in reality she just used vast quantities of retsina like everyone else.

Frank Hastings
Joining her at sea was one Frank Abney Hastings, formerly of the Royal Navy. He had served at Trafalgar whilst just eleven years old and had spent fifteen years in the Senior Service, rising to the rank of Commander, before being sacked for challenging a fellow officer to a duel. He wasn't short of money and went to Greece purely for the adventure.

He got use to the regular beheading of captured Turks on the deck and the democratic nature of the Hellenic Navy, where everyone shouted orders but nobody obeyed them and each ship voted on whether to follow the orders of its Admiral. He had some success in a small, borrowed Greek vessel, and when no ship at all was available he used an island, laying siege to the Turkish forces in Napflio from an off-shore fort.

However Hastings had grander plans than that. He wanted the most powerful warship afloat, and thanks to the money from the Crown and Anchor Committee he was going to get it.

Thomas Cochrane

Thomas Cochrane
A modest man, Hastings never had any ambitions to lead the Hellenic Navy. He just wanted his ship. Instead the Greeks, via the London Philhellenic Society, looked to recruit Britain's most flamboyant sailor to the post.

In Nelson's navy of brilliant but eccentric sea captains, Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was the most brilliant and eccentric of them all. As a frigate captain he had made more prize money out of capturing French ships than anyone else. He was the inspiration for the heroic captain in Master and Commander, written by one of his midshipmen, and so ended up being played by Russell Crowe.

Buying himself a seat in the House of Commons as a Radical he made himself unpopular by railing against corruption in the navy. When in 1814 he was the only person to make money out of a hoax that Napoleon had died he was imprisoned for fraud. He was dismissed from the navy, expelled from parliament and lost his knighthood.

Still protesting his innocence he served in the wars that freed South America from colonial rule, commanding the navies of Chile and then Brazil. He performed heroic feats of arms for both, and then argued about the money afterwards.

The second siege of the Acropolis
Wild and red-headed, Cochrane was the opposite of the calm Hastings in demeanour and also in motivation. Whilst Hastings went to Greece for the love of adventure, and stayed for the love of Greece, Cochrane fought only for cash. His fee for the job was equal to the total annual tax revenue of the country. Unfortunately the nation did not get good value for its money.

Cochrane arrived as the crisis was approaching. The rebels had assembled their largest army yet and, under the command of an Irish General called Church, were trying to relive the siege of the Acropolis. They had captured the port of Piraeus from which they could approach the citadel under cover of olive trees, safe from Turkish cavalry and cannon. Pretty hard to believe now, but that's how it was then.

Rather confusingly Church, the General, was at sea on a yacht and Cochrane, the Admiral, had come ashore. Not surprisingly this unorthodox command system failed miserably. Church and Cochrane tried an alternative route and the Greek army was mown down in the open. The two leaders escaped by wading out to waiting boats, but most of the soldiers weren't so lucky. The rebellion looked doomed.

SS Karteria

SS Karteria
At sea though things were going a lot better, for Hastings had finally got the ship he wanted. Twenty years after Trafalgar the navies of the world still consisted entirely of wooden ships propelled by sails and firing solid iron shot. Hastings though was looking to the future.

At his direction the London Philhellenic Society had launched the SS Karteria, an iron ship powered by steam engines and equipped with monster 68 pounder cannons firing explosive shot. It's difficult to appreciate how far ahead of its time this ship was. Even getting the vessel to Greece had probably broken several records for an iron ship.

The Karteria was soon in action. In a series of hit and run operations Hastings wiped out Turkish forts, transports and warships. His opponents probably had no idea what they were fighting. Belching smoke, steaming straight into the wind and firing shells that reduced wooden warships to splinters it must have seemed like they were being attacked by some malevolent Greek god of old.

Hastings' ambition was to catch the Turkish fleet becalmed at sea, wipe it out and win the war in an afternoon. Had luck been with him he could probably have done it. As it was he did contribute to the end of the war, but not in a way he could have imagined.

Sir Edward Codrington

Sir Edward Codrington
The Great Powers were now starting to take an interest in Greece. Initially they were reluctant to get involved in what they saw as the internal affairs of the Ottomans, and even more reluctant to be seen to be supporting a revolt against an established empire.

However an Egyptian army marching across Greece laying waste to entire provinces was something they couldn't ignore. Hamilton was still around bring home tales of Greeks hiding in caves and surviving by boiling grass. Something would have to be done. Britain, France and Russia, each worried that either of the others would act alone and thus acquire a bit of valuable strategic real estate, together put forward a peace proposal called the Treaty of London.

The Greeks accepted it, as they were done for if they didn't, but the Turks refused. The three powers then sent fleets to Greece to make the Sultan comply. This called for very delicate diplomacy. Unfortunately for the Turks they gave the command to Sir Edward Codrington, the youngest captain to command a ship in the Battle of Trafalgar. Just to be sure Codrington knew what was expected of him King George IV took a break from his debauchary to advise the Admiral "go in, Ned, smash those damn Turks."

Codrington found the Turkish fleet holed up in the harbour at Navarino, formed in a defensive horseshoe covering the entrance. The Turkish Admiral was understandably miffed that Codrington was asking him to lay down his arms whilst Cochrane's navy was still attacking him. Codrington explained that the Greeks had accepted the treaty and so weren't his problem.

The allied fleet entering Navarino harbour
Things would probably have remained at an impasse had Hastings hadn't picked that moment to try out some new ammunition in the Karteria. He wiped out nine Ottoman gunboats in a night raid and when the Turks tried to send out a squadron to deal with him, but they were blocked by Codrington. The French and the Russians arrived, as did Hamilton in the Cambrian.

Codrington now decided that there had been enough diplomacy and tried a tactic that even Nelson might have felt was a bit rash. He sailed into Navarino Bay and moored his ships inside the horseshoe, right under the Turkish guns. He was outnumbered, out-gunned and trapped by an unfavourable wind. It was an amazing bit of chutzpah, as if he was daring the Turks to try something. 

And sure enough they did.

The Battle of Navarino
It was the last battle of the Age of Sail, although all the ships were actually at anchor and Codrington's veterans blew the Turks to pieces. He lost one hundred and eighty men and no ships. The Turks lost over 3000 men and sixty ships.  

He had done what Byron, Hastings, Cochrane and Church had all failed to achieve and won the war for Greece.  To the British public he was a national hero.

To his own government though he was an embarrassment. British policy then was to preserve the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russia. Now Codrington had just destroyed the fleet of an ally. When the public clamour had died down he was dismissed from the service.


So Greece was free. Ruined, diseased, bankrupt and indebted, but free. Or at least some of it was sort
of free. Athens, along with two thirds of the Greek population of the Ottoman Empire, was not part of the new kingdom.

However, there was no denying that for the first time in history a small nation had come into existence based on a unique ethnic mix, a model that was to be followed around the world in the next century as the Age of Empires came to an end.

The Ionian Islands remains British until 1864, when they opted for enosis with the rest of Greece, a decision which their colonial masters couldn't understand.

Guilford's Ionian University though is still there. For the first twenty years of the Greek state almost all the doctors, lawyers, academics and senior civil servants were its alumni.

HMS Cambrian eventually foundered of Crete and, although he survived, Hamilton disappears from history afterwards.

Statue of Byron in Athens (Jennifer)
The loans organised by the London Philhellenic Society turned out not to be the great investment they had promised. Most weren't repaid until the 1870s and their existence caused many problems for the Hellenic Kingdom.

Lord Byron posthumously became the hero in Greece that he never was at home, and today there are more statues of him there than there are here.

Hastings, the most useful Philhellene of them all, continued in the service of his adopted nation. In the year after Navarino he fired what may have been the last shot of the war at a Turkish fort near Missolonghi. Following up through the marsh he was shot in the arm and died of blood poisoning, aged 33. It would be another 25 years before the Royal Navy would launch a ship comparable to the Karteria.

Cochrane returned to Britain where he was forgiven and reinstated in the Royal Navy, had his honours restored and was eventually buried in Westminister Abbey.

Codrington spent the rest of his life defending his actions at Navarino and denying he was a secret Philhellene. Like Byron, he is now better remembered in Greece than at home, having several roads named after him.

Greece meanwhile is once again bankrupt and indebted, although still free. Let us raise a glass of Greek wine to them today - or maybe they should raise a glass of English beer to us?


Heaven's Command by Jan Morris (1973)
The Greek Adventure by David Howarth (1976)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Time to Act 2015

Well done to the 10-20,000 people who came to Time to Act 2015.

This is planned to be the start of a series of actions that will both lead up to the COP21 Climate Change conference in Paris in December, but more importantly will carry on after the conference to force our leaders into real action.

This is a big battle. Apartheid was ended and the Berlin Wall fell, but neither involved messing with the oil fueled capitalist system that owns the world.

They will fight, and so must we.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Why you need to be in London on March 7th

This is important.

Last September as part of Frack Free Greater I helped organise a Manchester People’s Climate March. It wasn’t as large as the one in New York (400,000 people) or London (40,000) but Labour Party leader Ed Miliband noticed us as he watched from his car. Last week he appointed John Prescott as an advisor on Climate Change with the brief to “raise ambition on this crucial issue”. I disagree with a lot of Labour policy, especially their support for fracking, but I'm glad they’re talking about the subject.

Instillation dubbed "Politicians debating Climate Change"
What this means is that this general election campaign will be very different to previous ones. In the
past Climate Change campaigners, and other environmentalists, would shut up shop whilst the politicians argued about immigration and the EU and the other issues that the press distracts the public with. This time though Climate Change will be part of the debate. Politicians will not be able to get away with ignoring the issue any more.

This year is also a crucial year for the international attempt to reach a deal on preventing Climate Change. We don’t expect much from the meeting in Paris in December, but once again we will not be letting the politicians get away with inaction. The big demonstration is planned for the day after the talks finish. We want this to be the start of a global insurgency that forces world leaders to act.
In the UK this starts in London in just under two weeks time.

But the demo is also about the right to protest. In Manchester we saw at Barton Moss last winter how far the authorities will go to stop us. However at least in Manchester they let us have our Solidarity Days and marches in the city centre. The London Metropolitan Police though initially refused to unless The Campaign Against Climate Change pays for private security with money it doesn’t have.They backed down eventually, but the message was clear.
allow the Time to Act march

But whether we can make the politicians take Climate Change seriously, or withdraw their threat to make us ‘pay to protest’, depends on a good turnout on 7 March.

As I said, this is important.