A Hindu Cromwell courteously decapitates hundreds of maharajas

On 25 July 1947, in the searing heat, almost 100 princes bedecked in jewels gathered in a circular room in New Delhi. Some of them ruled over principalities of less than a square mile; others over an area larger than Korea. All of them had been Britain’s close allies for more than a century and, now that the British were leaving India, many looked forward to regaining their states’ independence. But on that fateful day, as Lord Mountbatten swaggered around in his ivory white uniform, anxious murmurs rippled through the throng. A cousin of George VI, and related to virtually every royal in Europe, the viceroy was no republican; yet

Why did the Weimar Republic descend so rapidly into chaos?

‘Thirteen wasted years’ bellowed Adolf Hitler at receptive audiences in the spring of 1932. He was talking about the first full German democracy, the Weimar Republic. Proclaimed in November 1918, it was born out of a desire to do things better after the horrors of the first world war and was an ambitious attempt to establish one of the most progressive states in history. ‘Democratic chaos,’ sneered Hitler, ‘unmitigated political and economic chaos.’ Much of the electorate agreed. Less than a year later, Hitler became chancellor and immediately set about fulfilling his electoral promise to destroy democracy. The short and tumultuous story of the Weimar Republic continues to fascinate. The

Boris Johnson was a terrible strongman

The ejection of Boris Johnson from Downing Street today proves that the UK has not gone the way of Donald Trump’s United States, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary or Narendra Modi’s India. For all our faults, the strongman model of leader ends in farce rather than fascism here. Liberal critics ought to be big enough to concede that Conservative MPs – more than any opposition party, movement or institution – saved us from populist authoritarianism. No doubt they did so for impure and self-interested reasons, but this is politics and it is deeds – not motives – that matter most. Johnson’s failure to impose his will on his parliamentary party was his

We let Hong Kong down: Chris Patten on the end of colonial rule

After 13 years in parliament, rising star Chris Patten had the bad luck to be one of the few Tory MPs to lose his seat in 1992. Had he been re-elected he would probably have become chancellor of the exchequer. Instead, he found himself in the wilderness. But not for long. Within months he had been appointed governor of Hong Kong, tasked with the tricky business of presiding over the transfer of the territory to communist China. It was a lucky break. Had he been chancellor, the odds are that his political career would have come to a sticky end the following September, when the pound fell out of the

The rise of the new autocracy

Gstaad Dinner parties are no longer verboten here, so I posed a question to some youngsters my son had over: did any of them feel morally entitled to their privilege? The problem with talking about privilege is that the discussion goes around in circles, original thoughts get lost, and what emerges says more about those conversing than about the subject at hand. Ditto when I posed the question to my son’s friends. There were no straightforward answers. Let’s face it, privilege is so enjoyable that the beneficiaries are mostly seen as undeserving, spoilt lightweights — by the underprivileged, that is. Envy has always been around, as has the urge to

Glasnost merely confirmed Russia’s deep-seated suspicion of democracy

Thirty years ago the Soviet Union was guttering to its close. Those of us who were there remember the exhilarating hope, the apprehension, the illusion. For everyone else it is a distant echo. Russia was always likely to lose the Cold War competition with America. It was unmanageably large, too poor and too reliant on too few products. Stalin’s bloody grip had enabled the Soviet Union to defeat the Germans at a terrible cost to his people. When he died in 1953 his system entered a protracted agony. Over the next decade Nikita Khrushchev tinkered with half-baked solutions. They misfired, and he was overthrown by the hard men in the

Ella Pamfilova and the dismantling of Russia’s democracy

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is hardly known for its free and fair elections. But a purge of the field ahead of this September’s parliamentary vote has led to protests even from politicians who benefit from his system. And it has brought the woman on whom the whole democratic façade relies close to a breakdown. Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, had just wrapped up a meeting in which her officials disbarred the popular Communist party candidate Pavel Grudinin when she was approached by Nikolai Bondarenko, Grudinin’s ally and a popular YouTuber. ‘This is a disgrace to the whole country. You’re trampling democracy,’ he told Pamfilova in a video he

Why voters should have to show photo ID

This week’s publication of the Elections Bill has given pressure groups and others a fresh opportunity to complain about what they see as the latest manifestation of this government’s illiberalism: a requirement for people to produce photo ID when they go to vote. Forgive me, but I fail to see what is so terrible, so undemocratic, about that. The arguments go like this. First of all, opponents say, any change is unnecessary, as the UK simply doesn’t have a problem with voter fraud – with impersonation, say, or multiple voting. Trust in the UK electoral process is high and the instances of fraud are infinitesimal compared with the numbers of

Watch: parish council meeting descends into chaos

Why are academic disputes so vicious? Because the stakes are so small – or so the saying goes. The same could probably be said of parish council meetings. Though they make up a small and vital part of our democratic life, these local bodies also have a rather unfortunate habit of being dominated by petty squabbles. Even so, Mr S was still taken aback by the drama, intrigue and betrayal on display at a Handforth parish council meeting for planning and the environment, which took place over Zoom on a cold evening in December last year. Thankfully, the meeting was captured by the council for posterity, so everyone can now

How democracy can subvert itself: Bunga Bunga reviewed

Italy has long captivated romantics from rainy, dreary, orderly northern Europe. Goethe, Stendhal, Keats and Shelley all flocked to Italy in search of the ideal society. There they found what they thought was a utopia. ‘There is,’ Byron marvelled in a letter home from Ravenna, ‘no law or government at all, and it is wonderful how well things go on without them.’ Well, Silvio Berlusconi has made some of Europe’s wisest men sound like chumps. If the notorious career — chronicled in the podcast Bunga Bunga — of the longest-serving prime minister of Italy since Mussolini and its sometime richest man has done one good thing, it’s to have dispelled

What on earth has happened to Simon Schama: The Romantics and Us reviewed

‘You may think our modern world was born yesterday,’ said Simon Schama at the beginning of The Romantics and Us. If you do, though, I can only imagine that you’ve never seen any history documentaries on television — where, as a rule, the modern world is born in whatever period the documentary happens to be about, from Ancient Rome to the 1980s. After all, how can the past possibly be interesting if we can’t see ourselves reflected in it? As the title indicates, Schama’s choice, this time, of an era important enough to lead to us was the romantic movement. But as it soon turned out, the ‘us’ he had

How the Athenians would have handled the Lords

Arguments about the purpose or indeed very existence of anything resembling the House of Lords would have struck classical democratic Athenians as bizarre. But its Areopagus might prompt thought. This body had been in existence long before Cleisthenes invented radical democracy in 508 bc. It was made up of the wealthy aristocratic elite from whom alone the main state officials (archons) could be drawn. Their term of office completed, they joined the Areopagus for life. This body was the state’s legal guardian. The democratic reformer Solon (594 bc) slightly broadened its membership, and removed some of its political powers. Cleisthenes, whose reforms turned the Athenian people meeting in assembly into

Covid-19 shows us that virtue trumps freedom

Look at it this way: we’re all doing Desert Island Discs nowadays, and unless you’ve got the bug, it’s a damn good thing, too. I did the desert island bit around 30 years ago, when Sue Lawley was the presenter, and we got along fine, even after I commented on air that she had nice legs. I suspect it would have been a different story today, but another good thing about the virus is that it has knocked #MeToo off the front pages. For good, I hope, but I doubt it. Among my desert island picks was a version of ‘Lili Marlene’ sung by an army choir that I first

The director of Persepolis talks about her biopic of Marie Curie: Marjane Satrapi interviewed

The problem with making an accurate film about science is that science is rarely exciting to watch, explains director Marjane Satrapi. Movie convention tends to insist on the climax of the eureka moment and the fiction of the solitary male genius, who doggedly closes in on his discovery in the same way that a detective might doggedly close in on a killer. ‘It doesn’t happen this way,’ says Satrapi. ‘It’s a result of lots and lots of work, which most of the time is repetitive and most of the time you know you don’t know where you’re going, and it’s lots of collaboration.’ Satrapi studied mathematics in her birthplace of