History Notes from Hay Festival 2014

History Notes from Hay

Hay Festival Spring Bank Holiday 2014


‘There’s going to be war.’ The month is July 1914 and the rumblings that emanate from Vienna are ceaseless and disturbing. Asquith and his colleagues at the apex of the Liberal Cabinet are sure of it, while wholly innocent that Britain will be drawn into a continental conflict.

Guto Harri presides over a panel at Hay that is both learned and scholarly. There is a depth and a warmth, as both Harri and John Kampfner have been pupils of Kenneth O Morgan. Kampfner speaks of that most powerful breaker of industrial cartels, Theodore Roosevelt and Morgan says ‘Quite right. Remind me. Did I teach you American history?’

Morgan and Ffion Hague are a generation or more apart. Their knowledge of Lloyd George, individually and together, is formidable. They know his every movement, political and romantic, in that summer of one hundred years ago and are equals in platform confidence. Letters from Lloyd George from July 1914 are read out in which the mood is ever hopeful.

That is the thing about history. After the event it is inevitable, before the event inconceivable.


When the trio of Baltic States regained the independence lost in Stalin’s invasion the prospects were dim. Estonia’s historic Swedish-speaking population had been deported, its Germans had fled and its Jews murdered. Personal savings were wiped out after currency reform. It is a country of marsh and forest, with no exploitable resource beyond wood. As elsewhere the level of alcoholism was appalling. The collectively tilled fields had been abandoned.

Estonia in 2014 is a technology leader, the birthplace of Skype, with a pre-eminence that belies the country’s small size. Every fiscal transfer between citizen and government is conducted electronically. Its coastal tourism is booming.

Sigrid Rausing is a beneficiary of note to the world of letters in her acquisition of Granta. She is author too of the well-received Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia, a chronicle of just how grim it was. It is true that the Baltic trio had good neighbours who wanted prosperous neighbours. Sweden brought in investment that even included a topless car wash in Tallinn.

But prosperity is not pre-ordained. The Baltic states’ governments did tough-minded politics. Only afterwards does history’s course become inevitable.


Tim Butcher touches on a small incident of history in The Trigger. For the victim his fate would have been inconceivable. Gavrilo Princip, assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was spared the hangman on account of his youth. His sentence, a grim imprisonment in a far-away fortress in Austro-Hungary, was ended in 1919 by tuberculosis. A doctor is brought in. Twenty-five years on the same doctor returns to the same place of imprisonment. Its name is Theresienstadt. The doctor is still a doctor, but he is also Jewish and Theresienstadt has been adapted to new purposes by Germany.

Tim Butcher is author of the rightly admired Blood River. For that journey, across Congo overland, all those in the know tell him that it cannot be done. In The Trigger he crosses the arduous interior landscape of Bosnia. It is a journey with a double meaning. Butcher traces the route that Princip took to Sarajevo and revisits the sites of war that he knew as a war correspondent in the 1990s. The pages on Srebrenica are infused with an emotion that make The Trigger one of the best of the hundreds of books published that remember 1914.


Gorazde was another Bosnian enclave under ostensible protection by the UN and NATO. A surprise attack by the Army of Repulbika Srpska led to the capture of thirty-three peace-keepers. Their commander broke with all protocol and telephoned the Prime Minister direct. The commander’s name was Jonathon Riley, then a Lieutenant-Colonel, and on retirement a Lieutenant-General.

As editor for a new publication in 2010 of Llewelyn Wyn Griffiths’ Up to Mametz and Beyond he calls himself plain Jonathon Riley of Llanllwni, Carmarthenshire.


Ffion Hague mentions a door handle in Downing Street, either number nine or ten, which has a particular difficulty to its opening. Lloyd George, inhabitant of both, was cosseted by the women in his life and never mastered this door handle. Imprisoned inside he would wait until the arrival of a housekeeper to release him. Ffion Hague knows the door handle, because she has been there.

David Owen is in Hay to discuss the bypassing of cabinet government in the years of build-up to August 1914. Owen, unsurprisingly, is not described with enthusiasm by John Campbell in his masterly new biography of Roy Jenkins. But on cabinet government and defence policy Owen speaks with authority, because he has been there.

His book The Hidden Perspective: the Military Conversations 1906-1914 is a detailed piece of military analysis with a subject that resonates. Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers relates that disconnected government was the norm across Europe. France’s Foreign Ministry, the Quai D’Orsay, was the province of a cluster of family clans who kept their counsel secret from their country’s president. Smallness of size helped. In Imperial Britain, India was outside the responsibility of the Foreign Office. Sir Edward Grey’s Ministry, says Owen, had a total staff count of two hundred.

Hay’s audience is keener to throw questions about the contemporary than about French-British collusion a hundred years ago. Robin Cook is remembered and honoured. Owen cracks a joke at the expense of his own profession. ‘At least when doctors make a mistake they have the decency to carry out a post-mortem.’ ‘Cabinet discussion on the decision for war is the essence of democracy.’ Unless the causes of war are investigated, he declares, without fear or favour then the same blunder into war will happen again.

Owen is restrainedly forceful and outraged on Chilcot. The Prime Minister is a servant of the state. Britain’s governance is not a presidential system whereby an office-holder may assert private ownership of documents. That the decision on the availability of documents is the province of a civil servant who was also a participant is an absurdity.

Owen is asked about his use of the word ‘lie’ as in ‘oh, yes, I have no doubt he lied to me.’  ‘Mislead’ and ‘disingenuous’ are words, he says, used in the language of polite reports but they mean the same as ‘lie’. The one-syllable word just carries more force. Owen has no doubt about the parallels between the first decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He praises the accomplishments of the 1997 government. But after 2001 ‘cabinet government virtually ceased to exist.’


Guto Harri ends the panel session on Lloyd George with mention of an involvement of his own. For a while Gareth Jones was Lloyd George’s private eyes and ears in revolutionary Russia. In Stalin, Hitler a’r Bachgen o’r Barri (S4C 8th June) Guto Harri reveals that Gareth Jones’ mother before marriage was tutor to the family of John Hughes, the Merthyr steelman who built Russia’s industry and in whose honour is named the city of Hughesovska.

Harri follows Jones from Aberystwyth to Ukraine. In Kharkiv he interviews eighty-year olds who were alive as children at the time of famine. These survivors tell of the terrible privations, of the Party’s commissars descending to steal all the livestock, of the warnings against kidnap and cannibalism.

Fresh footage shows Gareth Jones a year on a few feet distant from the Fuehrer. ‘A loud-mouthed demagogue’ is how Jones reports the new leader for the Western Mail.


Estonia is a couple of borders away from the enclave of Kaliningrad, the city with Europe’s highest rate of HIV infection. Oliver Bullough, author of The Last Man in Russia (reviewed Wales Arts Review 3.6), is different from the other commentators assembled to talk of Ukraine’s election of the previous day. He has been there, for years on end, and that gives him the stamp of authoritative detail. Ukraine has Europe’s second highest rate of HIV infection. The necessary drugs are all imported and subject to border levies of twenty to twenty-five percent. This is how the whole country works.

The country’s tilt against the EU, says Bullough, has nothing to do with geopolitics, but all to do with the fact that these tariff barriers would require dismantling. Their universal presence and the whole series of monopolies are more than the state’s foundation stone, they are the state’s raison d’ětre. The Maidan protesters have not gone away, says Bullough. They are still there and, he says, will stay until the country has purged itself.


Nick Butler, a former oil executive and currently academic and policy-adviser, is present for his expertise on energy. Russia’s energy grip on Europe is not quite as advantageous as it seems. Markets are mechanisms of mutuality. A seller needs a buyer as much as vice versa. Russia not only has no added-value industries beyond the extractive ones but has a polity that makes it incapable of creating any.

Capitalism is adaptive beyond anything. Estonia and the Baltics nations are building their equivalents of the Milford-to-Gloucester pipeline with all the speed they can. Russia has concluded this season with an energy deal with China that has been ten years in the making. It is, says Butler, a lousy, ham-fisted deal for Russia. It is hardly a meeting of friends. Russia’s furthest border bristles with tactical nuclear weapons facing eastward.


Russia’s President has commentators, at Hay and vocal in the media, who see a masterly geo-political strategist. Oliver Bullough reports another view. Emperor Franz Josef worked tirelessly decade on decade at a desk crammed with paper, all to small effect. As Austro-Hungary then, so Russia today, a state reduced to one-person reign to dysfunctional effect. It is believed that several days ensued, says Bullough, before the arrest of the environmental protesters for piracy was even communicated to Moscow.

As for that gaudy palace in Kiev abandoned on 22 February it was not a personal possession. It was the property of a company and Bullough names the offshore haven where the company is registered. It is just as Nicholas Shaxson wrote in his book  Treasure Islands. The presidential palace is the property of a company in Harley Street, London. It always leads back to London.


A respected economist on the platform declares there is one power in the world that continuously and relentlessly flexes itself at its borders. He points his finger at the EU.

This is in the month when the world’s third mega-state has towed a billion pound oilrig into contested waters near the Paracel Islands accompanied by a flotilla of war-ships. It is undertaking unidentified construction at a reef in the Spratley Islands and its aircraft are buzzing close to those of  Japan near the Senkaku Islands.

‘There’s going to be war’ is the murmur of insiders, as innocent today of history’s future as were Asquith, Grey, Morley and Campbell-Bannerman a century ago.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis