Saudi Arablia: reconciling tradition with modernity.

The Saudi regime’s main criterion for success in balancing their traditional religious values with modernization has been holding on to power. To ensure their survival as rulers of Saudi Arabia, the ruling faction of the Al-Saud family have harnessed advances in technology and embraced new techniques of governance. These transformations, which have been largely facilitated by the enormous wealth that the discovery of oil has brought, have, at times, brought the regime into conflict with representatives of religious tradition, or orthodoxy. The regime’s close relationship with, and patronage of Islam as ‘Guardian’s of the Holy Cities’, drawing on popular traditions, has resulted in a society steeped in Islam, which is drawn on as a source of legitimacy. Islam as a rallying force beyond narrow tribal allegiances, played a vital role in Abdel Aziz ibn-Saud’s formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Later, the promotion of Islam was used to counter the threat to the rule of the Al-Saud posed by Arab nationalism and communism, secular ideologies which threatened their rule. Throughout the twentieth century religious leaders, and adherents, objected to the introduction of modern innovations such as the telegraph, the radio, and the television, but, until recently, religious representatives have not questioned the legitimacy of the regime. The threat to the House of Al-Saud posed by what has been labelled “Islamic fundamentalism” in the West, has been caused by a number of factors, not least the pronounced difference in wealth between the ruling princes and the rest of the population. In the absence of alternative political outlets, Islam has provided the idiom for revolution in Saudi Arabia.

The precise definitions of modernity and modernization are keenly disputed, especially in the Islamic context. Hopwood offers one:
‘Modernization is the introduction into society of the artefacts of contemporary life – railways, communications, industry (less often nowadays), technology, household equipment. Modernity (modernism) is a general term for the political and cultural process set in motion by integrating new ideas, an economic system, or education into society. It is a way of thought, of living in the contemporary world and of accepting change.’
This definition is insufficient, as it fails to recognise the modernizing effect of advances in technology. For example an “artefact of contemporary life” like the internet can give rise to “new ideas”. Likewise, a transition to mass literacy falls into the lacuna. Thus, it is unsatisfactory to attempt to draw a distinction between the terms “modernity” and “modernization”. A more adequate working definition, to be used in this paper, is supplied by the ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary’ where the term “modern” encompasses both meanings:
“of, or relating to the present or to recent times; characterized by or using the most up-to-date techniques, equipment, etc; denoting a recent style in art, architecture, etc, marked by a departure from traditional styles and values ”.

A common presumption made in Western discourse is that modernisation of Islamic societies amounts to a convergence with Western norms. In such a dialectic, Islam is taken as the tradition in opposition to the modern secular forces of liberal-western democracies. This leads to frequent description of Islam as a conservative force particularly within Saudi society . This view downplays the extent to which interpretations of Islam, based on the same sources, have varied considerably throughout its 1,400 year history. Especially in a situation where
“Islam lacks a single canonical authority or a fixed story that holds together all the elements of a religion such as Christianity and imparts to them legitimacy .”

Therefore, to characterise all manifestations of Islam as simply “traditional” is misleading. In fact this paper posits that the forces of Islam emerging in Saudi Arabia are “modern”. Saudi society has radically changed since the Second World War and Islam has responded to meet the fears, desires and aspirations that living in such an altered society entails.

Wahhabism

The writings and practices of Muhammad Abdel Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), a religious scholar brought up in the Hanbalite school , have given rise to the description Wahhabi , the “traditional religious value” of Saudi Arabia. Al-Wahhab repudiated what he viewed as heretical practices such as saint veneration, a common practice among Shi’a, and exalted the doctrine of tawhid – “God’s uniqueness as omnipotent lord of creation and his uniqueness as deserving worship and the absolute devotion of his servants ”.

In 1744 Al-Wahhab entered into an accord with the tribal lord Muhammad Al-Saud. The politico-religious alliance generated vast conquests as previously warring tribes were united under the banner of Islam. In exchange for ideological justification and recruits for the conquests, shari’a, religious law, as interpreted by the ulama, the religious scholars, was imposed on the territories. In his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler (the imam – the commander of the faithful) should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion . Al-Wahhab also appointed the mutawia, who served as the enforcers of justice and were financed by the public treasury. The mutawia enforced a strict system of orthodoxy where repeated abstention from public prayers invited reprimand or penalty . Beyond the zakat, the mandatory religious tax of just 2.5%, and the payment of the mutawia and ulama, Al-Wahhab could not have envisioned a radical redistribution of the assets of the state, including the booty gained through conquests. Al-Wahhab’s pre-modern interpretation of Islam certainly did not envision the state performing a ‘welfarist’ role.

The Wahhabist tradition of government envisions a divide within the state between the religious and the temporal domains. In practice, the balance of power was eschewed in favour of the charismatic figure of Al-Wahhab and “it was said that no camels were mounted and no opinions were voiced by Muhammad Al-Saud or his son Abdel Al-Aziz without his [Al-Wahhab’s] approval ”. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has persisted with the Wahhabist template but a shift in the balance of power has seen the temporal authorities, bolstered by oil wealth, largely dictate to the ulama. This has led Lackner to opine that “the fiction of Wahhabism which has lost its real roots with the destruction of the age old desert culture can only be maintained by an intellectual petrification ”.

The Ikhwan

In order to understand the extent to which the Al-Saud draw legitimacy from traditional religious values it is necessary to examine the formation of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom. Ibn-Saud began life as an exile in Kuwait, as the Al-Saud clan had been superseded by other forces in their Najd heartland. In 1902 he set off on a legendary expedition, with a handful of men, and captured Riyadh where the ulama swore allegiance to him. Although the original Al-Saud empire had disintegrated, the Wahhabi tradition had continued to flourish in Arabia. The remaining mutawia “needed a politico-military figure, a symbolic Imam to endorse their cause ”. Consequently
“Ibn Saud enlisted them in the service of his domain as he employed them and paid them their salaries in cash and kind… In return [he] was guaranteed the political submission of the Arabian peninsula under the guise of submission to God .”

In collaboration with the mutawia, Ibn-Saud created an altogether new force, the Ikhwan. Beginning in 1912, settlements were created for the Islamic indoctrination of nomadic Bedouin. This provided Ibn-Saud with “an ascetic, military force which could be mobilized and demobilized swiftly and which combined the mobility of the Bedouin with the political reliability and loyalty of the villagers ”. This new force played a vital role in Ibn-Saud’s conquest of what was proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, including the Hijaz, which contains the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Renowned for ferocity, the threat of the Ikhwan, ready to be unleashed against Mecca, was sufficient to bring about its surrender .

The formation of Saudi Arabia represented an acceptance of the modern order of the nation state. This led to conflict with the Ikhwan who, already suspicious of the introduction of modern technology, wished to continue what they viewed as a jihad against infidels. As a result, an uprising occurred in 1928 that was suppressed by the forces of Ibn-Saud, who was supported by the British, irked by Ikhwan raids on their Iraqi colony. Crucial to Ibn Saud’s victory over the Ikhwan was the support of the ulama who ruled that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler .

The ulama’s support for Ibn Saud signalled their submission to him as it had
“became clear to those distinguished among them that if they were to play a role in the country they would have to accept the subordination of religion to politics. They also understood that their eminence was dependent on restraining their former students, the mutawia ”

Thus, the ulama were co-opted by the regime, a process that would become more pronounced under Ibn-Saud’s son Faysal. Consequently, although the ulama were not in favour of the introduction of artefacts of modernity such as the radio and the telegraph, they accepted Ibn-Saud’s authority. Ibn-Saud had revived the Al-Saud-Wahhabi alliance but in the twentieth the religious authorities, lacking the charisma of a figure like Al-Wahhab, were subordinate to the will of the temporal ruler. Nonetheless, Ibn-Saud’s role as the imam continued to be essential to his authority. An Arab visitor to Saudi Arabia 1928 observed
“The ulama are the power that holds the sultan and his people together – the medium of control. But they seldom meddle in politics .”

King Faysal

1953 saw the death of Ibn-Saud, the patriarch of the Saudi Royal family. His sons continue to rule Saudi Arabia. The first to ascend to the throne was King Saud, who proved an inept ruler. In 1964 he was moved aside by means of a ‘Palace Coup’ which brought King Faysal to the throne. Vast oil wealth allowed Faysal to oversee a rapid expansion of the Saudi State and he is the principal architect of modern Saudi Arabia.

The period 1945-1975 witnessed a rapid modernization of Saudi society. Mass education caused a rapid transformation of the literacy rate , and controversially included women. Urbanization, and the arrival of millions of foreign migrants to work in the oil industry affected profound changes to Saudi society.

In the era of Nasser’s charismatic appeal to pan-Arabist sentiment, Faysal’s “Islamic rhetoric came to the forefront mainly as a counter discourse to current Arab political trends associated with Arab nationalism ” which “threatened the very foundation of Saudi rule. ” The threat to Faysal emanated not only from the restive Saudi population but also from within the Royal Family, where a number of ‘Republican Princes’ emerged, though these renegades were soon exiled. Faysal’s opposition to Arab nationalism led to alliance with the United States, however the United States’ close relationship with Israel began to place strains on this relationship, Tension over the Palestinian issue, led the regime to play a leading role in the OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s. Nonetheless, throughout the reign of Faysal, Arab nationalism and communism were trumpeted as the main threat to the regime. Moreover, vast wealth accrued from a cordial relationship with the West dictated a symbiosis. Nonetheless, in a situation where Israel was seen as anathema to Islam and pan-Arabism, rapprochement of the sort undertaken by Sadat at Camp David would not have been feasible, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was desired.

Traditional religious forces continued to resist Faysal’s rigorous modernization programme, which included the education of women and the introduction of television, but no serious opposition movement emerged based on a defence of traditional religious values. This can be explained by a fear, amongst traditionalists, of “modern” political forces, particularly the secular force of nationalism, represented by Nasser’s Egypt, which seemed to threaten the role of religion in society, as exemplified by the fate of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, thousands of whom were imprisoned. Therefore
“As Islam… was widely interpreted as a revolt against modernity, and as the… [monarchy was] interpreted to be more traditional and less modernized than most of the republics, there appeared to be less of an incentive, or need, to revolt against them in the name of Islam, “traditional values” and “authenticity. ”

The regime and the religious authorities viewed one another as allies against a common foe. The ulama, while displeased by certain aspects of the regime’s modernization programme, nonetheless allowed themselves to be co-opted by the regime to an unprecedented degree. The establishment of the Ministry of Religion was the most important aspect of this process for it “locked the senior ulama in an official role. ”. Although, “the most uncompromising among the ulama were ousted and denied the privilege of becoming civil servants. ”. In return for co-option, religious universities were established which replaced the informal centres of learning around the mosque school. As a result, during the reign of King Faysal, religion penetrated society to an unprecedented degree. However, below the surface, interpretations of Islam were shifting beyond traditions. This was facilitated by mass literacy that eroded the traditional role of the ulama as the intermediary between the text and the predominantly illiterate people, and considerably increased the number of religious scholars. In such circumstances it became more difficult for the regime to control the interpretation of Islam. The historical parallel of the emergence of Protestantism in response to mass literacy in the Europe of the sixteenth century may be drawn.

The Post Faysal Era

The assassination of King Faysal in 1975, by a disgruntled member of the royal family removed a charismatic and effective rule. The monarchs who have followed Khalid (1975-1982) and Fahd (r.1982) have persisted with Faysal’s, pro-Western policies and emphasis on Islam as a source of legitimacy, especially in response to the seizure of the Grand Mosque and the rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution. However, since the 1970s Islam has become “a two edged political instrument – as the kingdom’s primary medium of self-legitimisation, and as the main venue of protest for opposition elements ”. Given that formal political protest, in the shape of political parties, has never been tolerated it is not surprising that opposition should emerge in this religious guise. Furthermore
“Saudi Arabia is a very traditional and Islamic country it is natural that most opposition from dissatisfied sectors of the population would find it most appropriate to articulate their difficulties in the Islamic idiom .”

However, such Islamic opposition is a departure from Wahhabi tradition as it should be recalled that in his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion. As the regime has upheld shari’a, this is not a charge that can be levelled against them. It could be argued that western notions of the state and even Kingship, are inconsistent with Islam, both, however, were accepted in the 1920s by the ulama, the representatives of religious tradition.

“Islamic” grievances against the government emanate from two broad sources: the regime’s foreign policy and socio-economic problems afflicting Saudi society. Since the 1980s, the Islamist opposition has been highly critical of the regime’s pro-Western orientation, especially during the Gulf War. To many Saudis “the United States represents materialistic Christian values and power, which challenge Islamic values and Muslim power. ” Consequently the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War became increasingly unpopular, especially as the plight of Iraqis enduring US-led sanctions was brought home to the Saudi population. Antipathy towards the United State’s can also be explained by the United State’s support for Israel against the Palestinians . Indeed, with the demise of the Soviet Union, global Islamic discourse has tended to represent the United States as its greatest foe. In such an era of ‘globalisation’, these grievances have given rise to support for Al-Queda, and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who perpetrated the September 11 attack against the ‘Twin Towers’ were Saudis. The violent US response to September 11 has served to ratchet up anti-American sentiment, providing fertile grounds for recruitment into radical Islamist organisations. This Islamic criticism of the regime’s foreign policy contradicts the judgement of the ulama of the 1930s who asserted that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler.

The emergence of Islam as a subversive force can largely be attributed to the socio-economic problems afflicting contemporary Saudi Arabia. A rapidly expanding population and a downturn in the price of oil has created significant unemployment that today stands at around 20%. This has led to poverty that is in stark contrast to the opulence of the coterie of princes and technocrats who monopolise the vast resources of Saudi Arabia. In response to these inequalities, preachers have drawn on Islamic sources to indirectly criticise the regime. A non-Saudi Muslim scholar who visited the country during the 1980s remarked that “the sermons at Friday prayers at Mecca and Medina are filled with parables of Omar, the second caliph, who was known for simple living and humility .” Even the establishment ulama have challenged the unequal distribution of wealth; in 1991 a petition was drafted, and signed by senior ulama that argued “Public wealth must be distributed fairly among all classes and groups ”. The Wahhabite tradition does not envision such redistribution and the shift in emphasis is a further example of how Islam is responding to the discontent of its adherents.

In response to Islamic criticism, the regime has suppressed opposition and renewed emphasis on Islamic legitimacy. Thus, for all important decisions, especially the decision to allow American soldiers to use Saudi Arabia as a base during the first Gulf War, fatwas, or religious rulings, have been secured. This has opened up a cleavage between the establishment ulama and radical Islamists, who have ceased to support the current system. The regime has also attempted, by the establishment of a consultative council in 1994, to use the often Western-educated middle class technocrats as a counterweight to recalcitrant Islamists.

As has been mentioned, mass literacy has given rise to a population with personal access to the texts of Islam. The availability of the internet further erodes the establishment ulama’s interpretative authority. As
the very testing of authority that the internet provokes makes the boundaries of digital Islam more porous and subject to change than those of it predecessors .

London based organisation like the Campaign for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (1993) and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (1996) have used the internet to challenge the authority of both the regime and the establishment ulama. These organisations have called for fundamental changes to Saudi society. Indeed Al-Faqih, one of the new leaders, has argued in favour of a rule by religious scholars that has been compared to the Iranian model of the velayat-i faqih (rule of the religious jurist) . To view these organisations, that harness modern technological innovation and who argue for a change to the Wahhabist system of government as representatives of “traditional religious values” is to fail to recognise the modernisation of Saudi Islam.

Conclusion

Islamic legitimacy was of critical importance to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the survival of the Al-Saud family as rulers, especially when confronted by the threat of Arab nationalism. The regime drew from the Wahhabist template that emphasised loyalty to the ruler. During the first fifty years of the state, the regime maintained a delicate balance between the traditional religious values, and modernization. At times, this caused resentment, but with the exception of the Ikhwan rebellion, no large-scale movement emerged to challenge the regime’s Islamic legitimacy. This can be explained by the state’s patronage of the ulama and maintenance of shari’a, as well as the Islamist’s fear of modern, anti-secular forces However, since the death of King Faysal, Islam has provided an outlet for opposition.

Much Western commentary on Saudi Arabia often simplistically portrays Islam as representing traditional forces within Saudi society. It assumes the immutability of Islam, and fails to take into account how the radical transformation of Saudi society, which has seen a predominantly poor and nomadic people become urban and relatively wealthy, has coloured interpretations of Islam. Mass literacy, has diminished the interpretative authority of the establishment ulama who are no longer the sole intermediaries between the text and the people. This process has been accelerated by the internet, which is now the main forum for protest against the regime. Since the 1980s, a declining economy and reliance on the United States have led to rising discontent with the regime. In a country, steeped in religion, that suppresses all political opposition, Islam has modernized to become the channel and idiom for this discontent.

Today, the House of Saud stands at a difficult crossroads. King Fahd, has been invalided by a stroke while the Crown Prince and de facto ruler Abdullah, is in his eighties. The prospect of a succession crisis looms. Such a crisis could see rival factions emerging from within the House, one representing radical Islamic views, drawing on support from the economically marginalised, the other a secularist outlook, supported in the main by the technocratic bourgeoise. Neither the secularists nor the Islamic radicals favour the continuance of the status quo and the quid pro quo for support from either side would probably be a check on the autocratic rule of the Al-Saud Family.

Bibliography

Books

Abir, M. Saudi Arabia: Government, Society and the Gulf Crisis. London, 1993
Cooper, John (editor): Islam and Modernity: Muslim Intellectuals Respond. London 1998
Habib, J. Ibn Saud’s Warriors of Islam. Leiden, 1978
Hoover, S. and Schofield-Clark, L. (editors) Practising Religion in the Age of Media – Explorations in Media, Religion and Culture. Columbia, 2002
Jerichow, A. The Saudi File: People, power and politics. London, 1997
Kostiner, J. (editor) The Middle East Monarchies: The Challenge of Modernity. Boulder-Colorado, 2000
Lackner, H A House Built on Sand: a political economy of Saudi Arabia. London 1982
Al-Rasheed, Madawi A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, 2002

Articles

Bligh, A ‘The Saudi Religious Elite as Participants in the Political System’ International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 17, 1985
Dekmejian, H. R. ‘The Rise of Political Islam in Saudi Arabia’ in Middle East Journal 48 (1994) and ‘Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Council’ in Middle East Journal 52 (1998)
Albright, Madelein ‘Greed that feeds terror’ in The Guardian, November 27, 2003

Other Sources

www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/sa.html-people
www.arabialink.com
BBC Radio 4 ‘Crossing Continents’ 8/12/2003

(essay, 2004)

BrOxfordexit

(Published in Village Magazine, October, 2016)

North Oxford is a heartland of academia where leafy halls of residence mingle with stately homes and rarefied hostelries. Bang in the middle of England a pervading windlessness favours scholarly reflection removed from the fugue of modernity. Only here do scholars walk the streets with books aloft. Even the traffic is orderly with streams of bicycles sensibly preferred.

The city of Oxford is located on the confluence of the Isis (the idiosyncratic name for the Thames here) and Cherwell rivers. Broadly, it may be divided into three zones with a clear north-south divide: the aforementioned affluent and mature north Oxford suburbs of Jericho, Summertown and Wolvercote; an historical and commercial centre linked to Botley and Osney Island; and predominantly twentieth century suburbs including Headington, Cowley and Blackbird Leys to the south. The centre, layered on top of the original, though poorly preserved, Anglo-Saxon settlement, contains iconic colleges such as Christchurch alongside an incongruous “any-town-UK” commercial centre and its array of gaudy chains.

Flanked by the rivers and their flood plains, the division of the city is maintained by extended parklands and a canal network that insulate the lush northern suburbs. The Cowley Road is a transition zone mostly inhabited by transient, though not particularly exuberant, students. The strip, nonetheless, has an energy not found elsewhere in Oxford.

Moving south, there is another Oxford as housing gets cheaper and industry more evident. The first industrial revolution passed Oxford by as colleges objected to the contagion of commerce. Only after World War II did significant manufacturing arrive as the city attracted a motor car industry.

By the early 1970s, 20,000 people were employed in the sector and the original Mini Minor was developed here in 1959. Unfortunately, as in much of the country, a significant proportion of heavy industrial jobs have departed.

The working class areas now face social problems familiar in many English cities in a country that is the most unequal in Europe. Living as a generally penniless, jobbing tutor and supply teacher in Oxford for two years I encountered classroom behaviour that made experiences in schools in socially-deprived areas of Dublin seem positively meditative. Oxford is a place of profound educational inequality. Secondary schools such as the Oxford Academy which was built along the lines of a prison seem to be on a different planet from the elite educational institutions.

The number of Prime Ministers that have passed through Oxford University is startling. Among post-war prime ministers only Winston Churchill, Jim Callaghan, John Major (none of whom had a university education) and Scottish Gordon Brown did not receive an Oxford education. Another alumnus Theresa May (St. Hugh’s 1974) joins a list that includes Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair (St. John’s, 1974), Harold Wilson (Jesus College, 1937) and Clement Atlee (University College, 1904) as well as Tories: Anthony Eden (Christchurch, 1922); Harold MacMillan (Balliol, 1914); Alfred Douglas-Home (Christchurch, 1925); Edward Heath (Balliol, 1939); Margaret Thatcher (Somerville College, 1947), and David Cameron (Brasenose, 1988).

Moreover, numerous Tory politicians maintain an association with the wider shire. Churchill himself was born in the nearby ancestral estate of Blenheim Palace where he also proposed to his wife. David Cameron lives in Chipping Norton close to Rebecca Brooks, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the Chippy set. Michael Heseltine (Pembroke, 1954) is also nearby though he seems to look slightly askance at the gobby neighbours.

Meanwhile, Theresa May grew up in the village of Wheatley a few miles east of Oxford where her father served as vicar. Closer to London, Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1987), the new foreign secretary, lives in Henley-on-Thames.
Perhaps the county has a quality – an England of the imagination – that Tory grandees gravitate towards. It could be the low rural population density, a legacy of the Enclosure Acts (1760-1830) that placed formerly common land in the hands of expanding gentlemen farmers. Today, though located only an hour from some of the most inflated land prices in the world in London, it is possible to drive for long stretches without seeing a single dwelling.

As an Irish person living in the city of Oxford I was never made to feel unwelcome, or at least any alienation was no different to that felt by the bulk of the population beholden to a converging aristocratic and mercantile elite: unlike the ancient regime in France since the Tudor era nobility has been open to the highest bidder. One must however acclimatise to the southern English reserve and a sense of humour more sardonic than in Ireland. The historian Tony Judt writes that the English are perhaps “the only people who can experience schadenfreude at their own misfortunes”.

Succumbing to generalisation, I regard English friendships as firmer than Irish for all the latter’s sociability. But societies of companions generate mosaic communities often hostile to one another. Better the devil you know and bugger the rest.

In the age of the Internet which extinguishes old certainties a growing contempt is discernible towards politicians. Many are no longer content to be ‘shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour’ in the words of Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. The cultural dominance of Oxbridge (meaning both Oxford and Cambridge Universities) which extends to the media and business is threatened. This perhaps explains why maverick and grumpy (though otherwise profoundly different) outsiders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage are appealing to a jaded electorate; a state of affairs the Oxbridge elite cannot abide as shown by the treatment of Corbyn even in some apparently left-wing media.

The excellence of the Oxbridge education contributes to the dislocation. Staff-student ratio at Oxbridge colleges are approximately one member of academic staff to every five students while other third level institutions are accustomed to 1:20. The hallowed tutorial system gives what are reckoned to be the brightest students, by the age of eighteen, individual or small-group tuition accelerating progress in their chosen fields.

Even if a student arrives from a lower-middle class or working class background – and the universities are constantly endeavouring to increases this cohort – and not from Eton or another public school that individual is stamped with the culture and polish of the elite institution. An Oxbridge degree brings enhanced job prospects and most are absorbed by an adaptable ruling class that grudgingly accepts infusion of new talent just as in Plato’s Republic there was a fluidity between the different casts of Gold, Silver and Bronze.

The major problem with the system, if we accept that a fixed sum is devoted to education in the country, is the opportunity cost of not investing in other institutions catering for a broader demographic. There seems to be an assumption as in Plato’s Republic that great swathes of the population are incapable of more than mundane labour. Irish third level education, for all its failings, is more republican in this respect.

The argument for disproportionate investment with finite resources on the cultivation of high academic achievers may be persuasive in the sciences but is less compelling in humanities where a wider diffusion of expert teaching could benefit English society as a whole.

Moreover, the Oxbridge education is at the apex of a system with a degree of specialisation unlike other European countries or the United States. School children take a mere three subjects at A-level beginning at sixteen, explaining the lowest rate in Europe of people speaking second languages.

Depth in a chosen field cohabits with a narrowness that might offer an insight into the closing of the English mind which the Brexit result has revealed.

One should generally avoid extrapolating grand narratives out of chance encounters, nonetheless a single incident sometimes crystallises understanding of a larger controversy. Three days after the result of the Brexit Referendum I arrived in Oxford to teach on a summer school. The following morning I encountered a man in his seventies purchasing strawberries in a pricey delicatessen. He was determined to ascertain whether the provenance of the strawberries was English and not grown indoors in a “ghastly poly tunnel” a method he attributed to the Dutch. After being reassured of their local origin he exceeded himself by declaring that after Brexit there would be more local production and it would now be possible for fishermen to bring in our fish.

As a matter of fact a recent report in The Guardian suggested that the British strawberry industry was threatened by withdrawal from the Europe, and the fishing industry will still have to contend with diminishing catches for the foreseeable future and negotiate with other countries for rights to offshore waters. But to me this man represented a whole generation who had come to despise the relentless march of progress in Britain where strawberries could taste of nothing but water and packaging, and for whom the European institutions had become a convenient whipping boy.

The lady serving him was, to be fair, taken aback by his ignorance of how Britain led the way with industrial food production. After he had left she reddened palpably when she referred to the “nonsense” of Brexit. The city of Oxford voted by 5:2 to Remain and some weeks later forlorn banners are still visible, with hardly an advertisement to Leave in sight. The University is closely tied to other European institutions and the populace is comparatively young, affluent and educated, all good indicators of a Remain preference.
In the wider county however less well-off towns such as Bicester (defined as a “Tescos Town” on account of the 6 branches for 29,000 people) ensured that the vote was much closer. Nonetheless, some large farmers anxious to retain EU subsidies along with affluent and cosmopolitan former Londoners ensured a Remain majority.

The hint of a skirmish I witness in the Oxford delicatessen took place on a charming street called North Parade containing a strip of pubs and restaurants. It is one of Oxford’s curiosities that North Parade is situated about one mile (remaining Imperial) to the south of another street called South Parade. This anomaly can be traced to the English Civil War of the 1640s when Charles I was forced to flee London and set up an alternative capital in Oxford, an idea revived by Hitler in his plans for the conquest of Britain. North Parade was the furthest extent north of the Royal lines while South Parade to the north was the equivalent parade ground to the south of the Parliamentary forces.

This fault line of English history throws up further symmetries. About a five minute walk to the north is St Hugh’s College where Theresa May read Geography, and even close to North Parade is sumptuous Lady Margaret Hall where Michael Grove (LMH, 1987), one of the prime ideologues of Brexit, studied English. This outsider who rose to President of the Oxford Union was adopted as a baby and grew up over five hundred miles away in Aberdeen. He is perhaps the leading spokesman for British nationalism in the Tory party.

During the campaign his notorious interjection that Britain had had enough of experts was disingenuous and calculated. Unlike some of his fellow politicians relatively humble origins may have given him a better understanding of the narrow outlook of many of his countrymen. The insights of his wife Sarah Vine as a columnist for the Daily Mail, a newspaper that has scapegoated the European Union as irredeemably bumbling and power-grabbing over decades, was also an asset. This portrait of the European Union compliments the generally negative perception of politicians. Furthermore in a society with an obsessive memory of its wartime sacrifices European institutions are constantly and not always subtly identified with Nazi perfidy by the right-wing press, including recently by Boris Johnson in The Telegraph.

Considering the weight of invective directed against the Union over so many years the Brexit vote was not surprising and the existential fear of a flood of migrants after the refugee crisis made attacking European institutions even easier. Brexit is the legacy of the takeover of the capital-intensive newspaper industry from the 1970s by the political right which has used sport and celebrity to stupefy much of an economically-distressed and poorly-educated population.

It is revealing that there was a split in the Murdoch media between the Sun which backed the Leave campaign with The Times backing a Remain vote. The Sun could hardly reverse forty years of Euro-bashing even though the danger was obvious to the British economy and acknowledged by the middle class Times.
Gove’s reason for deciding to campaign against “his friend” David Cameron were spelt out in a Spectator column some months before the referendum. He believed that “our” country would be “freer, fairer and better off outside the EU”. The article contained the usual lampooning of illogical rules such as how olive oil had to be dispensed in 5 litre containers – as if this changes with Brexit or matters in the least – and complaints about an unelected Commission; ignoring how Commissioners are appointed by elected governments in much the same way as a government minister – the member of parliament for a single constituency – is appointed to the national executive; and in exactly the way that US Presidents appoint their cabinets. The absence of a separation of powers in the English (and Irish) system is arguably more of the anomaly.

As an apparently intelligent, educated and reportedly well-read man it is hard to credit that Gove believed his own guff. More sinisterly, in just one six-line paragraph of his Spectator article the third person plural “we” is used seven times. Preserving a brittle “British” nation appeared foremost in his mind. It is axiomatic that the shrillest advocate of a nation has a dubious claim to that identity, the very identity “British” is being superseded by “English” and is under severe threat with the rise of Scottish nationalism.

Gove’s dismissal of expertise came from an individual who trusted his own wisdom to remodel the GCSE English syllabus removing favourites such as The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men and insisting on readings of whole Shakespeare plays and, more controversially, a plan to give the King James Bible to every school. Unusually, he has also argued for a formal British constitution to overcome the ambiguities of an unwritten one and a bill of rights in place of a European Convention on Human Rights despised by the Tory right. More benignly as a Minister for Justice he refused to do business with Saudi Arabia on account of the appalling excesses of their criminal justice system for which he was described as “naïve” by the new Chancellor Phillip Hammond (University College, 1976).

Some of Gove’s views on literature are, superficially at least, laudable. Leading literary critics such as Edward Clarke in his The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry argue that England’s great poetic heritage should be taught to all school children as a form of timeless scripture informing their lives. There is also a case to be made for the King James Bible as a prized work of Tudor literature. But it would appear that the cantankerous outsider Gove views literature instrumentally, as a way of shaping a common literary space – that first person plural again – for emboldened Britains that leaves aside a hyphenated sense of identity English-, Scottish- or even Muslim-. This idea of a nation sharing a literary space through reading books of this kind is identified in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Community as a formative experience, and European history shows how dangerous it can be.

During the leadership race another Tory grandee Ken Clarke (unusually a Cambridge graduate) perceptively muttered on Sky News that Gove would probably involve the country in three wars if he were selected, and his views expressed in a book on the Good Friday Agreement suggests he would be divisive influence. With Boris Johnson and the singularly unimpressive Andrea Leadsom inside the tent Gove remains the most credible Leaver to challenge May should she fail to maintain peace in the Tory party.

So it is left to the Vicar’s daughter to clean up the mess made by her younger Oxford fellow graduates. It remains to be seen whether the cultural cracks I witnessed on North Parade are part of a wider national schism generated by a long-standing inequality. Perhaps it is the case that the English (or was it a British?) revolution arrived too soon. Charles I was eventually defeated in Oxford and beheaded in 1649 but his son Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, and the country enjoyed a decadent Restoration. No foreign army has successfully invaded England since 1066 as every school child knows.

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, wrote that knowledge is power. Through history the English elites did not parade their wealth in gastronomic excess like the French ancien regime, but with display in learning especially in the Classics, the apparent mark of truly refined men now embodied by Boris Johnson. In a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2011 he dismissed the idea that he was David Cameron’s intellectual inferior as the then prime minister’s first was in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) as opposed to his 2h1 in a superior Classics degree. The Oxbridge system produces a cast that has long dominated English affairs in part through the networks established there but also because of the polish imparted by that education.

The Brexit result was to some extent a revolt against that paternalism, ironically stage-managed by ideologues from within such as Gove who cynically dismissed “expertise”. But the English ruling class is formidably resilient and it seems that only xenophobic demagoguery of the sort unheard in England since the days of Enoch Powell could lift Gove to power now that the European Union bogeyman can no longer be reached for. Instead we may hope that a resurgent left under the principled and iconoclastic Corbyn is capable of harnessing the country’s discontents, and provide a genuine alternative direction for Britain that is not mired in delusions of imperial grandeur.

It is hard to imagine the tranquillity of north Oxford as the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in English history four hundred years ago, but the strength of feeling generated by the Brexit result has produced divisions in British society that will take many years to heal. A growing contempt for expertise and the difficulty of defining Englishness or Britishness threatens the intellectual pillars of a consensus that has lasted for nearly four hundred years.

You Can’t Dukan

(Published in the London Magazine, March 2012)

For Citizen-paparazzo, that is anyone in possession of a mobile phone, the photographic Middletons represent fair game.

Statuesque Kate is less the object of coarse desire than polite admiration. Ideal marriage material it was said. She has the prim, faintly virginal appeal we expect of an English queen, starting with the original Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I herself. The Duchess of Cambridge looks as though she would say no to a cream bun or an impetuous suitor. The sanctity of lines waist and royal seems assured.

Kate would never play away but intrigue is provided by bouncy Pippa – a tabloid dream – who projects the cheeky sex appeal relished by a culture weaned on the Carry On films. Even Puritans need a little ‘crumpet’ to munch on.

We scrutinize and will continue to scrutinize their every move: each crevice and fold of flesh will continue to be admired, deplored and imitated. Plastic surgeons now refer to the ‘Pippa butt lift’. The mind boggles.

The reason this concerns an otherwise serious contributor on matters comestible to the London Magazine is that the contents of their ladyships’ larders is in the public domain, and subject to imitation.

At the time of the Royal wedding it became public knowledge that the Middleton girls et mère adhered to the so-called Dukan Diet, a set of prescriptions ordained by a French doctor named Pierre Dukan. Cosmopolitan called it: ‘The Diet Everyone (Including Kate Middleton) is Obsessing Over’; even that venerable publication The Financial Times was recently moved to interview the rather innocuous doctor. Celebrities such as JLo (yes you are reading this in the London Magazine) and someone called Gisele are following it. His book topped the best seller list in Poland and, bizarrely, Bulgaria. Docteur Dukan possibly exerts more influence than the NHS on how consumers make dietary choices. What does he say?

Trust me I’m a French Doctor

Dukan has a dual appeal. First, as a doctor it is widely assumed that no damage will result from embracing his approach. Second, he is French and the image of that country is bound with graceful beauty and fine dining. The tantalizing promise of elegance of form and gustatory pleasure is dangled like Bridget Bardot munching a slice of gateaux before frumpy Bridget Jones.

The diet has four stages. It begins with the Attack which is a pure protein diet. More accurately, this is a pure animal protein diet as vegetable proteins, which abound in nature, are dismissed as too difficult to work out. Thus, large quantities of meat, fish, eggs and low fat dairy produce is ingested. The long term health consequences are unknown, but in the short term the body ceases to function. Significant quantities of water and two tablespoons of oatbran are advised in order to avoid serious consequences. Dukan cheerfully describes the harmful effect of the Attack phase: ‘It finds itself working like a two-speed engine, in a scooter, lawnmower or motor boat, designed to run on a mixture of pure petrol and oil but trying to run on pure petrol. It putters and then stalls, unable to use its fuel’. Unsurprisingly: ‘After two or three days on a pure protein diet hunger disappears completely’. He admits sotto voce that constipation and bad breath are by-products and that dieters should not swim in cold water or ski at altitude.

Dukan argues that this Attack phase is necessary because: ‘An overweight person who wants to lose weight needs a fast-acting diet that brings immediate results’. It as if he does not take on board his own critique of faddish diets that they have a miniscule success rate in the long term. According to an American study cited by Dukan 12% of dieters do lose weight, but only 2% succeed in keeping it off. Of course Dukan claims that his diet is different.

He even seems to be making excuses for the eventual failure of his own approach saying, quite unscientifically, that the ‘body’s biological memory retains the information regarding the maximum weight and this can never be erased’. And: ‘every time you put on weight and reach a new record number on your scales, the way your physiology adjusts means that somewhere in your brain, a sort of nostalgic memory of this maximum weight is recorded which your body will then always try to reach again’. The original sin of being overweight is never expunged it seems, once a fatty always a fatty. Do not blame good Dr. Dukan, blame that greedy shadow that lurks behind you as you take another helping.

The subsequent phases to the Diet: Cruise; Consolation; and Permanent Stabilization, have fairly consistent dietary advice, eat significant quantities of animal proteins, selected vegetables and few fruits and avoid most fats even disease-busting polyunsaturated oils. He identifies 100 favoured foods of which 72 are animal proteins.

Dukan claims that ‘it has been scientifically proved that after eight hours without good-quality protein the body has to draw upon its own muscle reserve to ensure its vital function’. This claim, for which there is no citation, suggests that we begin eating our bodies in the usual 12 hour gap between dinner and breakfast. He also contradicts himself by calling it ‘natural’ for the human ‘predator’ to catch no prey and be forced to fast for a few days.

Dukan’s diet has been slammed by the NHS and goes against all mainstream advice. The risk posed by the intake of so much animal protein could well have serious long-term consequences; the connection between regular red meat consumption especially and a range of preventable diseases is well established. The Dukan diet is not a healthy diet.

According to the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report from 2011 ‘there is not a single health diet… instead there are many patterns of eating around the world that sustain good health. They share these things in common lots of fruit [viewed as dangerous by Dukan], vegetables and wholegrains; healthy fats from fish and plant sources; and few sugars or solid fats’.

Dukan’s disingenuous and dangerous advice lumps all carbohydrates together so that sugar, a slow-acting poison, is placed in the same category as vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, many of which are also significant protein sources.

Dukan’s diet may work but only because it promotes a disciplined attitude towards food and it advocates exercise. There is definitely no silver bullet here.

Take your Time

Dukan’s book does contain smatterings of good sense. First he devotes a considerable proportion of it to recipes which might encourage more people to spend time cooking their meals which would be an advance for many. According to the Food Standards Agency, in 1980 the average meal took an hour to prepare. By 1999, it had dropped to 20 minutes. He also emphasises the crucial importance of walking which Hippocrates described as ‘man’s best medicine’. Taking lukewarm showers, refraining from hot drinks and spending time out of doors is all excellent advice for anyone wishing to loose weight.

He asserts that: ‘Nourishing yourself is not just about taking in enough calories to survive, it is also, and even more importantly, about enjoying eating as part of that process.’ Indeed, the admittedly exaggerated French Paradox (a diet high in saturated fats but with relatively low rates of heart disease) has been attributed to the length which French people take over well-prepared meals. Dukan advocates: ‘EAT SLOWLY and CONCENTRATE ON WHAT IS IN YOUR MOUTH’, and avoid eating in front of the television or while reading.’

He refers to a study which filmed two groups of women, one overweight, the other a normal weight. It was discovered that the women of normal weight chewed for twice as long as the overweight group. The connection between eating quickly and excessively was recognised by the Ancients: the word gluttony actually derives from the Latin gula meaning ‘to gulp down or swallow’.

He also recalls the advice given by a guru in a New Delhi ashram to a person who was overweight. The guru said: ‘At each meal, eat and chew as you would normally, but just when you are about to swallow push the food back in the front of your mouth and chew it for a second time. In two years you will be back to your normal weight’, and so it proved.

Thus, one way of tackling the obesity epidemic is, paradoxically, to put more focus on food by savouring it.

Ethical Considerations

At no point in the book do ethical considerations emerge. How the 72 animal foods and 28 plant foods arrive at the table is of absolutely no concern to him, all that matters is that it is lean animal protein. Environmental impact, animal welfare and the qualitative difference of organically- or biodynamically- produced food is ignored.

Inherent too is an elitism among diners, this is certainly not a diet for humanity. The expense of sustaining a pure animal protein diet for any length of time would be considerable unless the lowest quality produce is selected. Further, particular cuts are defined as worthy whereas others are proscribed. Only lean beef for example is to be eaten. The obese poor who can’t afford the Dukan diet are to be left the fatty cuts that cause heart disease it seems. Or perhaps he thinks they should be thrown away, in which case the cost of the lean meat would be even greater.

He also expresses quite ignorant views on our evolutionary history as meat-eaters, saying: ‘it is possible to live without hunting and without eating animals meals BUT by doing so we give up part of what our nature expects and we lessen the emotional effect that our body is programmed to produce when we give it what it wants’. Hindus and Buddhists argue the opposite, saying the emotional effect of meat-eating is quite damaging.

Moreover, hunting for food in the Western world is generally limited to scouring the supermarket shelves for half-price offers. The proportion of game meat in the Western diet is miniscule. Even fish is increasingly farmed which can cause serious pollution. Conventional fishing is shockingly wasteful with almost half of most catches simply discarded. Many fish species are now under threat.

Apart from French cuisine most popular culinary traditions, including Italian, Arab, Japanese and Indian are predominantly vegetarian. The appetite for animal proteins is mostly a matter of upbringing, and with over seven billion people (and rising) on the planet many living into their eighties we need to alter tastes, and fast. Our health will certainly not suffer, quite the opposite according to the Harvard Medical School Report who say: ‘there are many nutritionally valid reasons to steer towards a vegetarian diet’.

In fact our evolutionary history suggests meat is an unnecessary part of our diet. As primates with relatively long intestines our bodies are more suited to herbivorous foods. Colin Spencer says: ‘Our hominoid ancestors evolved over a period of 24 million years and, for all but one and a half million of these years, the evidence we have leaves little doubt that their diet was almost completely vegetarian except for insects and grubs.’

Our closest relative in nature is the bonobo to whom we are as close as a dog is to fox.  ‘They live in a peaceful matriarchal society, consuming a wide range of leaves and plants, where any disputes are settled by sexual favours homosexual and heterosexual in all possible permutations’ The bonobo is ‘herbivorous in the wild but in captivity, like other primates, will eat almost anything.’

Prince Charming

The Prince of Wales has campaigned for thirty years on questions relating to food. He has written: ‘I have no intention of being confronted by my grandchildren, demanding to know why on Earth we didn’t do something about the many problems that existed when we knew what was going wrong. The threat of that question, the responsibility of it, is precisely why I have gone on challenging the assumptions of our day.’

Charles has placed a big emphasis on the environmental impact of farming and his views align with the principles of Biodynamic agriculture: ‘Genuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply, and in the wildlife – the birds, insects, and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of protecting and enhancing water-catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change.’ There is a wide consensus that radically reducing meat consumption is necessary in order to achieve this sustainability.

Unfortunately, unlike the Middletons, Charles is not suited to the Digital Age. He never became the ‘People’s Prince’ Plastic surgeons don’t talk about the Charles tuck. He has been so mercilessly lampooned that his views exert little influence on the public at large.

One assumes that serious discussions occur at Royal family dinners and that Charles gives vent to his passions. Does he notice that the Middletons are ‘on Dukan’? If so is he aware of the ethical import of that diet? He must know how influential pretty ladies in the public gaze can be. I wonder would he ever be able to persuade Kate and Pippa to start espousing views on food that might take into account the environmental impact of their choices, for the sake of his grandchildren at least. The unethical and unhealthy advice of an exploitative French doctor should be disowned.

(http://www.thelondonmagazine.org/you-cant-dukan/)