Wanna cry over Internet insecurity?

In my latest National Post column I say it’s amazing how little attention we give to cybersecurity given the stakes in today’s “connected” world.


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A prince of a man

In my latest National Post column I praise Prince Philip for his character, modesty and acid wit, three things the modern world needs badly.


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Wish I’d said that – April 13, 2017

“No one can possibly say where the historian’s work ceases, and the journalist’s begins. The present is continuously in process of becoming the past: the frontier of history ends only with yesterday’s newspaper. A good journalist casts anxious and inquiring glances over his shoulder, and a good historian lifts his eyes from the page to look at the world around him…. Thucydides was writing not merely a history but an anguished record of contemporary events, in which he had acted and suffered…. Walter Raleigh, in his History of the World, was directing a gigantic and angry editorial to the subjects of James I.”

Paul Johnson The Offshore Islanders



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Remembering Vimy

On the eve of tomorrow’s anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge it’s good to see so much remembrance including the outstanding front portion of today’s National Post. It was a pivotal Allied victory in the First World War partly for strategic reasons, partly for tactical ones and partly for psychological ones given how bleak things looked in the spring of 1917.

It wasn’t just important for Canada’s sense of nationhood. The First World War, for all its horrors, was a necessary struggle for freedom and it was very important that the Allies won even if the victory was in significant measure squandered over the next two decades.

A reminder as the anniversary approaches that my documentary The Great War Remembered, which tries to explain and also to vindicate the war despite everything, is available free on YouTube.



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We the People Surrender to You the People – It Happened Today, February 27, 2017

Here’s one I do like. On February 27, 1782, the British House of Commons voted to throw in the towel in the American Revolutionary War.

I like it partly because my sympathies are very much with the revolutionaries seeking to uphold their ancient British liberties, not with the King and his ministers trying to suppress them. And I like it partly because I can think of few greater affirmations of those liberties that, in such a difficult and embarrassing situation, it was the representatives of the British people who took the king by his frilly collar and said “Stop!” Once again, Parliament checked an expensive, oppressive hare-brained executive branch scheme which was, in large measure, the point of the British constitution essentially from Magna Carta onward.

This vote was no formality. Far from it. The King remained an important player in the British system even when he was obviously messing up badly. And despite the highly unfavourable state of the military effort in what had recently been the 13 Colonies after the crushing British defeat at Yorktown by a combined American-French force, the February 27 1782 vote was close, 234 to 215. And that narrow 19-vote margin was very important.

It set in motion a highly favourable chain of events leading to quick reconciliation between the former belligerents. Including that the American peace commissioners, the exalted trio of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay, proceeded to make a separate peace with Britain despite pledges to France, which had swooped on her old foe, not to do so.

Within an amazingly short period, and despite the stupid War of 1812, Britain and the United States were tacit allies in maintaining world order, an arrangement that persisted from the 1824 Monroe Doctrine with some bumps and bruises right down to their formal alliance in 1917. And while it took statesmanship to bring it about and maintain it, the structural basis was their shared devotion to liberty under law and to popular sovereignty. With, of course, the usual qualifications about unjust exclusion of some groups from the blessings of liberty, most spectacularly in the United States black slaves and then ex-slaves.

In the Capitol Rotunda in Washington there is a gold replica of Magna Carta that we were kindly permitted to film in 2015, given by the British Parliament in 1976 in powerful acknowledgement that two centuries earlier the greatest devotees of traditional freedom and the rights of the people had been on the west side of the Atlantic. But they were still strongly represented in Britain including in Parliament on that important date.

Liberty is often under siege. But where the roots are deep, it has enormous strength and manages to flourish despite and sometimes even during storms. Including Parliament yanking George III back to his so-called senses on behalf of ordinary Britons on February 27, 1782.


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Aye, and Cheap Too – It Happened Today, February 20, 2017

What could be more quintessentially Scottish than the Shetland and Orkney Islands? Bleak, remote, picturesque, the ideal location for a hardy folk and their hardy ponies. By reputation the Scots won’t go rock climbing unless they have “full conditions” namely rain and wind that deter even other people crazy enough to rock climb. Och aye mon.

It is therefore a bit surprising to learn that both these island chains, which to my shame I hadn’t realized were northeast of John o’ Groats in the ancestral county of Caithness to which I have not been, itself allegedly more than a little remote, belonged to Norway until the 15th century.

Of course a lot of things “belonged” to Norway in the sense of having been seized by ferocious Vikings over the previous millennium or so. (And parenthetically I often wonder how those who feel that within North America we should do a kind of ethnic reset of landholdings to 1500 think we should undo the impact of those raids, invasions and random chaos.) But these two island chains, it turns out, wound up in Scottish hands via a pawn shop.

Perhaps you don’t fancy your chances of wandering into such an establishment with “Mainland” and its cousins (yes, “Mainland” is the largest of the Shetlands) under your coat and hoping the man at the desk will advance some money without a lot of questions about provenance. But it actually is what happened on February 20 of 1469 when Christian I of Norway put them up as security because he was having trouble scraping together a dowry for his daughter Margaret to marry James III of Scotland in what I suppose was regarded on both sides as a shrewd dynastic move.

It wasn’t. James III’s grandiose European schemes were of no benefit to Norway or his own people who he didn’t bother trying to govern well. And like so many of the Stuarts’ cunning plans James III’s ended badly, with his death in battle against rebellious nobles in 1488. (His son James IV was killed in the disastrous defeat by the English at Flodden. His son James V died shortly after the disastrous defeat by the English at Solway Moss. But I digress.)

The point is that Christian I pawned the islands and never redeemed them, Norway apparently becoming less interested in these picturesque rocks after unifying with Denmark which was bigger, warmer and less inaccessible. In 1472 they were officially annexed to the Scottish crown.

So what could be more quintessentially Scottish than the Shetland and Orkney Islands? I’ll tell you. Getting them in a pawn shop for a bargain price.


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Your Lovely Spire is Toppling – It Happened Today, February 13, 2017

To me, gothic architecture is proof that modernity is too smug by half. Nothing we have built is remotely as beautiful as this pinnacle of medieval artistry and engineering, and very little even tries. Which is especially amazing given the advanced materials and techniques we possess that means very little of our construction falls down through overly ambitious design. Unlike, say, the spire of Ely Cathedral which bit the mud on February 13, 1322.

Many years ago I read a splendid engineering book for the lay person called Structures, or, Why Things Don’t Fall Down. And I can honestly say I have never looked at the world the same way since. I have been evaluating everything from bridges to docks to sausages and blades of grass differently since reading James Edward Gordon’s 1978 classic. And it helped me appreciate how in the high Middle Ages clerics, builders and designers overcame the natural tendency of stone to sit in sturdy piles including in the early medieval Romanesque style, and sent it soaring into the heavens through innovations critically including the flying buttress.

Mind you, I have also never forgotten his statement that as builders became more and more ambitious, the question with the cathedrals was increasingly not whether the nave collapsed but when. There are things you just can’t do with stone. Including our Peace Tower, incidentally. Much as I like it, there’s an element of deceit there because it relies on steel to assume a shape stone cannot take or, more precisely, cannot retain.

Back to Ely Cathedral, a Saxon abbey from 672 AD subject to such unwelcome attention of various Vikings that it had to be refounded in 970, and was then gradually demolished and rebuilt by the Normans. (Oh, and can I mention that Abbot Simeon, put in charge of the major Norman project, was 89 when he took the abbot’s job and 90 years old when the work began? Not everybody died young and squalid in those days.) Meanwhile the church just kept getting more and more magnificent as the years went by, beginning Romanesque and ending Gothic, and eventually they overreached. But the result can teach us a lot.

The original plan was for a “cruciform” tower like that at Winchester. But a lot of things can happen in a couple of centuries especially if you’re building a vast stone cathedral in damp wet fenlands. Like the ground settling ominously as you go. And then your crucial cruciform tower tumbling down in ruins. Which it did beginning late on February 12.

After various observations not all of which may have conformed to the ideal of monastic life, those in charge decided rather than putting it up again and warning people not to linger in it they would instead create a unique octagonal tower that is not just broader and stronger but also a spectacular achievement that still draws visitors seven centuries later.

So yes, the Middle Ages had spectacular artistic vision and a bold willingness to experiment, to dare, and to adapt in response to failure with yet more brilliant innovation. I do not think anything we build today will even be around in 700 years, let alone be worth looking at if it is.

Let us not jeer lightly at this magnificent civilization and its sublime buildings from our office cubicles, brutalist concrete highrises and plastic suburbs.


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When James Met Channel – It Happened Today, February 12, 2017

Perhaps only the sort of person who would make a documentary on Magna Carta would care that on February 12 of 1689 the “Convention Parliament” declared that in fleeing the country, crossing the English Channel to France, King James II had abdicated. Or perhaps not, if you’re still reading this second sentence. In which case I hope you’ll agree that it shows a remarkable devotion both to the practical reality of self-government and to the legal formalities that give effective and lasting shape to the passion for liberty.

We are of course in Glorious Revolution territory here. And getting rid of yet another would-be tyrant Stuart had created significant problems of the sort discussed by Jean-Louis de Lolme in his neglected masterpiece The Constitution of England, in that the entire British system was focused on the monarch not as anything remotely approaching an absolute ruler but as the formal locus of the powers of government. And therefore the refusal of the monarch to play his appointed role made a mess of the formal machinery of state.

James was of course wrong to believe that, given his technical powers and duties, he could stop the government from operating by taking his football and going straight home or, to be precise, throwing the Great Seal used to summon Parliament into the Thames river. Parliament could and did meet anyway. But he did create for them a rather complicated question as to why exactly, and how exactly, they could act outside precedent without themselves creating a precedent of arbitrary rule.

In this crisis the Parliamentarians did two important things. First, they decided that given the extraordinary circumstances they were not merely an ordinary parliament but, for the purposes of straightening out the Constitutional mess, a “convention,” that is, a meeting of the English nation with the power to make fundamental arrangements on behalf of we the people. Second, they debated at length whether the throne was in fact vacant.

William of Orange, who had helped chase James away by landing in some force at the invitation of leading Englishmen (who rallied larger armies to his side) and who was married to James’s responsible Protestant daughter Mary, played an important and responsible role here by refusing simply to seize the throne even though everyone who mattered understood that he was to be king. But how and why?

Some Whigs argued that by his “social contract” with the English people William was now king by popular consent. (Others wanted a “republic” in the sense of a government with no monarch rather than its proper meaning of a government of laws not men. But they were few and far between.) Meanwhile some Tories held that the departure of Mary’s wretched father had not left the throne vacant but rather immediately and automatically made her Queen, leaving her husband beside the throne not on it. Still others maintained that James had left the country without leaving the throne so what was needed was a Protectorate and maybe at some point restoration of a (har har) repentant James.

Parliament began to hack through this tangle by declaring in January that England was a Protestant kingdom and only a Protestant could be king, disposing of James and his new son. And while this resolve sounds bigoted to modern ears, like the protection of the right to arms in the 1689 Bill of Rights only for Protestants, a long association of Catholicism with disregard for Parliament gave it some plausibility at the time. But while it determined who was not king, it left the question of who was king or queen suspended in mid-air.

In February the Commons said the king had abdicated. But the Lords said there was no such thing as abdication in common law and that if James was no longer king Mary automatically was. However they soon folded, mostly because it was clear that Mary would not rule without William and Mary’s also Protestant sister Anne would not accept the throne in place of either or both. They proposed that William and Mary should both reign, which the Commons accepted on condition that William alone should rule.

On that basis, and on their acceptance of the Bill of Rights and the rule of law, William and Mary were proclaimed King and Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland. William then dissolved the Convention Parliament and summoned a new one, which turned the acts of the former into proper law by passing Acts then signed by a monarch.

It might all seem like jiggery-pokery or theatre. But it mattered enormously to be sure that the rule of law was somehow being upheld even under circumstances where procedure could not run through normal channels, and not simply to accept things because everybody agreed they should happen or nobody dared speak up. Including, it turned out, this precedent of a legislature or specially elected assembly becoming a convention representing the people if the executive put itself outside the law.

For instance in Britain’s 13 colonies in the 1770s. And while it might seem the Convention Parliamentarians would have cause to regret their precedent given its used in the American Revolution, the fact is that George III was behaving toward his North American subjects very much as James II had toward his British ones. And in creating a robust extraordinary precedent for dealing with a rogue executive they helped the Anglosphere preserve self-government and liberty under law in the 1680s and the 1770s.


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