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Madsen Pirie

Madsen Pirie



Articles by Madsen Pirie

Wilberforce finally ended slavery

21 hours ago

Slavery was a common feature of most cultures until roughly 150 years ago. It still goes on, but in modern times it is against international law and has a minute fraction of the economic status it once held. Much of this change is down to a man who was born on August 24th, 1759. William Wilberforce seemed an unlikely champion of social change in his youth, when he was a popular Cambridge student, enjoying gambling, drinking and a hedonistic social life. Amongst his many friends there was William Pitt, the future Prime Minister.Inheriting money from his grandfather and uncle, he could afford the £8,000 it took to have him elected as MP for Hull, his birthplace. His life changed when he converted to evangelical Christianity, and resolved to atone for his rather dissolute past life by making

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What the Nazi-Soviet Pact entailed

2 days ago

Eighty years ago, on August 23rd, 1939, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Nazi Germany and the USSR, the treaty known to the world as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The signing in Moscow stunned the world. Communist parties all over the world had opposed Nazism, but now they were ordered by Moscow to swing behind the deal.The pact left Hitler free to make war in the West, and World War II started only 8 days later when his troops invaded Poland. It looked to the world like a cynical move on Stalin’s part, to make peace with his sworn enemy in order to unloose Germany’s military machine on other countries. What the world did not know at the time was that there were secret protocols to the treaty that carved up neutral countries between Germany

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Deng Xiaoping, saviour of China

3 days ago

One of the most remarkable figures of the 20th Century was born on August 22nd, 1904. This was Deng Xiaoping, China’s “Paramount Leader,” the one who changed the course of China’s economic development and its position in the world. His rise was not predictable.A peasant upbringing was followed by study in Paris, conversion to Communism, then the Red Army and the Long March. He was purged twice by Mao in the Cultural Revolution, and his son was crippled for life when he was thrown from an upstairs window by Red Guard zealots. When Mao died in 1976, his chosen successor, Hua Gofeng, put on trial and imprisoned the Gang of Four fanatics, and Deng manoeuvred his way into power. He never held any of the key high offices, so they called him the “Paramount Leader.”He was called "General Architect

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What Leon Trotsky achieved

4 days ago

Leon Trotsky died on August 21st, 1940, murdered in his Mexican retreat by an agent sent by Stalin to kill him. He was one of the leaders of Russia’s Bolshevik October Revolution, which he saw as a permanent proletarian revolution, as opposed to the democratic "bourgeois" Menshevik revolution that had seized power in February. Initially a Menshevik himself, Trotsky had joined Lenin in the Bolsheviks just before the October Revolution, and played a major role in establishing the totalitarian Communist state that followed. First as foreign commissar, he negotiated peace with Germany, then as Commissar for Naval and Military Affairs, he built up the Red Army into an efficient war machine that defeated the "White" forces who opposed the revolution.He was totally ruthless, setting up the Red

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The end of Prague Spring brought no summer

5 days ago

During the night of August 20th, 1968, 200,000 Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops, together with 2,000 tanks entered Czechoslovakia to suppress the 6-month period of liberalization known as Prague Spring. They captured the Ruzyně International Airport, and used it to fly in more troops by air. Czech troops were ordered to stay in their barracks, and by the next morning Czechoslovakia was occupied. Ultimately the Soviet forces had over half a million troops, well-armed and with modern equipment, to thwart any resistance to their invasion.Alexander Dubček had been elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in early January of 1968, and had begun a programme to partly decentralize the county’s rigid Communist economy, and to loosen restrictions on travel and allow much more

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London’s electric taxis – older than you think

6 days ago

Although most people suppose that electric taxicabs are the newest thing, the first ones took to the streets of London on August 19th, 1897. Walter Bersey’s electric cabs could reach 9-12 mph. They were competing against Hansom cabs and other horse-drawn vehicles, and had to meet the same rules, including the ability to ascend London’s steepest hill. They took two passengers and were illuminated in and out, which made shy passengers feel as if they were under the spotlight. Their customers reputedly included the Prince of Wales. Motorized vehicles had been limited by the "red flag" law which required non-horse-drawn vehicles to be preceded by a person carrying a red flag, a law presumably passed after lobbying by the horse carriage industry. When it was repealed in 1896, motorized traffic

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Genghis Khan, warlord and conqueror

7 days ago

Genghis Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen, died on August 18th, 1227, aged about 65. Known in his youth as Temujin, he united various nomadic tribes and launched them on a campaign of conquest that stretch from the Pacific, across Asia and into Europe. Unlike the Romans, who sought to incorporate conquered peoples into their domain, Genghis Khan’s Mongols practised mass slaughter of local populations, and he was feared for the brutality he practised himself and encouraged among his followers. In his 2009 Military History of Iran, Steven R. Ward wrote that "Overall, the Mongol violence and depredations killed up to three-fourths of the population of the Iranian Plateau, possibly 10 to 15 million people." Iran’s population did not again

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The attack on Germany’s super weapons

8 days ago

On the night of August 17th, 1943, RAF Bomber Command attacked the weapons research facility at Peenemunde with a force of 596 bombers. Intelligence reports had indicated that Nazi Germany was developing long-range weapons there, weapons that would be unmanned and difficult to intercept. Acting on Polish intelligence, photo-reconnaissance planes had brought back pictures, one of which showed a small winged aircraft on a ramp, with another showing what appeared to be the shadow of a pencil-shaped vertical object, possibly a rocket. The decision was taken to bomb.To aid accuracy, the attack took place during a full moon, with the bombers flying at 8,000 feet instead of their normal 19,000. And for the first time there was a master-bomber directing the raid. A diversionary force of Mosquitoes

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Klondike and the barbarous relic

9 days ago

Gold was discovered in the Klondike region on August 16th, 1896. It precipitated a mass migration as people from the US and elsewhere surged into the area hoping to get rich. Most went via Alaskan ports, and then trekked with a ton of equipment down to the Yukon in Northwest Canada. To avoid mass starvations, the Mounties only let in those who had a year’s supply of food with them. Boom towns such as Dawson sprang up to service the incomers. Dawson’s population went from 500 in 1886 to 30,000 by the middle 1898. Infrastructure failed to keep pace with the influx, and Dawson’s wooden houses were prone to fires, while epidemics broke out in its insanitary conditions.About 100,000 headed there, hoping to strike it lucky, but given the arduous trek from Alaska, only about 40,000 made it. The

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A quarter millennium of Napoleon

10 days ago

Napoleon Bonaparte was born 250 years ago, on August 15th, 1769. Serving as an army artillery officer in 1798 when the French Revolution took place, he rapidly rose through the ranks, becoming a general by age 24, and achieving national recognition when he conquered the Italian peninsula. He became First Consul in a 1799 coup, and Emperor of the French in 1804. His career thereafter was marked by wars of conquest in Europe and Egypt, most of which he won. Although hailed as one of history’s greatest generals, he was more of a strategic general than a tactical battlefield one. He could take his troops rapidly, fed and supplied, to take enemies by surprise before they had time to form up against him.Although revered as a hero in France, he made many disastrous mistakes. His appointment of

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Shutting down pop stations

11 days ago

The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, (known as the "Marine Offences Act"), became law in the United Kingdom at midnight on Monday 14 August 1967. It was introduced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in an attempt to preserve the BBC’s monopoly of radio broadcasting.The radio monopoly was that of the Post Office, which licensed the BBC exclusively to broadcast radio programmes. The BBC was in thrall to the Musicians’ Union, which severely limited what it called "needle time" in order to protect jobs for live musicians. The result was that pop music was limited to a couple of programmes a week, notably "Two Way Family Favourites" at lunchtime on Sunday, the BBC’s most popular programme of pop requests for members of UK forces serving overseas.Teenagers who wanted to listen to pop music

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Adlertag – Eagle Day

12 days ago

Nazi Germany wanted to invade and occupy Britain to complete its conquest of Europe, so Hitler could complete his plan to move East. Operation Sea Lion was the codename of the invasion plan, and the barges and landing craft were assembled in readiness. But first the Roya Air Force had to be destroyed to stop it attacking the invasion fleet or providing air cover for British naval vessels that might intercept it at sea.The planned attack on the RAF was codenamed Adlertag, or Eagle Day. It was postponed several times because of poor weather over the Channel and Southern England, but it finally took place on August 13th, 1940. Hundreds of German Luftwaffe planes attacked radar stations and fighter airfields in Southern England. They were met by fierce RAF resistance and faced a sophisticated

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Charles Darwin and change

13 days ago

Charles Darwin, one of history’s most influential scientists, was born on August 12th, 1809. Newton had dispelled the notion that there were two domains, the heavens and the Earth, by showing that the same laws that governed motion on Earth also governed the motions of heavenly bodies. Now Darwin was to achieve a similar result for nature, showing that there were not two domains, humans and the animal kingdom, but that humans were part of the animal kingdom and subject to the processes that governed its development. Both Newton and Darwin therefore edged humanity away from a human-centred view of the universe, and into a position that saw human beings as a part of the universe and a product of it.His 5-year voyage on HMS Beagle had given him scientific recognition as a geologist, one whose

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Andrew Carnegie – making philanthropy fashionable

14 days ago

Andrew Carnegie died exactly a century ago, on August 11th, 1919. His was a "local boy makes good" story, in that he went from a one-room house in Dunfermline to become one of the richest men in history, and one of the most generous. His father was a casualty of the new textile technology as machines replaced the skilled handloom weavers. The machines gave the world cheap fabrics, but they drove the weavers into destitution. Carnegie’s father moved with his family to seek a better life in the United States. His first job, at age 13 in 1848, was as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill. It paid $1.20 a week for 12 hours a day for 6 days. In modern values that would be about $35 a week. His second paid more, $2 a week, but it was harder and involved firing up a boiler in the factory basement and

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Biodiesel Day

15 days ago

August 10th has been declared "International Biodiesel Day because on that date in 1893, Rudolph Diesel ran one of his early engines in Augsburg, Germany, on nothing but peanut oil. It was, however, only in 1977 that Expedito Parente, a Brazilian scientist, invented and patented the first industrial process for the production of biodiesel.It’s not quite clear why biodiesel deserves a day. In fact, if anything, it deserves to be forgotten. It is one of the silliest things ever one in the name of ‘renewables.’ Determined to be seen to be cutting back on the dreaded fossil fuels, people went for fuels derived from vegetables (and in some cases animal fats) , and therefore renewable. Farmers, especially in the EU and the US, were rewarded for growing crops that could be converted into diesel

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Telford, the man who built bridges

16 days ago

It is often invigorating to read of high achievers who managed without the formal qualifications and training usually required. Such a man was Thomas Telford, born on August 9th, 1757. He built bridges – some 40 in Shropshire alone – yet at aged 14 it was to a stonemason he was apprenticed. He then worked in Portsmouth dockyard, and although untrained, was soon working on some of the major projects involving their design and management. By the time he was 30 he was appointed Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire. There is a telling anecdote that, when consulted by St Chad’s Church in Shrewsbury about their leaking roof, he warned them it could easily collapse. When it did so 3 days later, his reputation was enhanced. Telford was just getting into his stride. He inspected Abraham Darby’s

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Francis Hutcheson, father of Scottish Enlightenment

17 days ago

The philosopher Francis Hutcheson is widely regarded as one of the early father figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, the blaze of talent and intellect that swept Scotland in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. He was born on August 8th, 1694, and died on the same day 50 years later. Although hugely influential in Scotland, where he made much of his career, he was in fact an Ulsterman, and was born there and died in Ireland.Hutcheson was hugely influential on Adam Smith and David Hume, and other Enlightenment figures, many of whom attended his philosophy lectures in Glasgow, where he was the first professor to lecture in English instead of Latin.  He was not a systems-builder, like both Smith and Hume, but his influence can clearly be seen in their subsequent thought. Hutcheson himself was

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Happy birthday, James Randi

18 days ago

James Randi, born on August 7th, 1928, celebrates his 91st birthday today. So do we. Although he started out as a magician and escape artist, “The Amazing Randi” has devoted a large part of his life to exposing fraudsters and charlatans who claim psychic or paranormal powers. These include mediums, spiritualists, mind-readers and even a televangelist who used common conjurer’s tricks to convince his audience / congregation that he had divine powers.Having been a stage magician himself, he can spot fakery more readily than others, and has publicly exposed fraudsters on television by subjecting them to rigorous tests in which he denies them access to the cheap tricks they use to deceive. Performing magicians who do not claim to be more than that are fine in his book. He reserves his

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The decision to bomb Hiroshima

19 days ago

On August 6th, 1945, a US B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, a single bomb equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. Hiroshima was reckoned to be a contributor to Japan’s war effort, though civilian and military facilities were intermingled, as they were throughout Japan. The Manhattan Project that created the bomb was so secret that not even Vice-President Truman knew of its existence. However, within minutes of being sworn in following the death of President Roosevelt in April, Truman was given an urgent briefing about the impending weapon. The decision to use it was his alone, though his advisors supported its use, as did Winston Churchill. Truman had four choices. He could continue with conventional bombing of Japan, bombing that had killed an estimated

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Friedrich Engels, unlikely Marxist

20 days ago

Friedrich Engels died on August 5th, 1895. He is best known, of course, as the person who collaborated with Karl Marx to develop the theory of Communism. He co-wrote several publications with Marx, including, most famously, "The Communist Manifesto." He himself was born into a wealthy German family, and his father owned large cotton mills in both Germany and Britain. It was from the proceeds of these that he financed his own life, and later financed Karl Marx to work on "Das Kapital." After Marx’s death, Engels edited the 2nd and 3rd volumes of it.His own philosophy was heavily influenced by Wilhelm Hegel, and he was associated with the Young Hegelians while attending lectures at the University of Berlin. Suffused throughout his work was the notion of dialectic, which Engels applied to the

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When Idi Amin expelled 50,000 ‘Asians’ from Uganda

21 days ago

Idi Amin, military dictator of Uganda, was as mad as a hatter. He’d deposed President Obote when he discovered that Uganda’s leader was about to arrest him for misappropriating army funds. This was in 1971, but 18 months later his murderous spree was well under way, with thousands killed from ethnic groups he disliked, plus religious leaders and journalists, judges and lawyers, students and intellectuals, among many others. He declared economic war on the tens of thousands of people whose forebears had come from the Indian subcontinent, confiscating their property and businesses.On August 4th, 1972, Amin ordered the expulsion from the country of some 50,000 of these who held British passports. For some strange reason, in Britain people from the Indian subcontinent are usually called

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Columbus changed the world

22 days ago

Schoolchildren in Britain learn the rhyme, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and it was in fact on August 3rd, 1492, that Christopher Columbus set sail from Palos de la Frontera in Spain with his three ships, the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa Maria. Supported by Isabella of Spain, his total crew numbered 90 sailors. He knew the world was round, so that by sailing West he could reach the Eastern lands of India and China, and capitalize by trading in their valuable goods, notably spices. The world was bigger than he thought, though, with two giant continents between him and his goal. He thus discovered the New World and changed history forever. He thought he’d reached India when he made landfall in the Bahamas, and called the natives there “Indians.” The

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As sure as death and taxes, and then death taxes

23 days ago

No taxes are popular with those who pay them, but on August 2nd, 1894, one of the most unpopular taxes of all saw its debut when Inheritance Tax in its modern form was introduced. There had been predecessors, including the 1796 legacy tax introduced to fund the Napoleonic wars. By 1857 its scope was extended to estates of over £20 in theory, but was rarely levied in practice on those under £1500. Its name has changed several times over the years – legacy duty, probate duty, estate duty, death duty, capital transfer tax, inheritance tax – but it became a tax on the value of land bequeathed, and has since morphed into a tax on the value of the assets that people bequeath to their heirs when they die.  There are allowances and exemptions, including gifts made while still alive, provided the

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Columbus reached Venezuela

24 days ago

On his third voyage, Christopher Columbus became the first European to reach the mainland of South America, when he landed in what is now Venezuela on August 1st, 1498. Artifacts from the area show that native peoples had previously co-existed with and hunted the megafauna that lived there. The pre-Columbian peoples seem to have been peaceful village-dwelling hunters and farmers, who made textiles and ceramics.Alonso de Ojeda, who led the second Spanish expedition, thought the gulf resembled Venice, and gave it the name Venezuela, meaning “little Venice.” Parts of it were colonized by the Spanish from 1502, and by the Germans from 1528. A prosperous economy developed, raising livestock and later growing cacao beans, and developed trade with the nearby British and French islands as well as

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Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate

25 days ago

Milton Friedman, the US economist, was born on July 31st, 1912. He was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his research on consumption analysis, monetary history and theory, and the complexity of stabilization policy. In addition to being one of the century’s most influential economists, he was also the best known. He popularized economics. In addition to his 300+ op-eds for Newsweek magazine, he also published in the New York Times. He was a tireless advocate for free markets and free trade. His book “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962) was a best seller. He supported a range of free market ideas, including floating currencies, education vouchers, negative income tax and the abolition of many licences, including those for doctors.  He vigorously opposed conscription (the

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Arnold Schwarzenegger – immigrant makes good

26 days ago

Arnold Schwarzenegger was born on July 30, 1947, in Thal, Styria in Austria. His is a classic story of someone from an unpromising background making good by ambition, talent and determination. He decided at age 14 to become a famous bodybuilder, the best in the world, and went on to do so. While on national service in 1965, he absconded to participate in the Junior Mr Europe competition, and was put into military prison for a week. He won the contest, though, and won the Mr Europe contest a year later, aged 19. He won many more, including five times Mr Universe. He achieved his "world best" ambition in 1969 when we became the youngest ever Mr Olympia at age 23. He moved to the US in 1968, speaking little English, and that with an impenetrably thick accent. He wrote regularly for Muscle and

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Alexis de Tocqueville, foreign observer of liberty in practice

27 days ago

Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris on July 29th, 1805. His "Democracy in America" (1835 and 1840) was based on his extensive travels in the United States, and is today regarded as a classic defence of both liberty and democracy, though de Tocqueville saw that there was a tension between the two, one that required a balance. He described himself as "neither of the revolutionary party nor of the conservative," but wrote that liberty was his "foremost passion.""But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom".De Tocqueville spotted that America was radically different from Europe in that people in the US had no

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Karl Popper, philosopher of liberty

28 days ago

On July 29th, 1902, was born one of the most remarkable and influential philosophers of the 20th Century, Karl Raimund Popper. As a teenager in Vienna, Popper was attracted by Marxism, and at one stage thought of himself as a Communist. What disillusioned him was the realization that none of the precepts of Marxism could be tested. He formed the view that there was a difference between the ideas of Marx, Freud and Adler, and those of Einstein. Einstein’s theory of relativity could be tested by observation, and indeed was tested by Eddington’s experiments in 1919. By contrast, those of Marx, Freud and Adler could accommodate everything that happened; there was nothing that could happen in the observed world that could refute them.This led Popper to the ideas he published in his 1934 “Logik

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The story of tobacco

29 days ago

Sir Walter Raleigh brought the first tobacco back to England from Virginia on July 27th, 1586. It was not its first appearance in Europe, because Hernández de Boncalo had brought back tobacco seeds for Spain’s Philip II in 1559, but it was the first in England. It had long been used in the Americas, with evidence that it was grown in Mexico as early as 1400 – 1000 BC. Native Americans grew it and traded it, and famously smoking it ceremonially in a “pipe of peace.”People enjoyed it because of the nicotine high it gives, and it soon became popular for smoking, chewing or snuffing, and became a major industry. Glasgow merchants who traded in New World tobacco became fabulously rich, and were known as Lords (Lairds) of the plainstaines as they strutted through the streets, resplendent in

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Labour’s landslide postwar victory

July 26, 2019

One of the worst disasters in Britain’s peacetime history happened on July 26th, 1945, when a Labour government headed by Clement Atlee swept into office with a landslide majority of 145, sweeping wartime leader Winston Churchill from office. The UK had been on the winning side of the war, but was soon on the losing side of the peace.It was reckoned that Labour’s promise of nationalization, a National Health Service and a welfare state appealed to voters, especially those who had fought for Britain’s future against Nazism, and who wanted a new and better world. Alas. They were in for a cruel disappointment. The monies that could have rebuilt Britain’s war-shattered industry and economy went on transfer payments instead of investment. A system of compulsory insurance for healthcare, with

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