Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Seamus Milne, Lee Rigby and Oliver's Army

All the time we're finding out more about what Jeremy Corbyn's like.

Today comes the announcement that he's appointed Seamus Milne as his press officer.  Milne, for the uninitiated, is the son of the former BBC Director General Alasdair Milne, educated at Winchester and Oxford, writes for the Guardian from what you might generously call a post-Stalinist position. You might sum his views up by saying that pretty much everything the West does is bad, and the things other people do are not as bad as the Western capitalist media makes out.

Life is too short and Milne too contemptible a figure to spend the whole morning listing his views, which range from the barmy to the unpleasant. But I would like to mention something he said about the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby, hacked to death a couple of years ago outside Woolwich barracks by two Muslim extremists.

"Rigby was a British soldier who had taken part in multiple combat operations in Afghanistan", wrote Milne in December 2013.  "So the attack wasn't terrorism in the normal sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians".  He went on to write that there'd be a lot more of this sort of thing "unless pressure grows to halt the terror war abroad".  Funnily enough, that's rather like something one of the killers said at the scene of the crime.  "Leave our lands and you can live in peace".

But Milne is wrong, and here's why.  In a democracy the army is merely the military wing of the state.  We elect the government.  They decide the foreign policy imperatives and, so far as this involves the use of force, the army then carries them out. In other words the army is neutral, and its soldiers not responsible for the direction of policy. If the next government has different foreign policy objectives, the army will carry those out too. So in this sense Rigby really was a civilian, a small mute actor carrying out the policy of a democratically elected government.  The mistakes of British foreign policy were not his fault.

Of course Rigby's killers did not understand this. You could hardly expect them to. Islam does not sit easily alongside democracy. For many Muslims, laws are God-made, not man-made. But Milne's expensive education (PPE at Balliol, no less) should have equipped him to understand adequately the nature of Rigby's position and the difference between the British army and that of a military state.

No-one who follows Milne's writing could be surprised to find him implying that an act of such barbarism was as much the fault of the British government as two madmen, but I found it interesting that he should be willing to put on one side for the moment one of his other characteristic positions.

As you would expect from an old Leftie like Milne, the working class are always right (although of course sometimes prone to false-consciousness when they vote Tory or oppose immigration). Not apparently on this occasion. The fact that opportunities for modestly-educated young men like Lee Rigby are few and far between did not wash with Milne. It elicited no sympathy.

I was reminded of Oliver's Army by Elvis Costello.  "You could be in Palestine / or over the border on the Chinese line / with the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne / But there's no danger / it's a professional career / and it could be arranged / just a word in Mr Churchill's ear".

Where has Milne's compassion for the working class gone? Absent without leave. Pity for Rigby has been forgotten in the excitement of an opportunity to prove, once more, that the West is fundamentally to blame for even the worst atrocities.

I did once think about writing a Threnody for Lee Rigby. But some pieces are just too painful to contemplate.

And now Seamus Milne is Jeremy Corbyn's press officer. By their fruits shall ye know them.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Vaughan Williams' London Symphony, Modernism and Matthew Arnold

An interesting article by William Cook in The Spectator the other week records the influence on British public life of the "vast wave of Germanic immigration" that came here from the 1930s onwards, as tens of thousands fled Nazism's "violent, superstitious tyranny".  You can read it online here.

Just to list a few of the names is to get a sense of their influence - Fritz Busch, Hans Keller, Stefan Zweig, Kurt Schwitters, Oskar Kokoschka, Emeric Pressburger, Karel Reisz, Gerard Hoffnung, Kurt Joos, Rudolf Laban, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Claus Moser, George Weidenfeld, Martin Esslin, Nikolaus Pevsner, Ernst Gombrich, Rudolf Bing, Friedrich Hayek, Max Born, Karl Popper, Hans Eysenck, Eric Hobsbawm.  Many were Jewish, but not all, and as Cook says, that "hardly mattered . . . They were champions of civilised enlightened values, rather than members of a certain religion, or a certain race".

I showed this article to my wife. She was inclined to dismiss it as a typical piece of Speccie Little Englandism.  But in truth anyone familiar with the majority of the names in the above paragraph (I recognised them all apart from Kurt Joos (dance) and Max Born (mathematics)) would have to acknowledge that these were hugely influential people in 20th century Britain.

The story of how they achieved pre-eminence is one of one of amazing courage, persistence and resilience, although it's worth bearing in mind that "the English intelligentsia are Europeanized", as Orwell wrote: always ready to be critical of their own culture and cringe in the face of others.  The emigres may often have been pushing at an open door.

Their story, writes Cook, "is usually told as a story with a happy ending, a triumph of progressive values over reactionary . . . But although Britain gained a great deal from this flood of foreign talent, you can't help feeling, looking back, that something was lost along the way.  Before the war, British culture was much more staid, but more in tune with public opinion. Since 1945 our artistic institutions have become much more Middle European: avant-garde, conceptual and out of step with popular taste . . . modernism has become the new orthodoxy, but this Mitteleuropaische aesthetic has never really been accepted by the population as a whole . . . This is a legacy of the Hitler emigres, and the modernist movement they inspired."

"Even at the time", Cook continues, "some Britons feared this continental influx would change the nature of our island's cultural life".  The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was invited to become a patron of a new Anglo-Austrian Music Society, formed by Austrian musicians who'd fled to Britain. He replied as follows.  "The great thing that frightens me is that it will entirely devour the tender little flower of our English culture . . . We cannot swallow the strong meat of your culture. Our stomachs are not strong enough". I thought of this last week when I went to see the Halle play RVW's London Symphony. 

As a child I loved the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending, but when I was a student in the 1980s his music was about as unfashionable as it was possible to be, its turgid pastoralism and naive parallel triads symptomatic of everything that seemed wrong with pre-war English music.

Times change though, and adults are more forgiving. Whereas, in the true Orwellian tradition, I once felt that Englishness was "slightly disgraceful" I have come round to the view that we are no worse that most countries in most things (and in some things a bit better) and this, pathetically you may feel, in turn has led me to look more kindly on the works of Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi and George Butterworth, to name but three composers. RVW in particular, like Elgar, seems to epitomise the nation in music, informing our sense of what England means in much the same way of our sense of the American is shaped by Bernstein and John Williams.

Even if the Tallis and The Lark are the best of RVW (and they are pieces I would now give my right arm to have written), I've since conducted the D major 5th Symphony and the London itself too. What pieces they are!  The 5th was written during the war, but gives absolutely no sense of the violence and uncertainty which was the context of its creation.  The London is a much earlier piece (1913) and the London Vaughan Williams was writing about had disappeared by the time the 5th was premiered thirty years later.  Today of course he would find London still harder to recognise, with its core of the international super-rich living alongside a diaspora of the poor from Far East and Deep South, a city with the specific London qualities he captured all but effaced.

The symphony is still mightily affecting though, speaking eloquently of the full-on noise and bustle of the big city as well as the grandeur of its buildings and intimate silences of its smaller out-of-hours thoroughfares. Last Thursday the Halle did it true justice, and I found it heartening to see the German conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens looking thoroughly immersed in the music. Perhaps he will go home and tell his colleagues in the Berlin Phil how good it is. Have they ever performed it? I somehow doubt it. That's a shame, because the London is a thoroughly convincing piece of writing, and I think the finale works much better than any Tchaikovsky symphony (apart from the Pathetique), better even - lawks - than Mahler 5, whose endless note-spinning perambulations towards the chorale finale I endured on the way to the dry-cleaners the other day.

What happened to that "tender little flower" of English music then? It has surely been erased by the mighty bulldozer of modernism. I can't think of a single composer now who you might describe as typically English. I can't even claim it for myself. My own models have always been much more the Scandinavians Sibelius and Nielsen, even in pieces like Absence of Clouds, a recent thirty-minute work rooted in the Cumbrian weather and landscape.

Blaming Hitler's emigres for this rubbing out is perhaps a bit steep. Foreign mores have always been seductively attractive to the English, as Orwell noted. We would probably have embraced modernism in the end anyway. Fritz Bush and Hans Keller did not invent Birtwistle or Maxwell Davies. But William Cook is right, in music anyway, that something has been lost, and that its loss has been accompanied by a slow cutting adrift of public taste. In the end everyone in Britain who loves classical music will be the loser for this, and I suspect I'm not alone in hearing again Matthew Arnold's "melancholy long withdrawing roar".

In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. 
They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the 
general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident 
thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals 
are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always 
felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman 
and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse 
racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably 
true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of 
standing to attention during 'God save the King' than of stealing from a 
poor box. All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping 
away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes 
squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always 
anti-British. It is questionable how much effect this had, but it 
certainly had some. If the English people suffered for several years a 
real weakening of morale, so that the Fascist nations judged that they 
were 'decadent' and that it was safe to plunge into war, the intellectual 
sabotage from the Left was partly responsible. Both the NEW STATESMAN and 
the NEWS CHRONICLE cried out against the Munich settlement, but even they 
had done something to make it possible. Ten years of systematic 
Blimp-baiting affected even the Blimps themselves and made it harder than 
it had been before to get intelligent young men to enter the armed 
forces. Given the stagnation of the Empire, the military middle class 
must have decayed in any case, but the spread of a shallow Leftism 
hastened the process.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Nadiya Hussain's husband, GBBO and multiculturalism

"Nadiya has done more to further the cause of Asian women - and men - than countless government policies, think-tanks, initiatives and councils put together have achieved in the past half-century".

So writes Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Daily Mail about Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain.

Two themes have emerged from the inevitable post Bake Off mediastorm.

One, Nadiya "only won because she was a Muslim".  This attracts the inevitable riposte "Nadiya won because she was the best baker".  Neither is true.  To deal with the riposte first, having watched half the shows, it seemed to me that Nadiya probably wasn't the best baker overall. That was probably the weedy but industrious and imaginative Ian, repeatedly Star Baker earlier in the series. But GBBO is a knock-out competition and Ian floundered at the last.

I'm absolutely sure the programme-makers will have been delighted with Nadiya's win, but it didn't look fixed to me. Where the carpers might have a point though is in Nadiya's selection to the final twelve.

The overwhelming majority of capable amateur bakers in Britain will be middle-aged white women. But the producers know that's a demographic which doesn't make a ratings-winning programme. They want instead a mixture of young and old, both sexes, straight, gay and ethnic minorities, preferably with a couple of fanciable women thrown in.

And, curiously enough that's what they got.  The final twelve had a couple of middle aged white women but also a young hipster (out in the first round), a gay man of Asian ethnicity, the delightful Filipino chap Alvin, a young mixed race woman, the beautiful Flora, the beautiful Lithuanian Ugne, a working class builder, the ingenious Ian and Nadiya with the headscarf.

I bet when they saw Nadiya's application and realised she could actually cook they thought all their Christmases had come at once.

There will have been plenty of other middle-aged white women just as competent as Nadiya who didn't make the twelve because their profile didn't fit. But they didn't fail because they weren't headscarf-wearing Muslims. They failed because they didn't tick any of the other boxes either.

The producers will have dozens of eligible candidates. They pick the ones they want. If there was one of the twelve who really shouldn't have been there it was the hat-wearing musician Stu, who fell at the first hurdle. There will have been dozens of better bakers than Stu who didn't fit the programme's diverse agenda. That's showbiz.

The second thing that's struck me post-Bake Off is the Nadiya's-win-proves-multiculturalism-is-OK trope of which the Alibhai-Brown article is an example. Liberal Britain seems to be having a Nadiya moment just now, frothing from every orifice in a jouissance of feel-goodery.

I think that actually Nadiya's instant elevation to National Treasure proves the reverse.

What has been so delightful about getting to know Nadiya (via the admittedly tricksy medium of reality TV) has been the revelation that this person, beneath the chador which many find off-putting, is just like us. Ah, we think. Good old Muslims! They like baking too! And, with it, "how liberal we are!"

But actually the point about Nadiya is that she is not a typical chador-wearing Muslim woman. She is strongly atypical. For one thing, her husband Abdal let her go out and mix with other people (and associate with gay men). Moreover he took over the childcare while she was doing it. Not unknown, but not routine either.

If you still think Nadiya is typical, consider her valedictory words. "I'm never going to put boundaries on myself ever again", she said, after winning. "I'm never going to say I can't. I'm never going to say maybe". Admirable perhaps, but a sentiment more Californian than Koranic.

Further, our relief at Nadiya's Britishness (her cake! her self-deprecation!) is relief at her similarity to us. And similarity is not what multiculturalism is about. Instead it is about celebrating difference. It's about saying, "well that lot don't behave like the rest of us, but we respect that and will go along with it".

The outpouring of affection for Nadiya arises from a feeling which is the polar opposite. "Thank God she's the same as us", it says.

Nadiya deserved it on the night and I'm glad she won, but her popularity is the best demonstration I've ever seen both of the weakness of multiculturalism and the failure of its most ardent admirers to understand what it really is.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Why I love . . . #13 Patricia Highsmith

Neither of my parents would describe themselves as intellectuals, but they have always read books, and as a child I worked my way steadily through their shelves of detective stories. Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler (hallelujah) and even Robert Robinson (Landscape With Dead Dons, since you ask). For some reason I never got round to The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, though I well remember it being there. Perhaps Mum and Dad thought it might be a bit strong for a nine year old - certainly other titles, The Virgin Soldiers by Leslie Thomas and Mailer's An American Dream for example, disappeared mysteriously after I was found standing on a chair looking at their somewhat racy covers.

But Ms Highsmith and I met at last a couple of weeks ago when the Males from Hale, the book group of which I am a kind of expat member (I can't afford to live in Hale) decided to take on the first of her Ripley series of books. And what a book it is. Any crime novel that's fit to stand alongside The Big Sleep is a towering book. I'd go further. I thought The Talented Mr Ripley as good as Crime and Punishment (and I love Dostoevsky).

Briefly - and no spoiler here - TTMR concerns a young American, Tom Ripley, asked to go to Europe to persuade another young American he knows slightly to return home. It then deals with Tom Ripley's crimes and misdemeanours and his attempts to evade discovery for them. The re-print jacket blurb says the book is unputdownable.  But I found it hard to pick up, so gruelling was the story's tension. 

Highsmith writes tersely. There is enough description, but not very much. The imagination fills in the details. The book is consummately plotted, complicatedly so, but with a simple story arc that carries you past the complexities. The pacing is true, with Highsmith able to linger painfully on some scenes yet deal with the quick passage of time lightly and unobtrusively. 

Though technically dazzling, these aren't the greatest of her achievments. The story is told entirely through the eyes of Tom Ripley, and something about his clubbable there's-a-good-fellow name, and the way she refers to him throughout as Tom - Tom this, Tom that - gives the reader the uncomfortable feeling of being in cahoots with him. Agonisingly, as he comes closer to detection, and then further away, and then closer still, we don't know whether to hope he will get caught or, feeling his fear as vividly as we do, hope he escapes. 

Ripley is a weak, damaged and dangerous man, the kind of person on whom it never pays to turn your back. All the other characters are seen through his eyes. The errant young man's father. His would-be girlfriend. Our perception of them is Tom's perception. We scarcely see them as suspicious, grieving or heartbroken. They are merely the tedious inconveniences with which Ripley has to deal.

So when I was reading TTMR I felt unclean; and when I finished it (twenty minutes ago) it was with a sense of admiration and relief.

Highsmith wrote another four Ripley novels. But I don't think I'm man enough to read them.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Bono smells the coffee

Every now and again I read something so striking that everything must be dropped and everything within my limited power done to bring it to a wider audience (not much wider, obviously).

Today someone posted a link on Twitter to, a website which seems to concern itself with overseas development.  An article on devex features the following quote from Bono.

"I'm late to realizing that it's you guys, it's the private sector, it's commerce that's going to take the majority of people out of extreme poverty and, as an activist, I almost found that hard to say".

How to describe this moment of eclaircissement?  A no-shit-Sherlock moment? A statement of the bleedin' obvious? Or merely long overdue?

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn - strong message here

Not the least of the problems Jeremy Corbyn poses for the Left is what his election tells us about the Labour party. It tells us that the Labour party is the kind of demographic that elects Mr Corbyn. For those of us who aren't involved in political activism - and that's the overwhelming majority of British people - it tells us that the Labour party thinks Corbyn is the best leader they've got.

And what a leader he is. I didn't listen to all Mr Corbyn's first party conference speech yesterday, but I did listen to some of the highlights. Putting aside the substance (most of which, as a Blairite of old, I disagree with), Corbyn is one of the worst public speakers I have ever heard. And this wasn't an improvised soap-box rant, it was a set piece party conference speech.  Live TV on all channels. It was rambling, stumbling, flat, avoided hard questions and recycled old material from a hack speechwriter rejected by previous Labour leaders. Of course all political leaders employ speechwriters. But that's not exactly the authentic straight talking Corbyn promised.

And yet after a leadership campaign lasting months, Labour people voted for this guy. I find it baffling.

Maybe they didn't vote for him because of his speaking ability, I hear you say.  But I think that's exactly what they did. Meeting after meeting - every night for weeks - was packed with people desperate to hear Jeremy. Wide-eyed activists spoke of the electrifying atmosphere he generated. Twitter was abuzz with talk of a new beginning.

So here's another unpalatable fact. The Left hears Corbyn and goes weak at the knees. Old New Labour voters like me hear him and think, "Obsessive bloke you try and avoid at a party". Call me shallow, but as Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Graun this morning, this was Corbyn's last chance to create a good first impression. And what an impression it was.

To be clear, none of this means Corbyn can't win in 2020. David Cameron will no longer be Prime Minister then. I think George Osborne has done a good job in difficult circumstances, but he is a more divisive figure. Moreover if a week is a long time in politics, five years is an aeon. The world changed utterly between 2005 and 2010. It can happen again.

I still think Corbyn probably won't win though. The more successful he is at getting Labour to take on his policies, the further he will take the party away from the political mainstream. He didn't mention immigration or the deficit yesterday, but we caught a glimpse of what his attitude might be in the context of Trident renewal. His tactic was to mention the size of his mandate from Labour's electorate. I won with an overwhelming majority, he said, in terms, so I have the authority to rid the UK of nuclear weapons, even if not everyone in the party agrees with me.

This seems reasonable enough. I think Corbyn will have to prevail, because the alternative is for him to lead a party with policies he's on the record as opposing. That suggests that on a broad policy front, from immigration and the economy to defence and welfare Labour is going be fighting the next election on the most left wing manifesto in a generation.

Corbyn's MPs won't like it, but some of them will toe the line, because the ones that don't could soon find themselves out on their ear. For all his talk about being nice (although not to the Tories, obviously), people only survive in politics as long as Corbyn has by being masters of procedural warfare. He will know that internal opposition will have to be faced down, and I would imagine he'll set about suppressing it sooner rather than later.

Perhaps the most pertinent part of Corbyn's conference speech yesterday was the bit where he read out part of the autocue stage directions by mistake. "Strong message here", he intoned. I should say so.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Pinning down the fiscal multiplier. Or not.

As a late convert to Twitter I've been surprised and delighted by the way you stumble across people with interesting things to say about all aspects of political and cultural life. Recently I've been chatting to a guy called Bruce Greig about the economics of government borrowing. Bruce's view, expressed here is that the tax returns on increased growth more than pay for the investment, even when you have to borrow the money to do it. It works because of something called the fiscal multiplier. Here's my reply.

Hi Bruce.

Firstly, let's be candid about our various levels of expertise. I'm not an economist and I suspect neither are you. We are both probably interested amateurs trying to make sense of the economic and political landscape. So we turn to outside sources to try and buttress what may be instinctive views.

In your post you rely on the IMF. Fine. But just how reliable is the IMF?

In January 2013 its chief economist admitted in a paper that the fiscal multiplier – put at 0.5 - it had used to calculate the effect of austerity measures on European economies had been wrong. You’ll remember in January 2013 the same economist – Olivier Blanchard – criticised George Osborne’s economic policy and said “there should be a reassessment of fiscal policy”; Osborne was “playing with fire”. When growth returned to the UK economy later that year Blanchard had to admit he was “pleasantly surprised” by the UK’s performance. By January 2015 Blanchard’s boss Christine Lagarde was saying, “It’s obvious that what happened in the UK actually worked”.

I recite this to show that the IMF is fallible. Its staff don’t even agree with each other. Here's another IMF paper. Its authors say on Page 1 that “the fiscal multiplier is . . . zero in economies operating under flexible exchange rates”. 

Yes, that’s zero. Not 1.5 or 2.5. 

On Page 26 we get “in economies open to trade or operating under flexible exchange rates, a fiscal expansion leads to no significant output gains. Further, fiscal stimulus may be counterproductive in highly-indebted countries; in countries with debt levels as low as 60 percent of GDP, government consumption shocks may have strong negative effects on output”.

The UK’s current debt to GDP is 82%.

Even the IMF paper you cited yourself is equivocal.  Have a look at page 83.  It states that a “debt-financed” public investment shock of 1% of GDP increases output by 2.9% over four years.
That’s a multiplier of less than 1 isn’t it? How is that going to pay for itself when you take into account the cost of the debt?

I offer you the following propositions –
1.       The fiscal multiplier will vary according to the situation.
2.       No-one knows exactly what it is in any given situation.
3.       In some circumstances an increase in expenditure will pay for itself, but sometimes it won’t. Given 1 and 2 above a degree of circumspection is understandable.

One other consideration.  Where will the money HMG borrows to fund this expenditure come from? About 70% of UK government bonds are held by UK individuals and institutions. If new bonds are issued roughly in the same proportion, most of the money will come from within the UK

In other words the expenditure HMG undertakes on the back of this borrowing will not be new money.  It will not be new demand.  It will be money that would have been spent or invested in the UK anyway.  The likelihood is that the multiplier will be reduced by 70% accordingly.

Even economists can’t agree about the effect and size of the fiscal multiplier. For we amateurs that’s a consolation, but also a warning – maybe this is a subject which is as much an art as a science. Perhaps we should be warier than we have been of stating categorically what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps we should accept that, maybe, we just don’t know.