Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit reflections #8 - Simpson's Law meets Libby Purves

Occasional readers of this blog (are there any other kind?) may recall me mentioning Simpson's Law, a principle most pithily summed up here in February in the following terms - "if the Luvvies are in favour of something it's likely to be wrong, and, moreover, almost certain not to prevail."

I wrote then that in the EU referendum this law faced its sternest test, since I believed that although Emma Thompson, Bob Geldof and Uncle Tarquin Cobley were in favour of staying in the EU, Remain was likely to win. But it seems there is no standing in the way of the Law, for as we now know, just as with Hacked Off and the Alternative Vote, the Luvvies lost.

Serendipitously just as this occurred to me the Times has published a magisterial article by (go on, guess) Libby Purves (yes, I know) entitled rather cruelly Hysterical lefties really need to grow up.  It's here.  With apologies to Mr Murdoch, here are some choice extracts.

The carry-on was beyond parody: anguished bunker-mentality tinged with patronising, generalising hauteur about those who voted Leave . . . This reached its apogee with the telly critic AA Gill decrying fuddy-duddy Britain as opposed to "the Renaissance, the rococo, the Romantics, the impressionists, gothic, baroque, neoclassicism, realism, futurism, fauvism, cubism, dada, surrealism, postmodernism and kitsch".  He concluded that the only people thinking of Brexit were "old philistine scared gits" (Mr Gill is 62 tomorrow. There's a lot of down-wid-da-kidzery in all this). . . Of all the culturati the only sharp pre-vote voice was our Richard Morrison: "The arts world prides itself on its diversity, inclusivity, open-mindedness and constant efforts to reach out to all. Yet at the very moment when Britain decides its future, hardly anyone in the arts seems to understand, let alone agree with, the opinion of at least half the population."

Once we had Orwell and Priestley: now, it is almost comic to watch the affluent metropolitan left being cross with the zero-hours strugglers of Sunderland for disrespecting the instructions of a Tory PM and big business. . . . The really shameful thing is for those who purport to be socialist humanitarians to demonise 17 1/2 million people: patronising them as stupidly "deceived", or writing them off as racist, bigoted malicious or just old . . .

Purves quotes Chesterton: "Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget/For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet".  OK, they may have spoken wrong and plunged us into difficulties. But it is not fair to blame them more than the arrogant, incompetent Brussels institutions and the decades when governments neglected inequality.

Amen to all of that. There's a lot more swingeing stuff which is a pleasure to read and re-read. Libby Purves. Who knew? I'll never switch off You and Yours again.

Meanwhile, Simpson's Law rides off into the sunset, unvanquished.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

brexit reflections #7 - Re-education required

On the day the world fell in / democracy returned to Britain (you choose), I found myself sitting next to a friend who had voted Remain. It took her a while to register that I hadn't, but, when she did, the explosion of anger and incredulity was immediate.

"So I suppose you're pleased that the financial markets have crashed and that the pound's hit its lowest level since the 1980s?", she spluttered.

"I think the markets closed down at about the level they were in June", I said. "And the pound fell a lot at first, but recovered to about the level it was in May. Something like that".

"Only. Only. Only because", she said, clearly struggling, "because Mark Carney spent loads of our money propping things up".

"Did the Bank of England actually intervene then?", I asked, genuinely surprised: I follow the news pretty closely, and I hadn't heard of this (48 hours later there have been no news reports to this effect).

"Well I don't know", she said. "They might have done".

"I don't think they did", I said. "And anyway, the Bank of England doesn't buy equities. The price of equities is just what the markets think they're worth.  You've got to bear in mind that there's bound to be a bit of turbulence because a lot of what goes on at times like this is simply betting on a grand scale".

My friend was discomfited at meeting someone who knew more about this kind of thing than she did, but I could see her lining up for another go and was part grateful, part frustrated when my wife, who hates this kind of thing, intervened to stop it. I extracted an agreement to the effect that it was possible to vote Leave without being a racist baby-eater, and that was that.

During the meal though, eaten in an atmosphere of awkward truce, I wanted to ask, Did you really think the Bank of England had propped up the pound? Did you really think the pound had closed at its lowest level since the 80s? If not, why did you say it? Did you really think the Bank had spent "our money" buying equities to support the stock market? Did you really think a fall in the pound would have been an unequivocal disaster, helping as it would manufacturers, savers and Britain's balance of trade?  Did you really think you were well enough informed to be able to criticise someone whose view differed from yours?

Since the referendum many on the losing side have sought refuge in the statistic that those most likely to vote Remain were the best educated people in the country.  Leavers, goes the unattractive inference, are stupid.  But ignorance is not confined to Remain voters.  Neither was education the only predictor of which way a person was likely to vote.  So was affluence. 

It's probably not surprising that the better off were more likely to want to stay in the EU. As I've pointed out before, we (because I am one of them) are the people most likely to benefit from cheaper access to the service industries. We're on the housing ladder, we're well established in our careers and if push comes to shove we can get health insurance and send our kids to private schools to avoid logjams in the NHS and education. The EU works for us. We can pay our way round many of the problems uncontrolled migration causes the poor.

My friend is an intelligent, able, likeable and successful person. She'd probably describe herself as living a modest lifestyle, although as well as a house in a pleasant Manchester suburb, she and her husband have property interests in two other countries and send their child to a fee paying school.

Their lives have about as little in common - and as little contact - with those of fellow Labour voters in Sunderland, Stoke or Whitehaven as theirs does with Donald Trump. No wonder the referendum result was a shock.

The ignorance of the Left's haut bourgeoisie regarding the circumstances in which ordinary people live outside the glitzier parts of our big cities is almost total. It has reacted with comical surprise to the discovery that large parts of the UK do not share its views or its affluence. Most people in Britain will never buy second homes in two countries, but they know we're doing it and they know we're content with an expansion in the labour force which undercuts their own living standards. Wages in some semi-skilled sectors (building for example) are believed to be actually falling.

The Hampstead Left generally has reached a pitch of self delusion so total that it imagines a petition for a second referendum, thus far reaching three million signatures, carries with it a shred of moral authority. Faced with the realisation that - gosh! - ordinary working class people feel that membership of the EU does not actually benefit them that much, it has fallen back into a cloistered echo chamber, now reverberating with cries that the underclass voted Leave because it was too ignorant to see that the bien-pensant were right.  Urgent re-education must take place at once, they Tweet.

Yes. They certainly need it.

Friday, 24 June 2016

brexit reflections #6 - Britain votes to leave and Cameron resigns

Here's an email I wrote to my brother on learning the news about Brexit -

Hi Roz,

You must be pleased this morning.  I guess I am too, although my delight at the total shock at the result amongst the great and the good (distinctly audible on the BBC – someone tweeted “They don’t know anyone who voted leave!”) is tempered by Sal’s dismay.  She understands that people in England’s old industrial areas feel disillusioned with their lot (and let down by Labour, which is essentially run by people like us), but she puts their problems down to failures of capitalism.  Moreover she attributes decades of peace in Europe to the EU.  She’s gutted.

I think she’s wrong on both counts.  I think we have peace because we remember what two world wars were like; and as for capitalism, it is lifting people out of poverty all over the world – it’s just that better standards of living for people in the Far East means poorer job prospects for the post-industrial West; and those same forces of globalisation are driving people (courtesy of free movement) to Britain, depressing wages at the bottom end and keeping Brits on the dole. 

Because of this we’ve become a much more unequal country in the last twenty years.  Those with skills are not competing with migrants, on the whole, so their wages have risen more quickly.  The idea that this could carry on indefinitely without the derided underclass rising up and taking an opportunity to lash out was always complacent and, it turns out, mistaken.

I think Cameron and the EU bigwigs have handled this incredibly badly.  Cameron should have asked for much more than he did.  He should have understood that given some genuine restrictions on migration much of the anger of Labour’s core vote would have dissipated.  Merkel, Juncker et al are equally to blame.  They could have kept the principle of free movement whilst allowing for its suspension in cases where net migration exceeded a certain percentage of the population.  Cameron was incompetent for not insisting on it.  They were arrogant and inflexible.  That their cosy arrangement now looks under threat is entirely their own fault.

Nothing is as good or bad as it first seems.  I think the predictions of financial meltdown are premature.  I also think we’ll negotiate new arrangements with the EU which will fairly closely resemble the old ones.  On the other hand I think the fact that Scotland voted by a big margin to Remain is genuinely disquieting.  I think the financial arguments which dished the Independence campaign last time will have if anything greater force in the event of another referendum, and I don’t believe that Scots would prefer a Union with Europe (and possibly the Euro) to Union with the rest of the UK.  But a lot of Scots were daft enough to believe the SNP last time, and I’ve got absolutely no doubt that La Sturgeon would go at it with renewed vigour.

I was struck by one thing when I went to vote yesterday morning.  Polls consistently show that membership of the EU is one of the least pressing issues concerning voters.  Yet here we were voting on it.  On the other hand excessive migration consistently comes out as one of the top two most pressing issues for the British, but we can’t vote for (or against) any politician who promises to do something about it.  The walk I was making to the local library to vote would not have been possible regarding migration.  

A political arrangement like that cannot stand, and I’m not remotely surprised that Labour’s underclass has registered its anger in the only manner available to it.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Brexit reflections #5 - Labour's incredible Tom Watson

Yesterday Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson made an incredible statement.

Interviewed by the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg he said, "I think we have to reassure people that if they vote Remain on Thursday 23 June, that isn't the end of the reform package in Europe. I think a future Europe will have to look at things like the free movement of labour rules".

Let's just think about that. Europe will have to look at the free movement of labour rules. Really?

When David Cameron was trying to think of some demands he could make of the EU which would enable him to sell Remain to the British public he went to see Angela Merkel to find out which might fly. One of the demands he floated was the idea of an emergency brake on migration. Mrs Merkel made it very clear to Cameron that no derogation from the principle of free movement of people was possible. Cameron promptly dropped the demand, trying instead for a period of residence gradually entitling foreign workers to benefits (which cannot be brought into being without the agreement, thus far not forthcoming, of all member countries).

Let's assume that we agree to Remain. Does anyone seriously imagine that the EU will agree to restrictions of free movement when the leader of its most powerful member refused to countenance any such change just months before the UK's In/Out referendum? There isn't a snowflake's chance in hell of that happening. As Watson well knows.

Why then did he say it? Polls now suggest that Labour supporters in the north are overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit. Labour figures have been shocked by the extent to which their natural supporters are determined to Leave. I've written in previous posts as to why this might be. The party is now split. In London and in the big cities there is a core of disproportionately well-educated, young and affluent people who are in favour of Remain (the post-Corbyn new membership is disproportionately from this demographic).

Outside this relatively small core is the majority of supporters, people more likely to be old, poor and badly educated, who are largely in favour of Leave. The Labour leadership is beginning to realise that by lining up with the Tories on Remain they risk alienating these natural Labour voters, driving them into the arms of UKIP. Watson's statement should be seen both as evidence of this dawning reality and a sop to poor people outside London and Manchester - an attempt perhaps to persuade them that if they vote Remain a British government could still do something about migration in the future.

Some hope! If a Tory government carrying a referendum-shaped big stick was unable to persuade Mrs Merkel, the rest of us are entitled to be sceptical. What chance of a Labour government even trying? The party's leadership is dominated by metropolitan bien pensant europhiles. The chances of Labour even trying to persuade the EU of migration restrictions must be close to zero. Watson's statement is incredible in the literal sense. It's impossible to believe.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Brexit reflections #4 - anger and complacency

Having started the EU referendum campaign with an open mind, I've finally come down on the side of Brexit.

Please don't stop reading.

Why? On the principle that it's better to govern your own affairs, unless there are overwhelming reasons why you shouldn't (this seems obvious to me, but I'll enlarge on it below).

What might those overwhelming reasons be?

The two most commonly put forward are security and the economy.

It's said that our security depends on the EU.  I don't think there's much evidence for this.  Our security surely depends on NATO.  The EU has actually very little to say about foreign policy - it has no foreign minister, still less a common security force. Its bungling over Ukraine and hand-wringing over Syria demonstrate how things might play out if our security really did depend on the EU.

But, I hear you say, hasn't the EU helped to keep the peace within Europe generally? Maybe. I find it rather more plausible that because people want peace they look for ways of co-operating with each other; the EU is a consequence of that desire rather than its cause. The real reason people want peace is because they remember the devastation caused by war. If another Hitler should appear, does anyone really think that membership of the EU would deter him? And if so, do they remember how the League of Nations got on?

It strikes me that the biggest threat to intra-European peace has come from the zealots of ever closer union themselves. The Schengen agreement and the wrecking ball that is the Euro are the causes of the immense dissatisfaction which has fuelled the rise of the hard Left in Greece and the hard Right just about everywhere else. Leaving would not free the UK from the consequences of that extremism, but it might make it less likely to happen here. It might also give the Euro zealots pause for thought.

When I read the letters of hundreds of economists urging Remain, I'm reminded of the even larger number of their colleagues who wrote to the Times protesting about the Thatcher government's economic policy in the early 80s. They were wrong - inflation was curbed and the economy began to grow again. I'm also reminded of the profession's woeful failure to predict the 2008 financial crisis. Of its urging the UK to join the ERM, and, 20 years later, the Euro.

Look how those have turned out. That doesn't mean the economists are wrong this time, of course. It just means that their assurances are scarcely the great clunking fist that sinks the Brexit campaign. When the Treasury and the IMF issue dire forecasts telling us how much poorer we'll be in fifteen years, I'm reminded that these are people who can't even tell us what's going to happen in fifteen months.

What would the economic consequences of Brexit actually be? I have a secret to impart: no one knows. We know that we'd face single market tariffs until we were able to do a trade deal. We also know that rEU would make it as difficult as they possibly could for the City of London to carry on doing EU business, which might put at risk some of the many billions the City raises in tax revenue for the Treasury.

However EU tariffs are set at only 4%. And anyway there never has been a single market in services (something we're actually good at), only in manufacturing (something that's less and less important to us). There are able and well-informed City pundits - Roger Bootle, David Buik and Merryn Somerset-Webb for example - who think the Square Mile would thrive after Brexit. We also know that we'd save hundreds of millions of pounds in EU membership fees. Moreover, the value of the pound would probably sink (although the fact that no-one knows how much utterly undermines the bleak economic forecasters), providing a welcome boost to British manufacturing competitiveness, hurting imports and helping our rather parlous balance of payments situation.

But let's say the Cassandras are right.  Let's say the economy would grow more slowly (which is the worst the forecasters can come up with). If a rising tide does not benefit everyone equally, the same must be true when the tide is falling. If things got worse economically in Britain because of Brexit, might there be a strata of society which would benefit?

The short answer is yes.  The long answer is that anyone who can't afford housing, anyone who can't get their kids into their local school, who has to queue for NHS treatment, who is in a low paid job or can't get a job at all would probably benefit. In other words the Britons at the bottom end. These are the people who, funnily enough, you don't see campaigning to Remain, because they know being in Europe doesn't benefit them.

I haven't heard anyone suggest that post-Brexit there would be no migration at all, but if we did leave Governments of both Left and Right would seek to get a tighter grip on numbers. The immediate effect of that would be to stop the crisis in housing, the NHS and school places getting worse so quickly. It would also mean that employers have to start competing for unskilled staff by raising wages.

(I have heard so many half-wits bleating that the living wage would accomplish this that I need hardly say how bitterly funny I found it that within weeks of the announcement employers began to change terms and conditions for staff so that, for example, they were not paid during their lunch breaks; so much for government intervention).

The outcome of the referendum won't affect me very much, but there are millions of people with fairly dismal life chances in Britain who I believe it would help a good deal.

There's a lot to dislike about the Brexit campaigners, amongst other things their predominant psycological state (angry).  But those arguing for Remain present an even sorrier spectacle. Leaving aside the politicians, whose dishonesty, though considerable, has been no worse than expected, and the business elites, whose desire for the endless supply of cheap labour to continue unabated is at least transparently self-interested, the section of Remain supporters I find least appealing is the smug liberal middle-class.

These are the people who do well out of EU. They like the easy travel arrangements. They enjoy the cheap access to the service industries ("such a charming Polish nanny/plumber/barista!"). They enjoy the feeling of cosmopolitanism being on the side of Europe entails. They're in a position to pay their way past the obstacles that uncontrolled migration throws up for the poor (health/education). Above all, it really hasn't occurred to them that the people who do worst out of the EU tend to be people at the bottom end (people, incidentally, many of whom have brown or black skins - British-born descendants of former migrant generations). They are alright, Jack.

If anger is the keynote characterisation of Brexiteers, for the Remainers it is complacency.

As for the Left, with a few honourable exceptions (notably Frank Field) they abandoned the idea of helping the worst off as soon as they realised that doing so might make them look hostile to Johnny Foreigner.  They'll do anything to keep on virtue signalling.

I said I would enlarge on the proposition that it's better to govern your own affairs. The most obvious reason is that if you don't like the laws your government passes, you can boot them out of office. What happens though if some laws persist because your Government doesn't have control over them any more?

The fact that we were committed to free movement of people by a British electorate more than forty years ago, and the absurdity of the proposition that we must, apparently, stick with this arrangement until the rocks melt with the sun, are merely peripheral inanities compared to the central steaming pile of stupidity around which they orbit. That stupidity being that although excessive migration is, according to polls, one of the two principal concerns of the British electorate (the other being the economy), our politicians are powerless to do anything about it.

For that really is the case. If a British government wanted to reduce net migration to the low tens of thousands (and as I said above, Governments of both Left and Right would almost certainly reduce migration if they could), there is no law it could pass to bring that about which would not be struck down by the European Court. Even an attempt to do that obliquely, for example by restricting benefits to migrants, would fall foul of the Court. East European migrants who have never paid into the British system can start claiming tax credits from their first day at work. They can have Child Benefit paid to their children who may have never been here. There is nothing our politicians can do about it.

Now consider the effect of this on the British political process. The issue that apparently concerns us more than any other is one which our politicians cannot fix. This reduces our system to a pretendy-democracy where politicians strut up and down making promises (reducing migration to the low tens of thousands, for example) which we and they know they cannot possibly keep.

Incidentally, although Remainers talk of awful damage the economy if migration were stopped, they forget that if restricted migration weren't working for the UK, we could simply change policy and start allowing more of it again.  Running your own affairs is quite handy like that.

The present situation is a sham which in the long run will do much more damage to the British political process than expenses claims for a duck house. How long before we get our own Donald Trump? In the 2015 general election UKIP won nearly four million votes. I'd be very surprised if, with Labour in navel-gazing disarray, their share of the vote didn't increase in 2020.

To be clear, there would be drawbacks and risks to leaving. This isn't a choice between something self-evidently good and something self-evidently bad. It's a choice between two almost equally unsatisfactory and even dangerous things.

Nevertheless I think that the EU referendum offers an opportunity to reverse two decades of growing inequality.  Even if you don't agree with me, I think you'd have to concede that, in the absence of overwhelming reasons to the contrary, it's worth restoring accountability to the heart of the relationship between people and government.

That's why I'll vote for Brexit.  Go on, hate me if you like.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Why I love . . . Trevor Phillips

There is a story that when the poet and historian Robert Conquest was asked if he wanted to retitle a reissue of his seminal study of Stalin's bloody 1930s purges, his friend Kingsley Amis suggested "I Told You So You Fucking Fools".  

This morning as I flicked through the new Civitas report, Race and Faith, by Trevor Phillips, the former student activist and broadcaster, I wanted to shout out Amis's suggestion on every page.

You can download Phillips' masterly dissection of our failure to manage diversity here.

I haven’t read it all yet, but the thrust of it seems to be that too much tolerance of diversity is a bad thing and that “the different sets of values and behaviours prevalent in some ethnocultural communities present a serious challenge to the process of integration in our society” (no shit Sherlock).

The typical response of Britain’s political and media elite confronted with awkward facts has been evasion”, he writes.  We risk “allowing our country to sleepwalk to a catastrophe that will set community against community, endorse sexist aggression, suppress freedom of expression, reverse hard-won civil liberties, and undermine the liberal democracy that has served this country so well for so long.

I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying reading it. Because this is Trevor Phillips, a black man, a member of the Labour party, not some hatchet faced racist from the Tory shires. Now at last they'll start listening over at the Guardian.

No, OK, that's clearly not going to happen.

“The premise that any kind of under-achievement or failure amongst people of colour must stem solely from unequal treatment by the dominant society implies that all those who come from minority groups have no agency other than that allowed by whites. People of colour, for example, become puppets of others’ prejudices, with no capability of managing or improving their own lives.”


“. . . some minority groups hold very different values and ambitions than those commonly held amongst the dominant majority; that those values and ambitions are even further away from liberal ideals than the average; and that because they are sincerely held by those groups, they aren’t going to change any time soon. The European social liberal clings to the belief that we are essentially the same ‘under the skin’ in the desperate hope that, with time, ‘liberal’ values will inevitably prevail amongst people of all backgrounds.”

“And still, our political and media elites appear not to have scented this new wind. We maintain a polite silence masked by noisily debated public fictions such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘community cohesion’. Rome may not yet be in flames, but I think I can smell the smouldering whilst we hum to the music of liberal self-delusion.”

I particularly enjoyed that one. Any sentence including the words "liberal self-delusion" is good with me.

Phillips continues, "even those of us on the progressive wing of politics must now surely accept that in the conditions of today’s society, our reflex defence of traditional behaviours and separate communities is actually undermining one of the most cherished of left-wing values – social solidarity."

And on p.32 I am truly transported to heaven.  Mr Phillips writes of the Macpherson report into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, "It used the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe what it had found. This was a mistake whose consequences are still felt today."  Oh Jesus. Nirvana. I have been pointing out for years (on this blog; to anyone who would listen) that some policemen were racist, just as some of them were corrupt and incompetent, but that is not the same as the institution being racist. Now at last someone agrees with me.

Where I think Phillips is wrong (and this touches on the recent debates about Ken Livingstone's anti-semitism) is that none of this has anything to do with race.  It’s all to do with culture.  Afro-Caribbean migration worked, in the end, because the migrants had a broadly similar cultural background to the white population, and because of intermarriage.  Muslim migration isn’t working because the migrants have a significantly differently cultural background, one which, moreover, makes intermarriage difficult (if not actually physically dangerous for the participants). We are in grave danger of turning parts of Britain into societies split along religious lines. As if Northern Ireland wasn't bad enough. Anyone who thinks this is hyperbole hasn't been to the Lancashire and Yorkshire mill towns.

The use of the word race, I contend, has actually done enormous damage to our ability to identify the phenomenon confronting us, not only because it obscures its real nature but because it enables those who feel criticised to shut off debate by playing the “race” card.  As Phillips himself writes, "There are costs to this fastidiousness. If we cannot even name some of the aspects of the problems, how can we seriously hope to address them? . . . But the use of these terms has a purpose for those who coin them. They are one more brick in the wall of denial."

There are times in Race and Faith when Phillips seems to be within touching distance of grasping how damaging this has been:

"However, the most dangerous trend in my view, has been the recent over-use of the epithet ‘racist’. This word (and its close cousin, ‘Islamophobe’) is now freely applied to almost anyone who disagrees with liberal orthodoxy on matters of racial and religious difference. A word with such toxic associations should really be reserved for individuals or organisations which are truly malevolent and racially exclusive . . . The widening of the use of the word ‘racist’ has now spread beyond political knockabout to encompass the concept of ‘microaggression’, borrowed from American university campuses."

As a defence against this kind of folly, "Parliament should . . . renew and formalise a presumption in favour of freedom of expression . . . there should be a case for the accretion of limitations and caveats on freedom of expression to be swept aside and replaced by legislation ensuring that only speech and gestures that directly encourage physical harm are subject to legal restriction".  Yes, yes and thrice yes.  Bravely, Phillips sets out what this might mean in practice.  Calling him a "nigger", however rude and offensive, would not be an offence.  Calling out, "Get that nigger over there" certainly would be.

The laissez-faire multiculturalism beloved by the Left hasn't worked, Phillips concludes. "It is time for us to abandon the old idea of organic integration. We have neither the time nor, in the modern jargon, the bandwidth, to allow a natural convergence of so many different cultures and traditions. Nor, in a globalised world, with the aggressive proselytising of Islamist militancy, can we rely on the notion that every community will, with time, come to see the advantages and attractiveness of western values and ways of living."

Correct. For me one of the most perplexing, infuriating and contemptible aspects of non-European migration has been that migrants came to Britain because the values of the countries they left behind had ensured they remained poverty-stricken, sectarian and corrupt basket-cases.

And yet, having arrived here (or having been born here) they persisted not only in clinging to the practices that their ancestors were, wittingly or not, trying to escape, but also tried to elbow aside the culture that made the UK somewhere worth escaping to.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Shostakovich 5 - letting the light shine through

On Saturday I had the great good fortune to conduct the wonderful Wrexham Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich's 5th Symphony.  I had never conducted Shos 5 before, and although I'd heard it many times I couldn't really claim to have known it in the way I know, say, the symphonies of Sibelius. Learning the piece has been an illuminating experience.

Almost too much is known about the circumstances in which the 5th Symphony was written. The Great Terror of the 1930s, in which Stalin attempted to purge of Soviet society of his opponents, is estimated to have resulted in up to fifteen million shot or sent to the Gulags. Neighbour denounced neighbour and children denounced their parents. Failure to denounce could imply personal guilt.

In this atmosphere of fearful paranoia, Shostakovich's opera The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was the subject of a scathing review in Pravda, written if not by Stalin personally then certainly under Stalin's direction after he had walked out of a performance.  The composer withdrew the Fourth Symphony, then in rehearsal, fearful that it too would meet with the authorities' disapproval, and kept a suitcase packed for when the secret police called. There are stories of him sleeping in the apartment stairwell so that his family would not be disturbed upon his arrest. To cap Shostakovich's problems, the woman he was in love with then married another man.

In these circumstances the composition of the 5th Symphony was an act of almost reckless courage. It's in a less dissonant idiom than the immediately preceding works, and the structure is quite simple (we also played Sibelius's Pohjola's Daughter on Saturday, music of far greater structural complexity and subtlety).  Nevertheless the tone is one of almost unremitting bleakness; when that lets up it is because the orchestra becomes possessed of a manic dysfunctional energy verging on the parodistic. To mark his lover's marriage - to a Spaniard, a Snr Carmen - twisted versions of the Habanera from Bizet's opera are inserted in the outer movements.

For a regime demanding art which exalted the heroic struggles of the proletariat, the 5th reads as a calculated two-finger salute.

And yet the piece ends happily. Out of nowhere a blaze of D major lights up the sky, and the orchestra pounds away in D for a good minute to a thumping conclusion.  It's an ending which was criticised by some as a cop out, and it wasn't until Shostakovich's pupil Solomon Volkov published what purported to be the composer's memoirs in the 1970s that the idea began to dawn that Shostakovich had written a deliberately bombastic ending as if to say, "So you wanted rejoicing?  Well here's some rejoicing for you".

For conductors this presents a problem, because audiences like to go home feeling good, and we are always tempted to wave our arms around to signal the sense of completeness, of triumph over adversity, that the Romantic symphony communicates so well (if so misleadingly: life is not so binary).  Some press on through the D major coda to give a sense of mounting excitement. I didn't want to short-change the William Aston Hall audience, but respect for Shostakovich's achievement (and his suffering) demanded that the conclusion be as rigid and mechanical as, according to Volkov, the composer would have wanted.

In truth, getting the speeds right in the piece is one of its hardest aspects. Pacing is always an issue in symphonic music outside the Classical era. To be clear, pacing is not the same as speed. Pacing is the cumulative effect of a series of different speeds, and in the outer movements of the piece Shostakovich writes great slabs of music which get faster to a central climax and then withdraw once more. It's very hard to get the pacing of these accelerating sections right, not the least because orchestras are long used to having learnt the piece from conductors who don't actually seem to have read Shostakovich's metronome marks.

The opening is a case in point. The upward leaps in the strings must clearly be done in 8 (one beat for each quaver), but the passage which follows feels very slow and lumpy if you carry on in the same way. Most conductors try and get into 4 (one beat for each crotchet) after the first few bars, but speeding the orchestra up from this slow tempo is difficult, and anyway Shostakovich didn't write an accelerando.

I recently saw a young conductor begin - too slowly I thought - in 8, and go straight into a much quicker 4 with an audible and ragged jerk as the strings sought to adjust to the new speed. There's a film on Youtube of Rostropovich (who knew Shostakovich, for Christ's sake) doing it in 4 right from the opening but at a fast speed which bears no relation to the metronome mark. As a general principle I always try and do what the composer asks for unless it palpably doesn't work: and this is one of the instances where you have to bow apologetically to the composer and honour the spirit of the music. Bernstein for me seems to get it about right (the performance is on Youtube again), beginning in quite a direct 8 and going on in 4 with just the tiniest quickening.

However the same Bernstein performance shows the weakness of imposing your judgment on the composer's. In the finale he, like many others, starts too fast and gets faster too quickly. This is exciting to begin with, but leaves the music with nowhere to go. True excitement comes from the gradual accelerando, the feeling that events have got out of control.

I was struck too by Shostakovich's masterful pacing of the orchestration. The piece opens with a grand gesture, but uses only one section of the orchestra to make it - the strings. Now strings playing in unison can be imposing, but not as much as a fortissimo tutti. Yet Shostakovich calculates that since it is a gesture which interrupts silence, it will be big enough. And he is right (Incidentally, Dvorak makes the same calculation at the beginning of the last movement of the New World Symphony). This careful allocation of resources enables him to make even bigger gestures later. True tuttis are actually quite rare in the symphony, and indeed there are many passages where the scoring is confined to a few instruments. I have always liked this in music - it's a bit like a watercolourist using the white of the paper to let light shine through.

For me there is only one miscalculation in the score, and that is the climax in the first movement where the strings and wind play a frenzied version of the opening over enormous brass chords. You really are being beaten over the head here, and, after the first half a dozen bars, the wind/string accompanying figures are too continuous to be interesting and dramatic. Given the same material, Tchaikovsky would have done this much better.

But what do I know?

Unlike novelists, who have regularly faced persecution for their work, there are very few composers who have risked death for writing a piece of music their enemies didn't like. The audience at the first performance is said to have applauded for three quarters an hour. Shostakovich deserved his redemption.