Published in February 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Time for some cultural détente
The recent skirmishes between Britain and Russia give some credence to the idea of “the new cold war” (the title of a new book by the Economist’s Edward Lucas). But in the absence of any big ideological clashes between the two nations, there is really no reason why they shouldn’t be friends. Culturally, Britain and Russia have always appealed to each other—an affinity that the two countries’ increasing business ties will surely enhance.
But Russia and Britain do suffer from mutual misconceptions about how their respective governments work, as has been revealed by the row over Russia’s crackdown on the British Council. The Russian authorities cannot understand how an organisation like the British Council can be both a cultural agent of the British government and yet wholly independent of it.
But the Russian state is no less of a source of puzzlement to the British. All its branches are riven with warring factions who define the national interest to suit themselves. This means that the president is not fully in control of “his” system. He cannot disavow lawless actions taken by subordinates without losing his authority—which is why, for instance, he can’t allow honest investigations into the murders of Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya.
One irony of the current situation is that British Council staff fondly recall the assistant to the mayor of St Petersburg who in the early 1990s worked tirelessly to help the council set up its office in the city. His name? Vladimir Putin.
Salt of the earth (image, below): Las Salinas Grandes in Argentina is a giant 8,290km2 plateau of salt high in the Andes, on the border with Chile and Bolivia. Members of the Quechua, a Native American ethnic group, struggle to make a living from packing 50kg bags of salt; each sells for around 70 US cents.
The government’s various loans and other supports for Northern Rock are now put at £55bn—yet, absurdly, even respectable sources like the BBC and the Times imply that this is a straight public subsidy to the bank. But this is not taxpayers’ money that might otherwise have been spent on a high-speed rail link or hundreds of new hospitals. It is a loan to support a continuing business. As with any loan, the taxpayer is taking a small risk, but the state is lending at a good rate of interest and the loan is backed by solid collateral. The only chance of losing real money is if a sharp fall in house prices undermines the value of Rock’s mortgage book. Most experts think that the worst-case loss is about £500m over several years. But the deal could even turn a small profit.
Church in a state
The government has quietly taken another big step towards disestablishing the Church of England. Back in July it announced it was withdrawing from the appointment of bishops, and has now declared that it will no longer appoint deans. (The only bits of “establishment” left are the bishops in the Lords, who won’t last long, and the Queen.) State withdrawal from the appointment of deans is not universally popular in the church. Some clergy fear that the church will, as a result, become more divided. William Chapman, the appointments secretary at No 10, who is himself an Anglican, has been a force for moderation by balancing the different factions in his appointments of deans. Once the government withdraws, deans will be appointed by bishops, who are likely to choose those sympathetic to their own outlook. But if a more factional church is a danger, it may be preferable to the previous dependency culture. The Anglican church is hardly thriving, having just seen the size of its congregation slip behind the Catholics. There are many reasons for this, but the church has not been blessed by strong leadership over recent decades, and the fact that it has not even been in charge of its own appointments may have had something to do with it.
Is Europe’s resistance to genetically modified foods set to end? Until now, Europe’s governments have fallen in line with a broadly hostile public: GM foods in the EU must be labelled as such, and in many European countries they are in effect banned. But the EU is now formulating a PR strategy geared towards restoring public confidence. During “round one” of GM in Europe, it is felt, attention was mistakenly focused on herbicide and insect-resistant crops, which benefit the producer more than the consumer. “Round two” will focus on GM’s potential public benefits—improved animal welfare, lower food prices and the reduction of livestock disease. There is even talk of doing away with the term “GM”—which, it is felt, plays into the hands of those who want to whip up irrational fears about “Frankenfoods.”
Votes for kids
With low turnout a continuing problem (see Paul Skidmore’s essay in this issue), some parties say it’s time Britain attempted to boost engagement among the young by lowering the voting age to 16—a change pioneered by democratic powerhouses like Austria and, er, Guernsey. The policy has been in the last two Lib Dem manifestos.
The Lib Dems’ new leader, Nick Clegg, has been trying to move the party away from some of its wackier policy ideas, but has thus far remained silent on adolescent voting. Yet people voting when they cannot drive or drink has a whiff of the ridiculous. So just as teenagers can obtain a provisional driving licence, perhaps they could be given a provisional vote. Such votes would be tallied and reported, but not count towards the result. How about it, Nick?
George Steiner discovers humility
Listeners to Radio 3′s arts programme Night Waves were recently treated to that rare thing—an interview with George Steiner (pictured, right). The 78 year old was talking to Philip Dodd about his latest work, My Unwritten Books, in which he describes the seven books he regrets not having written. Neither Steiner nor Dodd are exactly known for their modesty, so it might have been an insufferable occasion. But Steiner proved to be in a surprisingly humble mood. He admitted that while he had been obsessed all his life by the “dark privilege” of being “very close to the very great”—including Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer—he was aware of the huge distance separating such people from those, like himself, who merely “carry the mail for them.” He also admitted that in the course of his career he had encountered “one or two” students who had “awed” him—though unfortunately he didn’t say who they were. He finished with an impassioned complaint about the way that greed and selfishness are disfiguring the world.
Is Australia soon going to declare itself a republic? The refusal by new prime minister Kevin Rudd to pledge allegiance to the Queen at his swearing-in ceremony in December certainly makes it seem possible, writes David Ritter. But while this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing—a majority of Australians are republican, after all—the issue hardly excites great passion. Moreover, there is a danger of it becoming a surrogate for other discontents—notably the sense that Australia today is too much of a pawn of the US (culturally, economically and in foreign policy), and the problem of political disengagement. Removing the monarch will not displace the influence of Bush and Britney, nor will it make Australians less cynical about their politicians. If the country decides to go it alone, it should do so for the right reasons.
Too many bosses
US companies are notorious for their baffling number of vice-presidents, executive directors and so on. But this corporate hyperbole seems to be spreading to Britain, especially to its financial sector, where large organisations have taken to announcing a large crop of new managing directors (MDs) every January. This year is no different, despite the economic turmoil. So far four groups—Lehman Brothers, Barclays Capital, Citigroup and Smith Barney—have announced the appointment of a total of 664 new MDs, which is not unusual. Assuming that the average MD stays in office for a modest six years, this indicates that these four firms between them must have 4,000 managing directors. One hopes that they all manage to find enough to direct.
Burn the bloody books
The book world is caught up in a debate over Vladimir Nabokov’s last, unpublished work—known as The Original of Laura. Should his son and heir Dmitri destroy it—as Nabokov requested—or allow it to be published? The dilemma echoes another still-raging controversy, over the stories of Raymond Carver (pictured, right), which his widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, intends to publish in their original form for the first time. (Carver’s famously lean style was largely a product of cuts made by his editor, Gordon Lish.)
Many have argued that whatever Carver originally wrote, the published versions of his work remain the most authentic. Similarly, when online journal Slate invited its readers to join the Nabokov debate, most respondents argued that authorial intentions must come second to the needs of “literature.” History is certainly full of painful losses: John Murray burned Byron’s journals, Hardy’s papers were burned on his death, and Monica Jones destroyed all 30 volumes of Philip Larkin’s diaries. In contrast, as Nabokov himself noted, Max Brod did the world a great service by refusing to obey Kafka’s wishes and destroy all his work. Yet the snippets of Larkin’s diaries Monica Jones glanced at were, she said, “desperate,” and may well have drowned Larkin’s slender oeuvre in their bleak revelations. How far can posterity ever be trusted? Rather than agonising over such niceties, perhaps we should be encouraging authors to burn more while they’re alive. There are, after all, plenty of reputations that might have been enhanced by the culling of a few titles.