Published in February 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Mother tongue 1
29th December 2004
Your foreword (January), commenting on Richard Jenkyns’s essay on misuses of the English language, stated that, “the grandiloquence of political language seems in inverse proportion to the smallness of the issues.” You meant the opposite: the grandiloquence is in inverse proportion to the greatness of the issues.
Mother tongue 2
30th December 2004
I started to read Richard Jenkyns’s article anticipating an elitist diatribe which I could challenge at every step. Unfortunately for the inverted snob in me, it turned out to be an excellent, even-handed discussion. However, I did manage to find one toehold: he only mentions the idea of an “elite conspiracy to keep the proles in their place” as a possible argument which did not even merit consideration. This is a shame, because I am sure that the role of language as a social weapon remains significant.
The Norwegian way
19th December 2004
Manneken Pis (January) says that the Norway-EU deal is “comically disadvantageous” to Norway. In that case, how would he characterise the UK-EU deal? What the Norwegians get is this: no common agricultural policy; no common fisheries policy (the reason they have a thriving fishing industry); no customs union (the reason they represent themselves at the WTO, unlike the UK); no economic and monetary union; no common and foreign security policy; no EU justice and home affairs policies.
What Norway does get is free movement of goods, services, capital and people between itself and the EU. For this, it pays to the EU each year, per capita, four times less than the UK. Sure, Norway has no vote on EU laws, but then the UK has only 9 per cent of the vote on EU laws (about to shrink further as other countries join) and no veto on trade matters. In practice, what’s the difference?
Zappa and The Floyd
14th December 2004
Erik Tarloff’s review (January) of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and Barry Miles’s biography of Frank Zappa took two pages to say very little other than that he worships Dylan and detests Zappa. He acknowledges the many faults of the Dylan book, but keeps protesting that these are all part of the thrill of hearing Dylan “ruminate about what it felt like to be Bob Dylan.” The Zappa book, by contrast, is sunk by its unfortunate insistence on being about Zappa. Tarloff rehearses what a horrid person Zappa was (“arrogant, cold, manipulative, bullying”), while describing Dylan as, “a family man pleased to sport a bumper sticker proclaiming him the world’s greatest grandpa.” Yet Zappa’s life, unlike Dylan’s, was built around a long and happy marriage, and his kids loved him. Indeed, any father who named his children Dweezil and Moon Unit and still retained their respect can’t have been too monstrous.
The textual errors nitpicked by Tarloff are, in the main, copy-editing faults which ought to have been spotted by the publisher, not the author. As for Tarloff’s remark that an experienced rock journalist should know better than to refer to “the Pink Floyd,” this is proof of Tarloff’s ignorance, not Miles’s. The Pink Floyd toyed with a definite article throughout their early career when innovators like Zappa and the Floyd were pushing forward the boundaries of popular music. Zappa deserves better than to be dismissed so waspishly.
What about the Brits?
7th January 2005
It was Fintan O’Toole who told us in the 1980s that, “Irish politics are the great exception to all of the worldwide rules.” Believing that independent Ireland was a uniquely awful entity, he celebrated the influx of global capital and culture in the 1990s as a dizzying liberation. Now it seems that a reading of Diarmaid Ferriter’s The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 has led O’Toole (January) to conclude that Ireland has been an unremarkable corner of Europe for much of the last century. But is O’Toole’s conversion to this view accompanied by a realistic assessment of Irish history?
Ferriter’s book is not a first step towards a pragmatic, Irish narrative. Rather, where the internal history of independent Ireland is concerned, he has admirably brought together the research of a generation of social historians. Where relationships within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain are concerned, Ferriter’s book is profoundly inadequate. Given that all Ireland was part of the UK from 1900-20, and that Northern Ireland continues to be so, the failure to deal with the nature and impact of British power, thinking, decision-making and, at times, inattention is astonishing. Unionist attitudes, behaviour and leadership from 1970 to today scarcely figure in Ferriter’s narrative.
Fintan O’Toole gives credence to the view, commonly held in Britain, that historians in Ireland are mired in emotionalism and hyperbole. Like Ferriter, he would see himself as an internationalist; like Ferriter, he has trouble seeing outside the confines of his own state. As a result, he offers the British public an Irish story that has almost nothing to do with the British story.
Barra O Seaghdha
Judt on antisemitism
13th December 2004
Tony Judt (December) is right to say that not all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. But some is. As the (non-Jewish) chairman of Labour Friends of Israel for the last two years, I have been shocked by the occasional demonisation of Israel that I’ve encountered. Israel’s government makes mistakes. So do the leaders of the Palestinians. But some people are trying to turn Israel into a global villain, the new pariah regime to take the place of apartheid-era South Africa.
I find it hard to reconcile that image to the reality on the ground-Israel is a democracy, suffering terrorist attacks, surrounded by countries that don’t recognise its existence, the victim of well-funded terrorist organisations that preach antisemitic hate. The Palestinians deserve a viable state, and are suffering real poverty and hardship. There is suffering on both sides-neither can solve this problem without the other.
So when some people talk as if Israel is entirely to blame, I ask why. The only answer I can find is that there is something deep in our cultural memory that makes us disposed to blame Jews. That tendency was put in its box by the Holocaust. But today it re-emerges-occasionally, but persistently. I would call it passive, or unexamined, antisemitism.
So not all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. But some is, and we should be very wary of it.
House of Commons
30th December 2004
David Held’s thoughtful review (January) of my book Why Globalisation Works demonstrated the truth of my proposition that, “liberals, social democrats and moderate conservatives are on the same side in the great battle against religious fanatics, obscurantists, extreme environmentalists, fascists, Marxists and, of course, contemporary anti-globalisers.”
Yet Held also takes me to task. Here I will focus on just three of his points: that I ignore the role of power in the global market; that I fail to provide a framework for thinking about a range of cross-border problems; and that I hold the “wrong philosophy for the age in which we live.” I disagree.
Here are a few economies that have been remarkably successful in recent decades: Chile, Hong Kong, Ireland, Mauritius, Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Taiwan. What made these places succeed was not power, of which they possessed next to none, but the ability to produce ever-increasing quantities of things people want to buy.
It is particularly strange to be berated over my misunderstanding of the role of power, only to be confronted by Held’s utopian vision of a comprehensive global social democratic order. Since our world of divergent power is also compatible with more widely spread prosperity, this is unnecessary. Moreover, his vision presupposes a degree of mutual commitment that simply does not exist.
Held is also far too optimistic about the consequences of spreading his social democratic norms across the world. He approves, for example, of the social chapter of the EU’s Maastricht treaty. But this was an attempt-fortunately, largely unsuccessful-to protect national labour market regimes that have inflicted deplorably low employment across much of the EU. It is easy to envisage the dire effect of imposing such “successes” throughout the developing world.
Held has helped define the proper areas for debate. But his social democratic globalisation is a mirage. It could even do much damage.
The future of work
16th December 2004
Stephen Overell (January) might have a point when he suggests that commentators such as myself may have been extrapolating from our own experience when we looked at the future of work and predicted the rise of the independent worker. But my experience also suggests that it is wise to look behind the aggregate statistics if you want the whole truth of what is going on in our workplace. A quick look at the Social Trends publication for 2004 will reveal that there were, in round numbers, 47m people of working age in Britain in 2003. Of these, 30m were economically active and 18m were in full-time jobs.
The so-called economically inactive were not all lying in bed: many were rearing children, looking after elderly relatives, or even, after early retirement, cultivating their gardens and doing odd bits of paid work below the radar screen. Other than the chronically disabled, the economically inactive were working even if they didn’t get counted as such. It is not therefore, by my way of looking at things, inaccurate to say that the full-time job is a minority occupation. Even if you allow for the 3m who claim to be unfit for work, 18m out of 44m is definitely less than half.
Overell’s comforting picture of long-term careers in old-style vertical organisations should also be taken with a large sprinkling of salt. About 70 per cent of business enterprises have no employees other than the proprietor(s) while another 29 per cent have less than 50. That doesn’t leave much room for the big boys. In fact, in 2003, there were 3,415 organisations with more than 500 employees, the sort of enterprises that could and should offer long-term jobs and proper careers, but they accounted for only 9m people. The other 9m, in tiny, small and medium-sized enterprises cannot be so sure of their futures whatever their employers’ survey answers may show.
Large enterprises are the bedrock of the economy and long may they thrive, but the energy, creativity and flexibility will often come from the myriad flea organisations and individuals that cluster around the elephants, and for them life is less certain. We will be misleading our young if we allow them to think that nice secure jobs and careers are waiting for most of them in what remains a very uncertain world.