Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

If you want to understand the UK election result, look at Ireland, not the continent.

Back in 2015, at the end of a more innocent age, Tim Marshall wrote a book called Prisoners of Geography. In it, he argued that the principal governing force behind human activity is not, as we choose to think, free will – but the geographical configuration of the planet on which we live.

Geopolitics is not a widely-discussed subject – at least not explicitly so, though according to Marshall, much of what happens in the world is underpinned by it. This is no less true of the 2019 British General Election result, which saw a right-wing nationalist party returned with an increased majority – and the issue that underlay it: Brexit.

Pro-European Britons, particularly on the Left, may be reeling under what they see as the denial of the self-evident truth of the modern world, namely the U.K.’s future as a social-democratic member of the E.U. It was very attractive to a certain sort of well-travelled, often-educated Briton for whom the EU had increasingly felt like home – me included.

But our dream of the place we earnestly believe that Britain needs to be is, and always has been, compromised by those pesky geopolitics. The 2019 election has just shown this once again: our worldview is simply not persuasive enough to carry a decisively large percentage of the wider British public with it. The tough fact is, the U.K. is marginal to the European land mass, and it has always had split loyalties as a result; EU membership was simply not important enough to many enough for the issue to carry the election. And that’s without considering Britain’s history, which has left it with a deluded sense of its own importance. For centuries, British policy was to divide the continent in order to prevent an anti-British alliance (which itself may have been more neurosis than real threat – but it worked). What has really changed? But maritime nations are no longer strategically pivotal; instead, they have become marginal. The British seem not to have noticed.

The Interrail generation has always ‘read’ the U.K. from its proximity to the continent. We travelled widely; we formed international friendships; we eagerly grasped every shred of evidence that the U.K. was gradually becoming more like the rest of the Europe that we saw and admired. It was not a delusion: particularly in the last twenty years, since the internet turbocharged communications, there has indeed been convergence, some visible, some less so. Eurosceptics glued to their TVs during the Champions’ League know not what they do. Eurostar altered perceptions too – albeit mostly for those living in the South East. The fact that the British economy shed its post-war difficulties was probably also due to integration with a larger entity – that effect has repeatedly been observed elsewhere. In pure trading terms, the ‘economies of scale’ count. But we ignored the fact that they don’t work socially, culturally – and perhaps geopolitically. In reality, Britons as a whole are little more ‘Europeanised’ than they ever were.

If you want to understand Britain in those terms, don’t look at the continent; look at Ireland. For in doing so, we hold a more realistic mirror to our own place vis-à-vis the rest of Europe, and perhaps gain a better understanding of the true nature of our own country. Simply put, continentals perceive the U.K. in something like the way the British perceive Ireland.

I can’t claim to know Ireland intimately, though I have travelled over much of its southern half – and through my love of its music, I have repeatedly rubbed up against its people, both music-friends who live there, and Irish friends in the U.K. Playing ‘their’ music may have provided something of a cultural pass-partout that other Brits have not had. For my purposes here, I will also plead guilty to doubtful wisdom of blurring the political and geographical uses of the term ‘Ireland’, because we are really talking about a combination of the two.

To an even greater extent than the U.K., Ireland is not a modern European country. True, if you drive around the Dublin ring-road, you will see light industrial estates similar to those on the outskirts of Rouen or Ghent. True, if you take the empty new toll motorways to the west, you could easily believe that you were on a western-French autoroute on which they have been conspicuously modelled. True, in central Dublin, you can use the tram as you can in Strasbourg or Basel. But it doesn’t take long to realise that these things are symbols of desire, a statement of what the modern Ireland wants to be, not what it yet wholly is; that is still visible down the side-streets. Outside these bubbles, much of Ireland still struggles with its location on the periphery of Europe, where the land is often poor, and where the population, while youthful and rising, is low enough to make wider development problematic. You can see it in the difficulty that the Irish have had with developing their infrastructure: the place simply isn’t big or populated enough to compete successfully with a whole continent, now that continents matter more than seaways. Without the EU funds, it might not have happened at all.

You can also find it in the mindset. I don’t for a moment wish to indulge in typical English condescension towards a country whose culture is, in many ways stronger and more productive than my own – but it still has a largely nostalgic, provincial mentality. The modernity that I described strikes me as a somewhat contrived denial of a historico-geo-political reality that is still uncomfortably close to the surface. This is an island where religion has only quite recently lost a significant grip – and allowed the ‘permissiveness’ of modern internationalism seen in otherwise-universal matters such as abortion and same-sex partnerships – and where it is still seen as novel – even if proudly so – for the Premier to be non-white and gay.

It is a nation that still venerates its past – as seen in the enduring presence of traditional music – even though its actual practice is a minority interest in a nation that is prouder of having produced the likes of U2. But Irish exports still overwhelmingly play on traditional images of Ireland. It still takes little for bitter-sweet nostalgia for the island’s troubled past to come pouring out. While the small towns with their multitude of independent businesses may look picturesque, they are still demographically and economically precarious – often dated, and hardly an expression of modern Europe. They are resolutely inward-looking: while Irish hospitality is everything it is reputed to be, the communities feel introspective; the warm welcome is that extended to strangers, not the familiarity of fellow-locals.

Even the shiny buildings in Dublin’s docklands have been built using cash that had be attracted by an aggressive policy of ultra-low corporation tax, which is a distinctly un-European approach. When we first visited around fifteen years ago, much of the South resolutely failed the Cappucino Test: our tongue-in-cheek measure of how cosmopolitan a place actually is. On more than one occasion, the advertised cappuccino turned out to be filter-coffee topped with aerosol cream… and while things have definitely improved since, in our experience, it is still not certain that a decent vegetarian meal will always be available.

But above all, Ireland is a long way from the continent. Not necessarily in terms of kilometres – but because those kilometres are mostly water, in people’s minds they expand ad infinitum. You can only get in and out by ship or aircraft, as used to be the case in the UK too. The sheer practical fact of Ireland’s physical isolation alone is sufficient to explain most of the above – and indeed the admirable determination of the Irish that it will be otherwise. But you only have to arrive via the docks at Dublin or Waterford to be reminded that pretty much every expression of modern, cosmopolitan Ireland has to be imported.

While the practical, economic benefits for Ireland of belonging to a much larger economic unit are most visible, I can also sympathise entirely with Ireland’s Europeanism  on another level: as a peripheral lump of rock on the edge of both a large continent and a larger ocean, it actually has more to prove – including to itself – than those countries closer to the core of Europe, where it happens much more easily and naturally. It is not alone; it is a known cultural phenomenon that peripheral areas identify more strongly with their cultural cores than those cores do with themselves. (We see the same with the Ulster Unionists vis à vis the UK). In the case of Eire, there is also a strong imperative to define the modern nation in opposition to its historic master (on which it is nonetheless heavily reliant) – namely the UK.

At the same time, it is these peripheral areas that experience conflicted identities. The characteristics I have described above are not unique to Ireland; many outlying parts of Europe, from Scandinavia to Southern Italy, have difficulty in identifying unreservedly with the core European identity. In fact, we should not claim that Europe is only about that core identity: it is a dispersed and disparate place – but for all that, there clearly is a core, built around France, Germany and Benelux. While it has not been an entirely smooth journey, at least the Irish have had the sense to understand that their best future lies in a partnership with that core, in a way that many British still refuse to do – and they are getting on with it.

I do hope that Irish readers understand this is not criticism of their country. The key point is this: the British have historically tended to look down on the Irish as provincial, disorganised and poor. They have seen Ireland as a country riven by backward-looking sectarian tribalism and hamstrung by poor geography. Those geographical realities have indeed done more to shape the Irish state – and still do – than the modern Irish might be comfortable admitting.

But as I said at the outset, we British can learn a lot from Ireland. Our problem with the EU is that in relation to the continent, we are just the same. Jean-Claude Juncker quipped that “everyone understands English – but no one understands England”. It is truer than he realises – in much the same way as the English don’t really understand the Irish. They are islanders, they are ‘other’; their different geopolitics gives them a fundamentally different mindset as a result. Continentals – being continental – tend to underestimate it. Equally, no post-joining attempt was made at European state-building in the UK, because it was never understood to be important.

Like the Irish, we British are still essentially islanders, also more primitive, more tribal and more inward-looking than we care to admit, no matter what the aspirations of a minority. Insular cultures tend to be conservative, and they are habitually suspicious of ‘foreign’ influences. In some ways, our closer proximity to the continent only exacerbates the problem, amplifying the inequalities between the South East and the rest and making the identity-dilemma all the sharper. What’s more, while the Irish share with many continental countries, relative youth as a nation – and traumatic events in their recent past that has forced them to think hard and positively about the kind of nation they want to be – the UK was able to wallow in post-War triumphalism and ignore such issues – until now, when hard choices belatedly need to be made.

The recent election has simply showed this all over again: when the chips were down, the British voted for More of The Same. Very little has really changed. The prospect of a European future was sloughed off in favour of the usual insular, inward-looking delusion of purely national greatness that always prevails. Sadly for we pro-Europeans, this is the true nature of the British people. De Gaulle spotted it when he vetoed the UK applications to join in the 1960s. Little has really changed – because the fundamental geography that gives rise it never does. Such delusions can only come from un-connected living on an island, permanently decoupled from the greater tides of humanity that have shaped modern continental co-operation. Until the next ice age, when sea level falls and the land-bridge returns, it will be ever thus.

Most of us as quite literally too far away to see what we are missing.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Maintaining the momentum

One of the few beneficial effects of the Brexit experience has been the long-overdue social debate that it has sparked. People now seem willing to engage in meaningful discussion about the nature and state of this country, where previously there seemed to be relatively little interest. It has also been one of the more positive impacts of social media that such debate is now possible. In the past couple of years, I have had numerous productive discussions about the current position in the U.K. and what arguably needs to change within it. Resources have been shared, thinking has moved on.

In particular, people seem to have woken up to the fact the Britain is not some kind of nirvana, that “everywhere else is worse”, as was implicit in the everyday British mindset for so long. There is real discussion going on about other societal models, and how some other countries manage to find success in fields where this country repeatedly and persistently fails. There is at last some recognition of the insular smugness of that traditional British worldview, which has blinded so many for so long – and even an emergent acceptance that in our conservatism, we have turned into a rather unimaginative stodgy nation, afraid of change, who are very often being run rings around by the flair of more creative, innovative places and peoples elsewhere.

I think, though, that the British have yet to achieve a more objective understanding of their country’s natural and geographical situation that would allow them to address some of its enduring structural and attitudinal problems.

And too many still seem to think that higher standards “can’t be done here”. In a way, the  absence of ambition which that betrays is the single greatest indictment of the place we have now reached. 

But tomorrow, it looks as though the large part of the population that remains dead to such debate will vote to allow the old Establishment to put the cork back in the bottle, to ignore the debate, to re-assert the old ways, the old privileges, all the things that have caused the problem in the first place – perhaps for another generation. For too many, the old habits and mindset are so established, so innate, that their only reaction to challenge is to turn their back on it, and cling to what they know: a dull delusion of “Britishness”.

Quite how one can cut through to the fearful, the small-minded, the inward-looking, who it seems can only imagine the future as more of the same flawed past – while simultaneously showing a respect for their right to differ that they don’t often show in return – I really don’t know. As I said in my last post, real cultural change is extremely hard to bring about, and if they won’t engage in constructive debate, I am not sure how we can even begin.

Part of the problem is that they don’t want to: conservatism is by definition about continuity – about resisting change – and tends to be the preserve of those who feel they have little need to shape a different, more positive future – or little power to do so. In some countries, it defends a system that tends to work; in the case of the U.K. there is a stack of global comparators that suggest the opposite.

The resultant neglect is shocking; the stresses of Brexit have laid bare the extent to which the Establishment is prepared to neglect the nation that is notionally in its charge, in order to preserve its own primacy in the pecking-order. All it has really learned in a century is the need to make a few more quasi-democratic noises to keep the masses quiet. In reality, it still feels it can ignore a petition with over six million signatures, and even the constitutional conventions that it largely evolved, when it so chooses. Meanwhile, many of the rest continue to labour under a set of social assumptions and values with the same provenance, which are more widely seen as inappropriate for modern societies, but which are so embedded here as to be almost unconscious. Britain’s enduring preoccupation with status and social class, for example, only really shows how little progress there has been in removing its influence.

In reality, British conservatism seems to mean allowing only those changes that benefit existing privilege, thus perpetuating the problems which have led the country to its present moment of reckoning. The entire message is about a return to the past. Too often, even necessary change (not least the embracing of a more realistic view of Britain’s place in the world) has been rejected because it threatened the status quo. This, I suspect, is the real reason underlying conservatives’ antipathy for the EU: in its ideals at least, it is just too egalitarian  and future-orientated for them.

This country is paying the price for its complacency: a complacency started – and encouraged – by those historic elites, but in which the wider population is now complicit. We took too much on trust. We believed the assurances that everything was already for the best. We tolerated the neglect of necessary change in our national processes; in some cases we even voted to endorse it. We claimed powerlessness when things deteriorated.

If those of the conservative establishment were the sincere democrats and believers in “freedom” that they claim, they would long ago have enacted change. They could have started with the electoral system. They could have willingly examined alternative models and venues for our political institutions. They could have tackled private education and other wealth-perpetuated privilege. They could have devolved power to the regions. They would not have dragged their heels on environmental legislation to the point that the EU had to prosecute. And they could have accepted that their neo-liberal economic experiment has not worked for most of the population. Instead, they often enhanced it. So long as the system worked for them, they just didn’t care about the wider failings – and they still don’t. “Compassionate conservatism” has been revealed for the contradiction and lie that it is.

If the powers of conservatism are allowed to reassert themselves, this is precisely how they will carry on. None of the essential changes will happen. I’m not sure how it can be stopped; traditionally, it seems to take a revolution to topple embedded elites – but I think we need to be very careful what we wish for in that respect: such things rarely run according to plan. And I suppose that democracy needs to include the right of turkeys to vote for Christmas, though it should surely accommodate the rights of others not to be dragged down against their will, too.

There must be another way to ensure that the productive debate of the last three years does not just wither.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Turkeys and Christmas

turkey-that-voted-for-xmas

‘Culture’ is a creature whose DNA is quicksilver. Trying to define, let alone analyse it is like wrestling with shadows. One is forced into generalisation, simply because there is no other way to approach the collective thoughts, beliefs and behaviours of millions of people. Neither, in one’s pursuit of objectivity, is one able to escape one’s own cultural position; this is all the worse if one is scrutinising one’s native culture. No matter how one tries, it is impossible to be certain that one really has achieved the detachment needed for objectivity. There is no escape.

Some argue that there is no such thing as culture in the sense I mean it, just the behaviour of individuals and groups that coalesce and divide like shoals of fish. And yet it is hard not to feel that national culture or identity does exist: a deep, underlying commonality in the way people in a certain place tend to perceive and react to the world. But reaching an objective appraisal of it is almost impossible.

It should by now be clear that I am not referring to matters of art, literature and so on. To me, culture is a matter of mindset, which at varying levels gives rise to the ways in which people think and behave. The more conventional meaning refers to the means by which a particular mindset finds creative expression.

An irony of European integration has perhaps been that the differing cultures of that continent have become more of an issue rather than less. Being charitable, perhaps it is simply that we are more exposed to both the similarities and differences now than in the past; that creates the possibility to celebrate them – but it is also undoubtedly what has given rise to the problem of Brexit – and the various other nationalist resurgences being seen across the continent.

I am always bemused by the enduring British use of the word ‘international’- as in ‘St Pancras International’ and even ‘Aberdeen International’ (Airport). The use of the word suggests a glamorised perception of ‘abroad’ that I don’t think I have seen anywhere else – as though the mere use of the word can bestow cachet on a concrete bunker near Dyce. In a similar vein, a few days ago, I spotted a couple of neighbours whom I know to be hard Brexiteers cooing over some ‘continental’ biscuits in a local store – without any apparent awareness of the irony. (I thought such things went out in the Seventies…) Often, the very same people who despise the EU (and by extension, perhaps all continentals) are happy to visit (German-derived) Christmas markets, take their holidays in Spain, and splurge on the Champions’ League or Six Nations on TV without once sensing the contradictions in their behaviour.

My friend Manu lives in Lyon. He recently brought his eleven-year-old daughter to the UK with the express intention of exposing her to a new culture, one in whose language she is already pretty proficient. She engaged very well – though she did repeatedly complain of how cold she was on a mild British autumn day: that’s conditioning again. And Manu, despite being an Anglophile, was still stumped by the string-pull on British bathroom lights – something to which we British never give a second thought, yet the rest of Europe seems to think is deeply, neurotically bizarre. That is the level at which cultural conditioning and normalisation works: the small things that are so ingrained that it does not even occur to us that they might not be the same everywhere. Indeed, the very act of Manu’s visit struck me as a manifestation of such cultural differences: I wonder to how many mainstream British families it would even occur to undertake such a trip. Ours is a culture that is still fundamentally insular, inward-looking and overwhelmingly self-referential. Brexit has shown the limitations of such a position – and yet still we persist, almost as if we can’t help it.

The most telling aspects of a culture are those that it exhibits despite itself: the deep values, attitudes and behaviours that are so far below the radar that they escape our modern (supposed) self-knowingness. And when one starts to examine those things, what one finds can be far more disconcerting that a pretentiously-named box of biscuits.

All those ardent pro-European Brits may feel that they represent an outward-looking, cosmopolitan nation – but I suspect they are actually just another expression of precisely the opposite. The very fact that we are so insistent about such things at a conscious level might suggest we are less sure they are present at an unconscious one. For many on the modern continent, internationalism is simply a matter of day-to-day practicality, largely devoid of the romantic sentimentalism that underpins the British version. For them, crossing borders is often little more than a necessity. British ardour for other countries, on the other hand, is arguably more an expression of frustration at, or rejection of, the limitations of our own – a truth let slip a few days ago in a discussion I witnessed on pro-Remain social media, where there was agreement that pre-2016, few had given much thought at all to a European perspective. Even today, for many British, the continent is just the nearest place to go on holiday with decent weather. So be it – but the real problem is that most don’t seem to be aware of the inherent limitations of that view.

The deepest irony of the continental biscuits, of course, is that they are probably nothing like what one would really find on the continent – and that is before we even get to the point that there is no such culture as ‘continental’ on a land-mass made up of a kaleidoscope of some fifty different countries. And sadly, as with chocolate (and most things), the British re-interpretation is often a pale and insipid caricature. What those biscuits really betray is not knowingness, but ignorance.

So much for an outward-looking view: much of the current Europhilia is actually little more than an expression of normal human loss-aversion. If it were not, we would by now be experiencing more than polite marches and distribution of leaflets in its defence, even as the participants see the protests in Hong Kong on the TV nightly. What we are seeing is not really British “natural reserve”: it is the behaviour of people who have been systematically politically suppressed by their ruling classes, excluded from the real political process to the extent that we no longer believe we can make a difference, or that Change can come. In this country “Government” is something that is done to us, not by us. And it is so normal to us that we don’t even notice.

Who told us that we are “reserved”? Mostly those who made us that way: the same people who tell us that strong governments are preferable to consensual ones, and that a more inclusive electoral system really isn’t needed. The problem, once again, is that many seem to accept this as self-evident natural truth rather than a deliberate narrative which is open to challenge. “Representative democracy”, long-trumpeted as a good thing, is nothing more than a misnomer for a system that takes away any real say and places it in the hands of people who are all too often anything but representative. Which is just what they want.

If Brexit has revealed anything, it is the depth of ignorance still prevalent in this country about both the wider world and the workings of our own country. It is as though the reach of modern media has done little to dent the unconscious of the nation. We are in the throes of a general election campaign which owes its existence almost entirely to Brexit – and yet it has taken very little to deflect general public’s attention away from that issue and back to the traditional domestic battlegrounds of health, education and taxation. How convenient. It is also a means of addressing Brexit that, unlike the original vote, will deny millions of people in safe seats any meaningful influence on the outcome. How convenient.

That Brexit also seems to have exposed the chronic deficiencies in our social and political model seems still to be passing a substantial proportion of the population by. It is said that when the doors are opened, captive animals often cower at the back of their cages, preferring the captivity they know to the intimidating freedom they have been offered. That is the situation here: we know things are wrong, but collectively we seem to prefer the wrongness we know to the risk involved in making long-overdue reforms.

There is sufficient awareness of social models such as the Scandinavian one, for this country’s deficiencies not to be accepted as inevitable – and yet they widely are. The better standards of many continental countries are seen (and envied) by many, and yet they still believe the lie that “it can’t be done here”. The view is reinforced by the ingrained cultural belief that the patriotic British Way is still best – despite the manifold and growing evidence to the contrary. In the end, we prefer to grumble – and do nothing. Therein lies the hideous difficulty involved in genuinely changing a tired culture.

The electorate seems literally unable to make itself vote for a path to a more emancipated, egalitarian society in Britain. It clings to the handed-down view of a State which is a direct descendant of a domineering, imperialist power – which gives threatening names to agencies such as the Border FORCE, and which seems to believe that a resentful, punitive approach to the needs of its citizens is appropriate for all but a privileged few. It clings to a hierarchical view of society that is simply much less evident elsewhere – and thence to the notion that politics is about personal advantage rather than collective compromise.

The most terrible aspect of all is the prospect that our ruling institutions are still wedded to an authoritarian model whose main job is to keep “the masses” in their place while empowering certain influential individuals – and mouthing just sufficient platitudes about ‘Democracy’ to keep it so. Methinks they do protest too much: even today, when this system is perhaps broken beyond repair, it refuses to countenance an alternative.

Its success lies, as always, in portraying all the alternatives as worse: the depiction a consensus-seeking leader of the opposition as lily-livered, or a “Communist” as though that label is absolute damnation rather than merely an (inaccurate) description of an alternative political position.

This – rather than any particular set of values – is where the system is seriously imperilled: the point where people stop seeing the status quo as the relative position that it is, and starting thinking of it in terms of absolute truth is a serious threat to democracy. It then doesn’t take much – as seems already to be happening in the UK – for incumbent powers to convince the electorate that there really is no alternative.

This is why Jeremy Corbyn – for all his imperfections – has not made more headway. British culture simply can’t cope with an anti-hero like him, no matter how genuine he may be, and no matter how beneficial his policies might actually be for the health of the nation. He has refused to be made into the kind of leader the British think they want. His neutral position on Brexit, for example, seems entirely reasonable given the conflicts that he faces – and yet a mature “judgement of Solomon” type position is all too easily portrayed as weakness rather than maturity. Consensus-seeking depicted as a policy vacuum by the proponents of hard power. Yet ironically, consensus-seeking is precisely the way most continental politics work – and they are not in the mess that we are.

As I said at the start, cultures are complex and ill-defined things. Deliberate change is extremely difficult to effect – but from a long perspective, it is equally indisputable that cultures do change. Whether this is by evolution or revolution is another matter – but as with all organisms, those that are unable to adapt tend to die. At the point when societies and their cultures stop believing that another way is possible, stop being prepared even to speculate that the ‘farmer’ who feeds them might not after all be their best friend, then like Christmas turkeys, they are only headed for one destination.

Opinion & Thought

Still standing…

A month ago, I was asked to stand in for an ‘A’ Level Politics teacher who was having an operation. It felt like a huge step, particularly as I had vowed I would not go back into teaching.

Two weeks – which felt like two months (in a good way) – further on…

The new chapter of my career in education is written: no longer is the ending that ignominious crash, but a successful (if brief) return to the classroom three years later. I apologise if this seems over-dramatic, but it is an important matter for someone who always took his profession seriously and with a degree of pride.

I suppose I should be less surprised at how easily I dropped back into the classroom routine – but I am no less delighted, having been given the opportunity to prove, if only to myself, that I am still an effective practitioner – and that the questions raised three years ago were as groundless as I believed.

Does mental illness change people permanently? Perhaps. I found the daily ‘cognitive load’ greater than it used to be – but that may equally be a simple lack of practice (and it certainly got easier). I was wary of the fact that I seem to have a somewhat shorter fuse these days – but thankfully the students were so docile that it was never an issue. I think I am also more inclined to optimism, having been in a position where I was simply unable to experience positive feelings about anything for months on end. And I think I am also more understanding of other people’s imperfections and weaknesses too.

Equally, an important practical point has been made – it is possible to get back into work and cope. Until now, this has felt like an impossibly huge step. Indeed, it felt strange this morning not to be going to work again. I previously felt that I would never go back to the world of education – but now that is much less certain.

Having watched the other staff dealing with the usual heavy marking and administrative load, I don’t think I want to go back full-time: there are too many other things I am now involved with, that I want to keep up. It is true that work robs us of the possibility to have wider lives.

But the chance to go back into the classroom and just teach has reminded me that I really do enjoy doing this, and I seem to get results. The positive reactions of the students (seen not least in several leaving cards after just two weeks with them) suggests I am not wrong about this. And yet I still hesitate on such matters: the legacy of years of working in a place where one’s competence was implicitly and perpetually called into doubt runs deep. There again, a (small) amount of professional self-doubt may not be a bad thing…

The question is how, if at all, it can be done on something approaching acceptable terms.

But most of all, it felt good to work in a place where the vibe is positive, and where my colleagues were friendly and supportive – and who clearly retain views, qualities and practices that have gone a good way to restoring my faith in the profession. Thank you all.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Failed again

The calling of a General Election, far from being a courageous decision, marks just another failure of our political system to govern the country effectively. No matter how strenuously it is denied, this election will become a de facto referendum on Brexit – but far from resolving the issue, it virtually guarantees to lock the resentments of the issue permanently into the national psyche.

Rightly or wrongly, the original referendum in 2016 asked people to express their individual preferences for remaining in or leaving the EU; the resolution of the resultant deadlock in 2019 (for, short of another hung parliament, that it will be) will not allow people to do that, because it will utterly obscure the will of those individuals behind the many imperfections of our electoral system.

The most obvious criticism is that a single issue is being addressed using a mechanism more suited to the multi-issue matter of who governs the country for the next five years. While Brexit will clearly be a major factor in that, there is simply no neat correlation between people’s views on it and their other priorities and opinions.

More important, however, is that the votes of millions of people will count for nothing. I live in a very safe Conservative seat, and the chances of a change of MP are minimal. With a Conservative majority of 18,646, the likelihood of this constituency representing my wish to remain is nil. The same is, of course, true for Leavers who live in safe Remain-represented seats.

Therefore my views on Brexit (which are as far from my M.P.’s as they can possibly be, given that she is the Home Secretary) will have absolutely no effect on the outcome of the issue, simply because I am unfortunate enough to live in an area where the majority of people think differently. My M.P. has not even seen fit to reply to my correspondence on the matter. While I have little choice but to accept this in more normal politics, in this situation, it is intolerable.

Frankly, it will not even be worth my turning out to vote in the issue that is perhaps the most critical political event of my lifetime. The resentment that this will cause – particularly if the UK does then depart the EU – will, I’m afraid, remain in my memory forever. The same will be true wherever people don’t see their personal wishes honoured on an issue that was opened on the basis that every single vote counted and carried equal weight.

The U.K.’s First-past-the-post electoral system often returns governments that are only supported by the largest minority, not the majority. This will probably happen again, and is also in itself inconsistent with the ‘simple majority’ requirement of the original referendum. Instead of addressing the issue, all this does is to lower the bar. And if there is a hung parliament, it will solve nothing.

Parliament has been criticised for failing to represent the British people over Brexit. I don’t agree: if one considers the electorate as a whole, the stalemate of the past three years has accurately reflected the state of the nation. But it has utterly failed to find the collective courage to resolve the problem in the only way that has even a slim chance of setting the issue properly to rest. What’s more, this decision has once again been made not on the grounds of the national interest, so much as what has proved politically expeditious for a government of dubious real legitimacy.

While I am a firm Remainer, my objections are not about losing in 2016 per se. They are about the failure of that event to produce a trustworthy answer, with clearly-explained choices, a sensible winning margin and an honest campaign run by both sides. (When one considers that in theory the national destiny could have been tipped by even one vote, it becomes clear how unsafe the simple majority position was).

All I want is to see a ‘fair fight’ between the two sides, which would yield a result that I could accept as being properly democratic, and compliant with international norms for such referenda. In such circumstances I would, no matter how reluctantly, accept the result if it were to Leave. I would like to believe that Leavers would say the same in reverse, though their behaviour in the past period hardly gives much confidence. That, however, should not be a consideration in the fair resolution of the matter.

The Brexit referendum was an act of direct, individual democracy; the only appropriate resolution for the matter is another. Unfortunately, the decrepit system that got us into this mess seems to have learned nothing.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Proper

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Some time ago, my wife and I decided to upgrade the internal doors in our apartment. The advice about getting floors, doors, walls and windows right being the key to a good interior is, in my experience correct – and this was the last element in need of attention.

We replaced the inherited developer-standard panelled fake-Victorian moulded hardboard delights with some walnut-veneered doors in a plain finish. True to the principles of modernism, the beautiful colour and grain of the wood is all the ‘decoration’ needed. We also bought some brushed-steel bar handles which we felt would complement the richness of the wood very well. In short, while we hardly went for de luxe, we took the trouble to choose properly.

Unfortunately, over the following two years, the handles first sagged from the horizontal and then gradually pulled loose – and eventually one came away in my hand. ‘Proper’ comes in many shapes and forms, and it is surprisingly disconcerting to use a loose and saggy handle on a door. And I mean away: not just the handle from its spindle, but the entire mounting just pulled right out of the woodwork.

Investigation revealed that there were two options for mounting the handles: one consisted of holes for two bolts that would pass right through the mountings and door, linking them on either side and clamping everything solid when the nuts were tightened. The other was four screw-holes for fixing into the timber. In both cases, grub screws tightened the handles onto the spindle, providing secondary securing.

When I removed the cover, it turned out that the second method had been used – only instead of four screws, each door had only two – and in some cases just one screw holding the handle in place. Over two years, a little slack on the spindle had simply allowed the whole thing to pull loose. We suspected (correctly) that the doors were also just board beneath the veneer – but the holes for the handle mechanisms had been made in such a way that many of the screws also had little more than fresh air on which to purchase. Pulling the handle out had left it with nothing whatsoever.

A programme of re-working has just been completed, whereby the handles were secured using the first, mechanically-superior method, and we now have doors whose handles are both satisfyingly firm to the grip, and which won’t risk leaving someone stranded inside the bathroom.

Call me obsessive if you will – but all I am discussing here, really, is doing things properly. I’m very tempted to say that you would never find this problem in Switzerland, but then I am clearly biased. The fact remains, though, that I admire that country largely because of its culture of doing things properly. I have only once ever encountered a Swiss interior that might have been called shoddy – and that was because it clearly had not been updated by the elderly owner in several decades.

‘Properly’ is, however a difficult concept. It implies judgement against some kind of benchmark, and it is something that is also an occupational hazard for a teacher, whose very existence is to some extent predicated on assessing how other people’s efforts compare against an arbitrary set of standards. It can make one very judgmental.

I am not so dogmatic as to insist that my personal standards are in any way absolute, though they are often strongly-felt. To begin with, the guy who originally fitted those handles presumably had a set of criteria of his own. It just wasn’t mine. He was probably more concerned with time being money and getting home a little earlier that evening. The handle surviving for long enough to blunt any dissatisfaction of mine with his work when it eventually failed might also have been in the mix somewhere.

And yet the concept is a powerful one. It is not difficult to find a fair amount of consensus amongst the aficionados of, say, door furniture as to what constitutes Proper. The same can perhaps even be said when it comes to much more difficult matters such as bringing up and educating children. We might use it yet again when looking at the workings of the Law, Medicine, engineering, running a transport system or a government, and civil society more generally. Somewhere in the fog of personal interpretation there seems to lie a core of reasonably widely-shared values.

Slowly, however, these things do also evolve – and can certainly weaken –  over time, and a disconcerting by-product of growing older appears to be the way the goalposts move without one noticing. Some of what I consider Proper seems now to be out of date.

I was struck by this while reading Richard Goodwin’s article in last week’s Observer about the demise of formal dressing  for work. Like Goodwin, I appreciate ‘proper’ mens’ tailoring. I am not a luddite who yearns for some previous era, but for me looking smart is a pleasure in its own right quite apart from any signals I might want to send about my credibility – and, as Michael Bywater once observed, it is also a courtesy to others in the effort one takes both to delight their eye and to present oneself in a way that says you take your interactions with others seriously. Not having worked formally for several years, I still mourn the lack of openings for occasionally sporting a nice suit and tie. Even the traditional shirt and jacket seems to raise an eyebrow these days.

There are however, two inescapable truths in here. One is that my ability to do what I think is proper is constrained to some extent by the expectations of others. My efforts to dress well may in reality pass them by completely – and even worse, may simply send the (I hope incorrect) message that I am just an outdated old geezer. Maintaining what I consider ‘proper’ standards risks making me stand out for the wrong kind of reasons.

The second is that there is no way in which other senses of Proper (which I suppose I had really better call Propriety, although that in my mind has subtly different connotations) are in objective terms any less acceptable than my own. Ultimately the meaning that we attach to the word derives entirely from personal expectations and cultural norms. The same extends to matters like one’s use of written or spoken language, where propriety still in many countries depends on conformity to a predefined norm, whether that be the Queen’s English or the pronouncements of the Académie Franҫaise, to the ridicule of certain regional dialects.

The more one ponders this matter, the more perplexing it becomes. One can extend the notion even further, to matters of social groups. Traditional matters of Class in Britain depended on one’s adherence to a particular set of behaviours by which one could be seen to belong or otherwise – but which were very different from one group to another. Ejection from such groups depended to a large extent on one transgressing notions of ‘proper’ behaviour. (I am aware of the word used pejoratively to criticise someone as stuffy).

Wherever you go, the same thing crops up. Even in my arcane (to English eyes) field of Irish traditional music, much is made of playing ‘properly’ – even though doing so is often enough to make a classically trained musician tear their hair – and it still relies on a set of ultimately arbitrary norms. Yet quite far-reaching judgements are sometimes made about the standards of ‘proper’ that one’s fellow musicians personally express.

We might go further still by considering whether those expectations are even reasonable in the first place. In music, standards might reasonably differ between professional and amateur musicians, not to mention the opportunity one has had for formal training, or one’s ability to have purchased a high-quality instrument (judgements about which are, themselves, dictated why what is deemed to be ‘proper’…)

And yet, I can’t help but feel that there is some underlying truth that goes beyond personal differences or cultural norms. The most obvious is that a door handle which is not properly fixed is sooner or later going to present a practical problem. It may be that the musician who has not learned ‘proper’ technique will eventually find themselves limited by poor habits. In those senses, ‘proper’ is to some extent defined by the collective consciousness of overcoming past difficulties. When it comes to the way that door handle feels, maybe that sense of solidity that I wanted was subconsciously determined by my need for confidence that the handle would function well. The same might go for a firm handshake – or none at all. It is somehow about gravitas.

It becomes a lot more difficult in matters of aesthetics, taste and personal behaviour. But perhaps underlying even these is a ‘truth’ that certain behaviours make for greater confidence between and within individuals that are somehow connected to a desire for certainty or security. One of the good things about being in Switzerland is the sense, from all that Properness, that things are generally well with the world. Even where the avant-garde is embraced, the underlying principles of confidence are maintained. And while that may on occasions be illusory, on a day-to-day basis, I think it is quite important for our mental well-being.

When it comes to matters like speech or dress, as Richard Goodwin suggests, maybe our tendency to opt for a rather superficial ‘comfort’ betrays a lack of willingness to make the effort required to achieve anything more demanding. And in any case, comfort is a state of mind, not dress – even without the problem that dressing down can impose its own tyranny on those who would prefer things otherwise.

The sense of insecurity that a loose and wobbly door handle can create is perhaps more of a common and significant experience than my fitter understood – and one that he might have done well to think about, as I am now less inclined to employ him again. I am no apologist for maintaining the stuffy status quo just for the sake of it, but perhaps more thought ought to be going into the underlying values which various courses of behaviour transmit, because throwing the baby of long-established truths out with the bathwater of redundant propriety really is no better.

Postscript.
A telling footnote to the door handle episode was the difficulty that I had in finding bolts to fit. I visited five different local outlets, where I was told that such things were not obtainable “because no one ever bothers to do it like that”. In the end I had to order them online, and they turned out to have been imported. So much for such things not being culturally-defined.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

More schoggi…

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When we were in Lausanne last month, we stopped at another grand cafe that I have occasionally frequented. Moutarlier is situated in the Place de la Palud, near the city’s central fountain and glockenspiel clock, so an outside table normally does nicely. In fact, I don’t ever recall going inside before. However, use of the facilities dictated on this occasion – and quite a revelation it was.

I’m mentioning this because for me it exemplifies the Swiss outlook on their simultaneously historic-yet-modern country. Popular image of the country is, of course, very twee – all wooden chalets and Heidi meadows. There is indeed a lot of ‘heritage’ to look after – and yet once again this belies the real country – a nation that is not afraid to take a very progressive approach to much of what it does.

I didn’t take my camera with me – so I am relying here on images from Moutarlier’s own website. From the outside, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is another institution unchanged for decades (in fact, it opened in 1996). The exterior is rather grand – and largely intact. And yet… inside one encounters a pretty avant-garde modern decor quite deliberately at odds with the quaint exterior. But somehow it works: the basics of grande confiserie have been respected, as have the specific needs for whiling away the afternoon in strikingly auspicious surroundings. I also like the nods to traditional Swiss architecture, such as the wood panelling. The quality of the design and materials is also excellent – and I fully expect it to be the same in however many years’ time it is before I visit again.

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In some ways it is the complete opposite to Britain’s approach, where it still seems that everything either needs to be made to look “historical” even when it isn’t – or superficially modern in a way that will fade and date in just a few years. Much of the time it is in fact nothing more than flimsy shop-dressing which will need to be ripped out and replaced with something else when fads change – and before it has even got an established identity. Even when we British do contemporary, we somehow mostly lack the confidence to give it the ‘edge’ that makes it work, let alone something that will last for decades, as I suspect the interior of Moutarlier will. In fifty years time, it will be renowned for its period interior… We by contrast, are too timid by half – and then we wonder why our modern design often doesn’t deliver the goods. Like anything else, quality counts, and so does continuity – even when it is radically reinterpreted. In fact, perhaps that is the secret of the Swiss success.

At a retail centre near me, the original fake village ‘High Street’ is presently being reconfigured with something rather more contemporary – but again very ‘safe’ and quite probably equally ephemeral. In the end it is just the latest engineered-consciousness stage-set backdrop against which people can part with their cash. But at least it has a new Lindt shop, so the chocolate will remain constantly, Swiss-ly good, even if the architecture isn’t.

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