what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Friday, March 29, 2019

Are Literary Magazines up to the Task?

Although I’m not a fan of newspapers, I did succumb recently to an offer from Le Monde – even if I miss the smell of the newsprint and its footnotes. But it is to journals I turn for serious reading - some two years ago I shared quite a long list of journals worth reading which is probably due an update. Here in Romania I often buy “Lettre Internationale”…..whose woodcuts are a great attraction. “Le Nouveau Magazine Litteraire” is also a regular purchase – sadly, German literary journals are not easily available so I have to make do with the German version of Lettre Internationale.
At the moment I actually have internet subscriptions to no fewer than 3 journals the New York Review of Books; the London Review of Books; and Political Quarterly

A venerable journal acquires a new editor
But the spark which ignites this particular post was my purchase recently of a couple of copies of the Times Literary Supplement (or TLS) – which have started to appear in Bucharest’s great little English bookshop “Carturesti and Friends”.
TLS is a venerable English institution – if not quite as old (est 1902) as its parent The Times which began in 1788 and was, until the late 1970s, very much the paper of the British elite whose seriousness was immediately evident by the closeness of the script and the lack of photographs. Indeed, until 1966 the front page was devoted to small advertisements of interest to the monied classes. All of this changed in 1981 when Rupert Murdoch acquired the newspaper after which its reputation may have declined but by 2005 its circulation had more than doubled (to 600k). Presently its circulation is only 300k

The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) I knew of old had repellent elitist tones but was then the only regular journal (weekly) devoted to books but, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was “New Society, “The Listener” and “Encounter” which attracted – and whose passing (some 30 years ago) I deeply regret. Each, in their distinctive ways, had a breadth and sensitivity which few other cultural mags seem capable of these days. I daresay that says more about me than the mags…..You can still taste the delights of “Encounter” in its archives which can be accessed here
But a strange happened in 1978 – a newspaper strike put The Times and TLS off the streets for almost a year. And into the empty space jumped a new title – initially as a pull out in the New York of Books. It was called the “London Review of Books” (or LRB) – a bi-monthly which now has a circulation of almost double that of TLS. The precise details of all this are set out in this nice little story in The Financial Times. What I had forgotten was that another title also jumped into the gap – and one which is also going strongly, the monthly Literary ReviewBut it is the LRB which has engaged my affections – confirmed whenever I buy the odd copy of TLS.

However the TLS acquired a new editor a couple of years ago – Stig Abell, a 39 year-old who had….wait for it….been the editor of the most offensive british tabloid newspaper – the Sun - for a couple of years…as well as a presenter on London Radio.
If the 2 copies I'v e read recently are typical, then he seems already to have made a difference to the staid journal I remember.....and I am tempted to write to him to make some points along the following lines.......   
I am an unashamed bibliophile – but of non-fiction - who has, however, become so concerned with the combination of scale and quality that I suggested recently (only half jokingly) that non-fiction books needed to be rationedI now look very carefully at the introductions (and “Further Reading”) of books I pick up - to see what awareness the author (and indeed the publisher) reveals of the cynicism with which many of us readers approach this latest addition to our burden of reading. Ideally I would now like to see a typology – a short review of the relevant literature - to give me the confidence that the author is master of the field and has a mind open to the points at both ends of the relevant spectrum…..I certainly need to read a few pages of the text to give me a sense of the clarity and sensitivity of the writing 
And this is where we need the help of the literary journals…whose reviewers should be more obviously be asking these questions on our behalf – and exerting some pressure for answers on publishers and editors (with the exception of Simon Winder do editors exist these days?)

 But it is the European dimension which, not surprisingly, I find missing in the British journals….with the exception of the towering figure of Perry Anderson to whom I refer fairly regularly here.… Perry Anderson deserves much more credit for being one of the very few English-speaking writers whose articles (mainly in LRB) pay serious attention to contemporary debates on the European continent – whether France, Germany, Italy or even Turkey. They are collected in a version The New Old World which can be downloaded simply by clicking on the title. 

A UK outside the EU is in particular need of such writing – but has enough bilingual journalists (eg Olterman) and translators of the quality of Michael Hoffman – let alone polymaths such as Clive James of blessed “Cultural Amnesia - to make it possible. They just need a bit more encouragement from the editors of literary journals…
In the meantime I am just grateful to the EC for its continued support of the Eurozine venture which brings together the best of some 70 European cultural journals. And point to Courrier International as an example of a good selection into the French language of quality global journalism. Pity no one thought of making a bid some years ago for European funding for a journal giving us a sense of how different European countries were dealing with the big issues in their societies…..

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Drama in the Commons

Brexit is apparently delayed - at least until April 12. And the headless chickens now have control of the farmyard ie MPs are now attempting to get their colleagues to support an alternative strategy from that of the government’s - which has twice in recent weeks been voted down by huge majorities. 
Even some of the hardline Brexiteers who have refused to support the government “deal” are beginning to understand that Brexit could be slipping away from them…..

There are no fewer than 16 different propositions on the official agenda for the House later today – only a few of which will by selected by the Speaker as likely to command wider support. One will be more of a procedural vote – to hold a second referendum. So I shall this afternoon be in thrall to parliamentary television. I watched the last few minutes of the interplay between witnesses and MPs on the Brexit Select Committee and it will be an hour or so before the exchanges start in the Chamber…..

One MP who will not be present is Chris Mullin - who retired in 2010 but whose wry memoirs are among the very few of that genre to attract readers. He occasionally contributes a diary entry to the London Review of Books and gave this insight last year into recent House of Commons’ operations - 
On this Wednesday afternoon, I was struck by the absence of recognisable faces. There were many staffers and officials, but scarcely any MPs. A sad truth dawned on me: for many of the present generation of MPs, the business of Parliament occupies only two days a week. Most out of town MPs travel down on a Monday morning and leave soon after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. Anyone who has seen the chamber on a Thursday, or indeed at any time other than Wednesday at midday, will know it is usually embarrassingly empty. The majority of debates and even important statements are thinly attended.
 Increasingly the business of Parliament has to be shoe-horned into the two days on which sufficient MPs can be guaranteed to be present.
It’s not that MPs are lazy; on the contrary, many work long hours. It’s just that holding the government to account appears no longer to be a priority for them. The trend has been noticeable for some years but seems to have accelerated. Part of the explanation is that Brexit has so overwhelmed the business of government and public discourse that there is little legislation of any significance and, as a result, nothing to vote on. Three-line whips on a Wednesday or a Thursday are now virtually unheard of. Sometimes weeks go by without a meaningful vote.
Many MPs have young families to whom they are anxious to return, and constituents and constituency parties expect a great deal more from their elected representative than they used to. Long gone are the days when an MP could get away with a quarterly visit to his constituency, where he would be greeted on arrival by the stationmaster in his top hat. Nowadays an MP is expected to live or, at least, have a base in their constituency and to be highly visible.The facilities available to MPs at the Commons have dramatically improved. The best a new MP could hope for forty years ago was a locker on the library corridor. Postage was strictly rationed and, until the 1960s, MPs were not allowed free phone calls outside London.
The secretarial allowance was introduced in 1969 and gradually morphed into the office costs allowance which, by the late 1980s, was enough to enable MPs to establish constituency offices. Over the years these and other allowances have steadily increased, with the result that the role of an MP has been transformed.
 The downside is that MPs are increasingly constituency-focused and some, especially those who represent poorer areas, have become glorified advice workers, embroiled in issues that in many cases are more properly the province of councillors and local authorities. Some MPs in marginal seats actively prefer to devote their time to acting as fairy godmothers to their constituents. I’m in favour of constituency-based MPs. That’s not the problem. I was one myself. I wonder, however, if the balance has tipped too far. Scrutiny of the executive is what Parliament is supposed to be about……….
John Bercow, Speaker of the Commons since 2009, has proved robust in promoting the rights of Parliament at the expense of the executive, grown overmighty in the last half-century. Up to March this year he had granted a staggering 439 urgent questions, each requiring an appearance, at short notice, by a minister at the dispatch box. This compares with the handful granted by his predecessors. No wonder he is cordially loathed by the government, or that he has earned the grudging respect of backbenchers. 
Another advance has been the rise of the select committees, which were established by the then Leader of the House, Norman St John Stevas, in the first year of Thatcher’s reign. Had she had any idea where the introduction of select committees would lead, she would have strangled them at birth.
They have the power to summon ministers and officials and to poke their noses into any aspect of policy that takes their fancy. This, combined with the televising of Parliament, has made them an important part of the political landscape.
 In recent years they have flexed their muscles in areas previously undreamed of. The only reason we have seen the bankers, or Rupert Murdoch or Philip Green having to account for their sins is that they have been summoned by select committees. These days there is even a committee to which the intelligence and security services are supposed to be accountable – an imperfect one (it reports to the prime minister rather than Parliament and its reports are censored) but light years ahead of where we were thirty years ago, when the public was not even permitted to know the names of the service heads, never mind what they got up to. Chairing a select committee is now remunerated, making it an alternative to a ministerial career. The chair of one of the main select committees has more influence than most junior or middling ministers. 
………………..many MPs can only be bothered to turn up for two days a week. A government that is allowed to function more or less unchallenged will become a law unto itself. And, after all, if MPs don’t take Parliament seriously, why should anyone else?

During this past 3 years it’s been remarkably difficult to find clear and well-written material which would help the concerned citizen understand what was going on….3 months ago I tried to explore the reasons for this shameful state of affairs.
The BBC link at the top of this post is an unusually clear guide to the 16 motions which were tabled by MPs. And the People’s Vote has just published an exceptionally clear Guide – Weighing Up alternative Brexits

Monday, March 25, 2019

an English typology

It’s difficult to believe I know - but the UK is now only 4 days away from crashing out of the European Union – and the only appropriate way to describe the country’s leadership is that of running around like a headless chicken……

To calm myself, I have been using this month to explore what Brexit tells us about the English sense of identity – or… “who do you think you are?” – which I had speculated about in a post just over a year ago

Brexit is, of course, a deep political statement – so the question is what set of socio-political values is it which finds expression in this apparent rejection of association with Europe? And in particular does it signal a calculation of cost-benefit (as would befit a nation of shopkeepers” in Napoleon’s dismissive term) or is it more emotional – as most commentators tend to argue?
The Road to Somewhere is also quite clear about the answer to such a question……

Every now and then, the blog gets into a discussion about the continuing usefulness of the left-right spectrum in politics…And these days we have, generally, to concede the difference between the New and Old dimensions of the classic division. 
But how long can we keep using the term “new”? The UK “New Left” started all of 60 years ago – and the “New right” at Mont Pelerin a few years earlier..We are surely, therefore, overdue another term…..and the one I suggest is “emergent”  (which Mintzberg, I think it was, first used to distinguish one meaning of strategy)

And, as few people relish being labelled as either left or right, we need a mid-way point for them….That then gives a 3x3 matrix and the question is what terms to use for the resultant combinations……??? This is what I’ve come up with as a first shot…..

Core phrases of the various points of the British political spectrum



Mass strike
Family values

Traditional authority

Liberation struggle
Competitive individualism
the sharing economy


But the Acorn Guide to Consumers which I mentioned in a previous post probably offers some alternative terms…..

Let me know what you think…….

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Decline and Fall of the great British nation

I’m surprised that Danny Dorling’s “Rule Britannia – Brexit and the end of empire” which I recently mentioned does not make the connection between Brexit and the first word in the official name of our country – “Great”……Not even America has (so far) dared to try that trick…

So it may be the economic historians – rather than their social brethren or novelists - who hold the clue to the question of British identity?
Narratives about national economic performance certainly impact on our collective mind….I still remember the “What’s wrong with Britain” series of Penguin books in the 1960s as the country wrestled with post-war modernization.
Correlli Barnett became a favourite of Thatcher and her Ministers with his critique of the economic priorities of the Atlee government and its role in the British decline which has been a theme of economic writing for longer than I can remember - Larry Elliot has been a prominent exponent of “declinism” for the past couple of decades

In 1996 one of Britain’s foremost Scientific historians, David Edgerton  gave a critical assessment of one of Barnett’s books and has now published what looks to be a definitive analysis of the Rise and Fall of the British Nation
“Alone” became a word of lusty and emotive power at the core of a central national myth which privileged British destiny over that of other nation states. The glorification of “standing alone” in 1940 continues to pervert the United Kingdom’s sense of its place in the world and of foreigners’ obligations of respect and gratitude to its citizens.
Labour, Edgerton shows, consistently presented itself as a national rather than socialist party. Labour’s 1945 manifesto for the general election of 1945 promised to “put the nation above any sectional interest”. “Socialism” was mentioned once, “socialist” twice, “Britain” fourteen times, “British” twelve times, and “nation” or “national” nearly fifty times. Similarly, Labour presented itself in its general election manifesto of 1950 as “the true party of the nation”. The progressive Left has been more insidious in forming this mindset than the blimpish Right. The wearisome protests of historical exceptionalism and institutional distinctiveness are linked to another governing theme of Edgerton’s book: exaggerations of British inventive genius and the consequent tactical errors in research and development spending. Hark to Margaret Thatcher in her first speech as party leader to the Conservative Party conference in 1975.
 “We are the people who, among other things, invented the computer, refrigerator, electric motor, stethoscope, rayon, steam turbine, stainless steel, the tank, television, penicillin, radar, jet engine, hovercraft, float glass and carbon fibres. Oh, and the best half of Concorde.”
The false pride in supposedly being “the single inventor of . . . key parts of the atomic bomb, not to mention parliamentary democracy and the welfare state” is punctured by Edgerton. Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb and the PLUTO petrol pipeline, long celebrated for triumphant ingenuity, “were technical extravagances rather than necessities”, he judges.
The sorry tale of the Bloodhound, Skybolt, Blue Streak and Trident missile systems is recounted with devastating fairness. The government decision to build numerous advanced gas-cooled nuclear reactors (AGRs) and to persevere with a financially exorbitant but profitless development programme was “the crassest techno-nationalism trumping respect for efficiency”. There was ardent faith that unique British technical genius would renew and invigorate the national economy. Edgerton debunks the myth that the Westminster government failed to support its aircraft manufacturers sufficiently. The Ministries of Supply, Aviation and Technology backed numerous aircraft projects. “Far from the home sales being a springboard for export success, they were often the only sales, to an unwilling customer. The nationalized British airlines had to be forced to take on, or were indeed given, every large British aircraft produced.” Despite the Comet IV, the Britannia, the VC10 and Concorde, the nationalistically named airlines formed under Attlee’s Civil Aviation Act of 1946 preferred US aircraft for most long-haul flights.
No one dared to challenge the insistent propaganda that British high-tech inventiveness would yield lucrative exports. To oppose huge R&D expenditure on first-tier national projects was to hobble the export drive. “But the exports never came – no large hovercraft, no AGR, no Concorde was ever sold abroad”, writes Edgerton. “By the late 1960s, in private, within government, this was already known to be likely, but this truth was too scandalous, too unpatriotic to utter.”

One of my recent finds in second-hand bookshops here was an excoriating analysis of New Labour which came out in 2003 - Pretty Straight Guys. And Edgerton is fairly savage with that legacy too -
…. New Labour devised “a story of British exceptionalism to justify a newly global orientation of British armed force”. The UK was “reinvented . . . as a global contender”. It was implied that 10 million UK citizens living abroad needed to be defended – “presumably from the Americans, French, Australians and Spaniards among whom they lived”. The spin “even claimed dependence on foreign oil, when the UK was still a major oil producer”. Blair’s frenzy to establish global leadership, in alliance with a Republican President in the United States, resulted in the deaths and chaos of British military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. “These extraordinary failures destroyed the last vestiges of a belief that the British state and its agencies told the truth if not the whole truth”, writes Edgerton. “They also showed that the British state machine had lost the capacity for rational and critical examination of policy.”

A Brexit “Lucky Dip”

Friday, March 22, 2019

Sexy Regulations

It was somewhere in Central Europe (or was it Central Asia?) in the late 1990s where I first encountered the phrase “Regulatory impact”….Those were the days when the State and its activities was a thing of scorn, when state controls were being dismantled and the language of “deregulation” was at its height….”Regulatory impact analysis” at best was a tool to help that process – although it was sometimes a reluctant concession to the obstinate fact that regulations actually had positive social effects…..

At some stage, the discourse actually moved onto that of the “Regulatory State” – and my mountain shelves indeed have a (n essentially untouched) 2003 book of that title – The British Regulatory State; high modernism and hyper-innovation - by the sadly deceased Michael Moran which this 2011 paper called The Odyssey of the Regulatory State may help me understand.

So Anthony Barnett was not exactly alone when he confessed last summer that he had only recently realized the significance of regulations to the European Union which, he further argues, were by no means as badly perceived by significant sections of the British public as the Brexiteers had initially argued…..  Indeed the Brexit campaign had to tone down that part of their message…..
Grenfell Tower stands as a witness to the consequence of permissive deregulation. As the fridge caught fire in Flat 16 of the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower on the 14 June 2017, it sucked a whirlwind of inadequate, flawed, ill-enforced regulation and cuts in fire-brigade risk assessment and enforcement, into a murderous inferno. It was nothing to do with the EU but it would never have happened had the EU set the UK’s building standards and their implementation.
The result is that people want there to be regulations. In a remarkable article drawing  on a  research and polling by IPPR Marley Morris analysed how, historically, the call for deregulation was a keynote of the anti-EU campaigns and the creation of anti-EU sentiment. In 2013, freeing British business from “excessive regulation” was singled out by then Prime Minister David Cameron, as one of his main aims, when he announced the party’s commitment to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and then call a referendum. The EU could not concede. As the referendum approached the Leave side was justifiably accused of seeking to strip the public of such regulations as the Working Time Directive, which limits hours of work. Then their polling and focus groups reported that such de-regulation was very unpopular. So the Leave campaign dropped its call. Morris explains,
 “The root cause of this shift was simply that there was – and indeed still is – no public appetite for a deregulatory agenda. Our own polling with Opinium has found widespread public support for some of the most controversial EU-derived employment, environmental and financial legislation… Renewable energy targets – another bugbear of earlier Eurosceptics – are endorsed or considered too low by 74 per cent… more than 80 per cent of the public are opposed to lowering food safety standards. When confronted with this wall of public opinion, it is no surprise that leave campaigners adapted their position as the referendum date neared”.
The anti-EU campaign is one of the strangest on record. It began by demanding an end to European regulation while increasing trade with the EU. Its triumph has led it to embrace less trade with the EU while retaining its level of regulation! When it comes to 80% you can’t argue with “the people’s will”. Or as Theresa May put it in har Mansion House speech that Johnson praises but ignores, in "areas like workers’ rights or the environment, the EU should be confident that we will not engage in a race to the bottom in the standards and protections we set. There is no serious political constituency in the UK which would support this – quite the opposite".

Barnett’s article focuses on a 2007 book The Rise of the Unelected – Democracy and the new Separation of Power by Frank Vibert which I had come across but not given particular attention to…..Barnett wants to know why the significance of regulation for the EU hasn’t been properly recognised.....
Routledge have just published a densely researched Handbook on Brexit edited by Patrick Diamond, Peter Nedergaard and Ben Rosamond. It has 23 scholarly articles and aims to set out a “systematic academic overview” of the Brexit process. They encompass the special character of the British state, the English and Irish questions, the role of the city of London, the flaws of the EU and the need to rethink theories of its nature. But regulation only figures as an aspect of financial policy for the City of London.
The respected Centre for European Reform published a 50 page overview of how to Relaunch the EU in November last year. It is sober, thorough and addresses the need to make the EU more responsive. But it does not mention regulation or the need to make this accountable. The arguments that Vibert has developed remain peripheral to mainstream thinking.

Few British citizens understand the “deal” which has been struck with the EU – references in particular to the “single market” and to the “customs union” utterly confuse and I therefore think  Barnett may be both right and wrong. British people do think that parliamentary sovereignty is important; and that the expert rule embodied in EC regulations has gone too far. Barnett continues….
Shortly after Open Europe, which is directed by Brexit-supporting Henry Newman who once worked for Michael Gove, published Striking a Balance, a report that recommends an across-the-board agreement on these lines. Its justification: “The EU is our most important goods’ market and the most highly-regulated sectors – electrical, automobiles, and chemicals – are the areas which we trade most with the EU and are growing the fastest”. Unlike Boris Johnson, Brexiteers who study the evidence want the UK to be in the Single Market for goods. The government will apply “to stay in the European standards system for industry products and services”.
It is easy enough to ask, as we should, what, then, is the point of Brexit? Another good question is whether the EU will agree to the request. I want to ask why even passionate Brexiteers now see no way out of the EU’s regulated space, certainly in traded goods. The crux of the answer is that that there is no way out of regulation.
By regulation I don’t just mean high profile financial regulation. I mean its ongoing, background role in ensuring the quality of the air we breathe, the medicines we take, the food we consume and the safety of the flights we board. You could undertake the enormous costs of building custom checks for goods going between the UK from the EU. But what is the point, if you then have to recreate and duplicate inside the UK the entire apparatus of regulations, with their ongoing autonomy from parliamentary 'sovereignty'?
The idea that once the UK left the EU Britain could ‘do away’ with regulation from Brussels, because it is mostly unnecessary, has proven to be an utter fantasy. Britain’s wannabe Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, told the BBC, “we will finish up perhaps in an even worse place than we are now because we won’t be free to de-regulate”. But no modern democracy would wish to deregulate. It is not the road to freedom. And as the UK government is learning, public opinion will not let it deregulate. This is a fundamental lesson of Brexit.
 The lesson is related to, but goes further than, Will Davis's notable response to the referendum result in 2016. Drawing on David Graeber's "The Utopia of Rules", Davis emphasised that in an important way "capitalism is regulation" and concluded that the ideology of Brexit is illusory.
In the UK, these dire, Brexit-times have bred impatience, shallowness and lack of reflection. I want to resist these and examine an activity which may seem petty and irritating but isn’t.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


Ironic that it’s “The Japan Times” which gives me the first answer to my question about novels reflecting the mood in English society about Brexit – although the article focuses on novels which have appeared since the referendum (a genre now known apparently as “Brex-lit”).
The 2012 novel “Capital” by John Lanchester is a fairly obvious frontrunner for the book which anticipated Brexit and the recently-issued “Middle England” seems a good read by an established writer about the tensions the referendum created…

There are at least two reasons why we might expect novelists to offer more than social scientists in both the anticipation of a major event (such as Brexit) and in its analysis – imagination and vision -two basic “senses” which don’t seem to be given to academics….trapped as they are not just in a single intellectual discipline but, these days, in a tiny field of what is a series of strongly barricaded enclosures.

The most obvious skill-set, however, for these times is probably that of social historians such as David Kynaston - who poke about in the rubbish-bins of popular memory and develop highly readable narratives. One such historian Dominic Sandbrook has even coined a phrase for the genre - The Great British dream factory
The problem is that its coverage (starting in 1945) has (so far) ended in 1979 just when the Thatcherite agenda started to stir things up…

There is, however, one British writer whose well-tuned sensibilities are almost uniquely attuned to pick up the currents of the British mood – and that is Anthony Barnett – one of the founders of the inestimable Open Democracy website. It is only now that I have noticed the important analysis he offered last summer….starting with an open letter 
Our starting point for every argument about the need to remain in the EU should be “Brexit voters were right. The status quo is insupportable”……Brexit will not be reversed by traditional techniques alone. We need to talk with those who think anyone seeking to stay in the EU is trying to “kill democracy”, see January’s vivid Guardian survey. We could create more citizens assemblies on Brexit like the Manchester one and give them national publicity. We need to learn from the Irish referendum. As Fintan O’Toole describes, those who won decided to “talk to everybody and make assumptions about nobody” and they did not “jeer back”.

And, unlike most of those who write on Brexit, you can rely on Barnett to sniff out an important source which is being ignored by everyone else. – in this case a 2007 book The Rise of the Unelected – Democracy and the new Separation of Power by Frank Vibert – who
describes how over the last half-century unelected bodies, from economic regulators, to science and medical councils, and now digital watchdogs, backed by a new range of auditors and ‘risk managers’, have proliferated.
Democracies need regulation for a wide variety of reasons that have grown out of an increasingly complex, science-based, long-range market-place. New relationships are being created between the state and the market, while ethical questions of safety, accountability, privacy and consumer and employee rights have emerged. The internet and the explosion of digital platforms has intensified the process greatly.
…….The need for a process to approve or disapprove products or standards is of obvious importance. The decisions taken can have serious economic, human and environmental consequences… Regulation is an ongoing process. Science and industry keep discovering new techniques and technologies and creating new products. It is not practical to decide each new inclusion on a white list or a black list via a Parliamentary vote, still less a vote by 28 parliaments. The answer to the democratic impossibility of parliamentary voting is expert advice, followed by the adoption of secondary legislation. …
 It seems that the EU has in this way developed over 11,000 regulations, set over 60,000 standards and its different agencies have taken over 18,000 decisions on interpreting regulations and laws….which could take ten years to incorporate into British law, if each is accorded scrutiny. This alone shows that a process has been taking place that is beyond the reach and capacity of traditional legislatures.

Barnett’s analysis is an important and long one which warrants proper reflection – so I will pause it here and resume tomorrow…

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Novel Clues?

What, I asked last week, does Brexit tell us about British – or perhaps more precisely, English - society? And the post duly looked at some titles from the social scientists, think-tankers and the better journalists to see what insights they might offer on such a question. But perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong place – or rather format?
Perhaps it’s the novel which has the capacity and range to help us “penetrate the soul” of a country? – an issue which these posts have tried to deal with from time to time…..After all we talk of the Thatcher novel.
The French indeed would consider the point so obvious – Michel Houllebecq for 20 years has been the poster-boy of cultural pessimism. I;ve actually read a couple of them – and actually like them! He has somewhere said quite explicitly that the diagnostic skills you expect of non-fiction seems to have transferred to novelists…And if the “gritty realism” of his early novels shocked those used to the more formal tones of le nouveau roman of Duras and Queneau, it was actually thoroughly in the traditions of Emile Zola.

I may not be a great fan of novels but I do my best to keep up with the names and reputations - and have read enough to be able to make the distinction between contemporary Scottish and English novelists – whose countries, of course, voted differently in the referendum…
I’ve started to read the latest collected essays (“The Rub of Time) of one of England’s most famous novelists Martin Amis – who has some similarities with Houllebecq – and noticed that he characterizes contemporary English fiction as….
“hopelessly inert and inbred (apart from the crucial infusion of the colonials)” – and French fiction as …“straying into philosophical and essayistic peripheries”

I’m not an Amis fan (I prefer Faulks, Ballard and even Weldon) – he is so arrogant indeed that I would not put it past him to have included the Scots in his use of the term “colonial”! It can't have escaped him that the prose of Alasdair Gray, William McIlvanney, James Robertson, James Meek, Andrew O’Hagen, Andrew Greig, AL Kennedy - let alone the SF of Iain M Banks - has a raw force only Ballard could match amongst English novelists. Interestingly, 2 of that list (Meek and O’Hagen) have also established a reputation in the wider field eg Private Island.
So the table I have developed below to explore the Brexit issue deals only with the English writers. And I do understand that it is a bit provocative to refer to a writer’s “typical” concerns…..but we all have to simplify!

English novels 1985-2019
“Typical” context
Fay Weldon, Margaret Drabble
Middle class women
“She Devil”; “The Millstone”
Martin Amis
“London Field”
David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Howard Jacobson
University academics
“Good Work”; “History Man”; “Zoo Time”
Ian McEwan
Middle class men
“Chesil Beach”
JG Ballard
Dystopian cities
“High Rise”
Foreign parts
“Birdsong”; “Birds without Wings”
“Wolf hall”
“The Line of Beauty”
More an essayist
Conflictual relations
“My Beautiful Launderette”
Surrealistic worlds
“The Bone Clocks”
Social concerns
Clive James
Poet and essayist
“Cultural Amnesia”

There is a very good short overview of the 1945-1990 writing scene in the UK here
I will now have to give some thought to the sort of picture (if any) which emerges about the “state of England” in the 1985-2016 period and how this might differ from, for example, the French “cultural pessimism” which has been referred to...