The plural of referendum is – Herodotus?

Herodotus

(Herodotus asking ‘What??’)

In the latest issue of the London Review of Books, David Runciman’s ‘Too Few to Mention’, a review of Nick Clegg’s How to Stop Brexit (and Make Britain Great Again), assesses the arguments for and against a second referendum and concludes that ‘the likeliest way to overturn the referendum result is to wait until one party or other has taken clear ownership of its consequences. For that to happen, Brexit has to happen too.’ He adds: ‘It is possible that at some point a second referendum will be appropriate, once a new status quo has been established, to see whether people would prefer an alternative. Until then, however, conventional electoral politics will have to decide our collective fate.’

If you regard the whole Brexit business as a nose-to-tail blunder of epochal proportions (and arguably a very twenty-first century right-wing coup), this makes grim but convincing reading. Of course, the offhand incompetence displayed on an almost daily basis by those charged with seeing the whole sorry process through is itself extraordinary and I know that a great many people have been reduced to a state of rigid boredom as it drags on. Others still retain enough energy for outrage or forceful questioning – but this is generally of a rhetorical kind, with no real expectation of satisfactory answers. It’s not a new phenomenon, that of people reacting and indeed voting according to criteria that exclude facts, reason, logic and the rest: everyone does it to a greater or lesser extent, I suspect, the relevant question being the degree to which we’re conscious of doing so. What does seem to be a fairly recent phenomenon is the general realisation—by analysts of the reasonable, the rational, the logical—that this is actually the case. Why did so many people vote for Donald Trump, for Brexit, for political extremists in Hungary, Germany, Denmark? Hmmm. ‘How anyone can still be voting Tory,’ the Librarian remarks, as we listen to the results of the English local elections, ‘is baffling.’ I acknowledge and share that bafflement. But here we are.

Still, looking back at the EU referendum, I am strongly reminded of Herodotus writing about the Persians: ‘If an important decision is to be made, they discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk.’[1]

Yes. I don’t think we advanced beyond the discussion-when-drunk stage. But I still don’t expect a second referendum.

 

 

Reference
[1] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 56. Cf. Tacitus, Germania, in Agricola and Germania, translated by S. A. Handford (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 120: ‘They debate when they are incapable of pretence but reserve their decision for a time when they cannot well make a mistake”

 

 

News, percentages, violin solos

Jordaens, Jacob, 1593-1678; An Allegory of Fruitfulness

Jacob Jordaens, An Allegory of Fruitfulness (1620-9)
© The Wallace Collection

Another week, another cornucopia of good news. Worrying noises—surely the first ever—from the White House. A Hollywood scandal rippling out, worsening and darkening as it does so, women everywhere rolling their eyes, taking in the film world, industry, local and national government, science, academe, business, retail and every media outlet going, unable or unwilling even to feign surprise. ‘Wait—you’re saying that some men in positions of power actually misuse that power to exploit and sexually abuse women? Truly?’ Meanwhile, for the delectation of the British public, talks in Brussels (official slogan: ‘Down we go!’) have paused to allow both sides to parse thoroughly the words ‘deadlock’ and ‘impasse’.

On Thursday, The Times Literary Supplement arrives. The NB column on the back page discusses a recently published ‘literary plebiscite’ called Goodbye Europe: Writers and artists say farewell. At one point, I read: ‘Fifty-two per cent of British voters chose to vote Leave.’

No, they didn’t. Fifty-two per cent of those who voted on the day of the referendum may have done but this represented around thirty-seven per cent of the electorate. So nearly two-thirds of the British electorate did not vote to leave the European Union. None of this changes the result: however ill-advised it was to call a referendum at all, with no safeguards—such as requiring a true majority of the electorate or agreement among all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom—and amidst a blizzard of misinformation, the result was what it was. Still, I object to the constant swilling about of such phrases as ‘the will of the people’ and ‘the British people have spoken’ to imply a collective, wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder-with-linked-arms determination to exit the EU. I confess that I tire too of the constant pretence that the referendum itself—and the recent General Election—were centrally concerned with ‘the Nation’ or ‘the British people’ when they were merely chapters in the continuing story of Conservative Party infighting. But that’s another issue.

Wodehouse

Thankfully, there are brighter spots in the world, such as P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, which I happened to be reading (aloud) last night, where it cheered me to find the Reverend Sidney Pirbright described as ‘A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist’; and Bertie Wooster’s brisk review of Miss Eustacia Pulbrook’s violin solo: ‘It was loud in spots and less loud in other spots, and it had that quality which I have noticed in all violin solos, of seeming to last much longer than it actually did.’

Indignant violinists, please note: Mr Wodehouse is not currently on social media.

 

This sceptic isle

Arthur_Burdett_Frost

(Arthur Burdett Frost, via Old Book Illustrations)

In a letter of 10 July 1972, Sylvia Townsend Warner detailed, in a letter to William Maxwell, that day’s sequence of events. A telephone call from her cousin Rachel, ‘to tell me she had long suspected she was under a curse, and had now been assured by an expert that she was’; then a visit from the parson, ‘to ask how I was keeping and could I let him have a large kettle for the Youth Club’s canteen. I couldn’t but consoled him with strawberries.’ Another telephone call followed, ‘to ask me if I could adopt two frogs’. Again she had to refuse, ‘three cats made this garden unsuitable for frog conservation.’ She concluded: ‘All this before mid-day. This island is inflexibly lunatic.’[1]

STW_Gdn_stw.com

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via http://www.townsendwarner.com)

It’s a suspicion that never quite goes away and one I revisit constantly, generally with less good temper than Sylvia, often remembering too the words of Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, to Nora Manning, in As Good As It Gets: ‘Sell crazy someplace else, we’re all stocked up here.’[2]

Yes, this island did seem to be increasingly well-stocked. And yes, it still feels more divided than ever. But there are some encouraging signs.

My own particular elite metropolitan bubble, the city and county of Bristol, comprises four electoral districts, totalling 323,840 voters.[3] Some bubble. And are all those voters affluent, middle-class Guardian-readers? Probably not. There are surely plenty of angry white men of the kind that howl at Jeremy Corbyn when he shows insufficient enthusiasm for murdering millions of innocent civilians (‘strong on defence’, as the saying is). Nevertheless, though we had three Labour MPs until Thursday, we now have four. All four. Four out of four.

And yet, and yet. Remarkable as that election result was, it’s still only foreplay—and we need consummation. Evidently, even after the past few years, after it all, many millions of people still voted for the Conservatives—and just the last twelve months have seen this Party of Austerity hold an unnecessary referendum followed by an unnecessary General Election, at a cost of well over £200 million of public money. Does this ring no alarm bells in the minds of the faithful? ‘Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point’, Pascal wrote, ‘The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know’.[4]

Gurney_BBC

(Ivor Gurney via the BBC)

Ah but now we have heard that trumpet call to arms: Stability! Certainty! Though, come to think of it, I recall Ivor Gurney writing to Mrs Matilda Chapman, 21 April 1915: ‘But nothing – nothing is certain, but uncertainty.’[5]

Of course, he was writing in the middle of a war.

 

References

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 234.

[2] This line is for Andrew, who likes it, I know.

[3] Figures taken from The Guardian ‘General Election Results’ supplement, 10 June 2017.

[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 158. I recall that the Duchess of Windsor chose the first five words as the title of her memoir. Make of that what you will.

[5] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 18.

Why it’s so difficult. . .

(James Salter and Robert Phelps, via Narrative magazine)

On 12 June (close enough) 1975, in a letter to Robert Phelps, James Salter wrote: ‘Why is it so difficult to assemble those things that really matter in life and to dwell among them only? I am referring to certain landscapes, persons, beasts, books, rooms, meteorological conditions, fruits. In fact, I insist on it.’[1]

Why is it so difficult? The temptation for a lot of readers would be simply to answer: ‘Money.’ But it’s rarely simply a question of money.

Towards the end of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, the narrator, John Dowell, asks: ‘Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing. Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me.’[2]

The four main characters in Ford’s novel are not short of cash and ‘everybody has the wrong thing’ gets a little closer to the real point. In what may—or certainly should—be a defining moment in the election campaign, the Prime Minister answered a nurse who had asked why her net pay had not increased in the past eight years by saying: ‘there isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.’ Apart from the sheer offensiveness of that response, the untruth was also very striking. As several commentators have pointed out in the past few days, if we’re talking about banks or controversial weapons systems, there certainly is a magic money tree, to the tune of tens—or hundreds—of billions of pounds. It is always a matter of choices, always a matter of priorities. (And these days, when a politician refers—with furrowed brow—to the need to make ‘difficult choices’, you know they mean ‘choosing to make life more difficult for you suckers’.)

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/06/magic-money-tree-theresa-may-banks-nurses

We don’t pay nurses properly or seriously tackle the housing crisis or sufficiently fund education or social care or local councils not because there isn’t sufficient money to do so but because the government chooses not to.

Obviously, some voters believe or assume that the government’s current priorities are the right ones. Others think that the important things are the ones that identify a truly civilised society: education, health, housing, the environment, social care, a humane welfare system, public libraries, pavements that you can actually walk on, stuff like that.

Can it change? Of course it can. Will it change? We should have a better idea, come Friday morning.

 

References

[1] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre, foreword by Michael Dirda (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 143-144.

[2] Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 181.

 

‘Decent provision for the poor’

foodbank

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-banks-hidden-uk-poverty-hundreds-independent-food-aid-network-trussel-trust-a7762576.html

Between 1st April 2016 and 31st March 2017, The Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network provided 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 1,109,309 in 2015-16. Of this number, 436,938 went to children.

https://www.trusselltrust.org/2017/04/25/uk-foodbank-use-continues-rise/

‘Where a great proportion of the people (said he,) are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization’ (1770)—James Boswell, Life of Johnson

Oh, Doctor Johnson, you . . .  Tory!

 

 

‘Rather worried about democracy’

‘Sometimes people never saw things clearly until it was too late and they no longer had the strength to start again. Or else they forgot their idea along the way and didn’t even realise that they had forgotten.’[1]

Park-2

Walking back across the park, I feel a brisk wind spring up, quite cold, an abrupt imposition on a pleasantly warm morning, thirteen or fourteen degrees (mid-fifties in American money). As the 2016 Nobel laureate once sang, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. So which way is it blowing just lately?

In 1917, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published ‘His Last Bow’, in which Sherlock Holmes appears in the guise of a successful British agent in the summer of 1914, kitted out with Yankee accent and goatee beard. At the close of the story, reunited with the faithful Doctor John Watson, he remarks: ‘There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.’[2]

This was the Conan Doyle who wrote warning pamphlets even before the war broke out (and, subsequently, a six-volume work on The British Campaign in France and Flanders, apparently showing the same trust in official sources as he later showed towards spiritualists and small girls photographed with fairies in their garden).

Many of us will doubt that this is ‘God’s own wind’ and will certainly doubt that ‘a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared’. But yes, there’s an increasing suspicion that the wind is indeed coming from the east, though blowing more strongly on the United States at present, often via companies that specialise in harvesting data from social media and personalising election messages based on that data.

Scottish-miners-strike-17-June-1926-001

(Scottish miners strike, 17 June 1926: http://historycollections.blogs.sas.ac.uk/ ©Bishopsgate Institute)

Samuel Hynes, writing of the conclusion of the General Strike of 1926, observed that it was ‘more than simply the end of an industrial action; it was the end of hope that the war might still have some positive consequences in the lives of the men who had fought it.’[3] The Great War was seen by many of the survivors as a terrible gap in their lives. Wyndham Lewis wrote of it as a bridge: ‘Of course the bridge is symbolic. The bridge stands for something else. The bridge, you see, is the war.’[4] David Jones remarked that ‘for us amateur soldiers’, ‘the war itself was a parenthesis’.[5] Hynes notes that after the gap of the war, the General Strike could be seen as ‘war’s echo in society’, forcing another gap in the continuity of history.[6]

Literary types are (or should be) always alert to echoes—which are not the same as duplications. (The comments I’ve read from people who assure us that there’s no element of fascism in any of the recent political upheavals in the world because there aren’t endless rows of men in black shirts continually raising their right arms are beside the point.).

Echoes, yes. In Anthony Burgess’s novel, Napoleon Symphony, Lebrun remarks of Napoleon: ‘the new thing is lui, Bonaparte. What I mean is he doesn’t express any separable idea – you understand me? He’s not there to personify some new notion of absolutism or democracy or what you will. He’s there to turn the age into himself.’[7]

David Moody, author of a recent three-volume biography of Ezra Pound—who was often casually and carelessly referred to as ‘anti-democratic’ or ‘fascist’—remarked of Pound’s economic campaigns: ‘He found it infamous that the governments of those democracies should put saving the banks, and saving the financial system responsible for the crisis and the depression, before the welfare of their people. He held it as axiomatic that a democratic government should serve the interests of the whole people, not the interests of the few who controlled the nation’s wealth’.[8]

Dangerfield_Strange_Death

George Dangerfield, in his classic study, The Strange Death of Liberal England (first published in 1935), writing of the years 1910-1914, referred to ‘the spectacle it affords us of a democracy passing from introspection to what looks very like nervous breakdown.’[9]

The most famous phrase from Mrs Dale’s Diary, the drama serial broadcast every weekday on BBC Radio for more than twenty years (1948-1969), was Mrs Dale’s remarking of her husband that she was ‘rather worried about Jim.’ A great many people must now be ‘rather worried’ about democracy—or should be. A form of government ‘in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives’, the Oxford dictionary has it. In the UK, we bypassed those elected representatives in the 2016 referendum. The official party policy of all the major parties was to remain in the European Union but David Cameron’s government went directly to ‘the people’. The total ‘Leave’ votes represented 37% of the electorate. In the 2015 General Election, the total Conservative Party votes represented 24% of the electorate. It’s easy to understand why such phrases as ‘the will of the people’, which are thrown around so freely, are viewed with widespread scepticism, and the electoral system still current in the United States seems no less odd than ours.

Most recently, our local elections and the Metro mayoral elections were won on even more derisory turnouts. When we walked into our local polling station, I said to one of the two electoral officers sitting behind the tables: ‘I hope it’s been a bit busier than this most of the time.’ He said: ‘This is a flurry.’ My wife and I were the only voters in the room. The West of England mayoral election eventually produced a 29.3% turnout: the winning candidate took the votes of just 8% of the electorate. Line up thirteen voters and just one of them voted for the new Metro mayor. The ‘will of the people’ manifested here, the ‘democratic choice’, was—apparently—for nobody at all.

Where does this leave the democratic project, the system of government designed to represent the will of the people, when the people seem to have abandoned it? And how are such questions complicated by the rapidly accumulating evidence of covert, if not unambiguously illicit, interventions in both referenda and national elections, frequently by immensely wealthy men, with their own agendas, purporting to oppose ‘elites’?

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy

There have been a great many conspiracy theories in recent years—some of which have been used quite frankly as weapons of political power. And some, of course, are real. Are there conspiracies—or altered landscapes resulting from such conspiracies—that are almost too large to see?

We have a General Election approaching now, though it seems more like a presidential one because of the dogged and calculated focus upon individuals rather than policies. The Labour Party manifesto has been leaked (though none of the others, naturally). From what I read about it, there seemed—finally—something to vote for (after the many years of voting against things and generally being on the losing side). The right-wing rags duly foamed and flailed about Jeremy Corbyn ‘dragging us back to the seventies’, which was quite amusing, since many on the right seem to be yearning for the 1950s while others are clearly looking back longingly to the nineteenth century. And then, come to think of it, whatever the trials and troubles so beloved of political historians—and everyone will pick and choose to suit his or her preferred narrative—I remember, for example, how easy it was to find a job in the 70s, how easy—and affordable—it was to find a flat, how higher education was not yet limited to the wealthy or the massively indebted, how public libraries were properly stocked and staffed.

Still, for now we have the relentless bombardment by inane slogans. The EU referendum and the US Presidential election confirmed that, even if—or especially if—meaningless, phrases repeated ad nauseam will do the job: ‘In general, there is evidence that repetition of political frames tend to be effective, especially when the aim is to reach an audience that is not highly knowledgeable about politics.’[10]  And we are hearing a great deal more of Vox populi. It’s a cheap and handy option. Of course, broadcasters and newspaper journalists will tend to select those opinions which are most striking because of their forcefulness, dogmatism or sheer lunacy but, even knowing this, the spectacle is hugely dispiriting. Quite frankly, to look back at what has been done to this country in recent years and to be told that huge numbers of people are eager to vote for those who did it, are continuing to do it, and planning to do it even more, is mildly astonishing.

The reaction in this house tends to vary between the question addressed to newspaper, radio or television screen (‘Are you completely insane?’) or the statement addressed to the air (‘We’re doomed’).

As, indeed, we seem to be.

 

References

[1] Tove Jansson (who didn’t write only about Moomins), The Summer Book (1972; Sort of Books, 2003), 105.

[2] ‘His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, two volumes (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2005), II, 1443. The editor notes (1425) that the subtitle in the Strand Magazine, where the story first appeared, was ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’.

[3] Hynes, A War Imagined (1990; London: Pimlico, 1992), 412.

[4] Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1937), 2.

[5] Jones, In Parenthesis (London: Faber, 1963), xv.

[6] A War Imagined, 421.

[7] Burgess, Napoleon Symphony (London, Jonathan Cape, 1974), 80.

[8] David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man & His Work. Volume II: The Epic Years 1921-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014), xi.

[9] The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 75.

[10] Dr Aleksandra Cichocka, political psychologist at the University of Kent, quoted in Steven Poole, ‘Stuck on Repeat’, Guardian (11 May 2017), 7. The ‘American strategist’, Jim Messina, is, apparently, ‘fond of saying that the average person thinks about politics for just four minutes a week’: mentioned by Stephen Bush, in his ‘Politics’ column: New Statesman (12-18 May, 2017), 9. How cheering is that?