Search This Blog

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

We Are Devo

A number of commentators on the left have been thrilled by the flowering of democratic practice during the Scottish referendum debate. Paul Mason talks of "a sustained and substantial glimpse of a grassroots campaign in which politicians are secondary and street-magic primary". To ensure you don't think he's hankering after our very own Tahrir Square, he then advocates the "non-strident" and quiet Britishness of George Orwell, which is apparently now embodied by Dan Snow and Eddie Izzard (national broadcasting may be the kernel of persistent identity here, now the empire is no more and the welfare state ailing). On the right, the desperation to find something in a hollowed-out state to provide the glue of nationalism, other than wet weather and the English language, reduces Tim Stanley to gibberish: "the healthy nation state can only be healthy when populated by moral people".

Many now foresee a new constitutional settlement for the UK, whatever the outcome of Thursday's vote, though predictably more along the lines of an elected Lords than the abolition of the Corporation of the City of London. Phil BC says "We need a politics that is accessible and as close to the electorate as possible to overcome the rancid legacy of anti-politics, a system that does not disenfranchise massive numbers because they happen to live in safe seats, and a settlement that encourages and rewards an active citizenry". This is nostalgia for the more politically engaged and literate electorate of yore. The reality is that engagement for the majority only occurs under exceptional circumstances, such as in 1945, while an interest in politics is viewed suspiciously by both the state and society. For the most part, people do not want to be "bothered" by politics and will happily forgo engagement until their own interests are directly threatened (the Scots will regress to the mean). This is why governments pick off minorities one by one, and why the national media treat solidarity as abnormal and suspicious ("trouble-makers", "outside agitators" etc).

There is an obvious paradox in the voguish belief that greater devolution and localism will lead to greater solidarity. This confusion is also on display in Pride, a social comedy (more in the tradition of Ealing Studios than Boulting Brothers) about a London LGBT group raising funds for Welsh miners in 1984, in which being disliked by the Tory government is sufficient grounds for mutual support. It's a very entertaining film, that cleverly shows how identity politics substitutes a culture of hedonistic consumption for one of traditional self-restraint and denial, but it ultimately depicts solidarity as a triumph over difference rather than the recognition of shared economic interests. In fact, the film suggests the chief act of solidarity was getting so many star names to take supporting parts or make brief cameos. Luvvies united.


Pride is an example of the continuing recuperation of the miners strike as a sentimental commodity, regretting the human cost but insisting the outcome was inevitable and thus desirable. The film has been roundly praised by the same conservative press that monstered the miners and gays in the 80s (they also appear to have missed its celebration of multiculturalism, presumably because the cast are all-white). The process started with the 1996 film Brassed Off, in which the inescapable death of the industry is symbolised by Pete Postlethwaite's black lung, community is reduced to nostalgic music (Pride indulges in tearful singing), and hope means the young and talented heading for London. Billy Elliott in 2000 accentuated these themes, with the dad reduced to scabbing in order that the boy might be saved from obscurity through ballet. Jeremy Deller's 2001 work, The Battle of Orgreave, explicitly addressed this recuperation, as well as bringing out the civil war echoes, but had little impact outside the art world. In all cases, the economics of coal and the agency of government are off-screen.

The subtext of the inevitability and desirability of coal's eclipse finds a parallel in the modern assumption that regional devolution will help address the imbalance of Britain. However, this assumption ignores the basis of the imbalance and, to judge from the "pledge" recently issued in respect of Scotland, is biased towards fiscal distribution over capital investment (the latter massively favours London). The UK is not like Germany, where there are multiple lander that are net contributors (via nationally-set taxes) to federal equalisation. Nor is it like Spain or Italy, where autonomist movements are strongest in rich areas, such as Catalonia and Lombardy, and derive much of their support from resentment over the flow of revenues to the "parasitical" centre.

Fiscally-oriented devo max (i.e. focused on limited variations to national tax and spend norms) would actually entrench the power of "Greater Greater London" as the subsidies would be largely one way. Every region outside London, the South East and (marginally) the East of England would likely run a deficit. This risks creating bantustans under the control of local elites playing the anti-London card while accommodating City interests through regulatory arbitrage (the SNP's commitment to lower corporation tax is textbook). The more fiscal power is devolved to the regions, the more regional government will matter and conceivably the more engaged the electorate will be. But this also means the power of London to indirectly influence affairs will be maintained while its responsibility for bad policy will be reduced. Of course, at this point the metonym "London" refers to the City and Westminster.

Localism, whether in the form of rebarbative nationalism or pro-social devolution, is an understandable attempt to achieve self-determination in the face of post-democratic neoliberalism, but it risks substituting petty solidarities for class consciousness, which is why big capital will happily accommodate itself to "self-rule" in Edinburgh just as small capital will advance the same in Clacton. Resistance to globalisation is made difficult not just by explicit anti-union measures but by the practical difficulties of organising industrial and political action across borders. In Pride, the LGBT van gets lost in the Welsh valleys. Today, you'd simply pull up Google Maps on your smartphone. The final paradox is that the Internet, which did so much to turbo-boost globalisation, may be doing more to atomise and diffuse solidarity today than to promote it, despite the theatre of Tahrir, Syntagma and Maidan.

Monday, 15 September 2014

How would you like to pay for that?

The consensus on Apple's recent product launch is that its electronic payment system may ultimately be more significant than the much-trailed iPhone-slaved watch. This is partly explained by the underwhelming nature of smartwatches, but it also has to do with the idea of Apple as a market-maker: "In a way, the company is now doing to the card payment business what it did to the music business with the iTunes store". Some have even gone so far as to claim that Apple is now a bank, and that this is a good thing: "Consumers will have more rights from Apple than we were given by the bankers and their Washington cronies". Well, obviously.

First reactions are notoriously unreliable, but even so, the reception for Apple Pay has produced some amusing conflicts in interpretation. Some espy the decline of hardware: "this week’s announcements showed that Apple’s future will be less about hardware and more about its 'ecosystem' - a combination of software, services, data and a plethora of partners." Others see the continuing importance of hardware: "Other mobile wallets exist across multiple hardware platforms, with no consistency to support biometrics or other verification aspects such as location information. With Apple Pay, Apple controls both the hardware and the software". Apple Pay is both revolutionary - "a classic Apple moment of simplification and integration" - and not disruptive but complementary - "Apple has now successfully injected itself into this market and may gain a foothold". As William Goldman said about the hype mechanics of the film industry, "Nobody knows anything".

The ability to pay - to express a preference - has long been dependent on the provision of status-oriented credentials rather than just broad money, despite the neutrality claimed by economics textbooks. This led to the habit of the rich employing distinct denominations for the valuing of property, such as the livre in the France of Balzac and the guinea in the UK of Austen. The latter persisted for over 150 years as the denomination of wealth, from houses to professional fees, and it was still common to see guinea price tags in "posh" furniture shops and tailors in the late-60s. The denomination disappeared following decimalisation in 1971, but its use had started to decline with the launch of credit and charge cards in the preceding decade, which provided statements in pounds, shillings and pence.

The introduction of the credit card as an elite token, with its associated credit rating, also marks the point at which the democratic claim "My money is as good as anybody else's" began to lose its social power, to be replaced by the condescending "I'm afraid your card has been refused". We have now reached the stage, with contactless payment that depends on an expensive phone or watch, where mere cards, like cash and cheques before them, have become a sign of inferiority (London Transport's dropping of cash, combined with the Apple Pay announcement, shows how the window of acceptable methods is inexorably shifting).

Some have tried to sell this as egalitarian - "cash imposes its highest transaction costs on the poor" - in much the same way that the punitive interest rates of payday lenders are excused as a flexible service that suits its knowledgeable consumers. Some even seem more concerned about the effects that it will have on the well-off: "Apple Pay and similar technologies will make the experience of spending more abstract, and thus easier, than ever before." In fact, the same technology will offer to rescue you from this anxiety of financial promiscuity, providing greater control over your balances and credit rating. After all, you're worth it.

Many have praised the security architecture of Apple Pay, particularly the way it uses tokenisation to avoiding storing card details on the phone or revealing them to merchants. This might appear like timely good news after the unfortunate business of Jennifer Lawrence's photos and the presumed iCloud hack, but what it reveals is Apple's ambition not to disintermediate card providers or banks but to extend the zone of protection that is implicit in all their "closed" products. Industry observers would talk of Steve Jobs's reality distortion field, but this witticism ignored the truth that the basis of Apple's worldview has always centred on the provision of a protective force field for the status anxious. Apple Pay is not revolutionary but deeply comforting.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Scottish Play

Whichever way the vote on Scottish independence goes, the margin of victory will probably be small. This means either a democratic mandate or a moral obligation to change the status quo. "Do nothing" is the one outcome that now seems unlikely. Given that a victorious yes campaign would inevitably compromise on a lot of specifics, actual independence would perhaps not be that much different to devo max in the short-term, beyond the symbolism of flags and names, and in the event of a no victory, devo max would probably evolve into de facto independence in the long-term. Indeed, considering the major concessions floated by Gordon Brown and others this week, we may find pressure for Scottish independence building rapidly in a disgruntled England and Wales if the Scots themselves get cold feet.

The focus of the political and media caste on the implications of independence for British party leaders, Westminster elections and the EU indicates that the no camp (with some exceptions) remains more interested in London today than Edinburgh tomorrow. This is interpreted as English condescension by the yes campaign, but it would be more accurate to see it as the unthinking metropolitan bias of neoliberal hegemony. David Cameron's fleeting visit this week was to the Scottish Widows office in Edinburgh: an enclave of the City of London in an otherwise hostile environment. I doubt we'll see George Osborne, in hard hat and high-vis jacket, visiting Clydeside any time soon.

On both the left and right, Scotland is treated as an off-stage development, hence the degree to which the media debate is progressed by "noises off" such as opinion polls, the crude blackmail of business leaders (the only thing keeping us here is the goodwill of London) and the usual background hum of leaks and spin (it's Cameron's fault, it's Miliband's fault). In Scotland, the debate is taking place in the street, church halls and pubs, rather than being mediated by TV, which is probably why the late surge in support for independence, despite the best efforts of "project fear", has caught many by surprise. This very act of empowerment and engagement is likely to boost turnout, and may well boost the optimistic yes vote as a taster of self-determination. Just as the decision to not provide a devo max option on the ballot paper now looks like the unionists' first error of judgement, the lack of serious debate in England and Wales about the ramifications of independence (leaving the field to narcissistic "love bombing" by slebs) looks like having the unintended consequence of convincing the Scots that they should be the masters of their own fate.

Talking of unintended consequences, I recently saw King Charles III, the play that imagines constitutional turmoil following the queen's death (available only in London at present, if you're reading this "in the wings", so to speak). The Shakespearian influence extends from the blank verse to the plot, with knowing references to Macbeth and King Lear. The agonising and witless new king refuses royal assent to a bill on press regulation and dissolves Parliament on a point of misguided principle. The monarchy is saved from abolition only by persuading him to abdicate in favour of the more compliant (and scheming) William and Mary - sorry, Kate. The echoes of 1688 are rather loud. Though the play is funny, up-to-the-minute and dramatically (if not politically) convincing, it ignores Scotland (as it does Wales, Cornwall and all the other areas where the royals own land). I felt all it lacked was a flunkey wandering onstage to announce, Hamlet-like, "George Robertson and Annabel Goldie are dead".


This metropolitan bias has led to some illogical thinking. Consider the following from John Aziz: "Scotland has no real leverage to negotiate favourable terms other than the result of the referendum and a few vague gestures about Britain's currency being underpinned by North Sea oil. The UK is the one with the army, the NATO and EU memberships and the nuclear submarines. Alex Salmond can hand-wave and pontificate as much as he likes, but he will have to accept independence on terms dictated to him by Westminster. His desired formal currency union, off the table. British military bases including Trident in Scotland, irremovable from it." This combines economism's trivialisation of democracy (a vote does not constitute leverage), childish petulance (that's my ball, army and nuclear subs), and a startling failure to appreciate that the short-term immovability of Faslane and Coulport provides the Scots with major leverage in any negotiations (they're holding our nuclear subs hostage and demanding a currency union in exchange!)

The sudden lurch this week into emotionalism has also produced some top-grade nonsense, particularly among Tories. According to the Spectator, "The Prime Minister should not need speech-writers to extol the merits of Britain. He can just consider our history: in 1707 England was a hive of religious intolerance while impoverished Scotland was beset with feudal warfare. Within decades Great Britain had become the first industrial nation and led the world in scientific discovery". Though 1688 and 1701 enshrined anti-Catholic bias in law, this actually represented the last knockings of religious intolerance as the wellspring of politics (compare and contrast with 100 years prior); and while Scotland was certainly impoverished, due to economic depression and a run of famines in the 1690s, it was not beset by "feudal warfare" (this is just anti-Jacobite propaganda) so much as a stultifying aristocracy of absentee landlords. Finally, though the Scots were major contributors to scientific and technological advances, both before and after 1707, this was not decisive in producing the industrial revolution. Correlation is not causation.

One Conservative thinker who has better understood the risks that separation entails is Peter Oborne, who notes that the role of the monarch will inevitably be up for debate. The current silence of the Queen (on her hols at Balmoral, natch) is not just formal neutrality, but circumspection over the constitutional opportunities that Scottish independence would create. Though the monarchy would probably survive, there will surely be pressure to abolish the House of Lords. Scottish peers would have to quit Westminster, and I doubt an independent Scotland would create an unelected Scottish Lords, so why not boot the lot out? There would also be a resurgent clamour to adopt a constitution, or at least pass an updated Bill of Rights, which would provide a field day for Europhobes as well as civil libertarians.

To date the English and Welsh left have largely focused on an independent Scotland's role as a pathfinder for greater regional devolution, the abandonment of nuclear weapons, and the refoundation of the welfare state. Much of this is gestural - like admiring Scandinavian social democracy. More pessimistically, some fear that independence will guarantee Tory governments in perpetuity. This is nonsense. Labour would have secured outright majorities in the general elections of 1997, 2001 and even 2005 (despite Iraq) without the bloc of Scottish MPs. What few seem to be thinking of is the constitutional opportunities that the result will give rise to, whichever way Scotland votes. Typically, Londoners get it, noting that the Great Wen will benefit whatever the outcome, and that ultimately independence may be a pragmatic strategy for the capital itself.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Back to the Future

The graphic representation of the Islamic State area of control as a series of "spreading cracks", or the welts raised by a whipping, is presumably meant to question the state's stability and hint at its malignancy, but it also echoes the idea of a state that is constituted by caravan routes and oases, rather than the straight lines and blocks of colour on a map beloved of Sykes and Picot. This in turn points at both the anachronistic, medieval style of the caliphate (in the eyes of the West) and its exceptional nature - i.e. it's not a "normal" state and therefore not subject to the normal rules of inter-state relations (much as Cuba was deemed "abnormal" to justify the CIA's plans to assassinate Fidel Castro).


This visual trope is nostalgic, in much the same way that the Islamic State's choreographed beheadings are: the longing for a cleaner, simpler more decisive way of living among conflicted young men trapped between tradition and modernity. This antique framing finds a parallel in the Western nostalgia for city states that thrive through trade and innovation, which is undergoing a periodic revival. The trope has been around for a couple of centuries, since the Romantics compensated for their nationalism by sentimentalising the high medieval. The historic movement from the rural to the urban, and the massive growth of cities that this gave rise to, was ideologically smoothed by reference to vigorous city-state epitom├ęs, such as Classical Athens and Venice, much as bourgeois norms were sourced to pious burghers rather than progressive aristocrats and early state bureaucracy. The city state is part of the foundation myth of the capitalist economy.

According to Izabella Kaminska in the FT: "You can feel the sentiment in the air is changing. From Scotland’s Independence vote and talk of London getting its own interest rate to Peter Thiel’s seasteading ambitions and Elon Musk’s desire to colonise Mars. The idea is that we are entering an age that transcends borders and sovereign identity, and instead becomes focused on shared values, interests and code". In an earlier piece, she looked backward rather than forward: "Which begs the question: are super-city states about to disrupt our current concept of the old fashioned sovereign state? You know, a la the return of the Hanseatic league of Northern Europe during the Middle Ages?"

I'm sure Kaminska is partly having a laugh here, but the idea that city-states are the future is not limited to the well-paid apologists for Singapore and Dubai. Since the onset of the Eurozone crisis it has been fashionable in some quarters (such as the Wall Street Journal) to claim that the problems of Italy and Greece stem from unification and that they'd have been better off remaining a patchwork, as if Renaissance Florence was a template for the 21st century, and as if Greece had not been unified under the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. The ideology concerns the preservation of wealth. As the WSJ summarises it, the city-state depends upon "Regional competition, the necessity of private property, entrepreneurial freedom, the leadership of visionaries and of conservative economic practices".

The tendency for futurism to be built on a reactionary dream of the past is well known. Peter Thiel, whom Kaminska includes in her zeitgeist checklist, is famously curmudgeonly about the crapness of modern technology, despite having made a mint out of PayPal: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters". His misanthropy, libertarianism and love of expensive hardware is of a piece with a disappointed worldview. As the New Yorker noted, "He looks back to the fifties and sixties, the heyday of popularized science and technology in this country, as a time when visions of a radically different future were commonplace". More worrying, you can spot some nasty thinking emerging around the technological augmentation of humanity: "Speciation might well happen, but instead of class, I think it'll be much more driven by culture. You might get a country that decides it wants to bring down its healthcare budget by subsidising an upgrade that makes people healthier. The end result might be that the Singaporeans become their own species". City-state 2.0.

The real target of all this is inter-regional fiscal transfers within the nation state. The trope of the medieval city-state or kingdom is simultaneously used to justify regional autonomy, as in Catalonia and Bavaria, and to discredit transfers to poorer areas. Thus the Lega Nord consciously evokes the memory of the Lombard League in its desire to curtail subsidies to Southern Italy (aka "Africa"). Historically, regional investment has become salient not at unification, but at the point when universal suffrage has been introduced. For example, the "southern question" was addressed after Italian Unification through state repression, which did much to establish the mafia, while under Fascism investment was biased towards the North and Centre. Major state investment in the South only started with the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno in 1950. An assault on fiscal transfers is usually an assault on democracy dressed up as a plea for "fairness".

Austerity works to reduce transfers, both through direct cuts in regional expenditure and the associated shift in tax regimes from income and assets to consumption, which has a disproportionate impact on poorer areas. The consequence, as should be obvious in the case of Scotland, is a greater desire to "go it alone" and at least be the master of your own fate. But the corollary of this is not greater cohesion in the rump nation state, but a more acute division as the city-state becomes proportionately more powerful. As CRESC noted in 2011, "The political outcome of financial crisis in the UK has paradoxically consolidated the power of London as a kind of ‘City State’ within the national economy and with its own internal inequality. The politics of austerity in the UK brings us closer to the end of the national, if by the national we mean a space of social redistribution and negotiated political compromise." If Scotland quits the union, the resulting reconfiguration of UK fiscal distributions is unlikely to lead to more investment in Newcastle or Leeds.

The direction of travel points to the paradox of a more atomised polity in a more globalised and interconnected world. It would be foolish to oversell this - the nation state will continue, at least as a cultural market and a monopoly of violence - but the idea that megacities will increasingly operate as independent global powers is not far-fetched. This won't be because they cast off from the nation state, but because they become essentially coterminus with it, a process we can see all too clearly in London.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Taxi Driver

The media coverage of the Jay report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham has focused on political correctness ("a vile, perverted ideology which is wrecking our society and ruining the lives of the innocent"), and the related evils of anti-racism (a "dogma") and multiculturalism ("we no longer have a universal moral code or national identity, and the consequences can be seen all around us, whether in the rise of home-grown Islamic extremism or in the failure of too many migrant groups to learn even basic English"). The religious flavour of this language, and the apocalyptic image of social breakdown, cannot distract from the all-too-obvious bigotry. The salient fact for most commentators is that the perpetrators were Pakistani and the victims white.

Some, such as Allison Pearson, have tried to obscure this by paying lip-service to other aspects: "Powerless white working-class girls were caught between a hateful, imported culture of vicious misogyny on the one hand, and on the other a culture of chauvinism among the police, who regarded them as worthless slags" (class, immigration, sexism, bingo!). Even professional liberals, like Yasmin Alibhai Brown, have found themselves talking nonsense: "White experts and officers have for too long been reluctant to confront serious offences committed by black and Asian people" (which presumably explains the pitifully small number of them in prison).

That levels of misogyny vary between different communities is hardly a surprise, nor that it should be more prevalent in a conservative community like British Pakistanis. People in Clacton are more bigoted than people in London, essentially because the big city attracts the unconventional and progressive, and because proximity and variety encourages tolerance. This does not mean that Clacton has "questions to answer", any more than the Pakistani community has. Similarly, that the police belittle crimes against women and the poor is hardly news. The police service is a conservative institution and the structural bias of the legal system means it privileges crimes against property and social order.

Dan Hodges, who passes as a "lefty" in the eyes of Daily Telegraph readers, says "we cannot ignore that race played a part in these crimes", however he never gets round to explaining the part that race played. This is because his reasoning can only lead to either crude racism (Pakistanis have a greater propensity to abuse) or obvious nonsense (the terrified police were intimidated by the all-powerful Pakistani community). As a consequence, his rant explodes under the pressure of its own frustration in a fit of hyperbole: "A major British town was turned into a rape camp". Really?

Organised crime depends on networks of influence and opportunity. It is inescapably social, which means the community is inevitably compromised, if only through a desire to "mind its own business". That said, the dominant factors are usually material and reflect circumstance. A salient yet widely-ignored feature of the Rotherham case (like Rochdale before it) is the involvement of minicabs (the Jay report notes: "One of the common threads running through child sexual exploitation across England has been the prominent role of taxi drivers in being directly linked to children who were abused"). The significance of ethnicity is that Pakistanis are disproportionately represented in this employment sector (providing greater opportunity and scope for collusion), not that Pakistanis are more likely to be sex abusers due to arranged marriages or Islam.


For the right, political correctness is simply "cultural Marxism", which they source to the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci and the "correct party line" tradition of Communism. However, though the left has undoubtedly played its part, modern "PC" is largely an invention of reactionaries appalled at the advance of civil rights in the US in the 60s and the emergence of identity politics in the UK and elsewhere in the 70s. From the early 80s it was routinely attributed to the "loony left", famously in the case of the GLC and often on the basis of nothing more than myth (Baa Baa White Sheep etc). This worked well enough during the Thatcher era, but it gradually lost its credibility after the rise of New Labour (according to Google Ngram, the phrase "loony left" peaked in 1995).

Thereafter the focus shifted from "loony" to "craven", with an emphasis on the assumed cowardice of local government and public corporations in "standing up" to the greedy and arrogant demands of immigrants and special interest groups (mad mullahs gradually took over the role previously played by lippy rastas and boiler-suited lesbians). For Daniel Hannan it is always the happy time of Thatcherism ("Labour's rotten boroughs ... remain stuck in the early Eighties"). Even self-styled "liberal lefties" like Denis McShane appear to have internalised this narrative, excusing their wilful blindness as the result of brainwashing by The Guardian. Though PC is now assumed to infect all areas of public behaviour, from hands-tied police to conniving councillors, it remains at heart a matter of language: what words are permissible. The deployment of the phrase "Pakistani heritage" in the context of Rotherham clearly hints at a desire to use blunter terms.

Contrary to the myth of a communist conspiracy, political correctness originates in the 18th century idea of politeness (politesse). Like reason, the sublime and the sentimental, this was a key concept of the Enlightenment, amplified through the broader cultural norms of civility and manners. Whereas previous styles of language were deployed as class and status identifiers (courtly love, Renaissance classicism, French imports), now "right language" was seen to express "right behaviour" and "right thinking" and thus to be an ethical aspiration for all rather than merely a badge of membership for the few. This built on the earlier development of "plain speech" through the translation of the Bible, which was a rejection of "fancy" (and implicitly Catholic) aristocratic forms as much as the vulgar demotic.

Politeness meant moderating language. The original Spectator talked of its mission to "enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality". This points up the impeccably bourgeois credentials of the idea that society could be improved by improving its speech. This would in turn lead to the 19th century belief that language is the repository of national spirit (notably among German Romantics) and thus a common endeavour. While this encouraged some to see language as a plastic medium for moulding a national revolution, it also suggested that language itself was a site of political struggle. What was common to both left and right was the Enlightenment idea that language was universal within the polity, which fed the nineteenth century mania for standardised vocabulary, grammatical rectitude and an antipathy towards dialect and "backward" tongues.


In the 20th century, the "linguistic turn" in philosophy and the emergence of structuralism led to the realisation that the control of language was a means to control society, which is where Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory came in. This reached its logical conclusion in Orwell's 1984 with Newspeak. The negative implications of this were an important contribution to the postwar enthusiasm for recovering marginalised languages (Gaelic, Welsh etc) in the 50s and 60s and the new-found vigour of dialect (notably in poetry) during the 60s and 70s. While these developments were often seen as progressive by the left because of their anticolonial and autonomist credentials, they were actually conservative.

The purpose of this trot through the history of political correctness is not just to point out that it has been employed for conservative and reactionary ends as much as progressive ones, but to note that control is central to its practice: it is people in positions of power that promote politically correct language and thinking. The rightwing critique of PC depends on the belief that Marxists and craven fellow-travellers are in control of major cultural institutions, such as the BBC, as well as local government and the bits of education still in state hands. In reality, the local government left (which was never extensive or entrenched) was systematically disempowered after 1979, education was homogenised through the national curriculum and changes to university funding, and the arts and media were infected by managerialism and neoliberal deference. If PC has grown over the last 35 years, it isn't down to the tireless work of Marxist academics or gay social workers.

But this doesn't mean that political correctness is simply a fabrication. It does exist and it exists for a reason. The perp was big business, which recognised as early as the 1960s that discriminating against ethnic minorities, women and gays was counter-productive, mainly because it limited the pool of talent for recruitment and alienated potential customers (Gary Becker's The Economics of Discrimination was the key validation of this change in thinking). This shift led to business jargon absorbing notions such as "diversity" and "equal opportunities" at the same time as it expanded under the dual impact of modern management theory and the spillover of the terminology of financial engineering.

The incursion of business jargon into the public sector after 1979 was mainly driven through privatisation and outsourcing, but even where these didn't occur, public sector managers were under pressure from central government (advised by consultancies) to adopt private sector practices and vocabulary. Left to its own devices, local government (as institutionally conservative as the police) would probably still be as cautious in embracing cultural sensitivity as it was in the 1970s (it is worth remembering that the "loony left" was largely a generational reaction to a fossilised and often intolerant Labourism). As the Jay report makes clear, Rotherham Council was not an enthusiastic champion of multiculturalism, rather it saw the Pakistani community as a problem to be avoided.

The focus on political correctness by the rightwing media is a psychological projection: attributing to their opponents (the nebulous left) their own desire for social engineering, i.e. the creation of the "universal moral code" and "national identity" beloved of The Daily Mail. The problem for the right is that capitalism works to undermine both of these because its is motivated primarily by profit. That is why we have Internet porn and offshoring. As Adam Smith put it, "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest".

The lesson of Rotherham is that too many people did not see it as being in their interest to enquire into the sexual exploitation of children in local authority care, or to pursue the ample evidence of an organised criminal network centred on minicab firms. The best way to prevent a repetition is not to sack individual local authority workers or members of the police years after the event, or to demand that the Pakistani community explains its "failure", but to make it in the interest of the relevant authorities to give a shit.