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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

New New Grub Street

It is possible that Brian Leveson will pull a rabbit out of the hat on Thursday, when he publishes the report of his inquiry into "the culture, practices and ethics of the press", but the widespread lobbying in advance suggests there will be few surprises, particularly as regards ownership and plurality. The battle lines have been drawn around the issue of statutory regulation. Those opposing this have adopted "no return to 1695" as their battle-cry, a reference to the date when the state licensing of newspapers ended, since when we have supposedly enjoyed a free press. It's worth delving back into the mists of time to understand what 1695 was all about, as it is relevant to the current debate, though not in the way claimed by the press freedom claque.

State licensing of the press was not abolished in 1695, it simply lapsed, which is not a pedantic point. Freedom of speech did not win a great victory, rather the state gave up a regime that had dated from the late Medieval period (largely concerned with the control of Bible printing) and adopted a new legal framework based on property rights, thereby recognising the revolutions in political theory and printing (which had become a lot cheaper) that occurred over the course of the century. It is also worth emphasising that "press" in this context meant the printing press. While the focus of the state's interest was on books and pamphlets, and what they contained, the means of production and thus control concerned the physical machinery of printing, a form of constant capital. Newspapers, in the sense of a regular publication on "matters of topical interest", did not evolve until after the end of licensing, which occurred with the expiration of the time-delimited Licensing Act of 1662, a Restoration law that replaced the earlier Licensing Order of 1643, which in turn had replaced censorship by the Crown (via the Star Chamber) with censorship by Parliament.

The lapsing of state censorship was due to a number of factors. Pre-publication control had long been an irritant in the struggle between King and Commons, particularly in relation to political and religious pamphlets, but it had also proven to be impractical and counter-productive, notably stimulating Milton's polemic in favour of free speech, Areopagitica. However, Milton's much-referenced (and little-read) work was as much a criticism of the monopoly of printing enjoyed by the Stationers' Company, who acted as sole licensors under both Crown and Parliament, as it was a plea for a fundamental right. During the late 17th century, attempts at imposing censorship, and the continuing unpopularity of the Stationers' Company among authors, led to more ill-feeling, which was exacerbated by the Bill of Rights of 1689. Though this did not establish a general right of free speech, it did insist that the debates of Parliament be free and unhindered, which set a crucial precedent.

With the end of licensing in 1695, the print market boomed. Though this was a golden period for literature, many of the leading lights of the Augustan age were motivated by an intense distaste for the hack-work it unleashed, hence Pope's Dunciad and its contempt for Grub Street, the centre of the low-end printing industry in London. Even "hacks" like Daniel Defoe were incensed by the unauthorised (and unpaid) republication of their works by unscrupulous printers. Responding to their loss of monopoly, the Stationers' Company changed tack and advocated copyright as a means of both checking unrestrained publication (and defending their members' own economic interests) and securing authors' rights in their property. This was in tune with the times, echoing the importance of property in John Locke's Second Treastise of Government. Their lobbying led to the first copyright law, the Statute of Anne of 1710. In parallel, the ability of the state to control "dangerous" material was satisfied by recourse to the law on seditious libel and by the imposition of stamp duty which further restricted the publication of newspapers to those with deep pockets. The reliance on libel also set a more general civil precedent, with the courts increasingly being used to defend the "property" of a person's reputation from damage.

Despite two centuries of change, including the huge growth of the newspaper and publishing industries following widespread literacy (described in George Gissing's New Grub Street of 1891), this framework has remained largely unchanged. While the official line has been that the British press is free, the government has always been able to prevent publication of specific items, so long as it was careful not to abuse its "advisory" privileges. Charges of seditious libel evolved into D-Notices and appeals to "national security". The rich and the famous have continued to have recourse to the libel courts, often using the mere threat of this as an effective means of pre-publication control. Meanwhile, you need even deeper pockets to publish a newspaper.

What has changed over the last decade is that the cost of a virtual printing press, in the form of electronic media, has fallen to zero. The Internet has become the New New Grub Street, where the practical absence of censorship and low barrier to entry have allowed anyone to become a hack. It has even led to the amusing sight of professional journalists indulging their bog-door-scrawling instincts as they retweet libellous rumours. While 99.999% (at least) of the material published this way will never be read by more than a handful of people, the "long tail" effect means that newspapers are losing their near-monopoly on both readers and the ears of politicians.

It's a commonplace to suggest that Hackgate is the result of the disruptive impact of technology on the print medium, but equally significant is the related calculation by Cameron and Milliband that they can now bite the hand that fed them because of this steady erosion. But that in turn may mean they believe the dilutive effects of the Internet are sufficient to avoid the need to directly confront the issue of ownership. What references to 1695 should do is remind politicians, and Brian Leveson, that the control of the press has always been a matter of property rights. A billion tiny printing presses does not fundamentally challenge the concentration of capital, any more than New Grub Street challenged Fleet Street.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Economics and Vagina Dentata

Discussing the "crisis" of soul-searching in the economics profession following the 2008 financial crash, Chris Dillow asks why economists lost sight of Keynes's advice to aspire to be as humble and as competent as dentists. Chris attributes the failure to the delusion of professional significance - the belief that economists could and should drive policy, rather than just deal with practicalities, which inevitably led to hubris: "What sort of reputation would dentists have if they stopped dealing with people's teeth and preferred to give the government advice on dental policy, tried to forecast the prevalence of tooth decay or called for new ways of conceptualizing mouths?"

All professions are vulnerable to the same delusion, privileging theory over practice and seeking to bask in the reflected glory of public policy, but I think economists were encouraged in the cultivation of their pretensions and we should be cautious about beating them up. Not only did some correctly predict the coming crash (though normal distribution means that a number were always going to be either spot-on or forgotten), but even cheer-leaders of the neoliberal economic order sounded a note of caution on occasions, notably Alan Greenspan's comment on "irrational exuberance".

The social and political standing of economists has little to do with their functional usefulness and everything to do with their ideological value. If the latter was close to nil, they'd have much the same standing as dentists. Talk about a "crisis in the profession" currently serves to deflect criticism of the financial order, just as the current "bishops with vaginas" kerfuffle distracts from the real crisis of the Church of England (an absurd anachronism in practice and based on a theory in inexorable decline). With little widespread support for an alternative to neoliberalism, economists must take on the role of scapegoat, despite the fact that many correctly identified the growing (and continuing) problems. The regular appearance of the Governor of the Bank of England and other economist worthies before the Treasury Select Committee thus oscillates between Moses delivering the tablets and a penitential auto da fe.

In 2008, the Queen famously asked "Why did you [economists] fail to predict this?" Many took this as an example of her sage wisdom, the equivalent of the small boy pointing out the emperor's butt-nakedness, but she was actually asking completely the wrong question. A profession so dependent on theory would always be disputatious, if only to satisfy personal ambition, so the idea that economists as a collective entity had a settled view was both naive and typical of the belief that there must be a "right" answer. A better question (and one that a small boy might well ask) would be "Why does a house in London cost a million quid?", though there are obvious reasons why such a thought would never have occurred to her, any more than she is probably troubled by being the head of a church that denies the authority of women.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Trying to get a decent drink

According to CAMRA, one pub a week is being converted into a supermarket, largely because the current planning regulations don't consider this to be a change in use (pubs being classed as retail outlets), so formal planning permission is not required. The friends of beer think this is a bad thing as it encourages viable pubs to be sold off. According to Tescos, "We are taking on derelict or vandalised pubs, not those which are still actively trading, and for all sorts of reasons those pubs were not successful. We go into communities and ask people what they want and how we can deliver that." So who is right?

I live on the fringes of Southfields in London, which lies within a triangle formed by Wandsworth, Putney and Wimbledon. It's popular recognition rests on the Tube station, which is the alighting point for the All England Club, about three-quarters of a mile down Wimbledon Park Road. For two weeks each year the station is swamped with corporate advertising and a surging tide of tennis grockles being touted by cabbies on their way in and colliding with commuters on their way out. It had a bit part in the recent BBC drama, as local resident George Enthwhistle was doorstepped pre and post-resignation. Further back, when it really was all fields round here, George Eliot lived at the Wandsworth end. Like many areas opened up by the extension of the metropolitan railways, Southfields is now part of that middle ring between inner London and the 20th century suburban expansion, which largely follows the boundary of the old London County. It's a mix of increasingly expensive family houses and yuppie flats, the latter particularly popular with Antipodeans and South Africans who've been forced south by high prices in Earls Court and Shepherd's Bush. Though there are council estates, these are physically marginal and gradually being sold off.

When the house-building began in earnest in Edwardian times, much of the land around the station was purchased from the Bishopric of London. This entailed a covenant that prevented the building of pubs for a century, despite (or perhaps because of) Young's brewery being just to the north. Until the 1990s, this meant walking down to the Merton Road, which formed the Wandsworth to Wimbledon side of the triangle, or up to The Green Man on Putney Heath, though a wine bar, Mandy's, did manage to get in under the wire in the 1980s by posing as an eatery (it's now a Starbucks). When the covenant expired, two pubs quickly opened, The Grid Inn and The Old Garage. Neither were much cop, the former being a gloomy Wetherspoons and the latter a bland Greene King. Last year Wetherspoons sold up, which means we now have a gloomy Tesco Metro instead. A Sainsbury's Local has also opened this year, replacing a Nicolas vintners, and a Waitrose has been given planning permission.

While I was no fan of The Grid Inn, it was neither derelict nor vandalised, and the suggestion that Tesco listened to the local community is tripe. Most of the shops in the immediate vicinity carried anti-Tesco posters when the change in use was announced, and some still do. While the shop owners obviously have a vested interest, this antipathy pretty accurately reflected local sentiment. The area already had two convenience stores as well as a butcher, fishmonger and greengrocer. I have no doubt that all three supermarkets will be successful, and that the other traders will gradually accomodate themselves to the new reality, simply because Southfields is a large dormitory suburb with a growing population of younger working adults who favour convenience stores. The people who use the greengrocer (more variety and cheaper) are not the target market. Restaurants and pubs have struggled simply because the customers for these have ample and better options on the boundaries of the area, particularly at Putney and Wimbledon on the District Line. For this same reason, the plan to convert the old snooker hall back to its original use as a cinema is doomed, as there are multiplexes at each corner of the triangle, not to mention a bijou Curzon in Wimbledon. I suspect we'll end up with a fitness club, a coffee shop and more flats.

That said, there is an argument for a decent pub in the centre of Southfields. Given the proximity of the Earl Spencer gastro-pub on the Merton Road, it should forget about competing on food and focus instead on quality real ale and wine. The real shame is not that pubs are being replaced by chain stores, but that so many pubs are themselves bland chains.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Zero sum nonsense

There has been another splurge of economic doom-mongering this week, following Mervyn King's prediction of weak growth. Some, such as Martin Kettle in the Guardian, believe we're facing 50 years of austerity, while others, notably the Social Market Foundation and Royal Society of Arts, see it as a shorter-term problem that will necessitate another £48bn in public spending cuts over the next 5 years. Kettle (not for the first time) is talking nonsense, and not just because predictions over such a distant horizon are worthless. The SMF/RSA crew have identified a real problem (George Osborne's predictions on growth were pants), however they have used it to justify another round of neoliberal welfare reform and (more pertinently) a bid for a government contract.

Kettle's case is based on two sources. The first is an OECD report that predicts global growth will be healthiest among developing nations (they're sticking their necks out there). The OECD's reliability in these matters has already been questioned, but in fact their prediction that UK GDP will grow at an average of 2.1% per annum over the next 50 years (1.6% per capita, due to an ageing population), is little different to the long-term historical growth rate. What's caught Kettle's attention is the continuing shift of economic power to the developing world, which is where the zero-sum fallacy comes in: "Economic power is shifting to China ... while the world will have more, we will have less of it – and maybe less in real terms, too. We are confronting scarcity of a sort we have forgotten." Given that the UK has been in relative decline since the 1880s, i.e. losing share of world output, this isn't as worrying as you might at first think. The reason why we can bear it is because we're still experiencing positive growth, even if others are growing faster (the OECD predicts global growth will average 3% over the next 50 years). It should hardly need stating that growth from a low base is always faster than growth from a high base. The wider point about growth is that it is not zero-sum, despite the tendency of politicians to cast competition between nation states in this light. Thus David Cameron recently insisted that we were in a race, which implies winners and empty-handed losers (a cynic might argue that the whole "batting for Britain" bollocks is just cover for politicians acting as salesmen for privileged industries, such as defence and The City).

The gloom does not let up: "Growth in Britain will often decline over the coming half-century. It will not resume. We can talk all we like about stimulus and investment, ... but, during the next 50 years, growth is going to be halting and uneven and will sometimes be negative." Pretty much like the last 50 years, then. There are two broad drivers for growth: a push and a pull. The push is the product of technological advance, improved labour skills and organisational efficiency, all of which increase productivity: same inputs, more outputs. This underlying trend is estimated at 1.3% p.a. You've got to be dysfunctional as a country not to be able to take advantage of it. The pull is the result of demand, which can be both external (exogenous) or internal (endogenous): more outputs requiring more inputs. For example, industrial development in China and elsewhere has led to increased demand for German machine tools (exogenous), while recovery from the 2011 tsunami in Japan is generating domestic growth (endogenous).

Kettle's ideological colours are shown when his pessimism about growth segues into pessimism about democracy: "In China ... a new leadership is seamlessly introduced for another 10-year span. In Europe, by contrast, a series of weak leaders ... struggle to assert some degree of control over a floundering currency and unification project. Meanwhile in the US, a re-elected but domestically weak president faces a series of defining political battles over spending and taxes." In trying to convince us that "austerity in some form is the context for most of the foreseeable political options in countries like Britain", he also references Thomas Byrne Edsall on the coming scarcity of resources. The resources in question are not raw materials or human capital but public money: "Although the 20th-century social democratic project may have stalled amid economic decline, the financial crisis has undoubtedly opened up a fresh opportunity to redefine the terms on which the rich and poor can coexist without social unrest in times of greater scarcity." Note the assumption about the persistence of "the rich and poor". The underlying postulate is that a real-terms increase in public spending can only be funded through the fruits of growth. In other words, it is a bonus available only in the good times, not a persistent exercise in the redistribution of wealth. This is a central neoliberal tenet that encourages the industry in doom-mongering. "We can't afford it" is the cry of the hour, despite the continuing advance in living standards (due to that 1.3% thang).

The SMF/RSA report, Fiscal Fallout, focuses its doom-mongering on the likelihood that growth will be lower than anticipated by the Chancellor, and in particular that we may face both sluggish growth in productivity and a smaller output gap than previously thought. The latter is the headroom between current output and potential output come a recovery. If this is small, because we have lost capacity for good, then the recovery will produce a correspondingly smaller bounceback in tax revenues. To hit the government's deficit targets, we may therefore need to cut public expenditure further.

The first point to make is that there are varying opinions on what has caused the drop in productivity and what this implies for a recovery, which the SMF/RSA acknowledge. They are probably right in thinking that there is a combination of factors. Labour-hoarding would imply there is spare capacity, though if it has been biased towards overhead roles this could mean that any expansion might largely be met through automation, offshoring or by new jobs at lower wages. Another factor might be the erosion of skills and a consequent decline in innovation, though you would expect this to take a good few years to have an effect. The forebearance of banks in respect of loans may be preventing the weak going to the wall, creating "zombie businesses", which is relevant as much productivity is the result of market entry/exit. One factor we know is present is constrained capital investment due to insufficient bank lending, hence QE and the funding-for-lending scheme. Though some businesses have large cash piles, those wanting to expand or retool (both of which would boost productivity) are struggling to secure finance.

Up to this point, the report is the work of the Social Market Foundation. Though a centrist think-tank (the legacy of David Owen), the SMF's analysis of the productivity decline is reasonable, and even their speculation about the output gap and the resulting deficit impact is logical. The problem with the report is the second half, the work of the RSA. This suffers from three flaws:

First is the instrumental view of welfare. Their mantra is that you can "drive productivity through public spending". This is a classic liberal concept - the idea that the role of welfare is to make labour more efficient and pliable, whether through health (minimising sick days and the avoidable death of skilled workers who have been invested in), education (providing preliminary skills of value to industry), or unemployment benefit (maintaining a reserve army of labour). This leads to the deployment of that pernicious phrase "value for money", which is (predictably) colouring current debate on welfare in the Labour party. In this light, the angst over rising health and social care costs can be seen for what it is: a distate that a growing share has to be devoted to non-productive labour, i.e. coffin-dodgers (the old), the unemployable (i.e. those on disability benefits), and people who have made "bad lifestyle choices" (the fat, smokers, alkies etc).

The second flaw is the report's lazy employment of policy nostrums that were drained of all meaning over the last 20 years, such as: "rebalance public finance away from Whitehall", implement "more collaboration and integration", focus on "prevention rather than cure", encourage "local engagement" and "devolved design", seek "negotiated autonomy". The report does not explain why these never happen in practice, so I will. Intermediaries (from management consultants to social enterprises) have a vested interest in maintaining the concentration of power, as it makes their job (i.e. interposing in spending decisions) easier.

The third flaw is a weakness for fashionable nonsense: "Flexicurity is a welfare model based on a balance between flexible labour-markets, active labour-market policies and benefits that are designed to smooth transitions between unemployment and work." In other words, welfare-to-work rebranded. Another example: "Open-source policy making" is interpreted as "there should be an open invitation to research centres, academia, think tanks and pressure groups to contribute their own data and expertise." That's not open source, that's just lobbying. Significantly, this is not open to anyone but to specific "civil society institutions", such as the RSA.

The depressing conclusion is that the self-identifying "left of centre" in British politics remains utterly committed to the neoliberal programme. There will never be a time when welfare is not under the cosh, and what little remains must be concentrated on those of most value to capital. There will always be winners, and losers. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Natural History of Trust

There was a slightly Oriental tinge to George Entwhistle's resignation as Director General of the BBC, despite the absence of ostentatious bowing and crying. It was there in the prominent use of the word "honourable" by both the quondam DG and Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust (and former Governor of Hong Kong), and in the ready use of the word "shame" by the press. Since the weekend, the word that has come to the fore is "trust", as in "the BBC must restore public trust", though presumably not through seppuku. Peter Kellner of YouGov has been liberally spraying the media with opinion poll data, though his key message is that "the past decade has seen a decline in trust across the board". In relative terms the BBC remains well ahead of the likes of politicians and tabloid journalists. As Peter says, "something deeper is going on".

"Honour" and "shame" are subjective in that they rely on self-policing by the individual. If you are shameless, it doesn't matter if somebody else accuses you of being shameful. It has no effect unless you share their view on what constitutes behaviour worthy of shame. The verb to shame (i.e. "he was shamed into ...") is a form of coercion, which means you can simply resist. Trust, on the other hand, is objective to the extent that it concerns the expectation of one person about the likely behaviour of another, where that second person has previously given sufficient assurances to justify the expectation. Trust is contractual, which is why we talk of it being "betrayed" or sorrowfully say: "I expected better of you".

But does the YouGov data actually measure trust, in this sense of a social contract? In sociology, trust is taken to be "a measure of belief in the honesty, fairness, or benevolence of another party". This is distinct from "confidence", which is a measure of belief in the competence of another. The detailed YouGov data breaks down the question of trust by age and other dimensions. In respect of school teachers, it finds that 68% of the 18-24 year-old cohort are broadly trusting while this figure rises slightly to 70% among those 60 and over. All perfectly reasonable. But the figures for "don't knows" are respectively 17% and 3%, i.e. the mistrustful are 14% and a whopping 27%. Given that people over 60 generally have little contact with school teachers, while most of those in the 18-24 cohort will have had contact relatively recently, it seems odd that the older cohort are the more definite in their opinion. Perhaps they are more prone to bearing grudges over the years.

Something similar can be seen with trades union leaders. Unless you are a union member (only about 1 in 4 workers), you have no substantive trust relationship with them, i.e. no implicit contract, so what exactly are you assessing? The suspicion is that trust has become a synonym for "like" and is no more meaningful than a simple thumbs-up. The poll also shows that respondents generally trust leading politicians less than their local MP. Given that most people can't remember who their MP is (only a minority of the poll sample will even have voted for the election winner), and will have negligible dealings with them even if they can, the suspicion is that this difference in rating largely reflects exposure. Nadine Dorries can expect her popularity to plummet further.

In historical terms, trust gradually replaced the social and religious concepts of obligation that were broken down by the industrial revolution ("All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned"). This counter-movement took two main forms during the nineteenth century. The first was a reactionary revival of religion (and a related fashion for the medieval) in which a strong moral and ethical code encouraged both charitable obligation and (as a quid pro quo) an acceptance of the division of society: "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate." The second was the development of mutuality in the form of friendly societies and trades unions, culminating in the twentieth century welfare state (the contributory principle, often merely symbolic in practice, is important in respect of the idea of mutuality). However, the cultural artefact of public trust spread well beyond the welfare state proper, encompassing the behaviour of private enterprise (through socially-responsible regulation), the state (through democratic oversight of the police etc) and autonomous public bodies such as the BBC. Come the post-modern/neoliberal era, the framework of conventions and assumptions that embedded trust, i.e. the social-democratic consensus, was attacked as "restrictive", "inefficient" and lacking in "freedom of choice". The proposed solution was (and is) the market, but this solution is noticeably quiet about the role, if any, of trust.

Trust presumes engagement, the ability to take the measure of something before investing. Trust is a "forward option" as it anticipates future, contingent behaviour. This in turn implies predictability, but more flexibly than simple "conformance to spec". It rests on the shared assumption of what will persist and what behaviours can be expected. In a true market there is no predictability because there is no constraint on the actions of the market participants beyond their willingness to agree a price. This obviates the need for any independent ethical code. Thus "my word is my bond" has been replaced by hedging. Market fundamentalists explain market-rigging as the result of a market inefficiency, e.g. a lack of transparency or liquidity (popular explanations for the LIBOR and gas market scandals). In other words, the market isn't free enough. What it needs is not more regulation but less. In such a climate, trust is reduced to a question of system integrity, which is how the word has tended to be used in the field of technology. A trusted system exhibits reliability of operation. It does not exhibit benevolence. This brings trust close to the meaning of confidence - a belief in competence and capability.

As the concept of trust is elided with the cash-nexus, it appears to become simultaneously more dilute, hence "the decline in trust", and yet more transcendent, hence the religiose investment of trust in brands such as Apple or Virgin (as an aside, in the days before health-and-safety-gone-mad, the use of the word "trust" in advertising usually referred to unadulterated goods - now it just implies reliability: from "this won't kill you" to "no surprises in the small print"). The gradual evaporation of trust is emblematic of the emptying of the public space, as nomadic power and wealth ascends to the supra-national (in another era, the behaviour of Starbucks' and Amazon's UK management over tax would have resulted in a charge of treason), and individuals retreat to the private consolation of commodities.

A peculiarity of this movement is the way in which public trust is increasingly seen through the lens of private folly. Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity noted that: "What are commonly and ever more often perceived as 'public issues' are private problems of public figures." Personal failings are nothing new, nor is their impact on public policy, but what is notable is the degree to which private behaviour now degrades public trust. Lloyd George's sale of honours did not destroy trust in the honours system, nor did the Birminghman Six miscarriage destroy trust in the judicial system, because in each case public trust was invested in a wider framework than a dodgy politician or a biased judge. Compare with modern scandals. The MPs expenses cesspit has clearly damaged the entire political class, though many individual MPs were blameless, while the behaviour of Jimmy Savile is automatically assumed to reflect badly on the BBC in its entirety.

This twist on "the personal is political" is ironic in that it sees right-wing critics of public bodies happy to employ a systemic critique even when the issue is one of personal morality. Thus if Savile could get away with sexual abuse at White City, then the entire corporation was clearly complicit (by omission if not commission) and therefore culpable, even 30 years later. Contrast with the readiness with which wrongdoing in The City is isolated as the behaviour of "rogue traders", and systemic reform plays second fiddle to the maintenance of industry strength.

It has been the BBC's good fortune that this latest kerfuffle has coincided with another of the increasingly frequent bouts of David Attenborough love. This has served to remind us that the BBC is neither rotten to the core nor unsympathetic. It remains essentially benevolent. However, the reliance on a living icon is a double-edged sword. When Saint David eventually shuffles off this mortal coil, there will be few left with the moral authority (the public trust) to counter the suggestion that the BBC, after a quarter century of marketisation and management bollocks, is now just another business that should be exposed to the bracing discipline of the private sector.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The slow death of Newsnight

Perhaps the most significant casualty of the current "terror" at the BBC will be Newsnight. I suspect it's for the chop (or at least a revamp that amounts to the same thing), not so much because of its misjudgement in the North Wales case last week as for its gradual decline over recent years. It was interesting to note this leak: "It is understood that Newsnight's political editor, Allegra Stratton, had such grave concerns over the allegations ... that she refused to conduct a two-way interview for the programme. Stratton, however, would not confirm this." It doesn't take a genius to work out the source of that briefing. Stratton has been one of the chief culprits in the declining integrity and competence of the programme, both in terms of her obviously partisan spin on many topics and her abuse of interviewees. While there are good journalists on board (Paul Mason, Susan Watts and Liz McKean spring to mind), and the foreign coverage is usually of a high standard, there is less sense of a cohesive house style now. It's just a bunch of people doing their own thing, with little loyalty to the Beeb or each other.

I think the change can be sourced to two pivotal events. The first was the Hutton inquiry. Newsnight was conflicted because it ran some of the original "sexed-up dossier" allegations and then had to quiz BBC management when Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke resigned. Given the anti-BBC bias elsewhere in the media, they were obliged to be rigorous and confrontational or face accusations of cowardice. It looks like many on the programme became emotionally detached from the corporation at that point. The second key event was the financial crisis, which revealed the emperor in all his stark-bollock-naked glory. Though the programme was initially good on the misbehaviour of the banks and the failures of the regulators, it soon allowed its agenda to be shifted towards the iniquities of public debt and scare stories about demographic timebombs. The tone of the programme has consequently become pessimistic and borderline misanthropic. This has been exacerbated by the Eurozone crisis over the last couple of years.

It's also noticeable how often the government chooses not to send a representative: "they were asked but declined". The significance of this is not the disregard of the government but the cynical flaunting of it by the presenters. This petulance peaked with Eddie Mair's performance on Friday. Paxman's scepticism and barely-concealed contempt for the political class is amusing in small doses, but it has become exasperating as the leitmotif of the programme. Its monotonous deployment has become anti-political, which means it ultimately provides succour to those who would dismiss democracy as inefficient. Paxman himself has become increasingly bored. He seems unable to read an autocue now without at least one stumble. He's not incapable, just visibly showing his lack of interest. From his peak, skewering Michael Howard 15 years ago, he has subsided into a Clarksonesque caricature.

Paxo's own statement points the finger at the growth of a biddable and cowardly middle management tier in the wake of Hutton, however I think this has to be seen as the perspective of someone fronting a programme that was badly burnt by that inquiry. The evolution of the BBC's dysfunctional organisation and management culture has wider roots. One aspect of the BBC's recent travails that faded into the background last week was the coincidental announcement that freelancers will now join the BBC payroll. The use of personal services companies is widespread across the professional classes (probably affecting 1.5 million workers), though we usually only hear about it in the context of BBC "talent" and civil servants, or high-profile cases such as Ken Livingstone. It's no secret that the BBC's commitment to sourcing a large part of its productions via independent providers was achieved by moving many staff off payroll to freelance status.

The internal market mechanisms introduced by John Birt in the 1990s, and the widespread use of freelancers through PSCs and agencies, seem to have led to a managerial culture at the BBC in which anything not in the contract is deemed out of scope and therefore beyond oversight. It's a common experience where services are outsourced that management becomes biased towards arse-covering rather than doing the right thing. We saw this recently in the G4S Olympics fiasco, and arguably are seeing it now in the recklessness of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. To this extent, Entwhistle's incuriosity was endemic. It can also be said that he lost his job because he proved himself poor at arse-covering (after the initial Savile furore, he could have insisted on every sex abuse story being personally cleared with him).

The Newsnight epic-fail reflects the degree to which too many players in the drama do not appear to think of themselves as BBC loyalists, with a "duty of care" to the corporation and by extension public service broadcasting. The ultimate beneficiaries of this may turn out to be the famously "incurious" Murdochs and others who wish the BBC harm. The Birt era was a conscious attempt to head off break-up and privatisation by introducing commercial rigour to a famously uncommercial organisation. In the event, costs remained high but the money was increasingly diverted into the private sector and to a burgeoning professional and managerial class. While this may have saved the BBC as a public corporation, the real cost now appears to have been a loss of esprit de corps and the sense of responsibility that extended beyond the bald requirements of a contract.

Friday, 9 November 2012

How to frame an argument, with Ai Wei Wei and Arsene Wenger

The week has been dominated by oppositions, the contrast of this with that, most noisily the US Presidential election. No sooner was the result known than political commentators were busy contrasting American democracy with China's leadership regeneration process (not quite as exciting as Doctor Who's). The reporting on China tends to assume that the common people really want Western-style democracy, hence the high profile given to those like Ai Wei Wei who deal in concepts such as freedom of expression, even though all the evidence of recent decades, from Iran in 1978 (before the Khomeini putsch) through to Libya last year, is that what the people want may only loosely relate to the Western model.

The philosophical debate about democracy tends to polarise between a relativist view, which sees it as culturally determined and contingent (many varieties), and an idealist view that sees it in terms of universal principles (the one true church). This is not a straight left-right division, as many proponents of relativism are pessimistic conservatives (or "agnostic liberals", like John Gray), while some on the left cleave to the Enlightenment belief in a rational ideal. Others, like Ai Wei Wei, are sensitive to both views without explaining how this can be resolved. Broadly though, neoliberals tend to believe that democracy and free markets are the same thing, a species of consumer choice, and that one inevitably entails the other. This is the underlying assumption of much reporting on China, hence the "growing demand for freedom" trope in reports on industrial workers, as if agricultural workers didn't give a shit. When those liberated from the yoke of tyranny fail to adopt western-style democracy and markets wholesale, this is attributed to the baleful influence of religion, tribalism and poor education, or just plain "backwardness". A neoliberal take on false consciousness. Thus enlightenment liberals end up supporting anti-Islamic pacification while women demanding education and improved health care get more column inches than trades unionists demanding higher wages.

The idealist-relativist argument is intractable because the idealists invariably identify the form of democracy they are committed to as the one truth, while the relativists say that this very behaviour proves their own view to be correct: a variant on Arsene Wenger's "everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife" crack. In the West we "bracket" this problem and simply ignore the wrinkles in practical democracy (money in the US, the House of Lords in the UK, the EU's "democratic deficit" etc). Instead, we eulogise those features we think are common and foundational. Prominent amongst these is the notion of a "free press", though the term has long been hijacked to mean the liberty of media owners rather than the right of anyone to publish. As anticipated, the media agenda-setting for the upcoming Leveson Inquiry report is focusing on the narrow question of statutory regulation, with no discussion about media ownership or plurality.

The amount of heat and noise generated over an issue is often inversely proportional to the degree of difference between the two opposing positions, a variant on Sayre's Law (usually attributed to Henry Kissinger in the form "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small"). Sometimes there is no meaningful opposition. In a piece charmingly entitled "the tribal grunts of left and right", Simon Jenkins today delivered a beauty: "The right has no answer to the widening gulf between rich and poor. The left has no answer to the chronic need for welfare targeting and means testing." These positions are not equivalent. One, inequality, is a consequence of policy, while the others are policy prescriptions. Jenkins seems oblivious to the role that the latter may have in creating the former.

All of this high-falutin' nonsense is just a preamble to a discussion of the latest chunterings in the world of Arsenal. As noted by many, the sports media have been indulging in an "Arsenal supporters deserve better" riff for some weeks now, legitimised as they see it by the dissent at the recent AGM (much of which was obviously influenced by prior media stirring). Henry Winter in the Telegraph has accused them of having a "runners-up mentality", while Richard Williams in the Guardian thinks Wenger is "finally losing his grip" (note the use of the word "finally").

The contrast here is between Arsenal's current performance and league position and where they "should be". As the more sane Arsenal fans regularly point out, the club's current resources would predict a 4th place position in the League, which is where we've tended to end up in recent years. Between 1998 and 2005 we finished in either first or second place. Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, moving them from the 4th-6th range to 1st-2nd from 2004 by spending shedloads. The Abu Dhabi United Group bought Man City in 2008, working their way from 10th in 2009 to 1st in 2012 by the same method. Since 2005, Arsenal have finished either third or fourth. Over the same period, Liverpool have dropped out of the top four. Achieving the "runners up" slot, taking Winter's phrase literally, would be a good result. Indeed, coming third last season (ahead of Chelsea) was no mean feat. Unless you look at the season-on-season history, it's easy to forget just how consistently good Arsenal have been relative to the competition, and how misleading talk of Wenger "losing it" is.

League position, and cup success, broadly reflect the amount of money invested in the team, though the cups are obviously more arbitrary. Chelsea enjoyed luck on their way to the Champions League title last season, but no one could claim it hadn't been coming over the last decade. A good manager, like Wenger, can push a team higher, but the difficulty of this increases exponentially - i.e. you can add 5 or 6 places at the bottom of the division, 2 or 3 in the middle, and only 1 at most at the top. A new manager would not result in Arsenal suddenly jumping from 3rd to 1st, though presumably the calls for a change are working on the assumption that a new broom would result in a lot of money being spent on new players. This is unlikely. Most observers estimate that there is enough free cash to buy one or two top-level players, though we need to recognise that the top-whack price is never fixed. If Lionel Messi were on the market, we could in theory make a bid, but we'd quickly be blown out of the water by a richer club setting a new world record transfer fee.

All debates about Arsenal ultimately boil down to the willingness of the owners to spend money with no expectation of a return. It should be obvious that this isn't going to happen under Stan Kroenke, any more than it did under previous owners. When Arsenal had the "Bank of England" tag in the 1930s, this was on the basis of a self-sustaining model - i.e. the new ground at Highbury delivered big crowd receipts that funded record-breaking transfers. The Hill-Wood family did not spunk their fortune, any more than Danny Fiszman did. Anyone who argues for a massive cash outlay now must therefore accept that they are arguing for a full takeover by Alisher Usmanov, but without any guarantees that he will actually do what they want. You see, football clubs, being businesses, aren't democracies, and there is little in Usmanov's track record to indicate he is a champion of the rights of the little guy.

My personal day-dream is that some kindly benefactor (i.e. me, after I discover a garden shed-sized gold nugget underneath my garden shed) buys the club and then hands it over to the fans on a one-fan-one-vote basis (my definition of fan would cover all existing members plus fan clubs and others on payment of a reasonable minimum sub). This would, by definition, commit the club to operating on a self-sustaining basis (the occasional whip-round might be possible, but I doubt that would raise enough for cover at left-back). Presumably, those fans who think we should be finishing in 1st or 2nd would vote for the club to abolish its new-found democracy and become the plaything of a rich mogul.

Given that my daydream isn't going to happen, the only feasible revolution would be an Usmanov takeover, which could happen if Kroenke has his price or simply loses interest. The odds are that Usmanov would spend silly money, but then the odds are that we'd morph into a combination of Chelsea and Man City. While this would on the face of it satisfy those who chant "we want our Arsenal back", it would ironically be the one thing that would utterly divorce the club from its history. We didn't sell our soul when we moved to the new stadium, so let's not start now.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Some guy wins, some guy loses

It was tense watching the contest unfold on TV last night, particularly after an early lead had been eroded by some lacklustre moments, but we hung on for a valuable point in Gelsenkirchen. Oh, and yer man, Barry O'Bama, won as well.

US election day saw the usual media bollocks-fest and wanton acts of stupidity on both sides of the pond. Tracking Janet Daley of the Torygraph was a particular joy. Early yesterday she insisted that her sixth sense indicated a Romney victory despite polling data indicating otherwise: "disagreeing with the state polls is not simply a species of Republican wishful thinking". Well, apparently it was. As the night progressed she opined: "It looks as if we may be heading for one of the most perplexing (to outsiders) and unsatisfying (to Americans) outcomes which the arcane US electoral system can produce." I suppose the result might appear perplexing if you relied on Daley for insight, but fortunately few of us outsiders do, and it wasn't at all clear why Americans would be unsatisfied because their votes counted. At this stage the great clairvoyante was still predicting that Romney would at least win the popular vote (he didn't) if not the electoral college, allowing her (in the time-honoured fashion of soothsayers) to claim she was sorta right all along: "both camps were right – those of us who believed intuitively that there was a popular groundswell for Romney, and those who bored for the nation with endless reams of statistical data showing that Obama would win enough states to push him over the line". Damn those statistical bores. Come the full horror of realisation this morning, she promptly changed tack with a post that topped even the previous day's wishful thinking: "US voters still blame Bush for economy: bad news for Labour?"

The most popular theme in the media coverage was the supposed polarisation of US society. Pundits from both sides talked of poisonous division and deep cultural differences. This sort of well-defined opposition is catnip for the media. Nobody wants a polite contest in which the ideological and policy differences are slight. The post-mortem is focusing heavily on demographic change, notably the Republicans' lack of popularity with the growing Hispanic community, and the emergence of a liberal backlash in respect of healthcare, abortion and gay marriage. To Janet Daley's "outsider" this must look like both a titanic contest and the shifting of tectonic plates. The generally hysterical reaction of right-wing propagandists encourages the belief that this is on a par with Gettysburg. It's nonsense, of course. Over the last 4 years Obama has proven to be more of a centrist than his campaign in 2008 implied, while everyone fully expected Romney to shift to the centre if elected. This is not to suggest that there wasn't a real choice on offer, but the degree of difference can easily be over-stated. Obamacare is not the NHS and the auto-industry bailout is not nationalisation. As Gore Vidal never tired of saying: "the United States has only one party—the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican".

The tendency to present politics in terms of demographics is a reflection of the influence of public choice theory and microeconomics in political science. This is part of the wider neoliberal paradigm that sees voters both as individuals pursuing their self-interest and as members of blocs with common interests to be addressed via fiscal policy. In other words, voters as consumers and democracy as an economic exchange. Over the last 3 decades the act of buying, of expressing choice through money, has been repeatedly upgraded and expanded through technology: credit cards, debit cards, direct debits, buying online, near field communications, mobile payments etc. In parallel, the means by which we gauge the will of the public have expanded beyond the voting booth through the addition of complementary techniques such as focus groups and opinion polls. The latter have taken on such a significance in the US (though the UK is not far behind with the ubiquitous YouGov), that earlier this week their accuracy and interpretation seemed to eclipse the candidates' campaigns. There is irony in the praise being lavished on these "mathematical models" today. It's as if we've already forgotten the idolatrous worship of financial models prior to 2008.

In contrast, while the act of voting is sacrosanct and retains huge symbolic importance, it has become more unreliable and antiquated due to failing technology ("hanging chads") and long queues. While this is often claimed to be evidence of partisan voter suppression in the US, it actually looks more systemic, hence the similar issues experienced in the UK in 2010. With our new found fondness for narrow referenda and superfluous elections, it's surely only a matter of time before you can vote from the comfort of your sofa, at which point the boundary between democracy and the TV studio (and "sponsored messages" in the US) will blur beyond recognition.

In such an environment, where individual "issues" must compete in a market for the voter/consumer's attention, binary oppositions and emotional subjects have a natural advantage. In the US, culture war friction points, such as abortion and gun control, act as proxies for an ideological debate that revolves around the competing claims of personal freedom and collective responsibility - i.e. the gamut of neoliberal orthodoxy. The role of wealth and property is largely absent. There are grounds to believe that US society is far less polarised than is generally thought, and that this polarisation myth serves a political establishment keen to accentuate small differences and a media industry keen to sell conflict. Last night gave little evidence to the contrary.

The privileging of market research in formulating policy is already leading to calls for the Republicans to start grooming Hispanic candidates, though they'll probably end up with an anti-gay evangelical one, while Hillary Clinton now looks a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination in 2016 on the assumption that women are the new black(s). It's also the reason why the American TV networks were confident in "calling" many a state vote last night, often extrapolating from little more than a couple of percent of the votes cast. Janet Daley was wrong because she is a true believer, sensing groundswells and relying on intuition, but at least she has a belief. Beneath the confected bluster and rage, the neoliberal orthodoxy treats the electorate coolly. They are biddable and easily scared. Whatever happens, the party of property wins.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Spartans versus the Death Star

I don't know why it should have lodged in my memory, but I recall Michael Gove, when he moonlighted on BBC2's Late Review in the mid-noughties, once saying that his film of the year was 300, the glossy interpretation of Frank Miller's bonkers comic book about Thermopylae. I initially thought this was something to do with Gove's public school fixation, an attraction to the heady mix of classical Greek, crypto-Fascism and well-oiled male bodies, but I now think it was more his appreciation of arguably the biggest theme in cinema these past 40 years, namely rebels against the empire. This memory was revived by the coincidence of the government's defeat on the EU budget last week, which was preceded by anti-EU noises from Gove, and George Lucas selling-up to Disney.

Star Wars arrived a year after the celebrations of the bicentennial of the US Declaration of Independence, so it was pretty obvious what the main rebels-vs-empire parallels were, though you'll still catch sight of the myth that Lucas was secretly referring to the Viet Cong and the US military in a sort of Buck Rogers meets Apocalypse Now mashup. Such an expansive and flexible trope allowed for many variations, the two main ones being the quest with a happy ending (the rebels defeat the empire), such as The Patriot and The Lord of the Rings, and the consolatory tragedy (the empire defeats the rebels but cannot crush their spirit), such as Braveheart and Gladiator. The attraction of this theme to the anti-government right is obvious, providing a ready-made identity for the Tea Party in the US. While they focus their ire on the federal government (the "evil empire" of the USSR is now but a nostalgic relic), their UK equivalents tend to ignore the centralising tendencies of Whitehall (though I note that Tolkein is now being cited in respect of the Orc-like menace of wind farms) and direct their contempt at the European Union.

Gove is reported to have said of the EU: "We have to tell them if they don’t return some of the important powers they have snaffled from us, we will leave". I love the use of the word "snaffled", which calls to mind the truffle-loving gourmands of Brussels. The foundation myth of the eurosceptics is that what began as a free-trade collaboration of equals (the Common Market) has morphed into the repressive Belgian empire. This transformation is being accomplished through creeping bureaucracy and excessive regulation, which is presented as simultaneously incompetent and malevolent. This explains the ideological importance of the euromyth (straight bananas as examples of eurocrat madness), the subsuming of pre-existing initiatives as "more EU meddling" (e.g. the conventions on human rights and extradition), and the legend that the EU now writes (and imposes) most of our laws.

The non-partisan House of Commons Library reported in 2010 that 7% of UK primary legislation (statutes) and 14% of secondary legislation originated with the EU. It also noted that the Government had estimated "that around 50% of UK legislation with a significant economic impact originates from EU legislation" (my italics). Given the focus of the EU on the single market, that should hardly be surprising, however the figure is routinely quoted as if it referred to all legislation. Most EU regulations are for the purpose of market harmonisation. This means that 27 different regulations are replaced by a common standard. From the perspective of the average citizen, this is a net-zero change, but from the perspective of a business operating in multiple EU states, it's a radical simplification. And that's the point. Most EU legislation is enacted for the benefit of business because the EU is fundamentally a neoliberal endeavour. The primacy of business can also be seen in social policies that focus on working time and parental rights - i.e. it's about creating a level-playing field for business operations in terms of personnel costs. The objective is only partly to establish minimum social standards. The real imperative is to avoid regulatory arbitrage between nation states.

The role of regulation for business was highlighted in Michael Heseltine's report, No Stone Unturned in Pursuit of Growth, which was published last week. As a long-time europhile and champion of state intervention, Hezza took pleasure in advocating both a regional industrial strategy and the benefits of state regulation: "I reject the premise that regulation in itself hinders growth. Good, well-designed regulation can stop the abuse of market power and improve the way markets work". This is clearly directed at the fashionable nonsense regarding excessive business red tape, but it has an obvious relevance to the debate over the EU as well. Unfortunately, the high profile of Europe this past week has rather detracted from the bigger issue addressed by the report, which is the regional imbalance of the UK. Predictably, Heseltine has no real answers to this beyond reprising his previous PR-heavy approach to regeneration on Merseyside in the 1980s. This remains popular, but the reality is that the regions need more than elected mayors and superfast broadband.

Regional balance is, to a large degree, a zero-sum game. You cannot expect Liverpool or Leeds to thrive while London continues to suck in the lion's share of financial and human capital. Heseltine's fence-sitting on London's airport capacity (he merely urges the government to speed up a decision) is emblematic of a willingness to talk tough while avoiding tough decisions. This perhaps explains the warm response from David Cameron for a report that has been widely interpreted as decidedly plan B-ish. For all the Olympian thundering, it's the same old noblesse oblige - "something must be done", with no likelihood of anything beyond the palliative.

The cause of the rebels against the empire is the cause of the periphery against the centre, the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich. The neoliberal d├ętournement of this trope sees the City of London cast as the plucky Spartans to the EU's Persian Empire. The maintenance of the City's dominance and liberty, in respect of both domestic and EU financial regulation, remains the government's chief objective, and the reason for their flirtation with the threat of withdrawal. It also remains the key reason for the entrenched disadvantages of the regions and the imbalances in industrial strategy. The Death Star is a square mile in size.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

A Hero of our Time

Skyfall, the new James Bond film, is being interpreted by some as a sign of a new seriousness in popular culture, though I think the downbeat and realistic tone that has marked Daniel Craig's stint was a necessary corrective as the series became increasingly ridiculous. In an interesting review, the Russian film critic Valery Kichin noted his compatriots' fascination with Bond in the 70s. I suspect this was more than just awe at capitalist product placement and extended to an empathy with the themes of imperial decline, betrayal and the need for the individual hero to protect the Motherland. Vladimir Putin has not been shy in emphasising his credentials as a KGB officer. Kichin mentions a Russian study of Bond from that period called A Hero of our Hero-less Time. The echo is of Lermontov's A Hero of our Time, the early nineteenth century study of a self-indulgent and self-destructive anti-hero, which is ironically referenced by Ian Fleming himself in From Russia With Love.

Bond has always been a symbol for evolving British anxiety, both in terms of loss of status abroad and the erosion of class and gender certainties at home. Over the years, insouciance dissolved into flippancy, stiff upper lip into smirk. One constant has been Bond's instrumental attitude towards women. You know: shagging them before they get topped. Skyfall makes a nod towards redressing this, with the new Moneypenny shooting him in error to balance the main "Bond girl" getting shagged and then topped. To complicate matters, and perhaps engage Freudian analysts in the audience, the death of M is preceded by a lingering shot of the gravestone of Bond's mother, who we learn was named Monique. The Scottish scenes are dreamlike and full of incongruities, not the least of which is Albert Finney's accent. The eponymous house is more Hogwarts than Scottish Baronial, and it's built on low-lying bogland next to a loch, which no one in their right mind would ever do. It's clearly less a place than a state of mind.

Another constant theme has been technology, which gradually moved from a sort of plausible ingenuity that combined Barnes Wallis and Heath Robinson to the pointless high-concept of an invisible Aston Martin. In Skyfall Bond's personal gadgetry has been reduced to the quotidien, but this is because technology is now central to the plot, concerning as it does hacking and cyber-sabotage. The key visual metaphor is a spinning ball of information spaghetti, representing a mass of encrypted data, which Bond just happens to discover the key to as if it were an acrostic. The new geekish Q is commendably generous in his praise. This amusing fluff is matched by the villain's data centre on a deserted island in the tropical South China Sea. It's an old, ruined building, full of dust and debris, in which the baddy has installed banks of servers but no air-con, unless you count the open windows. Good luck with that in the summer. M's speech to a parliamentary committee about threats from "the shadows", the villain being a cyber-terrorist, and the retreat of MI6 to "one of Churchill's bunkers" must have made Theresa May curl up her toes and squeal with delight. How could anyone dare stop her Communications Data Bill now?

The central matter of Bond has always been international relations. He first appeared in 1953, just before Suez and the point of no return for Britain's global pretensions. The bromance with Felix Leiter of the CIA inverts the realities of the special relationship: here the Brit is the muscle and the Yank provides logistical support. In contrast, the French usually only appear as villains or dispensable totty, along with caricature Germans, Russians and orientals. The jetting-off to exotic locations was an obvious compensation for the loss of empire, though in recent decades it has tended to reflect centres of growing power that we need to take an interest in. Alex Salmond is probably pleased that Skyfall climaxes in Scotland, but of more note is that it starts in Turkey, the ambiguous giant at Europe's door, before moving to China, the global behemoth with a penchant for state-sponsored hacking.

This nostalgia for empire, combined with a hard-headed willingness to go where the business is (or at least attract their footloose rich to London), are two sides of the same coin. The claim that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness is the modern ideological successor to the old idea of the white man's burden, in other words an attempt to justify a mercantilist endeavour by appeal to nobler (or at least less ignoble) motives. This attitude heavily coloured Ian Hislop's recent BBC series, Stiff Upper Lip, in which he claimed that the transformation of the emotionally incontinent English of the 16th century (when Italians were the epitome of cool restraint) into a nation typified by the phlegmatic Wellington and the reserved Jane Austen was a reaction to the French revolution and after, as if an entire people had gone through emotional rehab just to spite Boney.

This Burke-inspired narrative skates over a few inconvenient facts. Arthur Wellesley was Anglo-Irish and learnt his trade as a soldier in India. In other words, he was shaped by the imperial experience of living among subject (and thoroughly unreliable) people. Austen did not become well-known till the late 19th century and didn't really achieve popularity until the 1940s. The popular writers of the Napoleonic years were the Romantics, such as Wordsworth and Byron. Neither Wellington nor Austen were representative of early 19th century English sentiment, while Nelson, whom Hislop dismisses as a relic of the older 18th century emotional order, undoubtedly was. The evolution of the stiff upper lip owed more to the development of empire abroad and the social impact of the industrial revolution at home, than it did to a reaction against the French.

Hislop's episode on empire wheeled out the self-serving myth that the whole thing was a massive confidence trick in which a handful of public school-educated district commissoners ruled millions, seducing the idiot native with durbars and displays of pluck. You'd think we'd have moved beyond Sir Sidney and Lady Rough-Diamond in Carry on up the Khyber, but apparently not. The lie to this was famously given by George Orwell in his description of shooting an elephant in Burma in order to maintain face in front of the natives. The point was to prove your willingness to deploy overwhelmingly superior force, whether in the form of gun-boats, advanced rifles or arbitrary justice. The Indian Mutiny and other rebellions proved that given half a chance a subject people will invariably revolt. It's violence that keeps them under control, and its use is not an aberration but systematic policy, as the current Mau Mau torture case has made clear. The latter part of the episode was Hislop's wry but sentimental appreciation of the English public school, the training ground for DCs. This added little beyond a recognition of the damaging delusions that it produced, which led directly to Ypres and Paschendale.

The final episode was an indulgent review of the "long withdrawing roar" of empire and Victorian certainty in the 20th century, i.e. amusing cartoons about blimpish attitudes and reduced circumstances. The Blitz Spirit was called as a witness for the defence, as was our ability to laugh at ourselves. A key trait of the idealised image of the Englishman (more than the Briton) is humour,  particularly in the form of irony and self-deprecation. The empire? That was just a jolly jape that got out of hand. The chief charge against the French has nothing to do with garlic or hairy women and everything to do with pomposity. They take themselves too seriously. This explains why Private Eye has such cultural clout, and why we value whimsy and eccentricity (a pathological denial of reality) so highly.

James Bond is no more conceivable without his quips than his Omega or his Walther PPK, which is why I think the claims of a new seriousness are wrong. What the retro-chic and "honest brutality" introduced with Casino Royale indicate is heavy nostalgia rather than engagement with the world of today. The reintroduction of Moneypenny and a male M looks like a desire for familiar features in a troubled landscape. The reintroduction of the Aston Martin DB5, which is then utterly destroyed, highlights the risk of such longing.