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Interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show this morning Michael Gove again showed scant regard for the truth where his own interests are at stake. The EU, he claimed, was to blame for high youth unemployment in Greece.

First, he is clearly unaware that Greece has frequently been taken to task for the unreliability of its employment and other statistics. Secondly, youth under-employment has been a feature of the Greek economy since long before its current economic woes, as indeed is likely to be the case in patriarchal, agrarian societies where a sizeable sector of the economy consists of small family-run enterprises. Are the children involved in one way or another in looking after the family flocks or newspaper kiosk counted officially as employed or unemployed, especially when they do not receive any formal wage? And, thirdly, at his age Mr Gove should know that, like all unreformed clientelist states, Greece has been heading for its present comeuppance since before he was born, even if, as things have turned out, the pain may have been exacerbated by joining a club of rather more sophisticated governments – and that was a matter of what the Greeks call filotimo, family honour, and geopolitics rather than cool-headed calculation.

It is not many weeks since, in a Sunday Times interview, he also blamed the Eurozone for the existence of Greece’s far-Right party, Golden Dawn, apparently ignorant of the fact that in 1936 General Metaxas staged a military coup that set up an explicitly Axis-type fascist dictatorship that was only overthrown by the advent of WWII; that a similarly fascistic kind of police state came into being in the late ‘forties during a civil war and continued in power through most of the ‘fifties, to reappear in the Colonels’ Dictatorship from 1967 (the year of Mr Gove’s birth) to 1974; and Michaloliakos, the current leader of Golden Dawn, has been involved in far-Right politics since the 1960s. All of this long before Greece’s membership of the EEC (in 1981), let alone the Eurozone, was ever thought of.

And why do I put him into bed with Paul Mason? Because he too likes to distort the Greek situation – economic and other – to suit his wishful thinking. I recently heard him on BBC 3’s Private Passions compare attending a performance of Corpus Christi,  a play that portrays Jesus and the Apostles as gays – an act about as shocking in Greece as producing cartoons of the Prophet in Iran – that was booed and jeered, unsurprisingly, by Golden Dawn supporters to being subjected to the kind of repression prosecuted by the Nazis against all that they disapproved of in 1930s Germany.

These people have got an agenda which they are determined to promote irrespective of whether or not it fits the facts.

I think I might almost recommend Aristophanes’s punishment for illicit bedfellows: a radish up the fundament and depilation by hot ash.

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Gove gets it wrong

In an interview with the Sunday Times on March 6th Michael Gove tried to invoke Tolstoy’s name and renown to back the Brexit case. He was reading War and Peace, he told us, and was “irresistibly reminded” of the EU by Napoleon’s “grotesque imperial overreach” in wanting “to impose a single unified bureaucratic model on Europe.” “And in the end it did not work out so well for him,” he concluded with obvious satisfaction.

I wrote to the Sunday Times, pointing out that this was a rather tendentious reading of the novel. (A letter incidentally that the Sunday Times edited in such a way as to make me appear to be saying the exact opposite of what I had actually said: an error for which, it has to be said, they apologized.) Mr Gove could just as well have found support – in the very first pages of the novel, as it happens – for a rather unflattering view of the UK’s role in the EU. At the aristocratic soirée hosted by Anna Pavlovna, with which the novel opens, conversation turns to what can be done to stop the advance of the dreadful vulgarian Napoleon. “Russia alone must save Europe… Whom…can we rely on…? England with her commercial spirit will not and cannot understand the Emperor Alexander’s loftiness of soul…The English…cannot understand the self-abnegation of our Emperor who…only desires the good of mankind. And what have they promised? Nothing. And what little they have promised they will not perform…”

English objections mean-spirited and penny-pinching

Tolstoy’s characters’ words remind me irresistibly of the reasons why Britain decided not to join the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of the EU (minutes of the Cabinet meeting, June 6th 1950). The first, never quite made explicit, is that it was a French initiative. The second strongly echoes Anna Pavlovna’s strictures: we were not going to sign up to some ‘lofty’ statement of principle, like the good of mankind or the unity of Europe, without knowing exactly what was in it for us: would we be one pound richer or one pound poorer? Loftiness of soul, self-abnegation, the good of mankind…this kind of talk cuts no ice with our “commercial spirit.”

We like to think of it as pragmatism. Others see it as a kind of unadventurous, small-minded and selfish stolidity. “What have they promised? Nothing. And what little they have promised they will not perform…” We are not to be trusted; our word is not our bond. The French call us perfide Albion; the Greeks find us hypocritical. We do not like it, but clearly they see something in the way we habitually behave. Who was it called us a nation of shopkeepers? That is not to deny what is good about us; but we nonetheless have habits and character traits, just like everybody else, and they are not always particularly admirable or attractive.

Significantly, much of the current debate about IN or OUT of Europe is being conducted in just such book-keeping terms. Of course it matters whether or not membership is an economic disaster. But very clearly it is not and never has been.

EU has broken barriers, brought prosperity and reunited a divided Europe

Anyone old enough to remember how it was before our membership of the EEC remembers how much duller and more limited was the range of products available in our shops, how far more limited were the opportunities for working abroad, travelling abroad, doing business abroad, owning property abroad. Of course far fewer people did either work or travel abroad, even in Europe. You had to have work permits, resident permits, certificates to show you had paid your taxes before you could leave to return home, Customs to go through, even when shipping your own used possessions. The Goves and Borises of this world are too young to have experienced this.

People gripe about the money paid out to build roads in Greece, bridges in Romania…but in the long run it is in all our interests that every member state should be helped to reach the same sort of level of economic development and competence. Not to mention the fact that the UK has itself been the recipient of large amounts of money. Not that anybody anywhere ever advertises the fact or – you could say– shows the slightest gratitude. In eastern Europe, in Greece, in Ireland, you see billboards proudly advertising the EU’s contribution to infrastructure projects. We pay out millions of pounds a day, we are told ad nauseam, and get nothing back. The real figure is around £17 million a day, which works out at about 26 pence per person (Hugo Dixon, IN FACTS), which, even if it were remotely true that we gained nothing in return, is scarcely daylight robbery!

Unremitting denigration by the British press

Have you ever seen an EU flag on display in England? In France every public building flies the tricolour, the EU flag and the regional flag. What is the matter with us? Surly, reluctant, unappreciative, always trying to pull the bedclothes over to our side, as a Frenchman put it to me once: never the slightest acknowledgement that we have ever received the slightest benefit. And no wonder, in a way: from the very beginning three quarters of the British press have consistently rubbished the EU and its precursors, always representing the UK as victim, having one injustice after another imposed upon it, without ever trying to explain how its institutions work or how our relative weight and influence have played out within it. Has a newspaper in any other member state descended to the base vulgarity of Murdoch’s papers: appointing a date and time for a general mooning at the Continent and running headlines like Up Yours, Delors?

There is more to Europe than nationalistic penny-pinching

David Milliband, in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this week, made the point that it is actually other factors, not economics, that constitute the most important arguments for the existence of the EU and for our remaining in it. Some of them are pretty down-t0-earth, tangible factors. Our security, most obviously: our remaining free to live, act, think, debate, explore, question, without going in fear of our lives, of being sat upon and repressed by some violent and intolerant force beyond the reach of reason and debate, like Putin’s Russia, for instance, with its long tradition of arbitrary rule and violent repression of all and everything its ruler(s) disapprove of; or obscurantist, authoritarian and equally lawless regimes like those favoured by the followers of Islam – both of them much too close to our borders for comfort.

The EU owes its foundation to the universal desire in Europe to tie neighbouring states together – the big powers, France and Germany in particular – in such a way as to make it well-nigh impossible for them to go to war against each other ever again. An objective which it has been signally effective in achieving: in fact it has done even better than hoped, in roping in and securing the countries of eastern, central and south-eastern Europe most exposed to the dangers of Russian imperialist bullying.

All of these countries, us included, belong broadly to the same cultural family: our ways of thinking and being have been shaped by the legacy of Roman rule in our formative years, by the intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks and the influence of Christianity. We may have fought each other, but by and large our histories have run in parallel: the gradual progress towards democracy, wars of religion, struggles for greater social justice and equality as for education and freedom of speech. Some have had their progress interrupted and impeded by Ottoman Muslim rule, in the case of the Balkans, and by the blinkered, mind-numbing brutality of Soviet Communism further to the north. But essentially we are cousins: family. What lunacy to repulse the few friends and kin you have in this uncertain and dangerous world!

I strongly suspect that if people in England still learnt foreign languages in school as a matter of course, attitudes to “foreign” Europe might be rather different. How easy it is today to find thousands of youngsters in other European countries quite able to conduct conversations in English at an early age. Much harder to find English children with any kind of linguistic competence. How many times have French teachers complained to me that it is impossible to find English schools to exchange pupils with, because none of them do French any more. Does Gove speak French? Tebbit? Carswell? Farage? Redwood? Lamont? Lilly? I don’t mean mumble a few words. Can any of them go on French – or on any other EU country’s, for that matter – TV and conduct an interview in French or Greek or German? You get a rather different view of things when you can speak to people in their own language; their points of view do not seem so different from your own, you are much less likely to see them as adversaries, as Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in The Spectator the other week.

Migration

Immigration probably has depressed wages in some sectors, especially where the unskilled are concerned. But then one might ask, were the unemployed young English queueing up to go and pick strawberries in Herefordshire polytunnels? Not that I recall. And who would not rather employ a smiling, well-mannered, accommodating Polish plumber with a PhD? Come to think of it, I cannot remember encountering too many smiling, accommodating Bangladeshis, who after a couple of years or three have become more or less indistinguishable from the native English. EU migrants do not blow up people in the name of religion. If Trevor Phillips were to make a documentary about attitudes to England among EU migrants, I am pretty sure it would look very different from what he has discovered in What Muslims Really Think.

Yesterday’s men

That is how Mr Gove apparently sees those in favour of EU membership (his March 6th Sunday Times interview): yesterday’s men and yesterday’s ideas. But when you look at his fellow Brexiteers: Rees-Mogg, Tebbitt, Farage, Lilly, Lawson…Is a dazzling future of new ideas, innovation, reaching out across the world, the vision that first springs to mind?

Project Fear is how they see the arguments for remaining in the EU. I would suggest anyone fearful of giving up so many obvious advantages, to say nothing of the company of one’s peers and kin, is absolutely right. And for what? Anyone who thinks, for example, that there will be less government interference, fewer regulations, more freedom, if things are left to Whitehall, needs his head examining. There is nothing more English than that propensity for – indeed delight in – sticking your nose into other people’s business, wagging a moralistic finger and informing them that they are infringing some pettifogging regulation or other. My guess is that free of the mitigating influence of other Europeans like the Greeks and Italians, who are much less uptight about dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’, our government will look more and more like a combination of Camden Council and the no-platforming brigade: free rein to the thought police!

‘No Man is an Island’

Mr Gove tried to enlist Tolstoy in support of his position. I am enlisting John Donne in support of mine.

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were…’

Exactly! And the anti’s would do well to remember that. We will be diminished and Europe as a whole will be diminished, if we leave. And, besides, it would be entirely understandable if the rest of Europe felt pretty pissed off at us for causing this loss.

We are in the club. We are used to each other. We are good for each other, with our different strengths. The newcomers will learn, just as it has taken us centuries to arrive at the relatively good and comfortable place where we find ourselves today. If there are things that members do not like, think can be improved upon, then work to bring about those changes with other like-minded members. VOTE TO STAY.

As a postscript:

In that same Sunday Times interview, Mr Gove attributed the existence of the Greek fascist party, Golden Dawn, to the European single currency. That is a shameful slur which could only be perpetrated by someone quite ignorant of the last hundred years of Greek political history. General Metaxas, for instance, came to power by coup d’état as long ago as August 1936; he was an open admirer of Hitler and Mussolini. Colonel Papadopoulos, who was prominent in the 1967-74 Dictatorship, had already made a name for himself as a scourge of Leftists in the 1946-49 Civil War. Michaloliakos, founder of Golden Dawn, has been prominent in far Right politics since the early 1960s. All of this long before Greece came anywhere near joining the EU, let alone the Eurozone.

 

 

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