At the Edge of Applause
Seumas Milne’s grudging acknowledgment (LRB, 5 June) of the new government’s impact on the country reeks of sour grapes. However, his pique is less interesting than his fantasies about the radical nature of the British electorate, John Smith’s electoral appeal and Tony Blair’s lack of a political majority among constituency parties. Labour might just have won under John Smith’s leadership. However, given Smith’s 1992 tax proposals, it is inconceivable that Gordon Brown would have been able to run such a sustained and successful argument to neutralise the Conservatives’ tax weapon. The British public may well be ‘hopelessly collectivist’, but while average incomes remain well short of those of national newspaper reporters, it will probably continue to lack the will to pay the taxes that hopeless collectivism requires. It is also difficult to envisage, given Smith’s famous caution and the much smaller majority he would have won, a Smith-led government taking many of the bold steps that drag Milne sneeringly to the edge of applause.
I wish the Labour Party had just won a landslide victory on a manifesto of real equality of opportunity – achieved only by increased taxation of the rich and big business. But it hasn’t. It swept to power by being cautiously centrist. Lurking behind Seumas Milne’s article is one of those dratted counterfactuals: would Labour have won a viable majority on the basis of a more radical tax-and-spend programme? The electorate has indeed moved to the left since the late Eighties, as Milne points out, but how far? Is it still basically Thatcherite? And would we therefore be enduring another Major Administration if Blair had been bolder on tax? After all, a majority of 179 isn’t a weak hand for Blair to hold in claiming to represent the opinion of the nation. Lost in the realms of the counterfactual, all that malcontent lefties such as I can now do is, first, claim that the electorate wanted some tax increases and, if this doesn’t work, fall back on beloved ideas of false consciousness – the malign influence of the press etc – to argue that it would be better off if it did so. In fact the task is more arduous. Blair doesn’t even seem to grasp the justice of higher taxes for the rich – it’s old-fashioned and statist. He has to be persuaded that we are as needy of economic as of constitutional radicalism, and that you can’t achieve this without making enemies. Milne rightly ridicules Blair’s high-and-mighty goal of taking the ‘ideology’ out of elections. This is simply conservatism by another name.
The Great British Library Disaster
In a letter of 19 August 1993, in reply to a comment in a piece by me, the Chairman of the British Library Board, Sir Anthony Kenny, stated that it was a ‘sheer calumny’ to suggest that the Library was considering making readers pay for the privilege of reading: ‘the Board … has no intention of introducing charges for access to reading rooms.’ I felt at the time that ‘calumny’ was a harsh term. It rings peculiarly hollow now, as users of the BL are being served with a questionnaire asking whether they feel a short-term ticket (from £10 to £60) or an annual ticket (£50 to £700) strikes them as ‘reasonable’, ‘expensive’ or ‘so expensive that they would no longer visit the Library’. Of course the inquiry is not intended to elicit information (the BL must know exactly what it will charge) but to alert ‘customers’ (as they must now regard themselves) to the fact that there will be an entrance fee when the St Pancras site opens for business in 1998. Personally I don’t see why salaried users of the Library should not pay, if the BL is on its uppers and if some cost-barrier is needed to keep users from overwhelming the inadequate 1176 seats that will be provided at St Pancras. I do hope, however, that the British Library Board will remember that the Library is most intensively used by scholars in the poorest phase of their careers – when they are post-graduate students and junior lecturers – and that some preferential charge will be devised for such users. Even if it means a levy on other, better-heeled readers.
University College London
Gerard Holden, writing in response to my review (LRB, 8 May) of Jürgen Habermas’s Fact and Norms, accuses me of ‘some classic Germanophobe sneers’ and betrays some doubt as to my own origins. In fact I am from the Channel Islands, which endured five years of German occupation during World War Two. Like their fellow islanders, my father and his parents were subject to enemy rule for the duration of the conflict, and narrowly escaped deportation to internment camp in Germany. Mr Holden deprecates my use of the term ‘Fourth Reich’ when (he says) the equivalent terms, applied to other countries, would be thought abusive. But among prospective empires, the second British or the fourth French somehow fail to conjure the same nightmare as a re-run of the Reich which gave us Operation Barbarossa and Treblinka. The fact is that there is no equivalent term for other countries. Despite this, I’m happy to make with the smoking calumet. I count Germans among my closest friends, some of whom I stay with when in Berlin. My Significant Other herself hails from the tribe – indeed, her mother is a proud alumna of the Hitler Youth’s female branch, with memorabilia which she showed off to me when I was first presented for her approval. And, on my visits to the Reichshaupstadt, there’s nothing I like better than sitting on the top floor of Berlin’s famous (and once Jewish-owned) KaDeWe department store, with a glass of the local brew in one hand and a bulging Bockwurst in the other.
I am indebted to Mr Holden for his kind words about the substance of my review. However, I disagree that my assertion that Habermas’s intellectual progress has mimicked that of Germany invites the reader to conclude that he is responsible for the German state’s actions. I extended no such invitation. Responsibility is a causal notion, and since a mimic necessarily follows that which he imitates, anyone who sanctioned the inference to which Mr Holden alludes would presumably be committed to a belief in reverse causation.
University of Sussex
Windsors in the Soup
Writing on the monarchy (LRB, 24 April), Tom Nairn has directed his gaze from outside the Palace inwards towards the Royal Family. Any examination designed to assist in the formation of policy must take in the view from inside the Palace looking outwards towards the world inhabited by people like Nairn and myself. A monarch’s frank view of the plebs is rarely subject to explicit communication but most fortunately today I am able to share a direct royal input. In 1936 I met a specialist in agit-prop who, at the peak of his career in the Communist Party of Great Britain, had developed techniques to enliven the Jubilee carriage drives of Queen Mary and King George V to the town halls of Greater London, where they received loyal addresses from the mayors. On these state drives the Sovereign’s route was adorned with flags, and banderoles were strung across the streets so that the Royal Visitors and their subjects could read such loyal messages as ‘God Bless Our King and Queen’. This agit-prop specialist had devised ways by which, at the pull of a string, these banderoles would unwind and convert the loyal messages into others, such as ‘25 Years of Hunger and War’. But, as I learnt from a direct source, these messages in no way disturbed the King and Queen, indeed they would have missed them had they been absent. My authority lies in a statement made by His Majesty which was inadvertently broadcast by the BBC. It went virtually unnoticed because the key to its meaning was known only to a few. The BBC field crew had failed to cut off the mikes during a royal visit to Stepney. On leaving the Town Hall, the King had said to Queen Mary: ‘I’ll Lay you two to one in half-crowns there will be more than three on the way back.’ His Consort’s reply, also relayed by the BBC, was short. ‘Taken,’ Her Majesty said.
John Bayley is a little casual with the chronology and geography of the American Revolution in his entertaining review of Stella Tillyard’s Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald 1763-98 (LRB, 22 May). Bayley says Tillyard begins her book ‘at the last battle of the American War of Independence, Eutaw Springs, not far from Yorktown, where Cornwallis was to surrender to Washington six weeks later’. But Eutaw Springs, in South Carolina, is more than three hundred miles from Yorktown, in Virginia, a distance which even in our oversize country is a bit more than ‘not far from’. And the battle at Eutaw Springs on 8 September 1781 occurred, as Bayley says in a nice contradiction, six weeks before Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. The siege at Yorktown did not begin until 9 October, a month after Eutaw Springs. Is a siege not a battle?
Tuckahoe, New York
The Great British Council Disaster
Michael Walker’s letter (Letters, 22 May) suggests that the British Council in Germany fails in its support of contemporary British literature. As the head of a university department which draws heavily on the resources provided by the British Council in Cologne, I regret that you made public a highly subjective impression. Mr Walker’s complaints are utterly unfounded. The collections he refers to have not been reduced and remain most valuable resources for users. Moreover, the British Council supports with great energy the efforts of departments of English all over Germany. The Contemporary British Writing Festival in Mainz last month would not have been possible without support from Cologne. On this occasion we honoured the retiring Deputy Director and head of the Council’s literature work in Germany with a Festschrift, something normally only given to distinguished colleagues on their retirement.
Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz
Michael Walker’s letter (Letters, 22 May) might suggest to your readers that the British Council is failing in its duty to foster the study and enjoyment of British literature in Germany. Nothing could be more misleading. We are prompted, however, by Mr Walker’s letter to pay public tribute in your columns to the energy, imagination and commitment which the Council bring to their literature programmes in Germany. This month the community of German scholars of English took the almost unprecedented step of publishing a Festschrift in honour, not of one of our own, but of Dr Frank Frankel, the retiring Deputy Director and head of the Council’s literature work in Germany.
Humboldt University, Berlin
John Davis and Michael Walker’s accounts of the running down of the British Council’s library services in Athens and Cologne (Letters, 24 April and Letters, 22 May) prompt me to report that parallel changes are taking place in the British Council library in Colombo, where again literature is the first casualty. Moreover, it’s happening at a time when the American Centre library is shutting down its lending library completely.
As long as the Soviets were in business, producing cheap editions, not only of Russian classics but of English literature (I possess good Soviet editions of Blake, Byron and Kipling), the US and Britain must have felt the need to compete in the Third World in the cultural field too. Why should they bother now?
Two editorial mistake in last week’s issue: The Untouchables for The Untouchable and inter alii for inter alios.
Editors, ‘London Review’