Opinion

John Lloyd

In Britain, a summer of quiet revolution

John Lloyd
Jul 16, 2013 16:13 UTC

The British Isles are sentries in a turning world. The monarchy, pageantry, the mediaeval House of Lords, titles, accents, the established Church of England with the Queen at its head — they all give the adroit illusion of continuity and the primacy of tradition over change.

But this summer there are diverse changes modernizing the Isles. These revolutions, small and large, will not be reversed, and will contribute significantly to a redefinition of what it is to be British (and Irish). The illusions of tradition will remain, as diligently served as ever. The core is hollowing out.

These changes are not unique to these wet and windy islands. But it’s more remarkable because for many centuries Britain and its offshoots punched above their weight, making history and creating (or inventing) traditions. The French are famed for having a beautiful and mostly efficient country and for grumbling furiously about it. The British change everything all the time, and worship the old customs whose essence they have long since destroyed, or are destroying.

Ireland, the smaller and much younger of the two sovereign states on the Isles, found its independence in the 1920s. That independence was fought for so hard in part because its majority religion, Catholicism, had been treated as an inferior, even a treacherous, affiliation for centuries. The Republic came into independent statehood with its religion militantly at the forefront of national, social and cultural life.

But the Church’s role in Irish life has been diminishing for some time; it has been dealt another blow. Last week, Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s government passed a law allowing abortion when a woman’s life was in danger. The measure provoked princes of the church to threaten Kenny (who’s a devout Catholic) with excommunication and saw him lose his Europe Minister in a resignation of principle. The law dilutes, but does not reverse, a ban that has seen some dozen women leave for the UK every day for abortions. Some reformers have protested it did not go far enough, but it’s a breach in a so far adamantine wall. Kenny has twice faced down the Catholic Church. Ireland is no longer what it was in its post-revolutionary years, and remained for decades after — a quasi-theocracy. It’s fully secular.

The nuance behind the iron

John Lloyd
Apr 16, 2013 14:38 UTC

There’s no time more apt for murmuring the ending of Brutus’s speech in Julius Caesar than the week of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: “The evil men do lives after them/the good is oft interred with their bones.” No time better, either, to add that the “evil” that, in this case one woman, did is little examined by her detractors, who prefer to stick to a diabolical version of her 12-year rule.

Margaret Thatcher (narrowly) won the 1979 election because the Labour government of the 1970s, under Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, had unsuccessfully tried to make a contract with the trade unions. In such a contract, pay would have been calibrated to productivity, and increases would be low in order to bring down high rates of inflation and to keep up investment in the socialized education, health and welfare institutions that disproportionately benefited the lower classes. It was the kind of social deal that the Germans and the Scandinavians had and still – in part – have: one that produces economies that, not by chance, have escaped the worst of the economic buffeting of the past five years.

But the attempt failed. The turn of 1978-79 was called the “Winter of Discontent” – another Shakespearean tag, this time from Richard III. Power failed; transport was constantly disrupted; hospitals and ambulance services closed. Most memorably, some gravediggers in Liverpool struck, and bodies piled up in a factory. All that Labour had held out as its usefulness to the nation – the ability to bring organized workers into a lasting, productive and stable agreement – was shattered. The party lost, but so did working men and women.

A free press without total freedom

John Lloyd
Mar 19, 2013 21:52 UTC

Journalism gyrates dizzily between the dolorous grind of falling revenue and the Internet’s vast opportunities of a limitless knowledge and creation engine. On the revenue front, no news is good. The just-published Pew Center’s “State of the US News Media” opens with the bleak statement that “a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” Not only, that is, is the trade shrinking, but those who once depended on its gatekeepers have found their own ways to visibility.

Journalists’ task, as large as any they have collectively faced in 400 years of their trade’s existence, is to find a way to continue the journalism that societies most need and citizens are least willing to pay for: detailed, skeptical, truthful, fair, investigatory writing and broadcasting. It’s a big ask. The British are in the process of not answering it. They are staging a sideshow: not an unimportant one, but in a minor key all the same.

Over the past two years, a series of alleged crimes – illegal interception of phone messages, bribery, blackmail, perverting the course of justice, theft – have been committed by journalists working for the British tabloids. The Leveson Inquiry, prompted by revelations of phone hacking, and subsequent police investigations have laid bare a shaming landscape of cruelty and criminality. Many politicians of all parties bowed before the perpetrators, adding to the shame.

Richly deserved

John Lloyd
Mar 6, 2013 14:14 UTC

The tale of two worlds – the fabulously rich and the increasingly poor – is a defining narrative of contemporary life, and it continues to throw up vivid reminders, at once doleful and grimly hilarious.

One of the latest examples was told by the writer and provocateur Matt Taibbi, famed for having described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

In a recent Rolling Stone blog post, Taibbi related a confrontation between Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and the analyst Mike Mayo of Credit Agricole Securities during an investor conference call earlier this year. These calls are where analysts get to question the masters of the financial universe about their actions. Mayo asked Dimon if investors would not prefer a bank – he offered UBS as an example –that had a higher capital-to-debt ratio. The exchange then went:

The moment for Irish unity is nearly over

John Lloyd
Jan 29, 2013 19:50 UTC

The latest “troubles” in Northern Ireland began 45 years ago, and though much reduced, sometimes to invisibility, they are not over yet and will not be for some time. Protests over the Republican-dominated Belfast Council’s decision to fly the Union Jack just on certain days happened again over the weekend, if smaller and less violent than in the past few weeks.

This is what can happen after more than a century of demand for Irish independence: violence, on both sides, takes time to lose its attraction, and its adherents. Yet the bid for Irish unity, which from the late sixties to the late nineties was written almost daily in blood, has failed. Now, as we’re witnessing what may be its long withdrawal from politics, republicanism may not have another chance.

Sinn Fein, for nearly all of its life a front organisation of the IRA, has made an accommodation with unionism. Its two leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness – respectively once heads of IRA brigades in the seventies and eighties – have not just implicitly accepted the partition of the island, but have called for the nationalist community to work with the police (whom they previously sought to slaughter). They have also denounced those republicans who carry on terrorism under the name of the Real IRA as ‘traitors to Ireland.’ In a much quoted observation, the historian Paul Bew quipped that “the IRA is too intelligent to admit that they have lost and the Unionists too stupid to realise they have won.” This is what the 1998 Belfast Agreement brought.

Britain: The annoying European

John Lloyd
Jan 24, 2013 19:08 UTC

Truly, Britain is not just a bad European, but a very annoying one. David Cameron half-admitted as much in his speech in Davos Wednesday, when he quipped, “frustrated as [our European partners] no doubt are by Britain’s attitude.”

The U.K. joined the European Union late, spending more than a decade after the end of the World War II arrogantly believing that Europe was too small for it. When it did join under a Conservative government, the next Labour government under Harold Wilson demanded a renegotiation and a referendum on membership – which produced a fairly convincing yes.

Another Conservative government was elected in 1979, under Margaret Thatcher. It brought endless conflict with Brussels. Thatcher lost her leadership, partly because of a battle within the Conservative Party over Europe. Her successor, John Major, took the UK into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – then abruptly left it in 1992. Labour came back in 1997 with a European Union enthusiast, Tony Blair, as leader – but wouldn’t adopt the euro. These days, the Tories are back and are deeply skeptical. This week their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, took a leaf out of Wilson’s book, demanding a renegotiation and then a referendum on membership.

Britain basks in its jingoistic achievement

John Lloyd
Aug 13, 2012 19:25 UTC

The British like to think of themselves as self-deprecating, and normally they’re right, even if much of that is a self-compliment. But now, with Britain winning more Olympic medals than it had since 1908, self-deprecation has been jettisoned. It ended the games on Sunday with the third-most gold medals after the U.S. and China, and the fourth-most medals overall, with Russia just ahead.

This was good for a midsize, broke country. As the third spot seemed increasingly like the final result through the last week, the Brits became increasingly delirious. BBC commentators, normally schooled in judicious and balanced commentary, were shouting their larynxes out as the medals rolled in: When Sir Chris Hoy, the cycling tyro, won his sixth gold medal in the keirin (speed-controlled) race last Wednesday, the “commentary” melted into a stream of hysterical liquid sound.

Yet if the British did very well in the games, the BBC did badly in what it is supposed to be best at: being fair, balanced, neutral and objective. Frankly, it went ape.

For Europe, it doesn’t get better

John Lloyd
Apr 4, 2012 21:03 UTC

The European crisis isn’t over until the First Lady pays, and the First Lady of Europe, Angela Merkel, cannot pay enough. She needs to erect a large enough firewall to ensure that the European Union’s weaker members do not, again, face financial disaster. That will not happen – which means the euro faces at least defections, and perhaps destruction.

The crisis had seemed to recede somewhat in early 2012, and the headline writers moved on. But it had only seemed to recede, and relaxation was premature. As Hugo Dixon of Reuters’ Breaking Views put it on Monday, “the risk is that, as the short-term funding pressure comes off, governments’ determination to push through unpopular reforms will flag. If that happens, the time that has been bought will be wasted – and, when crisis rears its ugly head again, the authorities won’t have the tools to fight it.”

But the underlying tension remains between high indebtedness in nearly all the EU countries and the need to pare back public spending without suffocating the economies. The flat, or negative, growth lines in the same countries that are indebted are likely to be made worse as demand falls and a malign cycle threatens.

A yacht not fit for a queen

John Lloyd
Jan 25, 2012 21:28 UTC

Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith … is in want of a yacht.

She had one, the Royal Yacht Britannia, which she loved very much. When the Labour government of Tony Blair said it was too expensive and decommissioned it soon after assuming office in 1997, she was seen to weep at the ceremony. Last year, Blair was reported as saying he regretted the decision, pressed upon him by the then-chancellor, Gordon Brown, and inherited from the previous, Conservative administration. It cost £11 million a year to run, and a necessary refit would have cost some £50 million. So it was put out to the nautical equivalent of pasture. It’s now on show at a dock in Leith, the port of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, where it’s in much demand as a venue for “occasions.”

If in want of a yacht, Queen Elizabeth has never lacked for gallant courtiers. Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, earlier this month wrote to the prime minister suggesting that for her Diamond Jubilee, to be celebrated in June this year, she should be promised (the event is too near for her to be “given”) a replacement yacht, to express the love her subjects bear her. After a little to-ing and fro-ing, Gove clarified that he had not meant that the expense – which might be some £80 million to £100 million – should be borne from the public purse, but rather would be raised from her (presumably better-heeled) admirers. The prime minister said he was all for it, on that basis. The deputy prime minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, made a not-too-bad joke, saying the world was divided into the “yachts and the have-yachts.”

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