Jottings for January

The political and economic scenes in Britain are warming up nicely as the general election, due on 6 May, approaches. The leaders of both the main parties are working hard to establish the issue which they hope will determine how the electorate will vote.  Labour focuses on the National Health Service, on which it is more generally trusted than the Conservatives. The Tories are busy fostering the false smear that Labour government spending caused the 2008 global financial crash and that if returned to office in May, Labour would wreck the economy again. In fact much the biggest issue at stake in the election is Britain’s future in the European Union, on which David Cameron is increasingly non-committal, having recklessly capitulated to the demands of his own back-bench Neanderthals and UKIP for an ‘in/out’ referendum, i.e. on whether Britain should remain in the EU or withdraw from it — ‘Brexit’, in the jargon, short for British exit. Almost all the literate political and economic pundits and most of the British financial and business communities acknowledge that Brexit would be a catastrophe for the UK in just about every sphere. Yet it looks increasingly as if in a Brexit referendum, promised by Cameron for 2017 if the Tories have an absolute majority in the house of commons after the May election, there might well be a majority for leaving the EU. Labour is unambiguously against a referendum and in favour of staying in the EU and working for its reform, with the UK’s European allies, from within. On any measurement the huge importance for Britain’s future of its relationship with the rest of Europe makes this issue eclipse all the other election issues put together. There are plenty of other reasons for wanting to replace Mr Cameron with Mr Miliband in No. 10 Downing Street, but the EU issue on its own should be enough to convince all thinking people, whatever their normal party allegiances, that a vote for the Conservatives (or UKIP), and thus for a serious risk of Brexit, would be deeply irresponsible.

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When the London Jubilee Line tube train pulls in to Green Park station on Piccadilly, next to the Ritz hotel, the electronic notice boards in each carriage flash up the announcement that “this is Green Park: alight here for Buckingham Palace,” advice that is then repeated over the train’s loudspeaker system. Apart from making one wonder how many foreign visitors to London know what the obsolete word ‘alight’ means, this splendid rubric conjures up an image of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, slumbering peacefully side by side on the tube, suddenly being woken up by the announcement about Green Park and Buckingham Palace. “Come on, dear,” says the Duke, nudging the Queen: “this is our stop.” And they gather up their Sainsbury’s shopping bags and umbrellas and woolly hats, hastily hopping down onto the platform just before the doors close and the train rattles off towards Bond Street.

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Why has Britain’s recovery from the recession been so slow and uncertain? Why are the limited fruits of the recovery, such as it is, so unfairly distributed between the richest and the poorest? Why have the Chancellor’s sadistic cuts in government spending so signally failed to bring down the budget deficit to the level that he had promised? Why is government borrowing so stubbornly resistant to the reductions promised by Osborne and Cameron? The answer to all these questions is available almost daily in the columns of the Financial Times, hardly a hotbed of socialist dogma, and in countless articles by the financial commentators elsewhere in the serious media. Capitalism is like riding a bicycle: it has to keep moving ahead and growing if it is not to collapse in a heap. Constant growth depends on constant consumer demand, reflected in economic activity by households, firms and government — especially by ordinary individual consumers. But for years the richest few in society — the bankers and financiers, the oligarchs, the shareholders, the company senior executives with their astronomical salaries and bonuses — have been seizing an ever increasing share of the national income, including an increasing share of its annual growth (if any), leaving a shrinking share for everyone else. A shrinking share for ordinary consumers means a steady reduction in their ability to consume: ever lower wages mean reduced spending, even when bolstered by increasingly expensive debts, themselves eventually a source of instability. As the prospects for a steady growth in spending fade, firms are increasingly reluctant to invest in new or up-dated plant or to recruit more labour,  lacking confidence that ordinary consumers will be able to afford to buy their products. Lack of aggregate demand in the economy thus lies at the root of our failing economies, especially in the drowning eurozone but in Britain too.

There are various obvious remedies: put more money in the hands of those who can be relied on to spend every additional penny they receive, namely the poorest and weakest in society, e.g. by increasing welfare benefits and reducing taxes such as VAT which are a disproportionate burden on the poor and which reduce their ability to consume; use fiscal policy to reduce inequality in society, increasing taxes on those with the lowest propensity to spend marginal income (namely the already rich); greatly increase government spending on capital infrastructure projects, especially social housing (Roosevelt’s New Deal with its huge infrastructure projects was a vital ingredient in America’s recovery from the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s); encourage immigration by people of working age whose contributions to the economy will help to pay the pensions of Britain’s steadily ageing population and whose taxes will increase government revenue and so reduce the deficit; and pour money into education and training, research and development, vital investments for the future. It defies belief that on every single count the Conservative-led coalition has done the precise opposite of what’s plainly needed since it came into office in 2010, choking off the incipient recovery instigated by Gordon Brown’s Labour government and actually throttling aggregate demand in the economy by cutting public expenditure, increasing taxes on the poorest and cutting, instead of increasing, welfare benefits, thus shifting resources even further from the poorest to the richest. No wonder Mr Osborne has failed so miserably to hit any of his targets. Yet the Tories boast of their superior economic management skills and their success in bringing about Britain’s miracle (but mostly invisible) recovery. How do they get away with it?

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It’s strange that the scribbling classes (to which I suppose I belong, part-time) have such a problem with “whom”. Any parenthetical phrase coming between a “who” and the verb that “who” clearly governs is automatically taken to require “who” to be converted to “whom”: “This is a man whom many believe is the greatest living poet,” where no-one would dream of writing “whom is the greatest living poet”. Examples in almost any posh newspaper or magazine are numerous. Even the aristocratic Debretts is not immune, throwing in an inappropriate semi-colon for bad measure:

“Inclusion is by invitation only; with specialist panels selecting whom they believe is making an impression in Britain today.” –

But I have to confess (or as the more self-consciously trendy scribes write these days, “fess up”) to an incurable blind spot when it comes to the difference between “which” and “that” at the beginning of a relative clause. My strict grammarian daughter, founder-owner of the wildly successful linguistic blog ‘Glossophilia“, has frequently explained the difference to me, and flinches every time I get it wrong, but five minutes after receiving her instructions in the matter I have forgotten the rules all over again.

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Two welcome developments over my book, What Diplomats Do, published last July — neither another diplomatic memoir, nor an academic textbook, nor a novel, but with elements of all three. First, the (American) publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, have agreed to extend to the end of July 2015 the deadline for individual, non-institutional UK and other non-American buyers of the book to get it for a discount (it had been due to expire at the end of 2014) if they use the revised order form on this website — simply download (They have also increased the discount to 30%, hardback version only.) The 30% discount for American buyers (pdf) is also still available for several more months. Secondly, there have recently been two more especially perceptive and illuminating reviews of What Diplomats Do.  The first, by Dr Katharina Höne, of DiploFoundation and University of Aberystwyth, is published on the DiploFoundation website and reproduced in full along with many other reviews at; and the second, by the distinguished former US diplomat Marshall P. Adair, published in the US Foreign Service Journal, can be read here  (pdf). Both these reviews, among others, are well worth reading, especially if you haven’t yet decided whether to buy the book!

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One of the film’s “chapters” includes spoken extracts of notes on film by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Another shows a silent dance, conceived by Mr Campbell and performed by Michael Clark Company, inspired by equations in the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.  [Financial Times, 2 December 2014]

Inspired by what?


13 Responses

  1. See Glossophilia’s explanation (a little cheeky, but hopefully relatively clear) about “that” and “which” here: What always interests me is that Americans don’t tend to muddle them up or use them interchangeably, but most Brits now do. Because the British media (the BBC, The Guardian etc.) tend to use them interchangeably, I guess British ears are no longer attuned to the difference.

    Just for kicks, check out these two sentences: “In this room full of pies, I like only the apple pie, which my mother made.” It means something quite different from this: “In this room full of pies, I like only the apple pie that my mother made.” The first sentence makes it clear that there is only one apple pie in the room – and fyi it just happens to have been made by my mom. You can take away the which/fyi clause without losing the sense of the sentence: that there’s only one apple pie, and that’s the only one I like. In the second sentence, I’m specifying that the only pie I like is specifically the apple one baked by my mother’s hand (and not any of the other apple pies). So the “that” clause is important for identification purposes, rather than just an fyi.

    I hope that all makes sense.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Louise. I think I understand your rule — I should do, I’ve heard it from you often enough! — but my problems are that (a) I can never remember it when I need it, and (b) deep down I’m not really convinced that it matters, since in 99 per cent of cases the meaning will be clear from the context. But as Glossophilia’s founder and proprietor you are clearly entitled to lay down the law on the matter and I really wouldn’t dare to question it!

  2. Ronnie says:

    In ireland we alight equally from the express to Dublin and the local to Ahoghil. It seems quite inappropriate as I ease myself heaviiy from the carriage on to the platform.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Ronnie. My physique somewhat resembling yours, I too tend to lumber awkwardly off trains and onto platforms rather than alight. I suppose non-English-speaking tourists reading and hearing the announcements that use the word just have to try to guess what it means, and hope that they aren’t required to be ‘light’ to perform the action.

  3. robin fairlie says:

    It may perhaps (or perhaps not) comfort you to know that I have left the following comment on Louise’s Glossophilia website:

    “Let me take Louise’s sentence: “No, the witch that wears the black hat, which is flat.” The clause “which is flat” is, as the sentence is written, non-defining, and therefore meets the rules enunciated by Louise. If, however, we remove the comma before “which”, then immediately the clause becomes defining – i.e. there is now an implication that there are, in this context, some black hats which (or that) are not flat. To insist that in such case we must alter this “which” to “that” seems to me the merest pedantry, producing no gain.

    “Surely the only serious point of grammatical rules (and indeed of punctuation, as in this instance) is to ensure that what one writes (or says) is understandable, with minimum effort, not ambiguous, and preferably euphonious. Trying to enforce recondite “rules” about “that” and “which” in contexts that (or which) do not offend against any of these criteria, is, in my submission, otiose.”

    Let’s take, further, Louise’s second illustrative sentence on your blog above: “In this room full of pies, I like only the apple pie that my mother made.” Louise has not only substituted “that” for “which” from her previous sentence – she has also omitted the vital comma which (or that) (rather than the choice of “which” or “that”) defined the sense of the sentence. In other words, if one writes “In this room full of pies, I like only the apple pie, that my mother made” , one achieves exactly the same sense as if one wrote “which my mother made”.

    Nonetheless, I must confess to sharing your unease about the use of “who” and “whom”, which is certainly rife. Your sentence “This is the man whom many believe is the greatest living poet” could be made acceptable (to me) in either of two simple ways: “This is the man who, many believe, is….” or “This is the man whom many believe to be….” Or am I now the pedant, and has this one got away from us irrecoverably?

    Brian writes: Thank you, Robin. I secretly agree with you about the comma, or lack of it, doing the work, not the choice between ‘which and ‘that’. But I wouldn’t dream of saying so publicly. As for the rogue ‘whom’, it’s really no contest.

  4. Timothy Weakley says:

    No,Robin Fairlie, you’re no pedant; you’ve said (in your para. 5) what I would have said. I confess, however, to saying ‘Who did you hear the news from?’ but ‘From whom did you hear the news?’. Regarding ‘which’ and ‘that’: put commas or parentheses round the subordinate clause, and the sentence will usually look wrong to me if ‘that’ is needed – if the clause is defining rather than commenting. But I’m sure people can think of contra-indicatory examples!

    Brian writes: Thank you, Tim. On which/that, the war has moved to Glossophilia. It’s almost always OK to say (especially orally, less so in writing) ‘who’ where ‘whom’ is formally required, as in your first example, but surely never, never acceptable to say ‘whom’ where it should be ‘who’. Case closed, I think.

  5. Derek Partridge says:

    I welcome the reference to Roosevelt’s New Deal. I learnt at school in 1946 how large infrastructure projects, notably the Mississippi Scheme, had been a feature of the New Deal which had restored America’s economy after the years of depression. I have deplored the failure of the Liberal Democrats to heed the teachings of great Liberals such as Roosevelt, Beveridge and Keynes and advocate expenditure on infrastructure projects. Ed Balls has done so and would make a much better Chancellor, in my view, than George Osborne. The ideal outcome of the general election for me would be a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Derek. I very much agree with everything you say — except, I’m afraid, your last sentence. As matters stand at present, it seems unlikely that a Labour-LibDem coalition would command a majority in the house of commons on its own, and anyway I think Labour should dismiss all thought of another coalition with the LibDems or anyone else. If on 7 May Labour is the biggest party in another hung parliament and if Cameron then resigns, as he should (but might not), Labour should in my view govern for as long as possible as a minority government, seeking a confidence and supply understanding with the smaller progressive parties, and working to muster ad hoc majorities piecemeal for its legislation, resigning only if defeated on a vote of confidence or a budget vote.

  6. Julian Nundy says:

    Having worked in English-language journalism for 40 years, half for the Brits and half for the others, that/which tortured me during the 19 years I worked for Americans; and NEVER when I worked for Brits. I still can’t explain it but I have the arrogance to believe that I now get it right instinctively. As for the who/whom dilemma, bravo for reading so far into Debretts’ pomposity to find that one. After seeing who not given its rightful accusative so many million times, I am almost tender towards those who put in a whom when a simpler (and shorter) who would have been the correct option. At least they have heard of it! At least they tried! And gave us an opportunity to point out the error. And what about those who use a that or a which when a who was all they needed? As for the semi-colon; I am sure Debretts felt this conveyed maturity and gravitas. Who are we to refuse them that?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Julian. Interesting that you rely on your ear and your instinct when choosing between which and that: so do I, since I can never remember Louise’s rule. Like you I’m lenient to a fault to those who write or say ‘who’ when it should be ‘whom’. I’m even lenient with those who have a weakness for semi-colons — I have one myself. But in my considered opinion a special place in the third circle of hell is, or should be, reserved for those who say ‘whom’ when they ought to say ‘who’.

  7. Bob McMahon says:

    Mr Barder, did it not occur to you that Liz and Phil might just as easily have been riding a southbound Jubilee Line train, which would mean Westminster being the next station?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. On reflection, you may well be right. The elderly couple might well have been travelling from home (Buckingham Palace) on the tube from their nearest tube station (Green Park) to work (opening a new session of Parliament at Westminster), probably because the Royal coach and mounted royal guards escorting it had fallen victim to George Osborne’s austerity cuts. And they would have been grateful for the advice on the loudspeakers in their tube carriage as the train trundled into Westminster: “Alight here for the Houses of Parliament”.

  8. Sorry to keep the “which/that” conversation going, but I’ve been thinking about it over the past few days, and it seems to me that there’s a little bit of hypocrisy going on here, where people are on the one hand condemning common mistakes or misusage – even if the meaning is completely unambiguous – by pointing to a prescriptive set of established usage rules, and yet on the other hand they’re trying to dismiss as ‘pedantic’ a usage rule that really does introduce clarity and prevent misunderstandings or ambiguity, probably because (dare I suggest) they don’t really understand the usage rule.

    Take a look at the following sentences and tell me which is/are ambiguous and which isn’t/aren’t:

    “Me and her are going to the movies this afternoon.”

    “Who are you giving that cake to? Whomever gets it should eat it right away.”

    “Of all the pies in the competition, I liked only the apple pie which my sister made.”

    The third sentence, incidentally, would almost certainly not have been said or written by an American, precisely because of the possible ambiguity. If there was just one apple pie in the competition, and my sister happened to have made it, an American would put a comma (or a pause, if spoken) after “pie” and use the word “which” (since it would be a non-identifying clause). If there were several apple pies and I liked only the one my sister made, an American would use the word “that” instead of “which”, thus identifying the specific pie I liked. I.e. “I liked only the apple pie that my sister made.”

    Most Brits no longer seem to recognize this difference, and therefore they’re introducing ambiguity – and possible misunderstanding – by using “that” and “which” interchangeably. The use of commas here is irrelevant or a red herring, in my opinion, since you wouldn’t ever put a comma in front of “that”, because it’s identifying, whereas you would put a comma in front of “which” (in this context), because/when it isn’t.

    That’s probably my last two cents on this subject.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Louise. I don’t think ‘hypocrisy’ comes into it, actually: ‘inconsistency, perhaps, although I would plead not guilty even to that, because I don’t think you’re comparing like with like. We’re all agreed that who/whom is subject to well-known and undisputed rules, although we’re tolerant of those who break some of them. But some of us are sceptical about any undisputed rule governing which/that. If you say there’s such a rule in American usage, I willingly take your word for it. But as you say yourself in Glossophilia, so far as the UK is concerned it’s more a question of usage than rule. So it’s not that we sceptics don’t understand your rule: we don’t think that over here there is one. So we shall go on along our merry way, using our ears for acceptable UK usage and wishing you Americans well with your comforting rule. And that’s my two penn’orth!

  9. robin fairlie says:

    Louise’s point about hypocrisy (or double standards?) is well taken. The problem is that accept(ed/able) grammar is a moving target. “Who are you giving that cake to?” violates two “rules”: use of wrong case, and ending a sentence with a preposition. Yet most of us (??), while eschewing the wrong case when writing, are quite capable of uttering it in speech, while Churchill surely demolished the terminal preposition thing half a century ago. The distinction between nominative and accusative forms (where different) will continue to be taught in schools, and observed by literate persons in writing, for some time, but will eventually die out (not in my lifetime), because it has no real function, apart from keeping Latinists in employment.

    In the same way, distinction between “which: and “that” is already dead – in English if not American usage – precisely because it is unnecessary. In Louise’s sentence about pies, the existence, or absence, of a comma is sufficient to resolve all ambiguity, after which use of “which” or “that” is a matter of personal taste. Is anyone still reading? Over and out.

    Brian writes: Thanks again. That seems to me a faultless statement of the position as far as UK English is concerned.

  10. Oliver Miles says:

    I had been hoping someone would pick up the ball on your political comments, that range from the wise to the questionable. No takers! So let me state a couple of views which may provoke someone, I know not who.

    View one: the debate about which political leaders should take part in a telly-summit is telly-driven, not politics-driven (and as such part of a trend in our polity which I deplore). Whatever the outcome, the consequence of more telly-summits is to drive us away from cabinet government towards a presidential system (something that I also deplore).

    View two: the Guardian today carries a report of a survey purporting to show that the benefits that British subjects in other European countries receive far outweigh the benefits which other European nationals receive in the UK. Whether or not the facts are as stated, this will have no impact on the debate about Europe because the Guardian would say that wouldn’t they and the rest of the media will ignore it.

    Incidentally the report goes on – “the number of jobless Britons [I wonder who that includes – Northern Irelanders are UK nationals but not Britons] receiving benefits in Ireland [presumably the Irish Republic] exceeds their Irish counterparts [how pray are they defined?] in the UK [meaning Great Britain and Northern Ireland?] by a rate of five to one.”

    Brian writes: Thank you, Oliver. Glad to have your comments but disappointed that you are silent on the “questionable” elements in my post, although I also share your disappointment that linguistic pedantry and fastidiousness excite more vigorous reactions than politics.

    I can’t myself summon up much enthusiasm over the issue of the television debates and who gets to take part in them. I agree that they encourage presidentialism that ought to be foreign to our politics, but I suspect that opposition to that is a long lost cause. The fact is that the principal question to be settled by this election is whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband gets (or keeps) the keys to No. 10. In my view a Cameron victory would be a disaster, for EU reasons and many others, and the Tories are clearly making headway by smearing and belittling Ed Miliband, so if a Miliband-Cameron head-to-head on television stood any chance of displaying Miliband as the formidable, intelligent, decent politician he can often show himself to be, I’m in favour of it.

    I too was struck by the Guardian report that UK citizens in other EU countries receive substantially more in unemployment and other benefits than other EU citizens receive in the UK (which I think is what the lazily worded report is meant to say), which knocks quite a hole in the Tories’ and UKIP’s blethering on about benefit tourism from the EU. As you say, this is unfortunately unlikely to be picked up by the Sun newspaper (even when it has some new spare space to fill up on page 3), by The Times or by Mr Farage. The BBC might republish it but probably only in programmes for liberal-minded politics nerds like us. Anyway it’s nice to have yet more ammunition for shooting down yet more of the garbage flown across our fields of vision by the unscrupulous Europhobes. I wouldn’t put it beyond the realm of possibility that if Labour mounted a really robust campaign in favour of continued membership of the EU, rubbishing the Europhobes’ accusations against it, public opinion might well turn round. But I suppose the Labour leadership is too timid, as usual, to try it.

    If you’re hungry for more argument about the more ‘questionable’ bits of my blog post, you might be amused (or exasperated, or both) by the debate in comments on the edited version of my post on LabourList, at

  11. Ann Lewis says:

    Re ‘which’ and ‘that’, Louise is right, but the same meaning can be obtained by using ‘which’ without the preceding comma instead of ‘that’. I think this is more normal in British English, whereas ‘that’ is more frequetly used in American English.

    Brian writes: Many thanks, Ann. As you will have gathered, I entirely agree. What about the political bits of my post, though?

  12. john miles says:

    “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls.”

    Or, if you prefer, “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.”

    Has Mr Trillin got his ‘that’ right.”
    Do tell us, we’re all dying to know.

  13. john miles says:

    .”Miliband ,,,formidable, intelligent, decent politician”

    Your boy’s just held a Question and Answer session in a local church hall, so along with about three hundred other people I grabbed the chance to go and see for myself what he’s actually like.

    For what they’re worth, here are my impressions.
    His heart seems to be more or less in the right place. but I’m afraid he’s a bit of an old windbag.

    He comes across as someone long on worthy aspirations, short on coping with practical problems.
    For example, he said – correctly, in my view – that we need more doctors and nurses, shorter waits to see our GPs and cancer tests guaranteed within a week.
    Yet he didn’t face the fact that these improvements will cost a lot of money – nearer ten billion than five, and perhaps even more than that – or tell us how he’s going raise it.
    Of course it’s possible he’s just too devious to do so, but I don’t honestly think that’s very likely

    I’m afraid he’s not an automatic choice for anybody choosing a team to do anything difficult.
    If you wanted to be charitable you could say he’s much too nice to be any good at such a dirty game as party politics.

    Of course I may have got the poor guy all wrong.
    Let’s hope so.

    Brian writes: Thank you. Yes, you have indeed got it all wrong. Describing the leader of a major UK political party and leader of the opposition as “your boy” and “the poor guy” is the kind of language one expects from the Sun newspaper or Mr David Cameron in one of his PMQs tantrums, but not what’s expected of a self-proclaimed ‘lefty’ (if I remember correctly).

    For the record, I too have attended a (different) lengthy public meeting at which Ed Miliband delivered an extremely meaty policy speech, and answered questions from the media and ordinary members of the public on just about every subject under the sun (or Sun), and anyone less like a ‘windbag’ (interesting that you choose the term used by the nasty party to destroy the career of another outstanding Labour leader) it’s impossible to imagine. Mr Miliband was impressively strong on specific facts and evidence-based arguments, fluent and persuasive, confident, calm and articulate. The contrast with the aggressive, red-faced, cheap point-scoring David Cameron was unmistakeable.

    As for your allegation that Mr Miliband failed to say where money promised to the NHS was coming from, you surely must have heard the answer to that tired old canard from both Messrs Miliband and Balls a thousand times, both constantly explaining how every penny of proposed spending in Labour’s programmes is fully funded? Do they have to spell it out again and again every time either of them opens his mouth?

    This deliberately scornful belittling of an impressive political figure who’s the repository of the country’s only hope of rescue from those who are bent on completing the destruction of the welfare state and of a decent, humane and just society, is sadly out of place here.

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