Monday, July 21, 2008

Nick is not at home to Mr Coherent

Well that was quite a column, wasn't it readers? I'm really quite surprised that the Observer is so keen to print something that not only has no actual argument, but also so very visibly betrays a complete lack of knowledge of what the author is talking about. My guess is that more or less anything that can support a subhead of the style "Those Awful City Types, String 'Em Up" is red meat to the old lefties who form the majority of the Obs dwindling readership. Which isn't necessarily such a bad thing - lots of those city types are awful, and stringing a few of them up might be a good idea once in a while. And even to the extent that it is, the Observer has a very long tradition of believing that stealing money from rich people without using violence is a much worse crime than stealing money from poor people using violence, and another article on this topic would be timely in a week when the FTSE100 has been up and down like a fiddler's elbow. But when the whole thing is wrapped around a couple of Conservative Party talking points, perhaps one might think that if a polemic's worth writing, it's worth doing properly.

Nick doesn't appear to have grasped the fact that the Equitable Life collapsed in 2000, not last week, and it did so as a result of actions carried out in the 1990s (it was a House of Lords decision on some litigation that did for it, and at the time, very few people other than Ned Cazalet believed that the Equitable would lose). It is hard to see what the hell he means when he claims that the Equitable "has not paid a penny" - in fact, it has paid more or less every penny it has to the guaranteed annuity-holders, which is why there's nothing left for the other members, who are the ones for which the Ombudsman's report recommends compensation. I am obviously in no position to gainsay Nick's claim to have read the Parliamentary Ombudsman's report, but I don't think he understood what he read, because this is all spelt out pretty clearly. It's also pretty obvious that the reason why Conrad Black was tried for fraud in America is that Hollinger International was an American company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and I'd be interested in what theory of international jurisprudence Nick would have proposed to try him under.

My guess is that the reason that the column jumps around from theme to theme so jarringly is that it's been subbed to pieces in order to remove a lot of unsupportable accusations of fraud - certainly it would make a lot more sense if there was any actual reason to talk about the Serious Fraud Office in the context of the Equitable and Northern Rock, but there isn't. The SFO section of the column looks to me as if it draws pretty heavily on the back page of Private Eye, where their City columnist has been allowed to write exactly the same article about the law relating to fraud every fortnight for the last twenty years. There is a debate to be had here, but it doesn't have much to do with the point Nick's trying to make about mortgage brokers - a £250k mortgage fraud is not actually the kind of big ticket that the British courts cope badly with, and the people who carried out these frauds are not exactly fat cats or City boys; if they were, they wouldn't have needed to lie on their mortgage applications. Hedge funds have got fuck-all to do with it, of course.

On the other hand, although the "delivery system" of the article is all over the place like those hilarious Pershing 2 tests (Nick also manages to take in the theme of "privatised profits and socialised risks", though naturally he screws up the examples), the "warhead" is as clear as you like. Nick wants to get rid of Gordon Brown, because he has " made such a mess of the public finances that there's no money for tax cuts".

Now, this isn't true at all - it's a George Osborne talking point, and as far as I can tell nobody can explain quite what it actually means without saying untrue things about the UK's debt and deficit position. If, like Nick (or Libby "worse than the 1970s" Purves), you're forecasting a very serious recession in which "millions will pay a heavy price" and "readers of this newspaper will lose jobs and homes", then you can probably come up with some sort of way of blaming it on Brown by saying that the low-inflation, low-interest rate environment of the last ten years caused the house price bubble, although frankly this seems a bit of a stretch to me (what alternative policy could he have carried out, plus the Bank of England was independent) and I don't actually agree with the implicit forecast. But to claim that the UK's deficit and debt position is so bad that no Keynesian fiscal policy can be carried out is just visibly untrue. The actual position is that a stimulus policy will require the debt/GDP ratio to rise above the 40% limit that Brown set in 1997, a rule which carries more or less no economic consequences whatever.

There's a sort of sense in bringing out the early 1990s songbook for another strum - everyone who did it in 2002 post the dot com bust looked a bit silly, but this time things do look quite a bit sticker and $140/barrel oil doesn't help (thanks for that oil war guys). But I'm not sure Nick's the best guy to be singing it, and it really ought to be recognised that "Gordon Brown has made a mess of the public finances" is simply a Tory talking point. Also interesting to speculate on the intended subject of "Change can only come from a new Prime Minister who is not complicit in past negligence". Did Nick have such success with his "vote Paddick" political strategerising that he's decided to take it national? Has he been talking to Martin Bright again and thus signed up to the Staggers "Draft Purnell" campaign? Or do we have to simply face facts and agree that the man's a Tory?

More to the point, does the Observer still have Will Hutton's phone number?

"I mean really" moment of the week:

A few weeks ago, Dame Vivienne Westwood made my point for me when she appeared on Channel 4 News wearing combat fatigues. 'I've come as an urban guerrilla,' her ladyship explained. Dame Vivienne would have cut a more ridiculous figure if a background of aggression on the streets didn't permit English designers, artists, writers and performers to extemporise on themes of brutality and pain. Take that away and Banksy will have to turn to the career in accountancy I'm sure masters at Bristol Cathedral School took to be his destiny.

Do fucking what mate? As far as I can tell (and I realise that to explain a joke is to kill it, but it took me four readings to work out what the hell was going on here so I suspect I am providing a genuine service to readers here), Nick is trying to make the point that the existence of a culture of violence in the UK provides material commercial benefits to the media and design industries, allowing British gangsta rappers (?) to compete with their American counterparts (??) and Dame Vivienne Westwood to generate export earnings by selling combat fatigue-themed clothes. This proposition is advanced by way of establishing the comic conceit that if light-touch regulation has helped to establish London as an important global financial centre, light-touch regulation ought to be considered for street criminals. You can sort of see how the joke might have worked if a bit more time and effort was spent on it, but frankly as it stands, it just looks like Nick is once more chucking up a few middlebrow figures of ressentiment in order to establish his credentials as a man-of-the-people Philistine. That's the only way that the reference to Banksy can make any sense at all, as far as I can see.


Blogger ejh said...

1. This is a piece of idle socialist rhetoric, but if Libby Purves is complaining that readers of the Times are going to lose jobs and houses, does she have in mind the sort of remedies that would mean the loss of jobs and houses for readers of slightly less upmarket newspapers?

2. I don't know how familiar Cohen is with Banksy, but it's my view that the latter gentleman is one of the most extraordinary and original British artists of my lifetime.

3. where their City columnist has been allowed to write exactly the same article about the law relating to fraud every fortnight for the last twenty years.

A good one, though, and one of the reasons I maintain the subscription which I can't afford to that magazine. At the very least, informed commentary on the financial community which does not make the normal assumptions that suit aforesaid community is something I'm grateful for.

4. The joke referred to in the final paragraph was previously done here.

7/21/2008 08:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't argue with any of that really (although I don't think Banksy is as good as you do, EJH). A couple of points from the main post:

it's a George Osborne talking point, and as far as I can tell nobody can explain quite what it actually means

what it means (at least as far as I can see) is that George is making his excuses in advance for not lowering taxes if his party gets into power. Look at how the Boris team have acted in London - they have no policies other than 'ooh that Ken was a meanie', and the tories will probably spend a large part of their next term in power (assuming they get in) doing very little and blaming Labour for everything.

The Banksy point - in fact that whole article - makes no sense at all. Banksy would be popular regardless of the culture of violence Nick is describing, which doesn't exist anyway. the whole paragraph seems designed to have a go at the two 'liberal sacred cows' of Banksy (who is actually popular with the publci at large, not just bruscetta-munchers) and Vivienne Westwood (Nick's hatred of high-end fashion is well-documented), but it doesn't fit into the article at all. But it might spare us another Cohen vs the fashion world / liberal arts establishment piece...

Nick is once more chucking up a few middlebrow figures of ressentiment in order to establish his credentials as a man-of-the-people Philistine

after last week's piece which was heavy-handed Tory-bashing (or to be clearer, Rifkind-bashing) I think he's trying to stake a claim as being above political parties, a brave truth-teller, etc. But it just looks like he's flitting between Tory and Decet Left, often in the space of one (very short, and incomprehensible) column. the two positions aren't that far from each other, i guess.

You can see the quality of his unedited work in that tedious post from last week on Harry's Place. Frankly I think the Obs subs did a pretty good job with this, if that's the kind of thing that have to work with.

7/21/2008 08:44:00 AM  
Blogger Captain Cabernet said...

I'm rather surprised that any of the Decents are going with the "Banksy went to public school so his claims [does he make them?] to be a radical are hogwash" meme.

For the record, BCS has to be one of the least successful private schools in the country (it is about to go back into the state sector as an "Academy". It is hardly Eton, anyway.

On the other hand, the great saint of Decency, Eric Blair, did go to Eton (yet his credential seem to be untarnished in their eyes).

7/21/2008 09:07:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Nick hasn't always been so keen on balanced budgets. In 1999 on a piece on the NHS, he wrote:

The political class could meet the backlog of necessary work by taxing the wealthy, but that would be unthinkable. Alternatively, the Government could borrow at the low rates of interest available to states which are judged by the markets to be the securest of risks. But the strategy would necessitate public spending, a laughably archaic practice.

Then again that was a piece in which later he attacked nuclear power, so perhaps it was written by a different man with the same name.

7/21/2008 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Nick was probably blinded by the evil propaganda of offshore-money-launderer-posing-as-radical Banksy when he wrote that old piece, who used his fiendish liberal left propaganda to bamboozle poor Nick. Thankfully Nick can now see through Banksy's wall of lies, and past Vivienne Westwoods clothes of evil, and see the truth.

7/21/2008 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Do you think maybe he's getting Tim Westwood confused with Vivienne?

7/21/2008 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's okay. I think Cohen's being going through an extended mid-life crisis for some time. He can't be too happy about the Euston Manifesto group either. He helped scribble the EM, which grandly talked about a "fresh political alignment" and got favourable write ups in the Guardian, New Statesman, blah blah blah. Not much came of that; you may find a few dreary videos on YouTube of them hobnobbing with Labour ministers. It's website is now fitfully updated by wedding photographer Damian Counsell.

Cohen needs a long holiday.

7/21/2008 12:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nailed on gold medal contender for the non-sequitur Olympics and, I think, the shittest piece of financial writing I've read in many a year. It read like a cut and paste job of about 10 different pieces.

Still, NC didn't let me down. By para 3 I was sure "privatised profits and socialised risks" would turn up and lo and behold it did.

7/21/2008 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the banksy in my immediate neighbourhood is of a small girl sliding down a sloping pipe blowing bubbles -- it could hardly be less gangsta rap

7/21/2008 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Cohen needs a long holiday.

Didn't he just have one?

I'm with OC on Banksy's merits, but I don't think he condones violence nor does he "extemporise on themes of brutality and pain." His claims to be radical seem to me to come not from specious claims of 'authenticity' but from a sincere belief that art can actually change things. (Isn't this what Nick derided Jon Snow for not doing?) But what does Nick think artists do if not write about brutality and pain? "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed - they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!"

Captain C - Nick isn't a worshipper of St Orwell. He even claims not to have read him. I don't think Harry's Place are fans either: to them, he's good for a soundbite or two. The Orwell I (and Christopher Hitchens) admire *had* to go to Eton: he's a critic of the Empire because he was well-educated to the age of 18 (so he could express himself very lucidly) and because he worked for it and understood it very well. There's a lot more to Orwell than just being an anti-Communist in the late 40s. More importantly, he understood the British state as only someone familiar with the credos of its upper echelons could.

7/21/2008 06:34:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Captain C - Nick isn't a worshipper of St Orwell. He even claims not to have read him. I don't think Harry's Place are fans either:

No that isn't true.

7/21/2008 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

"For my part, it’s true that I did start Homage to Catalonia a few years ago, but to my shame I never finished it." NC in Dissent last year. I admit that, as with a lot of Nick, it's not clear what he means - has he read no other Orwell? Nineteen Eighty Four sees a "moral equivalence between communism and Nazism" - Ingsoc is indistinguishable from fascism.

So, OK, it's not true that NC has claimed to read no Orwell. He has claimed not to finish "Homage to Catalonia" and hasn't indicated that he's read anything else.

As for Harry's Place, I really think Orwell is a source of soundbites - or, more accurately, taglines.

7/21/2008 09:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Gene was actually recruited from a George Orwell forum which both he and 'Harry' contributed to, around the time of the latter's conversion from Stalinism.

7/21/2008 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

Nick's appreciation or otherwise of George Orwell was a minor issue in the Cohen/Johann Hari controversy. IIRC, Hari claimed that Nick had cited Orwell as inspiration in several conversations with JH - this of course doesn't necessarily mean he's read him though.

7/22/2008 06:34:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Lots of people never finish Homage to Catalonia, either because they disregard Orwell's advice to avoid the chapter about the political intricacies involved - and get bored - or because they take the advice and thus technically never finish the book.

(Personally, I read that chapter avidly, but that was the sort of teenager I was.)

7/22/2008 08:32:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Nick did deny it in the Hari spat, but there's some evidence (aside from Hari's recollections) such as meeting in George Orwell's favourite pub (which admittedly seems to be about 1/10 London pubs). His book, IIRC, had a quote about it being the 'angry satire of Swift' or something like that.

Simon's right though about Harry's Place and Gene I think.

We had a discussion about this nearly four years ago - the comments are fun for various reasons.

I'd started it by quoting my favourite Orwell quote, seemingly about Nick but it can't have been given Orwell was dead before Nick was born.

One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal. Over and above the familiar Marxist claim that 'bourgeois liberty' is an illusion, there is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only democracy by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who 'objectively' endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought.

7/22/2008 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Heh, Elizabeth David, very good.

Remind me not to go round to Dsquared's for bruschettas.

It's been my view for about half my lifetime that Charles Dickens is one of the greatest essays in the language.

Goes well with chips, too.

7/22/2008 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I'd started it by quoting my favourite Orwell quote, seemingly about Nick but it can't have been given Orwell was dead before Nick was born.

Gives a whole new meaning to 'Decent Tardis' doesn't it?

OK, Simon and Matt are probably right about Nick/Orwell. As for Justin's point, I enjoyed that chapter too. But Nick studied PPE and he enjoys all this dancing on a pinhead stuff. I can't believe that he lost interest in a book because it covered political intricacies.

7/22/2008 03:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's been my view for about half my lifetime that Charles Dickens is one of the greatest essays in the language."

No, that awful last paragraph screws it up: the Kipling one's better.

I don't know why Nick got lost in the "political intricacies" of Homage to Catalonia since it was hardly renaiassance stuff: thre players that mattered were POUM, the communists and the anarchists. The whole thing gave a nice substantial bottom to a thrilling adventure story for left wing teenagers.

Which brings us quite neatly to Orwell's essay on comics.

rioja kid

7/22/2008 05:15:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

One interesting point about Orwell on leftwing literature for children is how wrong he was.

7/22/2008 05:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There'll only ever be one Banksy for me, and that's the geezer wot won us the World Cup in 1966!

7/23/2008 08:53:00 PM  

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