Greece and Austria: A similar story?

This post was contributed by Barbara Warnock, third year PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, who is currently researching the work of the League of Nations in Austria in the 1920s. The title of  thesis is ‘The Significance of Austrian Financial Reconstruction 1922-1926′.

Greece-and-Austria-webAs negotiations between the ‘troika’ and the Greek government continue, the Austrian Chancellor, Werner Feymann, has adopted a more sympathetic line than many European leaders in relation to Greece’s current predicament stating in early June: ‘I stand on the side of the Greek people’. His sentiments call to mind events more the ninety years ago when it was the plight of the Austrian people that was a cause of international concern.

The world’s attention this week is on Greece, but in the early 1920s, it was the newly founded republic of Austria that received the attention of the international community, in what was the first ever comprehensive international bailout and structural adjustment programme, orchestrated by the League of Nations in 1922.

Greece’s present problems around debt, collection of taxation and an excessively strong currency mirror aspects of Austria’s crisis after the First World War. Back then, Austria too had difficulties around debt and taxation. The issue with their currency, the Krone, however, was rather different, in that its value was collapsing.

Austria had been one of the states most badly affected by the First World War. The defeated country was shorn of empire, monarchy and to a large extent, identity. Austria was beset by a multitude of difficulties including desperate shortages of food, trading problems and the uncertainly caused by the imposition of reparations (although these were never actually collected). Confidence in the very viability of the country was scare, and the Krone became ever weaker in value. Inflation turned into hyperinflation and the government struggled to finance its expenditure. Obtaining foreign loans to help the country meet its obligations became impossible.

In this context, in 1922, the Financial Committee of the League of Nations – a precursor to the IMF – designed a rescue package for Austria. This entailed League assistance in obtaining foreign loans, which were underwritten by the governments of Britain, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia in return for a commitment that the country would not seek to unify with Germany, and measures to fix the value of the Austrian currency. The programme also included the ‘reconstruction’ of Austrian state finances, which entailed large reductions in the numbers of civil servants, cuts to government expenditure and restrictions on the salaries of state employees, all to ensure a permanently balanced government budget.

Much of this may sound very familiar to those living in Greece (or even Britain) today, and the similarities go further. Austria also had to submit to the control of a version of the modern ‘troika’, (the IMF, European Central Bank and the EU), operated via the League of Nations. A League Committee of Control (representing interested League members); the League’s Financial Committee (composed of bankers, financiers, and treasury representatives); and a League-appointed ‘Commissioner-General’, Alfred Zimmermann, all provided monitoring and oversight.

Zimmermann was dispatched to live in Vienna to enforce the terms of the deal and control the expenditure of the foreign loans. This kind of control was, like that of the troika, a source of humiliation and enormous resentment in Austria. Zimmermann, like the troika, frequently condemned the lack of progress on ‘reform’ made by the Austria government.

Another striking similarity between the work of the League and that of the current troika in Greece is the lack of real consideration on the part of those bodies overseeing such programmes for the effects that their schemes have on living standards and on the political climate. Rigid adherence to economic dogmas, as practiced by the troika, as Greece has found, can have disastrous consequences.

In Austria, the League’s programme did deliver foreign loans for the country, and produced a stabilised currency. However, it also resulted in high levels of unemployment and the reduction of government social support. Furthermore, the programme undermined the already shaky stability of Austrian banks and increased political tensions within the country.

The League essentially withdrew their control from Austria in mid-1926, only to become involved again during Austria’s economic difficulties in the 1930s. By 1933, parliament had ceased to operate in the Austrian Republic. In 1934, the Social Democratic movement was smashed, and in 1938, the country was incorporated into the German Reich.

The problems of interwar Austria were manifold, but the contribution that this inaugural attempt at an international bailout made towards creating a viable future for the country is debateable. As others, including Paul Krugman, have remarked, the apparent lack of awareness of the troika of the problems that interwar deflationary policies caused is one alarming aspect of the Greek crisis.

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Emphasising the Negative

This post was contributed by Dr Malcolm Edwards, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Emphasising-the-negative-webOne of the serendipitous joys of studying grammars is the occasional discovery that the seemingly duller bits of language often turn out to reflect underlying processes with wider implications for how grammars and languages work.

Negation doesn’t seem like an auspicious point of departure for a journey into the hidden life of language. It has, seemingly forever, provided an opportunity for those with prescriptivist or fascistic tendencies, combined with a taste for spurious logic, a stick to beat the rest of us with for our ignorant and wanton use of supposedly deviant and/or ungrammatical forms such as ‘I never did it’[=’I did not do it’], or (the Mark of the Beast, this one) the double negative ‘I didn’t do nothing’[=’I didn’t do anything’].

But negation left to itself -as it should be – does have an unsettling tendency to change form, and an equally unsettling tendency to make its point using expressions ranging from the comparatively mild (John Wayne’s ‘the Hell I do!’[roughly = ‘I most decidedly do not’), to the taboo ‘the f*** I will’ [unequivocally = ‘I will not under any circumstances’].

How negative constructions evolve

Nearly 100 years ago, Otto Jespersen proposed the Jespersen Cycle, a model of how negative constructions evolve. Jespersen described how changes in negation arise from a tension between expressive means and expressive needs.

Jespersen puts it like this: ‘the incongruity between the notional importance and the formal insignificance of the negative marker may… cause the speaker to add something to make the sense perfectly clear’ (Jespersen, 2017: 4-5). If we take French as an example, the original marker of negation was ‘non’ (itself originally Latin, and still alive and well as the French for ‘no’). Over time, ‘non’ became ‘ne’ – in Jespersen’s terms, losing formal significance – a little word easily eclipsed by bigger words, but still having a big job to do.

To reinforce ‘ne’, the word ‘pas’ was introduced to the negative construction. ‘Pas’ was (and still is, when it’s not doing a bit of negation on the side) an ordinary noun meaning ‘step’. Over more time, ‘pas’ itself begins to become the negative marker. This would be of limited interest if it only happened in French, but the same process is found in other languages. In Egyptian Arabic, for example, negation is marked by ma… sh. ‘ma’ is the negative marker proper, and ‘sh’ is a vestigial form of the word shey ‘thing’. And in Egyptian, too, there are indications that ‘sh’ is encroaching on ‘ma’s’ territory.

Squatitatives

Jespersen did not discuss the role of taboo words in negatives such as ‘He doesn’t know squat/f***/s***[=absolutely nothing at all]’, but he would undoubtedly admit that they are a clear case of the speaker adding something to make the sense clear. Horn (2001) dubs these forms ‘squatitatives’, which start life as minimising negatives, with the taboo element subsequently becoming a negative item in its own right, semantically equivalent to ‘(absolutely)nothing’, as in ‘He knows squat’. Squatitatives are not negative markers as such and we can be reasonably confident that the ruder emphatics will not be taking over responsibility for negation any time soon, but like the reanalysis of French ‘pas’ and Egyptian ‘sh’, they are instances of how words originally selected to perform an emphatic role lose their original meaning and take on a grammatical function.

Find out more

Horn, L (2001): Flaubert Triggers, Squatitative Negation and other quirks of grammar. In Hoeksma, J. H. Rullman, V. Sanchez-Valencia and T. van Wouder (2001): Papers on Negatives and Polarity Items. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Jespersen, O (1917): Negation in English and Other Languages. Copenhagen: A.F.Host and Sons.

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Cameron’s Human Rights Headache?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, lecturer in the Department of Politics

Human-RightsAs a newly elected Prime Minister, you wait around for one European problem then two come along at once. While David Cameron is trying to deal with his EU referendum promise, another ‘European’ problem has reared its head in the Queen’s Speech. The Conservatives promised to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights-see this full fact analysis for background. The Conservative manifesto stated that:

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights

The Conservatives would draw up a new Bill of Rights that ended the controversial link with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, treating their rulings as advisory and giving power back to the UK’s Supreme Court. But it looks like the commitment has at least been slowed down – to a promise to consult rather than, as was suggested, to have proposals ready in the first 100 days.

What’s caused the re-think?

The Human Rights Act is surrounded by layers of myths and half-truths. The claim is that the Act creates a set of new rights (it doesn’t, it just adds them to UK law), that it allows judges, and particularly judges from the European Court of Human Rights, to challenge and change British law (it doesn’t really, just lets them declare it ‘incompatible’) and undermines Parliament’s power (which is actually preserves)-see this famous speech by Lord Bingham. This guide to the Act concluded ‘the Government also acknowledged that a series of damaging myths about the Act had taken root in the popular imagination’.

However, the Human Rights Act has become a symbol of ‘European’ interference in ‘our’ politics and abuse of laws designed to protect us. So David Cameron is trying to change something because of what people think it is doing rather than what it is.

So why has Cameron slowed down?

Like any good politician, Cameron has looked across the battlefield and foreseen what could happen. Let’s run a little thought experiment and imagine that he and Michael Gove can draw up a new Bill of British Rights and Responsibilities, one that better reflects British values (putting aside whether it breaks any treaty obligations etc). They can send it, at least in a draft form, to Parliament and repeal the Human Rights Act. At this point, the fun would begin.

In the House of Commons, his own party is deeply divided-and even invoking the classic ‘what would Winston Churchill say’ line hasn’t helped. Some Conservatives oppose any ‘reduction’ in human rights, with one ‘senior’ politician this weekend rumoured to be considering resigning and a group of influential conservative MPs ready to oppose anything they see as a ‘weakening’ of rights.

On the other side, his Eurosceptic [or Euroexit] MPs are keen for something very different that ‘breaks’ the ‘formal link’ with the ECHR and reflects UK values. So the new Bill would have to be a masterpiece that balances these two viewpoints – different from the old Act but not giving less protection.

The truce is fragile

Dr Ben Worthy

Dr Ben Worthy

Cameron’s party, for the moment, is holding off rebellions but the truce is fragile and one issue they do like rebelling about is Europe. Just to make things more tricky for a Prime Minister with a small majority, opposite his own party the new block of 56 SNP MPs, 8 Lib-Dems and the whole of the Labour party are all firmly against scrapping the Act.

Then we get to the House of Lords. Technically the House of Lords cannot block anything promised in a manifesto-but in this case it isn’t so clear cut. The government can’t rush them to any decisions and the Lords can block legislation for some time and even ‘filibuster’ (talk until legislation is dropped).

In the House of Lords the Conservatives do not have a majority and there’s a big healthy dollop of Labour and angry Lib-Dems (there’s only 8 Lib Dem MPs but 104 highly engaged Lib-Dem Peers). Added to this, it’s full of lawyers and experts who see themselves as protectors of civil liberties. The second chamber has already issued warnings that any repeal or new bill won’t get through.

Cameron’s headache may become a migraine

So, piloting this through the House of Lords and House of Commons is very tricky. It’s at this point that Cameron’s Human Rights headache may become a migraine. The Human Rights Act 1998 is deeply tied up in the devolution settlement to Scotland, Wales and, especially, Northern Ireland, where it is embedded in the peace process.

Legally, as Mark Elliot points out, it seems Westminster can just about push a new Bill of Rights across the UK. But politically it will be extremely difficult and it’s possible that Scotland may refuse to co-operate. The ultimate danger is that, as pointed out here, a British Bill, opposed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could become an English Bill.

So what could Cameron do? Playing for time seems a good idea. How about a referendum?

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Saddam in Starbucks

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

You are probably used to it by now, but the first time you ordered a coffee in Starbucks and were asked for your name, were you a little taken aback? I certainly was.

Saddam in StarbucksWe are used to being asked for our great aunt’s middle name, when our first milk tooth fell out etc etc when contacting a bank or paying for something online. But must we really reveal our name TO BUY A COFFEE??

Of course, there is method in this madness: writing a name on the paper cup makes it easier to know who ordered a double caramel macchiato and who wanted an organic Colombian espresso at the end of the line. But for a Brit there is still something a little bit too intimate about giving a first name to a complete stranger who you will probably never see again. Deborah Cameron has written brilliantly about this ‘commodification’ of language in her books ‘Verbal Hygiene’ and ‘Talking from 9 to 5′.

Starbucks, of course, are not alone. If you phone a restaurant in London to book a table, you give your surname, but 9 times out of 10 you are then asked for your first name too. Why?! One friend systematically replies: ‘Why do you need it? We are not going on a date, are we?’

Your reaction to all this probably depends on your age. If you grew up in an age when no-one in a service industry ever addressed you with anything other than with your title and last name, this is all a big issue. On the other hand, if you are under 25, you have probably never known any other way to do business, so none of this seems at all important.

Ways of addressing have always varied according to cultural conventions, and the American culture of Starbucks is one which emphasises solidarity rather than status. These were the two dimensions picked out as most relevant to such choices in Brown and Gilman’s famous 1960 article on pronouns of address.

For different reasons, at Birkbeck, where students are often taught by lecturers younger than themselves, students and staff are usually on first name terms – and this has been so for 35 years to my certain knowledge.

But I still have students from some European and non-European countries who would never dream of calling me anything other than Professor Gardner-Chloros. To them, it would be highly disrespectful to do anything else, but I am always a little embarrassed since I call all students by their first name.

But let us return to our skinny double caramel macchiatos. I have got round my discomfort in Starbucks by giving a variety of names in Starbucks – anything but my own. Usually I choose a really appalling dictator – Hitler, Stalin etc, to make it quite obvious that I find the question a tad inappropriate.

Stalin works just as well as Penelope for identifying my coffee, after all. I also hope to raise a slightly less perfunctory smile from the poor employees who have to work all day in this artificially matey, Disneyfied ambiance. Some are so ‘well trained’ – or just plain exhausted – that they scarcely notice and just dutifully write Stalin or Pol Pot on the cup. Others give me a quick look of surprise. Very rarely is there any comment.

This week, I was Saddam in Starbucks. There was no queue so there was in fact no real need for a name at all. The assistant – sorry, ‘team member’- had more time to chat.

‘Saddam?’ she repeated, looking up. Then she smiled. ‘Why not? I have served Batman and Superman, so why not Saddam?’

She thought again. ‘And if we can’t have a bit of a laugh, what is the point of it all?’

She was right. Saddam does not matter, and nor does Penelope, but sharing a joke is really important. The lovely thing about language is that as well as allowing us to express ourselves, it also gives us such interesting issues to talk ABOUT.

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How can immigration law and remittance companies help Nepal recover?

This post was contributed by Michael Boampong, PhD candidate in Development Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS)

Days after the devastating earthquake in Nepal that has left over 5000 people dead, many are injured and lacking essentials such as food, water, and shelter.

There has, however, been generous response in terms of media attention and aid mobilization for rescue and recovery efforts. Within this scope, there has been a profound attention on the need to avoid the mistakes made during and after the Haiti earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami.

While some attention has focused on the return of Nepalese migrants from Gulf States, little attention has centred on how migration policies and financial institutions (including banks and money transfer operators) can help in the recovery process.

Here are some practical ideas:

  • In the short-term, offer temporary protected status for Nepalese abroad. This can allow Nepalese in stable destination countries to stay and work for an amount of time and send money back to their relations who have been displaced by the quake. With the Nepalese government already struggling to meet relief needs, allowing migrants to stay seems plausible. In fact, reported tensions are likely to worsen if people are forced to return home under such dire conditions.

Migrant-world-bank

  • Restore remittance services and waive transfer cost. Migrants are one of the first responders to natural disasters and they are more likely to send money to relatives who are in need. However, the question arises over the means of transfer when the physical infrastructure has been damaged.

Remittances to Nepal are estimated at $5 billion per annum and remain a crucial part of household livelihoods. Restoring services – and perhaps waiving or reducing the cost of transfer – to affected communities can increase access to finance, thereby enabling recipient households to rebuild their livelihoods with remittances from relatives overseas.

Of course, these ideas are not the silver bullet for the present situation in Nepal; however, it brings to light the lack of disaster preparedness in a country that is earthquake prone, has poorly regulated urbanization and housing – often built with migrant remittances – and that has failed to adhere to building codes as expected in the government-spearheaded National Plan of Action on Safer Buildings.

Helping the government to ensure the implementation of this framework should be a priority in the coming months.

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Cameron girds up for titanic battles on Scotland and the EU

This post was contributed by Ben Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally posted on May 11 at The Conversation

David Cameron’s 2015 election victory is all the more powerful for being almost completely unexpected. But as the euphoria dissipates, the obstacles in his path are coming into focus. Above all, he faces two tricky and complex problems: the promised EU referendum and future arrangements with Scotland (and by extension, the other parts of the UK).

The EU referendum was in large part a gamble to see off UKIP and settle his party, but now he looks likely to do it as soon as possible, perhaps even in 2016, banking on a status quo bias to keep us in. And on Scotland, he has committed to implement further devolution and push through the jointly agreed Smith Commission proposals. In both cases, the devil’s in the detail.

On the EU, lots of the specifics are unclear. We don’t yet know what the question on the referendum ballot might be, or what “reforms” to the EU will convince us to stay – and the coming struggles over them promises to be vicious.

On Scotland, it is about giving the new SNP stronghold “the strongest devolved government in the world” – but there will be a need, as Nicola Sturgeon put it, to discuss these issues in more detail (and ditto for Wales). Devolution may also flow back into the Europe debate – Cameron has already refused a separate EU referendum for Scotland but could he hold that line?

On both these pressing matters, Cameron is up against assorted bodies and people who could make his life harder. They can all be dealt with separately, but if they join forces, they could drain Cameron’s political energy and time – the two things a prime minster can least afford to lose.

Houses divided

Cameron’s majority is 12 (or actually eight or 16, as Colin Talbot points out. This is far better than most expected, but it depends on the solidarity of an increasingly rebellious party.

The trouble for Cameron is that parliamentary rebellion is habit-forming: the more you rebel more likely you are to do it again in the future. And the last parliament was the most rebellious since 1945 (here are its top seven rebellions against him).

This bad news gets worse: the two biggest issues that Conservatives rebelled over were constitutional matters and Europe – the two most urgent problems for the next five years. Party management and discipline will be crucial, but even that may not stave off problems if Cameron’s majority is whittled away over time. Just ask John Major, whose 22-seat advantage in 1992 withered to zero by the end of 1996.

The new block of 56 SNP MPs has limited practical power in the Commons, but its members can still use their electoral dominance and high media profile to keep Scotland high up the agenda. And in the event of a Tory rebellion, or a vanishing majority, the opposition parties’ ability to co-ordinate could determine Cameron’s room for manoeuvre.

Don’t forget the House of Lords

The House of Lords is often overlooked, but its potential power to delay and disrupt a government agenda is great – and growing. As Meg Russell demonstrated, since 1999 the Lords has clearly started to feel more legitimate and more prepared to defeat the government: its members did so 11 times in 2014-2015 and 14 times in 2013-14.

The Conservatives are now heavily outgunned in the House of Lords, with 224 peers facing off against 214 Labour ones, and 101 (presumably livid) Liberal Democrats and 174 cross-benchers.

The Lords will be duty-bound to pass an EU referendum bill due to the Salisbury Convention, which means the Lords have to pass manifesto policies. However, there are plenty of other venues for lawmakers to vent their anger or disrupt the government’s timetable for other parts of its reform programme. Select committees in both the Lords and Commons expressed concerns at the lack of consultation on the Smith proposals, boding ill for the constitutional arguments ahead. Concern in one house triggers worries in the other, so wherever it crops up, Cameron will need to take it seriously.

Outside parliament, it remains to be seen whether the eurosceptic right-wing media will be satisfied with any concessions or reforms Cameron gets from Brussels. It may prefer to give the oxygen of publicity to the SNP (particularly the very media-savvy Salmond) and treat us to a long and fascinating Cameron-vs-Sturgeon battle royale.

Cameron also invoked English nationalism in the election campaign, going so far as to launch an England-only manifesto, but it remains to be seen if he can channel and control the mounting pro-English clamour in the right-wing press over the coming months while simultaneously making concessions to Europe or Scotland.

Circling vultures

Behind Cameron are a number of senior Conservatives with at least semi-public leadership ambitions. He’ll have to manage them with precision. In the almost certain event of an EU referendum, he would have to make a very tough choice: whether to ask all ministers to all support staying in, or as Harold Wilson did in the 1975 referendum, to let everyone temporarily agree to disagree.

Equally, there’s no knowing how Cameron’s discontents and potential rivals might react to new devolution settlements. Perhaps the future leadership contenders are already plotting to court English nationalism for party and media favour.

Cameron’s leadership capital is high for the time being, but with so little room for division, his promise to step down by the 2020 election may come back to haunt him. As he seeks to deal with the “Scottish lion” and slay the EU dragon – or at least negotiate with it – everything could get complicated and intensely political very quickly. And the chances of success (whatever that is) are almost impossible to gauge.

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Bilingualism in Malta

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

I recently had the pleasant experience of being invited to Malta for the International Conference on Bilingualism. Not having been there before, this provided an excuse to visit the country and to find out a bit more about its fascinating history and linguistic situation. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Roman alphabet. It derives from the Arabic spoken in Sicily between the 9th and 12th century, but its lexical stock is largely made up of Italian/Sicilian and other Romance borrowings. As it was under British rule for more than 170 years, gaining independence in 1964, English is a co-official language with Maltese and there are now large numbers of English borrowings. Much of the population is bilingual in Maltese and English.

Maltese postboxThe photograph of a – typically British – Maltese letterbox illustrates the situation. The text in Maltese is made up of Arabic elements, including the days of the week. Blended seamlessly into this are Italian expressions which are equally integrated parts of the language: underneath ‘3pm’ we read about “oggetti ta’ valur”,  “posta registrata” and lower down “festi pubblici” – all very recognizably Italian. English is also represented, being a co-official language, resulting in a code-switched text which represents the various origins and layers of the language, viewed through the lens of officialdom. Bi/trilingual documents as such are commonplace in many countries. But here the admixture of Romance, both entirely traceable and distinct from the Arabic, is reminiscent of so-called ‘mixed languages’: due to specific historical circumstances, a few unusual languages, such as Michif (French and Cree) or Media Lingua (Spanish and Quechua) take their lexis and grammar from different sources.

Given all these circumstances, the contemporary issue of code-switching, where people alternate languages on a daily basis, is a fact of life in Malta. It was also an important focus at the conference. I myself have rarely met a non-linguist who has heard of code-switching; but on visiting a small restaurant in Malta, and explaining to the affable owner that I was there for a Bilingualism conference, she remarked casually that bilingualism was a big issue in Malta – “and”, she continued, “we also do a lot of code-switching”. Having recovered from the shock of finding a normal person who had heard of my specialism, I went back to the conference and listened to a talk by a young researcher who had carried out a linguistic survey among 120 or so Maltese informants. She reported that one sub-group – considered by others to be snobbish or show-offs – code-switched copiously. Her talk gave rise to the most impassioned and vituperative argument I have ever heard at an academic conference – so impassioned, in fact, that I found it difficult to establish the exact basis of the disagreement. Suffice it to say that it was about who code-switched to whom in Malta, why and when. One elderly participant in the discussion, somewhat alarmingly, threatened to have a heart attack on the spot.

The organisers later apologized for their colleagues’ tempestuous reaction and behaviour. But I myself came out strangely energised by the thought that my little corner of academia could give rise to such passions. Malta may be a small country, but it is a – still under-researched – treasure trove for linguists, and it is invigorating to witness a linguistic debate which so clearly carries on into the street.

Other blog posts by Professor Gardner-Chloros

Other blog posts about linguistics:

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Sherlock Holmes: the man who never lived and will never die

This article was contributed by Mike Berlin, a specialist in the social history of early modern London in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and ArchaeologyBirkbeck is holding a study day on Saturday 14 March to coincide with the Museum of London‘s landmark exhibition on Sherlock Holmes. The afternoon  will feature contributions from Alex Werner, Sherlock Holmes exhibition curator, Dr Nathalie Morris, Senior Curator of Special Collections at the BFI National Archive, and Emeritus Professor John Stokes of King’s College London. 

"The air of London is the sweeter for my presence." Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. ©Museum of London

“The air of London is the sweeter for my presence.” Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. ©Museum of London

Though the pipe and deerstalker have been replaced by a waxed Belstaff jacket,  new generation of Londoners  continues  to be captivated  of Conan Doyle’s original creation. What was it about the figure of Holmes that holds such fascination in the minds of generations of readers, film goers and now television viewers?

For many people the Holmes stories, originally published in the Strand Magazine with illustrations by Sidney Paget, are synonymous with Victorian London. The atmosphere of back alleys, dense pea soup fogs, hackney cabs and Bradshaw’s railway guides are the epitome of our image of the teeming city, a city of concealment, social mixing and crime.

The original fascination of Conan Doyle’s audience went with a deep-seeded fear of crime.  The world’s largest city in 1900, an imperial capital that brought people and goods together from all corners of the globe, London was the perfect setting for a series of tales that mixed bourgeois morality with fear of the mysterious and foreign. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the imperial exoticism of the world’s greatest port, including the swamp adder and baboon of The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

It is no accident that Holmes’ opponents are mostly aliens. For late Victorian Londoners the ‘alien menace’ , associated in the popular imagination with the infamous Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, were a direct threat to the city’s greatness. Conon Doyle perfectly encapsulated a sense of anxiety about the menaces of ‘the city of the dreadful night’. It is an anxiety that is decidedly masculine and middleclass, his eponymous hero allowing the reader to overcome fears of crime via cold forensic logic, disguise and confident elegance.  Holmes and Watson, independent men of science, defeat the forces of unreason and evil with the skills of the Victorian social investigator, the slummer, who is willing to visit the criminal purlieus of the city in the search for truth.

The gas lamps have gone but the fascination remains. How do we account for Holmes’ appeal  ver the last century and beyond. In the 20s and 30s film helped to perpetuate Conan Doyle’s image of London. Different eras have re-created the Holmes that was needed. The detective was enlisted by Hollywood in the fight against the Nazis.  Perhaps our age, with its own anxieties about threats from ‘outsiders’ and desire to master the supposed chaos of the urban experience via the appliance of science helps to explain why Holmes will never die.

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‘Cash for access’ scandal: What impact will Miliband’s proposals have on MPs and the public?

Dr Ben WorthyThis article was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.

Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, two senior MPs were snared in a sting by the Telegraph in which they appeared to offer access for cash. The Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband has responded by calling for stringent new limits on MPs extra earnings and work. In this article, Ben Worthy investigates the practicalities of Miliband’s proposals and asks whether they will increase trust in MPs among the public.

In the wake of the latest ‘Cash for Access’ revelation, Ed Miliband has committed to limit MPs’ outside earnings to £10,000 per year and introduce a ban on all second jobs. The Labour party will start tomorrow, using its opposition day to propose a bill on the subject. These proposals fit with a series of steps since the 1990s designed to open up and regulate this area as controversy has grown about extra earnings and work. But how will these latest changes impact on MPs and the public?

In terms of MPs, the two issues are whether the new proposals will be implemented and whether they will work. Implementing a ‘cap’ and (eventual) ban on outside earnings would represent an easy win for a new Labour government in 2015, a symbolic step that would have ‘signalling effect’ for the new government’s attitude towards such behaviour. On a more partisan level, it will hit Conservatives much harder than Labour. Research by the Guardian indicates that this would impact on 63, or 1 in 5, Conservative MPs who currently earn over £63,000 as against only 20, or 1 in 12, Labour MPs. You can see more numbers from the Telegraph here.

However, it all may depend on whether Ed Miliband has the numbers in the new House and what politics exists around the change. As Meg Russell pointed out, a number of things need to align for any reform of Parliament to happen – a mixture of a relevant crisis, political will and the right context. Remember David Cameron’s cutting down of the House of Commons to 600 MPs?

The second question for MPs is whether it will work. The reforms are part of a longer trajectory of change towards regulation and transparency. The danger of is that such change can drive poor activity into hard to reach places, away from publicity and into dark corners. It could also trigger other unwanted debate, such as around what MPs do with their time or, more disturbingly, Members getting a pay rise – new Prime Minister Miliband is not likely to want to propose bumping up salaries to £150,000.

What of the public? The new proposals are designed to help increase trust and put an end to lobbying scandals. One basic question is whether the public will notice. It is claimed that few even know the name of their MP, though recent research has challenged this. The public does support a complete ban on second jobs (see page 6 of this polling) and, as research by Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley shows, they do not approve of wealthy MPs, objecting to both the ‘sums and the source’, with a particular dislike of directorships. Their experiment concluded that any sum of money earned while an MP, whether above or below the cap, is problematic.

Whether this will then increase public trust is a far bigger and more complex question. It may reduce the space or room for manoeuvre in this one area. However, hopes of ‘improving trust’ over-simplify how we think and process information – the MPs’ expenses scandal ‘confirmed’ to many that MPs were corrupt rather than ‘revealed’ it to them. Voters generally suffer from  a negativity bias and the continual string of ‘cash for…’ revelations are likely to have fed already deeply held views about UK politics. Nor will it end other sources of Parliamentary controversy, from the revolving door to the picking of leaves. So while it may help change behaviour, looking at the graph below, it appears unlikely any one thing can dramatically improve trust in MPs.

Worthy fig 1

Source: Ipsos Mori; House of Commons Library Research
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Call me Madame

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

A few days ago, I phoned to arrange a repair to my washing machine. Having got through to the relevant person – a young woman – who could arrange the appointment, I was asked, as question number one, whether I was Miss or Mrs. This question is of course a standard one in this country, where ‘Ms’ has failed to catch on, unlike the position in the United States. As someone who teaches Language and Gender, I am aware that the way you address someone not only reflects the prevalent social structures, but also shapes and perpetuates them. Classifying women from the outset by their marital status is an instance of ‘everyday sexism’, as a certain massively successful web forum is called. Honestly, why should I have to disclose whether I am married or not to someone I have never met and will never meet, just in order to arrange a washing machine repair?

So I gave my standard reply: ‘Ms’. The reply to that was that this was not a title that would allow the relevant form to be completed. Since my (then teenage) son once filled in his title from a drop-down menu as ‘the Right Reverend Monsignor’, it was not clear to me why this form could not offer this third option. Irritated, I said “In that case please use ‘Professor’ “. I don’t like using my ‘rank’ outside academia, but desperate measures were needed. Once again, computer said no. This was an academic title, and so no use on the form. My Chinese horoscope says I am a tree, and trees do not budge. For a few moments it appeared that the washing machine would just have to keep leaking.

To break the deadlock, I launched into my normal little lecture given in such circumstances, about how there was no need for anyone to know my marital status, how this would not be required if I were a man in such a context, and how this was, as another teenager once said, SO unfair. I added that the person taking my details also being a woman, she ought to understand the need for equal treatment.

“Well yes”, she replied, getting tired of this difficult customer, “but it’s been like that ever since ever, so it’s a bit late to change it now”. I pointed out that in other countries, such as France and Germany, they had managed to make the change, and that now in France for official purposes everyone was “Madame” and in Germany everyone was “Frau”, the terms for “Miss” having been abandoned in both countries. I should also have pointed out that the company she was working for, Siemens, was German. On hearing this, her tone changed from one of mild irritation to an interested purr: “Oooh”, she said. “I’d rather like to be called ‘Madame’!”

A mini-triumph for the tree?

Other blog posts by Professor Gardner-Chloros

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