Thursday, November 4, 2010

The UK Revisited

Last spring, following a joyful visit to the UK, I commented with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.  The country had changed dramatically since my three-month sojourn in London at the peak of the punk period in the late 70’s.  I was favorably impressed with the gentlemanly demeanor of the three candidates for Prime Minister and the brevity of the electoral campaign.  Nick Clegg was quoted as saying: ”This almost unseemly knee-bending allegiance to the White House: I don’t think it’s good for Britain…for our self-respect”, prompting optimism for a more rational and independent UK leadership.  Up until the election, the Lib/Dem leader Clegg was regarded as the rising star of British politics, but when the results were in, he was among the losers.  With the Liberal/democrats suffering an unexpected net loss of votes and seats, Clegg had little choice but to join in a coalition government with the ascendant Tories.  

Last week I returned from another visit to the UK, during which the first major initiative of the new government was announced.  While this government shows no tendency to do the bidding of the White House, the drastic new budget cuts smell of the same Neo-con ideology that guided the Bush Administration to precipitous decline.  George Bernard Shaw said that “Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language”.  They are different though, in more ways than just linguistic nuance.  The UK has an extensive network of social services while the US government probably provides less services to its people than any other industrialized country in the world.  Given the dimensions of the welfare state in the UK and the magnitude of its public debt, perhaps some reform of the welfare system is necessary, desirable, or even inevitable.  “Everyone” seems to think the cuts were needed.  Being an expert in neither economic theory nor in the economy of the UK, I tend to put my trust in the analyses of Paul Krugman and George Monbiot rather than “everyone”.  The former insists that a major recession is not the time to cut public spending, while Monbiot cites the current measures as another example of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”, i.e. the use of economic crises to initiate policies designed to redistribute wealth upward.  The effectiveness and fairness of welfare reform are subject to reasonable differences of opinion, but cuts to public transportation and education hardly seem rational at a time when the economy is in recession and there is a widely held desire to see more people move from welfare to the workforce.

The US and the UK may be divided by language but on this trip I was reminded of their shared taste for irrationality.  One of the few bright spots of my stay in the England during the 70’s was an appreciation of its adoption of the metric system.  British irrationality tends to run to the quirky and idiosyncratic.  I suppose I would be asking too much of a country that lived for centuries with a monetary system featuring (if I remember it correctly) twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound, or twenty-one to a guinea, to fully accept a systematic decimal system.  Still, when one reads the opt-repeated stories of fish mongers being fined in the market for selling fish by the pound, one can only wonder why local districts aren’t fined for posting road indications in miles, or why nurses are not arrested for recording patients’ weight in stone.  Our American irrationality appears to be grounded less in nostalgia than in laziness and disease.  I remain convinced that President Reagan’s mid-stream cancellation of metrification in 1982 was the first sign of the tragic onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  

Before we left London, I saw a newspaper article relating that sales of bidets in England were way down from a few years ago when people had the money to travel more, and it was thought “smart” to have a bidet in your bathroom, but recently the mode had changed.  Here I’d thought that British hygiene had finally taken a great leap forward but no, it was just a matter of trendiness.  Bathtubs are also being phased out.  Who knows when and if flush toilets will be deemed no longer modish?

The curiously incongruous aspects of British life may be amusing but in the US our abrupt swings between black and white absolutes seem more schizophrenic than quaint.  Not so long ago, smoking and drinking were promoted by the government and various other American institutions, while gambling and many forms of sexual activity were illegal and suppressed.  That’s all been reversed, which may be a good thing, or not, but the vehemence and speed of the turn-about have been radical.  This week’s mid-term elections have followed a similar pattern.  Only two years after voting for change, the electorate has returned to its embrace of oligarchy.

While our language may divide the two countries, we are united in our belief that English is the only language of any importance.  On this trip we spent some time in the company of an English high school student, i.e. one who’s doing her A levels, in British parlance.  I was amazed that among the four subjects she was studying, none was a foreign language.  For years I’ve suspected that pre-collegiate education in the US isn’t very good but I’ve never been aware of any American high school that doesn’t require the study of a language.  Perhaps it’s worse than I thought, or maybe by now the Texas Department of Education has decided that foreign languages are as un-American as the Constitution.  

It’s true that one can manage in much of the world speaking only English, but it’s also true that people from countries where it’s the only language tend to be the hardest for other people to understand.  Our hubris extends to believing that our colloquialisms and regional accents are universal.

Despite the misgivings, it was a good trip.  Ryan Air has smoothed out its loading procedures at Stansted.  We got to see the beautiful Dyffryn Gardens near Barry and we spent a lot of time with our delightful ten-month-old grandson.  While in London, I was able to replenish my supply of Mr. Taylor’s Moustache Wax at Taylor of Old Bond Street, located naturally enough by British logic, in Jermyn Street.

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