27 January 2014

Lava me, Domine, ab iniquitate mea?

The messy truth is that a country’s economic specialism is, if not ingrained, then certainly the expression of its particular history, culture and circumstances. It is path-dependent, and hard to change with anything as temporal as public policy. Political maturity lies in recognising that Britain’s specialisms are in services, especially banking, and some sophisticated corners of industry. Its competitive advantages are openness, ease of doing business, world-class universities, the English language and – here is the warning to Westminster’s increasingly hectoring and interfering politicians – a lack of ministerial caprice.
That's from an opinion piece that appeared in the Financial Times last week. What it presents is a properly conservative understanding of public policy. Before more radical groups in the United States hijacked the word 'conservative', it was broadly understood in the English-speaking world as a political stance that recognised change was an inevitable fact of life, but that change could be channelled, rather than dammed. Gradually, as change flows around the landscape, natural erosion alters shapes. Treating change as water, rather than as a shattering earthquake or volcanic eruption, limits the stress on the surrounding built environment. Even so, I find the article imperfect. The fact is, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 challenged the structure into which the British economy had been shaped during an era that began with the rise of the EuroDollar market, and really took off with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s. The water-levels were rising, but policymakers in Britain neglected to construct all the requisite barrages and weirs needed to deal with the coming flood.

But, continuing this blog's move away from 'war' and towards culture, the article does suggest that Cultural History is a guide to big issues of public policy. One could argue that the contrasts between the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Church in Ireland go some way towards explaining the different attitudes towards the European Union in those countries. Scotland's presbyterian national church keeps much closer to its European models than England's. The English were less keen to let go completely of elements of the Catholic church and made for themselves a hybrid that foreshadowed the cultural hybridities of the passing Post-Modern Age. This Post-Modern movement of hybrid forms was one that English popular culture stood in the forefront through its musical contributions. The American media are noticing a similar process has been going on within their own country, a process that is highlighting an obsolescent perspective on racial problems, but once again calls into question the nature of a cultural entity called 'America'. (As if Americans could ever escape questions of their essence.)

For historians, the problem is that while History is lived going forwards, History is written looking backwards. In looking at how hip-hop culture is used by non-blacks, it at least superficially resembles the familiar 'appropriations' of White America, going at least as far back as Minstrelsy. Only time will tell if that is indeed the case, but applying the traditional concerns about 'appropriations' may not itself be helpful. It certainly did not readily apply to the white English working class males who gave us 'pop music'. If the old racial system is eroding, there is the potential that a new hybrid is emerging, one that could be more fair to all participants.

And, while Janan Ganesh is quite right to argue that Britain's enduring history of a dominant financial sector is not actually a problem to be fixed, but as a crucial part of the solution, he is wrong to highlight politicians as capricious administrators breaking with British traditions. They are responding to a real demand for changes that may, in fact, be impossible to deliver without creating some kind of 'Church of England' hybrid.

No comments: