12 June 2017

How Is the Anglosphere Voting?

Both big Anglosphere countries, the United States and the United Kingdom, have held a national election within less than twelve months. The United Kingdom also conducted a national referndum within this time frame, which may have a significant bearing on the future direction of the Anglosphere. I thought it would be of interest to take stock of what these and other recent national elections might tell us about where the Anglosphere is going.

First, let's construct a simple working definition of the Anglosphere, for this purpose. I am going to define it as follows:

'An Anglosphere country a) speaks English as an official (or dominant administrative) language; b) uses a legal system rooted in English common law; and c) either contains significant settlement from the British (or Western) Isles, or has Queen Elizabeth and her heirs and successors as head of state.'

Also, for the purposes of this post, I am excluding all countries with a population under a million, and Papua New Guinea, the latter because I don't know much about its politics. (I am already stretching my knowledge far beyond what I normally would do in these posts.) Another qualification for inclusion here is that the election must have occurred since 7 September 2013, when an Australian Federal Election removed the last surviving pre-Global Financial Crisis government in the Anglosphere, when the Australian Labor Party lost power.

That gives us, going chronologically, the following elections:

New Zealand    20 September 2014 right-of-centre incumbent won
United Kingdom  7 May 2015 right-of-centre incumbent won
Canada         19 October 2015, centrist opposition won
Jamaica        25 February 2016, right-of-centre oppostion won
United Kingdom 23 June 2016 populist nationalist victory in referendum
Australia       2 July 2016 right-of-centre incumbent won
United States   9 November 2016 populist nationalist opposition won
United Kingdom  8 June 2017 right-of-centre incumbent lost

New Zealand is due an election in September, but otherwise the pattern for Anglosphere governance is set for the next couple of years. The cycle will probably resume again with either an Australian or a Canadian election in 2019, depending on who goes first. The overall trend is fairly clear. After Barack Obama did nothing to the bankers, there has been little appetite for left-of-centre solutions to the fallout from the global financial crisis.

However, the elections since the Canadian election in October 2015 have suggested that voters are fed-up with budget cuts and jobless recoveries. In Canada, Justin Trudeau won by promising more economic growth. In Jamaica, Andrew Holness proposed unleashing the power of the market in place of IMF mandated austerity. The hair-shirt economics of Malcolm Turnbull's government was rebuffed in Australia, although the governing Liberal-National coalition still clung (by one seat) to a majority in the House of Representatives. Trump followed Holness in proposing that a government of American business leaders could transform the country and restore jobs that went missing after 2008.

Last Thursday's UK general election has continued this trend. It's fairly clear that the promise of more money for social welfare struck a chord with enough of the voters to dispell convincingly the prediction that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn was a runaway train back to 1970s-style stagflation.

Reading analyses of the voting, like Robert Ford's piece in The Guardian, suggests that Labour mobilised two distinct and apparently irreconcilable groups -- (a) social-democratic Leave voters and (b) Remainers seeking to block Theresa May's 'hard Brexit, if we must, but Brexit at all costs' approach. The latter may have reason to be happier than the former, and it is hard to regard this coalition as a stable one.

It does appear that hard-line Leavers, of any social class, have turned to the Conservative party. The Conservatives are shameless enough to shake the magic money tree in order to rob Labour of the social-democratic Leavers, at the same time as they are alienated by Remainers trying hard to push Labour in a 'stop Brexit' direction.

Having noted that, the one thing to be sure about is that events will render everything I have written here out-of-date sooner or later. There are too many variables in play -- the global growth picture is not good, the attitude of the EU27 is going to play an important role in shaping public opinion in the United Kingdom, radical Islamic terrorist attacks could change the popular mood.

However, all the Anglosphere polities should note that at present if you want to get elected the time has come to set aside expressions like 'magic money tree' and talk about how your election is going to secure jobs and a social safety net people can believe in. The mass of people have reached the limit of reducing expectations to deal with the Global Financial Crisis.

02 June 2017

Revisiting an Old Film Friend

1956 was a bad year for the Anglosphere. The Suez Crisis brought to a head a number of troubling trends that had been going on since before the Second World War. However, on 26 November 1956, a few weeks after the Suez Debacle, one of the greatest cultural artefacts of the twentieth-century Anglosphere began production. That's the starting date the Internet Movie Data Base gives for The Bridge on the River Kwai, which starred Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars), Max Schumacher (Network) and Quintus Arrius (Ben-Hur). The director was David Lean. The film was released in 1957, and went some way towards mending the disruptions of 1956, at least culturally.

The film was produced by Sam Spiegel, an unlikely denizen of the Anglosphere. He was born in Galicia, in Austria-Hungary, and wound up in Hollywood after the Nazis came to power in 1933, although he had been there before in the 1920s. Spiegel, however, loved London, and starting in 1951 used his production company based there, Horizon Films, to produce three very important films (Kwai, The African Queen and Lawrence of Arabia), and several others that are at least interesting (Suddenly, Last Summer, The Swimmer, Nicholas and Alexandra). The screenplay was credited to two writers who had been blacklisted for connections to the Communist Party. While Michael Wilson found refuge in France, Carl Foreman lived in England for some two decades before returning to the United States. (Foreman was one of a number of blacklisted media workers who found refuge in Britain, a topic that seems under-researched from the Anglospherical perpsective.)

A happy coincidence of events led to me discovering that my wife had never seen the film, despite having been with me some twenty years, and so we sat down with the DVD. I have seen this film repeatedly over the years, but probably no more than once during our time together. I've got to a point where I'm counting down the years, and re-watching films I know well is something I do with some resentment, but this seemed a good excuse to reacquaint myself with an old friend.

For me it is probably the best film of all time. If you asked me to rank all films on technical accomplishment, I have seen none better. This is not to say it is my favourite, but the best. But I was reading reviews of it on criticker.com and I am disturbed by some of the criticisms of it. They fall into three broad categories:

a) The film is too long/too slow. Anyone who asserts this just doesn’t understand what cinema is about. The film’s story demands all that time. Better to claim it is too short than too long, too fast than too slow.

b) The film is disjointed, with the POW drama and the action commando mission. Anyone who asserts this doesn’t understand what the film is about, and has overlooked the fact that Jack Hawkins got second billing in the opening credits, ahead of Alec Guinness. There are four masculine prides at work -- Colonel Saito’s vs Colonel Nicholson’s, and Commander/Major Shears’ vs Major Warden’s (that surname is telling). Each character's pride must be balanced against the other three, and the commando mission is necessary to add more depth to the conflict between Saito’s ‘bushido’ and Nicholson’s ‘Geneva Convention’ and Shears’ life-saving opportunism. Warden's own warrior code, a blithe disregard of the moral content of his actions, contravenes in respective ways the direction Saito, Nicholson and Shears give their lives.

c) Various cultural criticisms. The most valid one is about the treatment of women. But this is a film about masculinity, and in fact female characters were only added at the producer’s insistence. (For such a patriarchal country, America's cultural industries have paid a lot of attention to attracting women into the audience, or at the very least a male-constructed version of women.) Given that Sir David Lean was required to work with them, he didn’t do so badly in presenting how the purely masculine world perceives women, at least in the 1950s. The complaints about the Japanese getting short shrift is, I think, understandable in the circumstances. The war had ended a mere twelve years earlier. The Japanese did not yet have their fearsome reputation for industrial prowess (one that has been harder to sustain since the 1990s), and were still very much remembered most for their cruel way of waging war, and their role as an 'aggressor state' during the 1930s. The well-publicised Rape of Nanking had only happened two decades earlier. It shouldn't stretch our thinking so much to believe that the supposed incompetence on display here is a consequence of Saito in particular, and not Japanese engineering in general.

Finally, it's worth noting that the film, in its context, can be interpreted as more than just an anti-war film, but in fact an anti-atomic-war film. I don't think any of the criticker.com reviewers spotted this. I certainly didn't for many years and viewings.

The film, with its American, British and Canadian characters, is very much a distillation of the Anglosphere in its own time. For various reasons, we should re-read texts like this with an eye to this dimension. It will help explain so many of the active currents which will affect not just Anglosphere futures, but the future of the planet.