TWO CIVILIZATION-WATCHERS

March 30, 2008 at 11:17 pm | Posted in Art, Asia, Books, China, France, Globalization, History, World-system | Leave a comment

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Liang Sou-ming (Liang Shu-ming)

1893 – 1988

Liang Sou-Ming’s Civilization and Philosophy of the Orient and Occident (1922) which compares the West, China, India with their embodiment of three distinct ways of life, characterized respectively by struggle, adjustment, self-denial, or by rationalism, intuition, and religion.

André Georges Malraux

November 3, 1901November 23,

1976

Malraux was basically a lifelong “civilization watcher.”

In his masterpiece, “Man’s Fate” (“La Condition Humaine”) from 1933, one person comments:

There’s always a civilization’s need for intoxification.

The West has Woman.”

Malraux was born in Paris. His parents separated in 1905 and eventually divorced, and he was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, Berthe and Adrienne Lamy. His stockbroker father committed suicide in 1930.

At the age of 21 Malraux left for Cambodia with his new wife Clara Goldschmidt. In Cambodia, Malraux undertook an exploratory expedition into the Cambodian jungle, and on his return was arrested by French colonial authorities for removing bas-reliefs from one of the temples he discovered, Banteay Srei.

Malraux became highly critical of the French colonial authorities in Indochina, and in 1925 helped to organize the Young Annam League and founded a newspaper Indochina in Chains.

On his return to France, he published The Temptation of the West (1926) an exchange of letters between a Westerner and an Oriental comparing aspects of the two cultures. This was followed by his first novel The Conquerors (1928), then by The Royal Way (1930) which drew in part on his Cambodian experience, and then by Man’s Fate (La Condition Humaine). For La Condition Humaine, a powerful novel about a Communist uprising in Shanghai, he won the 1933 Prix Goncourt.

La Tentation de l’Occident, 1926

The Temptation of the West, 1926

On his return to France, he published The Temptation of the West (1926) is an exchange of letters between a Westerner and an Oriental comparing aspects of the two cultures.

Partial Bibliography:

André Malraux:

André Georges Malraux, (November 3, 1901November 23, 1976) was a French novelist, adventurer, art historian and statesman. He served as Minister for Cultural Affairs from 1958 to 1969.

  • Our civilization … is not devaluing its awareness of the unknowable; nor is it deifying it. It is the first civilization that has severed it from religion and superstition. In order to question it. Picasso’s Mask (1976)

  • Athirst for personal salvation, the West forgets that many religions had but a vague notion of the life beyond the grave; true, all great religions stake a claim on eternity, but not necessarily on man’s eternal life.

  • Civilization can be defined at once by the basic questions it asks and by those it does not ask.

The Temptation of the West (1926) is an exchange of letters between a Westerner and an Oriental comparing aspects of the two cultures.

BIOTECHNOLOGY & AFRICAN FARMING: ROBERT PAARLBERG BOOK

March 30, 2008 at 4:28 am | Posted in Africa, Economics, Financial, Globalization, History, Science & Technology, Third World, World-system | Leave a comment

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Starved for Science

How Biotechnology Is Being Kept

Out of Africa

Robert Paarlberg

Foreword by Norman Borlaug and Jimmy Carter

Heading upcountry in Africa to visit small farms is absolutely exhilarating given the dramatic beauty of big skies, red soil, and arid vistas, but eventually the two-lane tarmac narrows to rutted dirt, and the journey must continue on foot. The farmers you eventually meet are mostly women, hardworking but visibly poor. They have no improved seeds, no chemical fertilizers, no irrigation, and with their meager crops they earn less than a dollar a day. Many are malnourished.

Nearly two-thirds of Africans are employed in agriculture, yet on a per-capita basis they produce roughly 20 percent less than they did in 1970. Although modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty in Asia, modern farm science—including biotechnology—has recently been kept out of Africa.

In Starved for Science, Robert Paarlberg explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought. He traces this obstacle to the current opposition to farm science in prosperous countries. Having embraced agricultural science to become well-fed themselves, those in wealthy countries are now instructing Africans—on the most dubious grounds—not to do the same.

In a book sure to generate intense debate, Paarlberg details how this cultural turn against agricultural science among affluent societies is now being exported, inappropriately, to Africa. Those who are opposed to the use of agricultural technologies are telling African farmers that, in effect, it would be just as well for them to remain poor.

A new article in Technology Review profiles Norman Borlaug, “green revolutionary” and co-author, with former US President Jimmy Carter, of the Foreword to Robert Paarlberg’s Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa, which details how poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies by Western government’s and NGOs intent on keeping the GMO bogeyman out of the hands of the people who might need it most.

Starved for Science will be out in March 2008, but this subject isn’t going anywhere, as this recent Des Moines Register article quoting Dr. Paarlberg indicates.

AgBioForum | ISSN: 1522936X |

ABF: editor@agbioforum.org

Biofortified Food Crops:

Progress and Prospects in

Developing Countries

Special Issue:

http://www.agbioforum.org/

Biofortified Food Crops:

Progress and Prospects in Developing Countries

Guest editors: Laurian Unnevehr, Carl Pray, Robert Paarlberg, and Calestous Juma

Addressing Micronutrient Deficiencies: Alternative Interventions and Technologies
L. Unnevehr, C. Pray, & R. Paarlberg

Patterns of Political Response to Biofortified Varieties of Crops Produced with Different Breeding Techniques and Agronomic Traits
C. Pray, R. Paarlberg, & L. Unnevehr

Political Actors on the Landscape
R. Paarlberg & C. Pray

Crop Case Study: GMO Golden Rice in Asia with Enhanced Vitamin A Benefits for Consumers
D. Dawe & L. Unnevehr

Biofortification for China: Political Responses to Food Fortification and GM Technology, Interest Groups, and Possible Strategies
C. Pray & J. Huang

Biofortified Crops and Biotechnology: A Political Economy Landscape for India
B. Ramaswami

Socioeconomic and Political Concerns for GM Foods and Biotechnology Adoption in the Philippines
L.S. Cabanilla

Assessing the Prospects for the Adoption of Biofortified Crops in South Africa
R. Wolson

Biofortified Foods and Crops in West Africa: Mali and Burkina Faso
R. Birner, S.A. Kone, N. Linacre, & D. Resnick

Patterns of Political Support and Pathways to Final Impact
C. Juma, R. Paarlberg, C. Pray, & L. Unnevehr

Robert Paarlberg

PLAZA ACCORD & LOUVRE ACCORD

March 30, 2008 at 3:18 am | Posted in Economics, Financial, Globalization, History, Japan, USA, World-system | Leave a comment

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Plaza Accord

The Plaza Accord or Plaza Agreement was an agreement signed on September 22, 1985 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City by 5 nations – France, West Germany, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom. The five agreed to, amongst others, depreciate the US dollar in relation to the Japanese yen and German Deutsche Mark by intervening in currency markets.

The exchange rate value of the dollar versus the yen declined 51% over the two years after this agreement took place. Most of this devaluation was due to the $10 billion spent by the participating central banks. Currency speculation caused the dollar to continue its fall after the end of coordinated interventions. Unlike some similar financial crises of the 1990s (such as the Mexican and the Argentinian financial crises of 1994 and 2001 respectively), this devaluation was planned, done in an orderly manner with pre-announcement, and did not lead to financial panic in the world markets. It however resulted in Japan going into a decade long depression due to the following deflation.

The reason for the dollar’s devaluation was twofold: to reduce the US current account deficit, which had reached 3.5% of the GDP, and to help the US economy to emerge from a serious recession that began in the early 1980s. The U.S. Federal Reserve System under Paul Volcker had overvalued the dollar enough to make industry in the US (particularly the automobile industry) less competitive in the global market. Devaluing the dollar made US exports cheaper to its trading partners, which in turn meant that other countries bought more American-made goods and services. The Plaza Accord was successful in reducing the US trade deficit with Western European nations but largely failed to fulfill its primary objective of alleviating the trade deficit with Japan because this deficit was due to structural rather than monetary conditions. US manufactured goods became more competitive in the exports market but were still largely unable to succeed in the Japanese domestic market due to Japan’s structural restrictions on imports.

The recessionary effects of the strengthened yen in Japan’s export-dependent economy created an incentive for the expansionary monetary policies that led to the Japanese asset price bubble of the late 1980s. The Louvre Accord was signed in 1987 to halt the continuing decline of the US Dollar.

It is unlikely that such an arrangement would have succeeded in the long run, as the global economy is too large, heterogeneous, and fluid for even the most sophisticated central banks to effectively intervene.

The signing of the Plaza Accord was significant in that it reflected Japan’s emergence as a real player in managing the international monetary system.

References

HIGH FINANCE AND SOCIAL INTIMIDATION: TWO BRITISH MOVIES

March 30, 2008 at 12:00 am | Posted in Books, Economics, Financial, Globalization, History, United Kingdom, World-system | Leave a comment

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High Finance as an Element in

Social Intimidation:

Two British Movies

Two famous British movies one from 1949, the other from 1993, show how references to high finance are part of the “social control toolbox’ used to intimidate average citizens, not unlike the finance-based “bafflegab” of today:

Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains Of The Day (1993)

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, a blue-blooded guest haughtily grills James Stevens, the head butler at an English estate.

The pompous guest is trying to demonstrate that uneducated people should not have the vote.

“My good man,” he asks, “do you suppose the debt situation regarding America is a significant factor in the present low levels of trade? Or…is the abandonment of the gold standard…at the root of the matter?”

Stevens, aware that the question is meant only to baffle him, replies that he has no idea. Poor Stevens! Anyone without a degree in international finance would have an equally difficult time answering such an abstruse question.

This vignette demonstrates a kind of malign “knowledge is power” style of intimidation tactic by the upper classes.

In the 1993 movie, the butler James Stevens is played by Anthony Hopkins.

Author Kazuo Ishiguro

Country United Kingdom

Language English

Genre(s) Historical novel

Publisher Faber and Faber

Publication date May 1989

Media type Print (Hardback)

Pages 245 pp (hardback edition)

ISBN ISBN 0-571-15310-0 (hardback edition)

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

When an unexploded WWII bomb is accidentally detonated in Pimlico, an area of London, it reveals a treasure trove and documents proving that the region is, in fact part of Burgundy, France and thus foreign territory. The British Government attempt to regain control by setting up border controls and cutting off services to the area. The ‘Burgundians’ fight back…

Passport to Pimlico captures England during a period of anxious transition.

Produced against a backdrop of the decline of the empire, the formation of the welfare state and realignment of the global power balance – all of which would provoke similar feelings of uncertainty among the English – the film offers an insightful and timely meditation on the contending versions of England still competing today.

The 1947 summer…witnessed a disastrous convertibility crisis. This followed one of the worst winters in recent British history, resulting in a crisis in fuel production and low national productivity. A decline in national unity began that would have adverse effects in the 1950 and 1951 elections, the latter returning the Conservatives to power. As if these factors were not bad enough, 15 July 1947 saw a monetary crisis caused by conditions resulting from an American loan made in December 1945. This loan necessitated the conversion of the pound into dollars, causing financial instability until the scheme’s suspension a month later. This was the first sign of Britain’s developing economic dependence on the USA.[13]

Despite, or maybe because of, the detrimental effects of these external pressures on the Labour government, Passport to Pimlico is perhaps the arch-Labour film [amongst the Ealing comedies] pointing to the evils of a blanket removal of restrictions and seeking to reconcile the public to its lot.”[14] With the wartime system of rationing still in place, the film was presented to an audience accustomed to, but increasingly weary of, the daily grind of frugality and eking out of food and clothing coupons.

Although it is a reaction to them, Passport to Pimlico is more than an amiable satire on austerity Britain and Cold War US dependency. The film projects an English ambivalence to both socialism and free-market capitalism – the two forces which would battle for the hearts and minds of post-war Britain. More important, the text highlights the arbitrary nature of national identity and its narrative is designed to and does briefly liberate its English protagonists from the restrictions of their national identity. Of all the Ealing comedies – which “pleased everybody by showing English people to be kindhearted, eccentric and inefficient”[15] – this is perhaps the most subversive. As well as presenting an alternative to the image of the English as bumbling and deferential, it also allows for the possibility that such Englishness is an invention and therefore capable of reinvention.

[14] Aldgate & Richards, 155.

[15] T.O. Lloyd, Empire to welfare state: English history 1906-1985 (Oxford: O.U.P., 1986), 303.

Dedicated to “the memory of rationing”, the film was inspired by a newspaper story spotted by its screenwriter, Tibby Clarke, which related that:

during the war, in order that a rule be observed whereby the Dutch royal succession must be born on Netherlands soil, a room in Ottawa where the family was in exile from the German occupation, officially became Dutch territory[16]

This story was transposed to the London district of Pimlico, whose inhabitants stoically endure Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps’ austerity measures without sharing his missionary zeal for the project which led Winston Churchill to say of him “there but for the grace of God, goes God.”[17] The film is a reaction to the prevalent mood of “jaded despair”[18] which had replaced the optimism generated by the Labour party’s landslide electoral victory of 1945. If those sympathetic to the Labour victory were feeling disillusioned, “the strident emotions of the period were felt by the people who had voted Conservative in 1945” who sensed:

as Evelyn Waugh the novelist put it, that living under a Socialist government was like living under an army of occupation.[19]

However, contrary to Waugh’s disdain, the farewell which is ruefully bidden to ration books in the film’s dedication is perhaps less ironic than might at first appear.

The residents of Miramont Place, Pimlico, are shown queuing for food and clothing with their meagre handfuls of coupons. The bleakness of this economic climate is ironicised by a most “un-English” heatwave in which the community basks. That community’s two most prominent members personalise the contending political forces at work within it. Albert

Pemberton, portrayed by Stanley Holloway, is the owner of the local grocery store and could be said to symbolise the community’s heart. He is an idealist who works long into the night building models of the communal swimming pool which he dreams of constructing on the square’s bombed out waste land.

Wix (Raymond Huntley) the bank manager is, in contrast to Pemberton, a pragmatic monetarist. However, despite their differences, Wix and Pemberton are both similarly thwarted in their daily lives – the bank manager by his hidebound superiors, Pemberton by the unimaginative Council – a factor which will eventually enable them to find common cause.

At a Council meeting, Pemberton submits a plan for the regeneration of the area which would see the derelict land transformed for the benefit of the whole community, in particular its children. Wix is prominent in securing an agreement that the land is sold to developers who will provide luxury apartments and business outlets for those who can afford them: after all, the Council is “in no position to finance daydreams.” Pemberton chastises his fellow councillors for their obsession with “pounds, shillings and pence” as they begin to list the advantages the site can offer would-be investors. The camera pans along the desolate rubble strewn town square accompanied by the hyperbole of the intended sales pitch. Just as the business proposition is declared to be “a thoroughly safe investment”, a bomb explodes.

Following this inadvertent detonation of “Pamela, [hitherto] the last unexploded bomb” in London, a trove of medieval treasure is discovered by Pemberton, ownership of which pits the citizens of Pimlico against the state. The discoverer of the treasure is loathe to hand over his find to the treasury, especially as it may help to realise his swimming pool dream. Before the treasure can be requisitioned by the “Men from the Ministry”, a royal decree signed by Edward IV, which accompanied the haul, is brandished by Professor Hatton-Jones – portrayed by the redoubtable Margaret Rutherford – as proof that the citizens of Pimlico owe their allegiance not to Westminster or Buckingham Palace, but to Burgundy: “Blimey, I’m a foreigner”, as the police constable remarks. Though the Pimlicans’ reaction is jocular at first, they are gradually forced by the Whitehall ministers’ intransigence into adopting a more militant stance and, eventually, the status of Burgundians.

Ironically, it is Wix who initially grasps the power which the community can wield through their temporary leave of absence from the union. He impounds the treasure in the vault of the local bank branch claiming Burgundian sovereignty.

[16] Perry, 112.

[17] Lloyd, 293.

[18] Perry, 112.

[19] Lloyd, 294.

With the state’s jurisdiction temporarily removed whilst the two parties negotiate, Pimlico’s business community grasps its new found economic and political freedom with both hands: “ration books? This is Burgundy!” Identification papers are “ritually destroyed”[20] in a gesture of defiance as the locals enjoy the spontaneously relaxed Burgundian licensing laws. However, in little time, the district has become a magnet for black marketeers on a scale which threatens to unleash anarchy onto its streets. Before the citizens can appeal to the state for help, they find their “borders” have been closed. Their bluff called, the residents of Pimlico have become Burgundians, trapped in an England within England.

Whilst the isolation of the Burgundians mirrors that of the citizens of West Berlin, it could also be seen to represent the embattled nature of Labour Britain, whose efforts to reconstruct the country as a social democracy were hampered by its economic reliance upon a foreign power.

The film provides a pithy analysis of the contending ideologies of the post-war period as well as a prescient distillation of the fluctuations of Britain’s political mood in the decades to follow. Both the state-planning, “interfering” socialists and the laissez-faire, free-marketeers are seen to be, in their pure forms, anathema to the Burgundians. More recent manifestations of moderation suggest that the post-war desire for the kind of consensus which eschews the extremism of both left and right – as alluded to in the film – has largely persisted. Jim Callaghan’s Labour administration was rejected by the British electorate in 1979. The government had presided over the “Winter of discontent”, brought about by a comparable monetary crisis to that of 1947 and the seemingly uncurbable Trade Union militancy. Strike action by public service workers led to the non collection of refuse and to dead bodies remaining unburied for weeks. Similarly John Major’s more consensual but sleaze-ridden administration was brought about by the perception that his predecessor – the increasingly ideologically driven and dogmatic Margaret Thatcher – had become an electoral liability. Major’s own downfall was magnified enormously by the huge appeal to British voters of the even more consensual and moderate Labour leader, Tony Blair.

Although it does serve direct satirical purposes, the beauty of the conceit of transforming Pimlico and its citizens into Burgundy and Burgundians respectively is that it temporarily removes the restrictions of a prescribed and fixed notion of what it is to be English and enables the protagonists to negotiate their own version. This they do, arriving at a version of England similar to that commonly associated with the war era though, thankfully for the Burgundians, without the bombs. The film shows how easily the certainties of the English can assume the appearance and status of the foreign and unfamiliar and suggests that it is only when they perceive themselves to be foreigners or outsiders that the English can see themselves as they are. The ambiguities of national identity are nurtured throughout the film. Its opening sequence playfully manipulates the audience’s expectations of Englishness and otherness. To the accompaniment of “exotic” Latin music, a man in a white suit stands by a fan mopping his brow with a handkerchief as if incarcerated in some distant colonial outpost. Another smokes a cigar whilst tossing his pet dog a derisory scrap of food in stark contrast to the received idea of England’s much-vaunted love of domestic animals. The camera pans outside to take in a woman lounging on a sunbed removing her South American-style sun hat, before making its slow descent down a striped awning to arrive in front of an English fishmonger which is, appropriately, “frying today”. Any illusion that we are anywhere but in England disappears when the clipped tones of the BBC inform us that we have been listening to “a programme of lunchtime music by Les Norman and his Bethnal Green Bambinos”.

Amusing as this scene is, it does make serious points. The montage offers a fine encapsulation of the way in which the cosmopolitan peacetime dream collapsed into the humdrum parochial reality of post-war England. The down beat comedy punch line to a sequence which manipulates and raises the audience’s expectations only to dash them could be said to represent an example of “typically” English self-deprecation. However, it could equally represent an unrealised (or unrealisable) and deeply felt yearning to escape that very condition of Englishness. The sequence offers an alluring set of assumptions as to what it is like not to be English. The viewer is invited to connive at the disappointment of being brought back down to earth after a flight of fancy – a sense presumed to be familiar to the audience by the film’s makers. Although it comments specifically upon the envy felt by many in Britain towards the more rapid reconstructions taking place elsewhere in Europe, the scene also reflects a deeper ambivalence felt by the English towards their national identity. The sense of Englishness as entrapment is reinforced by the film’s conclusion which sees the Burgundians’ reabsorption into England accompanied by a typical downpour. Even this more typical weather, the film suggests, represents a deflating, limiting manifestation of English reality after the fantasy of the “foreign” sunshine. Elsewhere in the film the stereotypical orderliness of the English is questioned as The Duke of Burgundy comments upon the “fact” that the English need only to be asked to desist from clamouring to buy from the black marketeers and they will do so whilst in the rest of Europe more authoritarian methods would be applied to less effect. He is, of course, proved hopelessly wrong when, as the words have barely left his mouth, the sound of a riot is heard breaking out in the square. The Duke also points out to Pemberton’s daughter that the French town from which he comes – which she has romanticised into an idyllic lovers’ paradise – is in reality as mundane as her quarter of London, suggesting that the ambiguities of national identity are not a peculiarly English preserve.

[20] C. Barr, Ealing studios (London: Studio Vista, 1993), 100

These ironic sequences also raise two crucial questions: is England really the way the English perceive it? And does it have to be the way it is? Given the opportunity to construct a community in their own image “the Burgundians….recover the spirit, the resilience and local autonomy and unity of wartime London”. Dispensing with the inflexibilities of class, nationality and gender bequeathed to them by England they “submerg[e] differences that are otherwise intractable.”[21] Women become, if not prominent, at least included in the decision-making process. Pemberton, whose idealistic plans for a children’s swimming pool are voted down in England, shines as Burgundy’s first minister and eventually wins the community its “Burgundy Lido”.

Similarly, Wix, initially told dismissively by his “superiors” that he is no Montagu Norman, is compared favourably to that former Chancellor by his more illustrious English counterparts after his adroit handling of the Burgundian economy. Indeed, it is Wix who hits upon the solution to the crisis – “a Burgundian loan to Britain” – as he and Pemberton are unified in their pursuit of Burgundy’s interests. This symbolic reconciliation of the previously estranged Wix and Pemberton affirms the consensual partnership of social and business interests which would emerge in the 1950s and 1960s. Pointedly, the Duke of Burgundy, although a foreigner, is made welcome – to the extent that the people of Pimlico are willing to surrender to his sovereignty – a scenario which might be seen as heresy by those members of the film’s current audience who oppose greater (or sometimes any) involvement in the European Community. This suggests, as well as the established notion of the ease with which the English accept the status of subjects, an accommodating version of Englishness far removed from the xenophobia and nationalism prevalent among the far-right in England today. Certainly, the society constructed by the Burgundians is more akin to small-scale communism than to the unrestrained free market capitalism which is also advocated by the political Right.

[21] Barr, 103.

Crucial to the renegotiation of Englishness delineated in the film is the strong sense of community which is, by necessity, reawakened in Burgundy once the blockade begins. The Burgundians endure worse restrictions than even Sir Stafford Cripps can dream up for them as they endure the siege. The film warns against the rejection of the solidarity and self-sacrifice which characterised the war just won and which, it argues, will be essential if the peace to come is to be similarly successful. Such feelings persisted into the 1950s, during which Britain had, according to Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, supposedly “never had it so good”. Playwright John Osborne contrasts the “lean and sinew of the forties” with the “fat and spineless fifties”,[22] suggesting that the disciplined and ascetic nation which had won the war was in danger of lapsing into a bloated and easily sated populace of unaligned individuals. Certainly, the invasion of Burgundy by hordes of market traders selling products of dubious origin and quality will resonate for anyone who lived through and recalls the excesses of the Thatcher era – the apogee of the transformation of the English into a motley collection of consumers, strangely disenfranchised despite their greater freedom in the marketplace.

Intriguingly, though the Burgundians are hamstrung and seemingly discarded by the Whitehall ministers when they attempt to retain their treasure and autonomy, they are ultimately saved, by those same ministers’ blockade, from the horrors of unfettered market forces. They are also, eventually, able to compromise with the state and thus end their incarceration – a privilege not afforded them by the unanswerable market forces which threaten to engulf them. In a way, the film portrays the transformation of the “subjects” of Pimlico into citizens. The Burgundians’ temporary independence from England springs from their rejection of a status quo which leaves them powerless in the face of a patronising and authoritarian state. Pointedly, they can only make their protest by matching the state’s inflexibility in an undignified battle of wills. Their return to England – symbolically accompanied by newly issued identity cards and ration coupons – may seem to be a defeat. However, that return is only brought about after the institution of a reflexive dialogue between the state and its citizens and the anarchic generosity of the British public, whose gifts prevent Burgundy’s submission. The public in the auditorium are encouraged to empathise with the public on the screen as they make a nonsense of the state’s attempts to starve the Pimlicans back to their senses.

Passport to Pimlico captures England as it struggles to come to terms with the end of empire and the formation of the welfare state – whose ethos, it affirms. Although the text could be accused of espousing precisely the sort of inward-looking Englishness which British Airways parody to their advantage, in the context of the decline of the empire, it could also be seen as an honest recognition of the need to reconstruct England and reassess its position in the world order. The closure of the colonial chapter of its history and the simultaneous emergence of the new global super powers rapidly and drastically undermined Britain’s position as a world power. Indeed, the film features an obvious parody of the Berlin Blockade as the citizens of London shower Burgundy with food parcels. Taken along with the film’s general tone of moderation, the comparison with the Cold War posturing of the super powers is pointed: intractable conflicts are the logical extension of entrenched ideology and dogma, whether at home or abroad. The film suggests – perhaps naively – that, whatever its shortcomings, England is capable of striking a balance between the individual and the wider community.

[22]J. Osborne, Damn you, England (London: Faber, 1994), 191

The spirit of equality and self sacrifice which prevailed through the war was essentially decent – or so the film persuades us – and to attempt to repress the cussedness and recalcitrance of the English is folly indeed. However, the Second World War could be said to have represented a high watermark in England’s recent history which has seen an inevitable decline since then. Jonathan Freedland argues that Winston Churchill’s famous words occasioned by the Battle of Britain – “if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men would still say, ‘This was their finest hour'” – “enshrined in [the British] the belief that, whatever else [they] achieved, [their] best days were behind [them].”[23] Freedland cites this belief as one of the major causes of the nostalgia for a bygone England such as that expressed by John Major. A firm believer in the necessity of recreating Britain as a meritocratic republic, Freedland sees this clinging to a long-decayed past as a retarding effect on England’s modernisation in a world of global markets and communication. The film offers an intriguing contrast to the attitude that Britain should cling to its past, made as it was with the post-war future still to be negotiated. Yet, if the Burgundians present an image of an enduring English spirit, it is one which has yet to be enshrined formally in a written constitution or bill of rights. Perhaps as a consequence of the informal nature of its citizenship, post-war Britain has experienced comparable outbreaks of Burgundianesque insurrection. With Scotland, Wales and Ireland offered the opportunity to redefine themselves and their place within the United Kingdom, in many respects, the England of today finds itself in a similar position to that in which the Burgundians found themselves. Yet can today’s England face the future with anything like the sense of optimism in the face of adversity which the inhabitants of Pimlico drew upon?

[23] Freedland, 160.

With the benefit of hindsight, Will Hutton suggests that “early socialist critics of…unalloyed British capitalism had been right”. He argues that “the social democratic settlement of the post-war years”, whilst failing to achieve the level of economic growth achieved elsewhere:

had maintained social order and, paradoxically preserved the institutions of Conservative England better than Conservative England was able to do when given its head – an irony lost on Mr. Major when he mourns the lost world of the 1950s.[24]

Under a Labour government similarly endowed in terms of its majority to that of 1945 which will, sooner or later, need to confront the spectre of English nationalism which its own constitutional reforms seem to invite, what sort of reconstruction can the England of today expect? On current evidence, the Blair administration seems to have taken Hutton’s assessment as a blueprint. Arch-conservative elements such as the countryside lobby – which has protested vocally that the government in Westminster does not understand rural ways – and the recently (and partially) reformed hereditary peerage are conceded to in the name of the consensus. At the same time, the government continues to pursue Tory reforms of the National Health Service and benefits systems – much to the dismay of more traditional Labour supporters. This finds modern advocates of the principle of the welfare state grateful for the defiance of the unelected House of Lords – whose very constitutional existence they abhor – in supporting the rights of recipients of disability benefit. If many Conservative voters feared that Labour in power would bring about a return to the days of high taxation, powerful Trade Unions and profligate public spending, they need not have. Tony Blair’s government has, if anything, attempted to preserve the right of centre consensus which the electorate overwhelmingly rejected in 1997.

However, to what extent does that consensus represent the will of Britain? If Clement Attlee’s 1945 government foundered on an unwillingness of the electorate to accept the prolonged hardships required for the creation of the “more just society” envisaged by Michael Balcon, it is also worth remembering that the Conservative government which replaced it did so only because it vowed to preserve the welfare state. It was only with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 that the consensus of which Hutton speaks was dispensed with. As well as beginning a systematic erosion of the mechanisms of the welfare state, Thatcher’s government was as authoritarian and intransigent as that which faced the Burgundians. This dogmatic inflexibility induced a Burgundy style retreat of many socialist and left of centre opponents. In the capital, Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, which had proved a resolute, democratic and popular thorn in the government’s side, was abolished. Mining communities were torn apart during the lengthy and highly emotive strike of the mid-eighties which at times verged on becoming a small scale (and far from civilised) civil war. The Greenham Common women who protested against the basing of US nuclear missiles in England provide an image redolent of the Burgundians – ordinary people united in a determined opposition to the militarised and intransigent machinery of the state and a menacing foreign influence. Above all, voters in Scotland and Wales persistently rejected the Conservative party whilst England continued to return enough Conservative MPs to govern the whole of Britain. Consequently, the accrued resentment of the Scots and Welsh at having to live under policies which they themselves had vigorously opposed further echoes the plight of the Burgundians who became “foreigners” in their own country.

With European and domestic questions of citizenship still largely unresolved, it is tempting to see today’s England en masse as a similarly besieged latter-day Burgundy. Tony Blair is determined not to repeat the mistakes of previous Labour administrations as he seeks to become the first Labour Prime Minister to win a consecutive second term of office. Crucial to this end seem to be a continued demonisation of the Left and courting of “Middle England” – the less urban, more affluent areas of the south surrounding the metropolitan sprawl of London. Consequently, the re-emergence of Ken Livingstone as a prospective candidate to become Mayor of London has seen Blair revert to an unprincipled use of Trade Union block votes – which “New” Labour had supposedly consigned to the past – in an effort to block the progress of this living symbol of “Old” Labour. Similarly, the countryside lobby which holds the key to Blair’s continued electoral hegemony, seems closer to the Prime Minister’s ear than are many of his own party.

Of all the current factions in England which could be said to resemble the Burgundians, those which make up the Countryside Alliance most expose the fragility of the consensus which Tony Blair is attempting to establish. Bereft of their traditional representation in Parliament – the beleaguered Conservative Party – they are particularly fearful of the current government’s pledge to abolish their highly emotive and symbolic pastime, foxhunting. The Alliance (correctly) perceives Mr. Blair and his coterie to be city dwellers for whom the countryside and its traditions can have no real meaning. It is ironic, though, that those same people who have for so many years benefitted from the privileged status of the tranquil, rural image of England should now condemn a government which has done a lot to appease them. It is equally strange that a political party committed to modernising both itself and the nation should be so timorous in the face of a lobby which clings to a sport which belongs more to the Eighteenth than the Twentieth Century. Yet, perversely, the countryside lobby is right. The government, though it speaks of diversity and consensus, itself possesses a view of Britain which is, though perhaps more genuinely reflective of the nation’s present and future than that of the Countryside Alliance, similarly narrow. Blair’s England of Internet cafes, Italian restaurants and mobile phones does not wholly represent England either. That there is no longer one hegemonic England but, instead, many Englands – some of which are not as palatable to the spin-doctors and PR gurus who currently define what England is – presents Tony Blair’s consensual style of government with its greatest challenge. Should he contrive to construct a truly inclusive nation it would certainly be his greatest achievement.

[24] W. Hutton, The state we’re in (London: Vintage, 1995), 54

Writing in response to the recent crisis concerning France’s continuing embargo on British produced beef, political commentator Andrew Marr – a Scotsman – urges “the Centre-Left to reclaim….the democratic strand, the stroppiness of beef-patriotism, not its xenophobia or swagger.”[25] Marr sees the unrest triggered by the stand-off between the British and French farmers and governments as signalling the need for more profound change than is currently contemplated:

[25] A. Marr, “Anglo-Saxon attitudes: so what kind of England do we really stand for?” The observer, 31 October 1999, 22

The rhetoric of the ‘beef war’ may be embarrassing. It may be illogical. But it was a cry of pain from parts of a country feeling increasingly put-upon and disoriented. Blair has tried reason. He has tried to describe the country as it is, With its great variety and energy. But this is about power, not about rebranding. Until the English feel democratically strong and confident again, neither the future of Britain as a Union, nor its place in the European Union, can be happily addressed.[26]

Marr’s sentiments could also address the feelings of many inhabitants of contemporary England as well as those portrayed by the fictional inhabitants of Pimlico.

When Councillor Pemberton announces his plans to travel the world with a ship full of young girls if he reaps the rewards of the discovered treasure, his wife reminds him that he gets “seasick on the Serpentine”. The implication of the phrase is that there are enough domestic difficulties to contend with to be bothering with the affairs of the rest of the world. With Indian independence and the Berlin Blockade fresh in the memory of the film’s creators and audience, Passport to Pimlico is a brave and humorous attempt to salvage a modicum of dignity in the face of a perceived loss of national prestige and an alarming realignment of the world order. The film is, far from being a renunciation of the principle of the Welfare State established by Attlee’s administration, a qualified acceptance of it and an attempt to reaffirm a sense of pride in the nation’s achievements and future. However, its most significant and relevant attribute to its present day audience is that it depicts the empowerment of its protagonists. The Burgundians become fully engaged citizens who are able, briefly, to take their destiny into their own hands. If the film does illustrate a “lost world”, it is that which briefly arose from the ruins of the Second World war as England optimistically set about its reconstitution, rather than the balmy gentility of John Major’s version of Englishness with which the Ealing tradition is often associated.

The film’s most telling line is also voiced by Pemberton’s wife. She speaks of an English ability to transcend narrow conceptions of their national identity in embracing an abstract and high-minded idealism: “It’s just because we’re English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundian.” This tradition – as made manifest in the institutions of the welfare state – rather than that of “warm beer” and village cricket has at times over the last fifty years gone some way towards producing the “more just society” which Michael Balcon desired. The England which pioneered the welfare state, though possessed of many of the qualities of gentleness and deference which are now gently mocked in postmodern advertising campaigns, stands in stark contrast to the myopic, parochial England eulogised by John Major which is now the last refuge of a spent and backward-looking Conservative Party. England is now a fragmented and disparate collection of Englands in need of common cause. The majority of its young people – its future – are eclectic and multi-cultural in their taste and outlook. P.J. O’Rourke is correct in his observation that curry has replaced fish and chips as the nation’s favourite dish. If the tradition which unified the nation in a pursuit of the collective betterment of its people can be extended to formalising the citizenship and celebrating the diversity of its inhabitants, the English may one day possess a Burgundy of which they can be proud.

Passport to Pimlico is a brave and humorous attempt to salvage a modicum of dignity in the face of a perceived loss of national prestige and an alarming realignment of the world order.

No other film in the canon of Ealing comedies examines the undercurrents of division and dissatisfaction that lurk beneath England’s calm surface as fixedly as Passport to Pimlico.

The commonly acknowledged classics of the Ealing comedy genre – Passport to Pimlico, Whisky galore, Kind hearts and coronets (Great Britain 1949), The Lavender Hill mob, The man in the white suit (Great Britain 1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (Great Britain 1953) and The ladykillers (Great Britain 1955) – portray a variety of place and period settings. With the exception of Whisky galore, all are set in England.

These ironic sequences also raise two crucial questions: is England really the way the English perceive it? And does it have to be the way it is? Given the opportunity to construct a community in their own image “the Burgundians….recover the spirit, the resilience and local autonomy and unity of wartime London”. Dispensing with the inflexibilities of class, nationality and gender bequeathed to them by England they “submerg[e] differences that are otherwise intractable.”[21] Women become, if not prominent, at least included in the decision-making process. Pemberton, whose idealistic plans for a children’s swimming pool are voted down in England, shines as Burgundy’s first minister and eventually wins the community its “Burgundy Lido”.

Similarly, Wix, initially told dismissively by his “superiors” that he is no Montagu Norman, is compared favourably to that former Chancellor by his more illustrious English counterparts after his adroit handling of the Burgundian economy. Indeed, it is Wix who hits upon the solution to the crisis – “a Burgundian loan to Britain” – as he and Pemberton are unified in their pursuit of Burgundy’s interests. This symbolic reconciliation of the previously estranged Wix and Pemberton affirms the consensual partnership of social and business interests which would emerge in the 1950s and 1960s. Pointedly, the Duke of Burgundy, although a foreigner, is made welcome – to the extent that the people of Pimlico are willing to surrender to his sovereignty – a scenario which might be seen as heresy by those members of the film’s current audience who oppose greater (or sometimes any) involvement in the European Community.

This suggests, as well as the established notion of the ease with which the English accept the status of subjects, an accommodating version of Englishness far removed from the xenophobia and nationalism prevalent among the far-right in England today. Certainly, the society constructed by the Burgundians is more akin to small-scale communism than to the unrestrained free market capitalism which is also advocated by the political right.

Similarly, Wix, initially told dismissively by his “superiors” that he is no Montagu Norman, is compared favourably to that former Chancellor by his more illustrious English counterparts after his adroit handling of the Burgundian economy.

Wix is supposed to undergo a process of self-intimidation by feeling inadequate in comparison to the deified Montagu Norman. Again, we see the use of high finance to browbeat the outsider to these sacred rites.
Although it is a reaction to them, Passport to Pimlico is more than an amiable satire on austerity Britain and Cold War US dependency. The film projects an English ambivalence to both socialism and free-market capitalism – the two forces which would battle for the hearts and minds of post-war Britain.

Comment:

Montagu Collet Norman, 1st Baron Norman, DSO (6 September 18714 February 1950), was a distinguished English banker, best known for his role as the Governor of the Bank of England from 1920 to 1944.

Montagu Norman

1st Baron Norman

Montagu Collet Norman, 1st Baron Norman, DSO (6 September 18714 February 1950), was a distinguished English banker, best known for his role as the Governor of the Bank of England from 1920 to 1944.

Sir Montagu Norman was the elder son of Frederick Henry Norman and Lina Susan Penelope Collet, a daughter of Sir Mark Wilks Collet, 1st Baronet, himself a Bank of England Governor. He was educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge. He was created as the 1st Baron Norman on 13 October 1944. The barony became extinct upon his death in 1950. The Norman family were well-known in banking.

Under Norman’s Governorship, the bank underwent significant change. In 1931 the United Kingdom permanently abandoned the gold standard, at which point the bank’s foreign exchange and gold reserves were transferred to the British Treasury.

He was a close friend of the German Central Bank president Hjalmar Schacht and the godfather to one of Schacht’s children[1]. Both were members of the Anglo-German Fellowship and the Bank for International Settlements.

Norman’s exact role and responsibility as director of the BIS during the time when ₤6,000,000 of Czechoslovak gold held in the Bank of England was transferred to the German Reichsbank in 1939, is yet to be determined.[2]

On 2 November 1933, Norman married Priscilla Reyntiens, London councillor, and granddaughter of the 7th Earl of Abingdon. His stepson from this marriage was Sir Peregrine Worsthorne.

His brother Ronald Collet Norman and his nephew Mark Norman became leading bankers. His great-nephew David Norman has also led a successful city career and is a noted benefactor of the arts.

References

  1. Forbes, Neil (2000), “Doing Business with the Nazis”

  2. Blaazer, David (2005). “Finance and the End of Appeasement: The Bank of England, the National Government and the Czech Gold”. Journal of Contemporary History 40 (1): 25-39.


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