[Repost] How I became a reluctant monarchist

Monarchy is both a stupid idea and a good choice

Author’s note: This article first in May 2017. Reposting it today in light of the announcement of the Royal engagement.

On days like this, it is hard to defend Britain’s monarchy. It is beyond me how people manage to care about stuff like Pippa Middleton’s wedding. It has the banality and irrelevance of celebrity news, but lacks the colourful characters and outrageous behaviour. That combination is made even more grating because it is presented in a tone of fascinated obsequiousness, and in staggering volume. Every paper in the UK apart from the Guardian put the wedding on its front page today. By contrast, none found space for Iranians deying hardliners and re-electing their moderate president, an objectively significant story.

It is hard not to be aware of the absurdity of the Royal Family as an institution and, perhaps even more so, our reaction it. I laughed for several minutes when I first read a headline in the Daily Mash, Britain’s answer to the Onion, that went ‘Duchess wows easily-wowed crowd‘.

Despite all this I now consider myself a monarchist. That’s not always been the case. I was a republican up until 2011. That was the year of the William/Kate wedding. As you can probably deduce from what you’ve just read, I found that a rather trying period. Never has so much attention been paid to so little. Would her dress have sleeves? Oh seriously, who gives a ****?

I retreated to thesis writing. But as usually happens when I do that, procrastination followed, and for me that meant perusing blog after blog. Naturally, most of them considered the Royal Wedding in one way or another, and plenty of them considered it as strange as I did. Nonetheless,  many also found convincing rationales for the paegentry.

Two arguments particuarly stuck with me. The first from Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling:

John Band makes a superb point:

“I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) [he might have added Japan – CD] also tend to be monarchies.”

This, he says, is because monarchies remind us that our fate in life is due not solely to merit but to luck, and thus increases public support for redistribution. Is it really an accident that monarchical Spain is more equal than presidential Portugal, or Canada more egalitarian than the US, or Denmark more than Finland?

The Observer says that “meritocracy and monarchy is one marriage that just doesn’t work.” True. But a true meritocracy would, as Michael Young famously pointed out, be even more horribly inegalitarian than the fake one we have now. So given the choice, give me monarchy.

The other came from the philosopher Mark Vernon:

A republican will say that a president can [also embody a nation], along with the pageantry that surrounds the dignity of their office. Or that a country should be founded on explicit values, like liberty, fraternity and equality. Clearly, some countries opt for such alternative institutions – though I remember being persuaded that a monarchy has the upper hand when, after 9/11, it became almost impossible to criticize Bush without being taken as criticizing America too, because the political leader and the head of state were embodied in the same person. Similarly, a list of values will run into trouble when they conflict – as liberty and equality clearly do. A symbolic figure seems better able to hold together inevitable contradictions because they’re symbolic not explicit.

That the monarch is born, not chosen, is therefore also a good thing. In a democracy, where political power rightly rests with elected representatives and the electorate, hereditary ensures the head of state is above the political. Their power is soft, in all the good things they stand for.

After this, I came to see my own (and I confess other’s) republicanism as rather literal minded and, dare I say it, a bit adolescent. Not every institution needed to conform to every desirable ideal. Sometimes anachronisms that make little logical sense, can still serve a purpose. Events like royal weddings are inherently silly, but the people excited by it weren’t: They were enjoying a moment that bonded communities. So, when the Diamond Jubilee came round the next year, I gladly went along to a (as it turned out very wet) celebratory barbecue, safe in the knowledge that its absurdity was something to savour rather than reject.

Best reaction tweet:

Worst reaction tweet:

 

 

How I became a reluctant monarchist

Sunday Express front - 21/05/17

It seems a bit much even now!

Monarchy is both a stupid idea and a good choice

On days like this, it is hard to defend Britain’s monarchy. It is beyond me how people manage to care about stuff like Pippa Middleton’s wedding. It has the banality and irrelevance of celebrity news, but lacks the colourful characters and outrageous behaviour. That combination is made even more grating because it is presented in a tone of fascinated obsequiousness, and in staggering volume. Every paper in the UK apart from the Guardian put the wedding on its front page today. By contrast, none found space for Iranians deying hardliners and re-electing their moderate president, an objectively significant story.

It is hard not to be aware of the absurdity of the Royal Family as an institution and, perhaps even more so, our reaction it. I laughed for several minutes when I first read a headline in the Daily Mash, Britain’s answer to the Onion, that went ‘Duchess wows easily-wowed crowd‘.

Despite all this I now consider myself a monarchist. That’s not always been the case. I was a republican up until 2011. That was the year of the William/Kate wedding. As you can probably deduce from what you’ve just read, I found that a rather trying period. Never has so much attention been paid to so little. Would her dress have sleeves? Oh seriously, who gives a ****?

I retreated to thesis writing. But as usually happens when I do that, procrastination followed, and for me that meant perusing blog after blog. Naturally, most of them considered the Royal Wedding in one way or another, and plenty of them considered it as strange as I did. Nonetheless,  many also found convincing rationales for the paegentry.

Two arguments particuarly stuck with me. The first from Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling:

John Band makes a superb point:

“I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) [he might have added Japan – CD] also tend to be monarchies.”

This, he says, is because monarchies remind us that our fate in life is due not solely to merit but to luck, and thus increases public support for redistribution. Is it really an accident that monarchical Spain is more equal than presidential Portugal, or Canada more egalitarian than the US, or Denmark more than Finland?

The Observer says that “meritocracy and monarchy is one marriage that just doesn’t work.” True. But a true meritocracy would, as Michael Young famously pointed out, be even more horribly inegalitarian than the fake one we have now. So given the choice, give me monarchy.

The other came from the philosopher Mark Vernon:

A republican will say that a president can [also embody a nation], along with the pageantry that surrounds the dignity of their office. Or that a country should be founded on explicit values, like liberty, fraternity and equality. Clearly, some countries opt for such alternative institutions – though I remember being persuaded that a monarchy has the upper hand when, after 9/11, it became almost impossible to criticize Bush without being taken as criticizing America too, because the political leader and the head of state were embodied in the same person. Similarly, a list of values will run into trouble when they conflict – as liberty and equality clearly do. A symbolic figure seems better able to hold together inevitable contradictions because they’re symbolic not explicit.

That the monarch is born, not chosen, is therefore also a good thing. In a democracy, where political power rightly rests with elected representatives and the electorate, hereditary ensures the head of state is above the political. Their power is soft, in all the good things they stand for.

After this, I came to see my own (and I confess other’s) republicanism as rather literal minded and, dare I say it, a bit adolescent. Not every institution needed to conform to every desirable ideal. Sometimes anachronisms that make little logical sense, can still serve a purpose. Events like royal weddings are inherently silly, but the people excited by it weren’t: They were enjoying a moment that bonded communities. So, when the Diamond Jubilee came round the next year, I gladly went along to a (as it turned out very wet) celebratory barbecue, safe in the knowledge that its absurdity was something to savour rather than reject.

Curry: a biography by Lizzie Collingham (review)

Come for the mouthwatering history. Stay for the meditation on how Britain and India have changed each other.

I’ve made a habit of reading for about twenty minutes before I go to bed. That made Lizzie Collingham’s ‘biography’ of Curry problematic for me. Her descriptions of sauces, samosas and other treats left me trying to sleep whilst uncomfortably hungry. This is a book as rich in flavour as the cuisine it describes.

Yet Collingham is also adept at using culinary anecdotes to evoke bigger stories. Take, for example, the passage below. On the surface it is discussing the discrepancy between Indian and British Indian food. But what it most vividly is communicating is the difficulty of cross cultural communication and that as a result being a migrant often means living in that chasm.

The majority of the population living in the South Asian subcontinent would not have recognised the food served [in British Indian restaurants) as Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. In the early 1960s Margeret Orr Deas took an Indian friend to a restaurant. He politely remarked that ‘we have very different food in India’ and in the following days worked his way along all the Indian restaurants on Westbourne Grove trying to find something that approximated the food that he was used to at home. Besides the inexperience of the cooks, and the need to take short cuts, there was also the problem of unadventurous British palates. ‘In those days garlic was not liked at all; even coriander was frowned on’. The cooks produced milder, creamier dishes with far less chilli and black pepper than would have been used in India. [The successful restaurateur] Haji Shirajul Islam  commented, ‘Of course the food is not like in [his Bengali home of] Syhlet – there we use all fresh things, fresh spices, that makes a lot of difference, and the meat and fish and everything, all fresh’. He never ate the curries prepared in his own restaurants preferring to cook for himself at home. On the other hand, for a generation of Indians growing up outside India, this food was as authentically Indian as the food they ate in their homes. Haji Shirajul Islam’s son even preferred his father’s restaurant curries. ‘When he goes to the restaurant he eats Madras – hot one…Me I always eat in the house. When I offer him food he eats it, but he says it’s not tasty like restaurant food, because he’s the other way round now’. For generations of British customers, and even second-generation Indians, are Indian food. In comparison, food cooked in an Indian home can seem disappointingly unfamiliar and lacking in restaurant tastes.

The complicated processes by which British and Indian influences are meshed is the book’s driving theme. True, there are a couple of early chapters that deal with period before the arrival of the East India Company’s corporate raiders. But it is with their rise that Curry finds its purpose and momentum.

And it is an important theme. Throughout the entire era of European imperialism, no colonial occupation lasted longer than the British rule of India. That led coloniser and colonised to have an unusually deep influence on each other. In my current home of Vietnam, it is often hard to detect any distinctively Gallic legacy of French rule. By contrast, in India everything from cricket and milky tea to parliamentary democracy show just how strong the British influence. And much to the surprise (and in many cases disgust) of the colonisers the homeland was changed by the colony. The prevalence of Indian food in Britain attests to the movement of millions of migrants from the subcontinent to the UK.

But observing this does not necessarily mean the two countries are converging. As curries have been adjusted for British tastes, so democracy has been adjusted to Indian conditions. The hum drum contests between Labour and the Conservatives would be hard to mistake for the uproarious battles between Congress, the BJP and numerous regional parties. Any Britain beholding Indian democracy must be awed by its scale and heartened by its survival in a society marked by widespread poverty and illiteracy. But they must also be alarmed at the large part violence and corruption still play in the process. As Collingham shows so well, the two nations have not only borrowed from each but adapted. It is not simply that British practices have appeared in India and Indian ones in Britain. Their relationship has involved plenty of creation.

In light of this, it is not surprising that Collingham eventually reaches a nuanced judgement regarding the output of an ‘Indian’ takeaway. She concludes it is not some kind of imposter. Rather she observes that there’s always been an incredible diversity within Indian cuisine. The subcontinent has larger population and landmass than Europe, and accordingly its food varies as much Yorkshire Pudding and Kebab. In the south there are largely vegetarian cuisines built around rice, while in the north meat and wheat play a large part. Given this Collingham suggests we should see British Indian food as one of these cuisines and recognise it an expansion of the world’s great culinary repertoire rather than a subversion of it.

As a Britain living away from my homeland and missing much of its food – and especially its ‘Indian’ food – I heartily agree.

My politically incorrect views on immigration

When people who find something disturbing about current levels of immigration express their anxiety, they often act as if in doing so they are breaking a taboo. Take for example the article written by the Labour MP Simon Danczuk in the Daily Mail entitled: “My party’s too scared to talk about migration.”

As Jeremy Cliffe – British politics corespondent for the Economist and fellow former member of the notably unsucessful Oxford University progressive politics discussion group – points out Danczuk is demanding people do what they already are:

“Labour can no longer ignore immigration”

Labour really isn’t doing that. Ed Miliband has given three big speeches on the subject. So has Yvette Cooper. The party has even made it the subject of a party political broadcast.

“It’s as though we can only talk about the positive impact of immigration.”

No it isn’t. Not even a bit. Politicians are forever alleging immigration’s “unsettling effects” on neighbourhoods, its depression of wages, its strains on public services and the like.

………

“There is a massive vacuum in British politics where immigration is concerned.”

No there isn’t. David Cameron bangs on about it even more than Mr Miliband.

“Ed Miliband may feel uncomfortable at talking about immigration because he’s the son of immigrants.”

In fact he rarely talks about immigration without invoking his parents, who were refugees from the Holocaust.

This does seem to me rather symptomatic of the tone of false persecution that underlines much of the immigration debate. Voters greatly overestimate the number of migrants, help fund the public services they are often derided as a pressure on and are blamed for the decline of working class communities whose economic underpinnings were shot regardless of migration.

My impression is that those of us who support migration would be happy to debate it. But contraire the likes of Danczuk, the unthinking ‘politically correct’ position is that immigration is a bad thing and the debate is not about its merits but who can be ‘tougher’ on it. Notions like the supposed pressure on public services are asserted rather than discussed. What we have wound up with is not a debate but an exchange of fallacies. In this, context the rise of UKIP is hardly surprising.

The brave politician is not the one who attacks migrants but the one who defends them.

It’s official – Lib Dems are geeks!

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It’s appropriate he’s wearing yellow!

YouGov mines its data and finds the following:

The following month we ran a survey on Doctor Who and noticed that while 31% of Brits take an interest in the programme, this rises to 41% among Liberal Democrats. So far, it could just be an anomaly.

But then we started looking things up in the Cube (which happily is also the name of a Sci Fi Film). Time and time again the Liberal Democrats appeared as the most correlated political party for Sci-Fi related topics (try searching for things in the search box above). Movies like The Matrix, Blade Runner, Alien, The Fifth Element, Stargate, Back to the Future and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and sci fi classic books like Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Dune and I Robot – ALL show positive correlations to support for the Lib Dems.

In order to be certain, we then ran an analysis of the 100 TV programmes that are most particularly favoured by supporters of each of the three main parties. Sure enough, while only 2 of Conservative voters’ and 6 of Labour voters’ top 100 TV shows are related to science, science fiction or the supernatural, it is 17 of the Lib Dem top 100. The full results will be published next week, but in case you’re wondering the list includes Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Futurama, Being Human, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tomorrow’s World.

Keynesians for austerity

The massively overdue return of economic recovery now means Keynesian approaches to economics should lead to support for deficit reduction

Since 2008, news about the UK economy has ranged from the modestly encouraging to the truly terrifying via the generally depressing. So yesterday’s staggering drop in unemployment – alongside  the IMF upgrading its growth forecast for the UK – feels quite a novelty.

It should also have large ramifications for the debate on economic policy. Ever since the crash, there has been a sharp divide over the merits of deficit spending has been fiercely debated. Keynesians including Ed Balls advocated government borrowing. This would create demand at a time it was lacking. Proponents of austerity such as George Osborne retorted that this extra borrowing would not actually serve as a stimulus. The extra debt governments were taking on would raise doubts about their creditworthiness. It would also mean individuals and companies would anticipate future tax rises to help pay for that debt. This would lead them to hold onto cash to pay these prospective new taxes. For as long as the economy faltered both of these arguments were prima facia plausible.

However, recovery changes this.  Following yesterday’s news, unemployment now stands at 7.1%. That’s just above the 7% level at the Bank of England stops promising not to raise interest rates. The argument for deficit spending as a way to stimulate the economy pre-supposes that interest rates are as low as they will go. Otherwise, the Bank of England can make up a shortfall in demand by cutting rates without the need for the government to use fiscal policy. In fact, if governments create demand themselves the Bank is likely to feel the need to offset that extra demand when it sets interest rates. Otherwise it may worry that demand from the government will have an inflationary impact.

We think of Keynes as an advocate of an active fiscal policy because he wrote his most famous work during the Great Depression. Under different circumstances, he took a different view. Most notably in How to Pay for War, he warned against using deficit spending to fund Britain’s involvement in WWII less this cause inflation. We can also find plenty of examples of Keynes disciples opposing deficits at the wrong moment. For example, Paul Krugman was scathing about the Bush administration plunging the US treasury into the red. So there will be nothing incongruous if Osborne and Balls go from sharply differing to fundamentally similar views on reducing the deficit.

From Benefit Street to Hogwarts: why shrinking the state is not the easy option

I am councillor for the ward with the fewest people claiming benefits in the whole country. That doesn’t mean my constituents aren’t dependent on the state.

Magdalen-may-morning-2007-panorama

“Have you managed to watch programmes like Benefits Street and On Benefits and Proud? If so, have you, like me, been struck by the number of people on there who manage to combine complaining about welfare reforms whilst being able to afford being able to buy copious amounts of cigarettes, have lots of tattoos done, watch Sky TV on the obligatory wide-screen television? Do you understand the concerns and irritations of many of the people who go out to work every day, pay their taxes, who cannot afford those kinds of luxuries themselves?”

Phillip Davies MP to the Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith

 

 

For the past half a decade I have been the councillor for Holywell in central Oxford. This is essentially the part of Oxford that American tourists think of as Oxford itself. Its streets are frequently closed to allow a Morse spin-off to be filmed. Oh and Hogwarts is partly inspired by Christchurch college that sits in the ward. It is, in short, a place that is synonymous with privilege.

It was not somewhere I expected to hear mentioned in a discussion about the Channel 4 program Benefit Street.[i] Yet when Radio 4’s More or Less looked at the statistics behind the program, Holywell did indeed get a mention. Soho ward in Birmingham where James Turner Street (aka Benefit Street) lies has a high number of people receiving benefits: 27% of working age people claim working age benefits.[ii] That’s double the national average. By way of contrast, reporter Gavin Fisher went on to note that the ward in the country with the lowest proportion of working age people claiming these benefits was Holywell. Just 0.4% of my constituents (of working age) are claiming them.

This is primarily because as Mr Fisher noted “the overwhelming majority of residents are students at Oxford colleges.” Most of the other people who live in the ward do so by dint of working at one of the colleges. There is a small piece of social housing but for historical reasons most of its occupants tend to be pensioners.

The basis of the present political debate is that are two groups in Britain: hard working ‘strivers’ who support a parasitic class of benefit claiming ‘skivers.’ If this was true then Holywell should be ‘striver’ central. However, it’s not that simple.

It’s true that virtually everyone in Holywell has or will go on to get well paid employment. That doesn’t mean they don’t get a great deal of ‘benefits’ from the state. The University is primarily funded by state subsidies and tuition fees that are underwritten by the state. Students and staff overwhelmingly rely on the NHS for medical care. The taxpayer pays for the roads, the street cleaning and the police that patrol the ward. And despite the impression sometimes given the majority of Oxford students received a state education.

This is worth highlighting because voters seem to have an unrealistic view of what their taxes actually pay for. In particular they seem to vastly overestimate the proportion of state spending that goes towards benefits. This risks creating a distorted debate about how to reduce the deficit.

I am no lefty. I believe that reducing the size of the state is an essential part of bringing the public finances back into balance. However, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is just a matter of no longer paying for the feckless, undeserving poor to have flat screen TVs.[iii] Paying benefits to those who are out of work is a small part of what the state does.  It’s folly to imagine that when the state shrinks these will be they are the only people who will be affected. All of us, whether we are rich and poor rely on the state and we must face the fact that cutting it will be painful for all of us. You don’t need to be on benefits to benefit from the state.

 

 


[i] Disclaimer I’ve not seen Benefit Street and this post isn’t really about the program itself

[ii] According to More or Less, what Channel 4 means by benefits are “working age benefits such as housing benefit, job seekers allowance or disability living allowance but not child benefit and not pensions”

[iii] Which is not to say I believe this is what benefits do – I don’t. However, I think it is important not to conflate debates about welfare and austerity.

Dry January? Great but how about going dry all year round?

Dry January seems to be in fashion but might those giving up alcohol for a month find it even better to give it up all together?

The New Scientist seems to have turned some of its staff over to the UCL medical school as lab rats for an experiment in what difference giving up booze for a month made:

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First off, he revealed that there had been no significant changes in any of the parameters measured for the four people who didn’t give up alcohol.

But the changes were dramatic and consistent across all 10 abstainers (see charts).

Liver fat fell on average by 15 per cent, and by almost 20 per cent in some individuals. Jalan says this is highly significant, because fat accumulation on the liver is a known prelude to liver damage. It can cause inflammation, resulting in liver disease. “This transition is the harbinger first for temporary scarring called fibrosis and ultimately a non-reversible type of scarring that destroys liver structure, called cirrhosis,” says Jalan. Although our livers were all judged to be generally healthy, the fat reductions would almost certainly help to retard liver deterioration, he says.

Then came another surprise. The blood glucose levels of the abstainers dropped by 23 per cent on average, from 5.1 to 4.3 millimoles per litre. The normal range for blood glucose is between 3.9 and 5.6 mmol/l. “I was staggered,” says Kevin Moore, consultant in liver health services at UCLMS. “I don’t think anyone has ever observed that before.”

Glucose was measured using a fasting blood glucose test taken after participants had refrained from eating or drinking anything but water for 8 hours. This stimulates production of the hormone glucagon, which releases glucose from body stores into the blood. In a healthy person, a rise in glucose triggers the production of insulin, which tells certain cells to take up glucose from the blood to maintain a safe blood sugar level.

Type 2 diabetes results when cells no longer respond to insulin, leading to high blood sugar. A drop in circulating glucose in our tests could mean that our bodies had become more sensitive to insulin, removing more glucose from the blood – a sign of improved blood sugar control. We also lost weight, by 1.5 kilograms on average.

Total blood cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease, dropped by almost 5 per cent, from 4.6 to 4.4 mmol/l. A healthy amount is considered anything below 5.2 mmol/l. “Basically, you’re getting improved glucose and cholesterol management,” says Moore.

The benefits weren’t just physical. Ratings of sleep quality on a scale from 1 to 5 rose by just over 10 per cent, improving from 3.9 to 4.3. Ratings of how well we could concentrate soared 18 per cent from 3.8 to 4.5. “It represents a significant effect on quality of life and work performance,” says Jalan, although he acknowledges that self-reported experiences are open to bias.

The only negative was that people reported less social contact.

Now this is only one study and might be mistaken – I don’t have the training to judge. But I’ve already blogged here about other evidence suggesting that abstinence has many benefits. What makes this new study particularly interesting its subjects were not problem drinkers. However, they still benefited from avoiding alcohol.

I wonder whether rather than being a validation of not drinking this study actually queries why we drink at all. Why given the apparent benefits of giving up alcohol, are we so enamoured of the idea of being a moderate drinker? Why not treat it like smoking something that is inherently undesirable and should ideally be cut out altogether?

The answer I suspect lies in the final sentence of the extract above: we Britons seem to have developed an almost insoluble mental link between alcohol and socialising. There are responses to this at both an individual and a social level.

As an individual, you can still go to the pub, a restaurant or a bar. Just order a soft drink. That’s what I do. If your friends make that uncomfortable for you – get better friends!

As a society, we could perhaps start thinking of less booze sodden venues for socialising. This shouldn’t really be too hard. Many cultures focus on coffee rather than alcohol and of course most us spent the first decade and a bit of our lives managing to hang out with our friends without needing alcohol. We could even hang onto pubs and clubs but have them serve soft drinks instead.

Alcohol is a remarkably destructive social crutch that we can and should learn to do without.

Disclaimer: I am emphatically not advocating prohibition. The war on drugs is enough of a failure without adding a war on booze to it. However, saying something should be legal is quite different from saying it is a good thing.

Do Muslims who work in supermarkets have the right not to handle alcohol and pork?

Over the festive period a controversy has emerged about how supermarkets deal with staff who for religious reasons won’t handle certain goods.

Marks & Spencer has apologised after a Muslim member of staff refused to sell a customer alcohol. The retailer said that where employees had religious beliefs that restricted what foods or drinks they could handle, it tried to place them in a “suitable role”. An M&S spokeswoman said: “We regret that in the case highlighted we were not following our own internal policy.”

The issue arose after an unnamed customer at a London store told the Telegraph they were “taken aback” when an “extremely apologetic” Muslim checkout worker asked them to wait for another till to become available.

There is clearly a variety of different supermarkets handle this issue differently:

Tesco said it treated each case on its merits, but said it “made no sense” to employ staff on a till who refused to touch certain items for religious reasons.

Asda said it would not deploy Muslims on tills who objected to handling alcohol, while Morrisons, which is based in Bradford where there is a large Muslim community, said it had widespread experience of dealing with the issue and would “respect and work around anyone’s wishes not to handle specific products for religious or cultural reasons”.

This debate has focused on what if any concessions supermarkets choose to make to Muslim employees in such circumstances. However, it’s also worth asking what they are legally required to do.

Until last year, the answer would be basically nothing. The courts would have said an employee’s freedom from duties they object to on religious grounds was guaranteed by their right to resign. If they found parts of their jobs objectionable they should leave it, and that was all the protection they needed.

This was never a very satisfactory doctrine, not least because many workers cannot simply hop from one job to another. The European Court of Human Rights recognised has now recognised as much. Last year, in Eweida and others v UK withdrew its past endorsement of the right to resign.

Based on the facts and the decision in Eweida, we can deduce some parameters.  Indirect religious discrimination can be justified where there are ‘strong’ grounds such as health and safety or protecting another minority but not for ‘weak’ grounds like protecting brand image. That leaves supermarkets in a tricky position. It is hard to say what would happen in a case resolving with ‘moderate’ grounds like upsetting customers, disrupting work patterns or creating resentment among other employees. And it probably won’t be possible to answer until a court rules on such a case.

That’s not ideal – supermarkets are big employers and this leaves a lot of employees unclear as to their legal rights.

Some hypotheses as to the mystery of the resurgent sleuth

Benedict-Cumberbatch-playing-Sherlock-Holmes-left-and-Martin-Freeman-playing-Dr-John-Watson-from-the-new-series-of-2676383

*Warning contains spoilers for series 1 and 2 of Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows*

Sherlock is back. This is true both in the sense that:

1)      a new series of the BBC drama starts this evening (YIPEE!!!);

2)      even though the last of Conan Doyle’s story was published in 1927, Holmes is popping up in an awful lot of culture.

At the present moment there are:

  • Gatiss and Moffat’s series for the BBC staring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
  • Guy Ritchie’s films Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. A third one is apparently on the way. These are essentially Victorian set action comedies.
  • The NBC series Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson. Like Sherlock, it brings Conan Doyle’s characters into the present day. In this version Holmes is solving mysteries in New York while recovering from drug addiction. Oh and Watson is a women.
  • Ian McKellen will play an elderly Holmes in an upcoming film called a Slight Trick of the Mind.
  • Series like the Mentalist and Law and Order: Criminal Intent that take their basic model from Holme’s adventures.

Furthermore, whereas previous TV and film versions of these stories tended to be stale pieces of Victoriana, recent versions tend to be extremely loose adaptations that nonetheless feel very true to the spirit of the originals. Writers seem to have rediscovered the energy, excitement and mischief that Conan Doyle injected into his stories.

This all raises the question of why Holmes seems to have so much cultural currency at the present moment. Here in no particular order are some theories of mine:

Copycats

It’s not exactly a secret that the creative industries can be strikingly unimaginative. So any successful project seems to result in a herd of imitators.

There seems to have been some of this going on with Holmes’ resurgence. Elementary seems to be a rip-off of Sherlock. In fact, the BBC claimed that CBS had approached them about an Americanised Sherlock, and only made Elementary when they didn’t get permission to do that.

However, that’s not the whole story. The BBC series and the Ritchie films seem to have arisen independently.

1900 is here again (1): it’s scary out there

Holmes’ adventures take place between 1880 and 1914. Chronologically speaking, the final story is His Last Bow which sees Holmes match wits with a German spymaster on the eve of WWI. He is thus a product of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods when an apparently flourishing European civilisation slid towards the catastrophe of World War.

A recent Economist article noted that looking at 1914 and 2014:

the parallels remain troubling. The United States is Britain, the superpower on the wane, unable to guarantee global security. Its main trading partner, China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly. Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining regional power.

We could also find parallels in the way turn of the century Britain was menaced by Anarchist and Irish terrorism.

It is striking the extent to which modern adaptors home in on these themes. For example, in Sherlock, there is Mycroft’s macabre plan to thwart a terrorist attack on a passenger plane. The first Ritchie film features religious extremists planning to attack parliament with chemical weapons. And in its sequel, Moriarty orchestrates terrorist attacks that aim to push the great powers into a war.

1900 is here again (2): London’s back

I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that Ritchie could go from directing films about present day London gangsters to ones about the Edwardian sleuth living a century beforehand.

Holmes’ London was the hub of the largest empire in history. It was a dynamic, crowded and divided place. In short, it was an exciting city and a great setting for detective stories.

Conan Doyle, a great supporter of Britain’s colonial project frequently uses London’s imperial and global character in his stories. The narrative arch of a lot of Holmes’ adventures could be summarised as: someone commits a dreadful sin somewhere in the world and flees to London to escape it but it catches up with them in the UK and face a reckoning. Holmes then has to investigate the aftermath.

The global cast of villains that Holmes faces include the Mafia, the Klu Klux Klan, the nascent Mormon Church, the Molly Macguires, Australian bush rangers and a poison dart wielding dwarf from the Andaman Islands.

After World War I, London became increasingly suburbanised, the rampant inequality was tamed by the welfare state and it declined as an international city. In short, it ceased to the metropolis Holmes roamed.

But now that London is back. It’s a global city once again, growing much faster than the rest of the UK, it’s the natural habitat of the superrich global elite and a result massively unequal, and also home to an extraordinary cornucopia of migrants. It’s once again a city worthy of Holmes’ attention.

We can see Holmes think

Both Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes, rely on a great deal of technical tricks to take us inside Holmes mind: rapid cuts, bullet time, words on screen etc. Many of these techniques were until quite recently either not available or harder to use with such regularit,. It’s hard to remember now but the way CSI dramatised forensic science was initially quite ground breaking and Holmes’ modern incarnations have to a great extent been following in its wake.

Being able to go into Holmes mind has the added advantage of freeing up Watson to do more than have exposition delivered at him.

Bromance

Alongside the obvious themes of deduction and crime fighting, Conan Doyle’s stories are in a large part about the friendship between Holmes and Watson. This has lead quite a number of people to wonder if the intense companionship between the two men might indicate they were gay. I have always found this idea rather aggravating because to me it has always felt like a product of our collective inability to think about relationships in anything other than sexual terms.

One of the many strengths of Sherlock is how it uses our insecurities around male bonding for comic effect. I would speculate that this is possible to do because these fears are receding: as we become less paranoid about homosexuality, exploring homosociality becomes safer. Holmes and Watson are likely easier characters to portray when society is either largely unaware of homosexuality or largely accepting of it. In the decades between the two problems may lie.

As a side note, this theme seems to persist even when Watson is a woman. Elementary executive producer Carl Bevan has said of the relationship between his iterations of the characters that it’s

a bromance, but one of the bros just happens to be a woman.  He said that from the very beginning and I think it’s really an apt description.  There’s this idea that a man and a woman can’t be together on a show especially without needing to be together sexually or in love or whatever, and this is really about the evolution of a friendship and how that happens.  Watching that should be as much the story of this show as the mysteries that you see week in and week out about who killed who.  We love that and those stories will be great, but the mystery of this relationship and how the friendship comes into being, that should be something that draws people in every week, too.