History suggests a silver lining to Brexit

Linda Colley on the lessons history can teach us about the aftermath of Brexit, and how it could have a silver lining:

By instinct I am a Remainer, but I think that some form of Brexit may now be unavoidable. If that does turn out to be the case, I suspect that the resulting disruptions and realignments will affect far more than the economy: the trick will be to see if this can be turned to the good, or at least to something halfway productive.

In a recent pamphlet on the constitutional ramifications, Vernon Bogdanor has hinted at ways in which Brexit might conceivably have some constructive, albeit unpredictable, effects. As is becoming clear, and as Bogdanor sets out, Ireland represents a major challenge, and not just for reasons of cross-border trade. The Good Friday Agreement promised Northern Ireland parity of rights with the Republic. But if the UK does pull out of the EU, Northern Irish rights will no longer be protected by Brussels and the European courts, but will come back substantially to Westminster. And by the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, Westminster would be free in the future to modify those rights. Indeed, these challenges extend to all of the UK. The British government has undertaken to incorporate relevant sections of EU law and rights in statute law. But the same caveat applies: such incorporation would mean that these transferred rights and laws could be altered in the future by a sovereign parliament.

As Bogdanor remarks, some thoughtful politicians, such as Dominic Grieve, are proposing a new British Bill of Rights in the event of Brexit so as to protect vital rights against such legislative tinkering. This would be a good idea. It would also be valuable if more UK citizens and all political parties shifted some of their focus away from purely economic matters, and devoted more attention to the political, structural and legal vulnerabilities and quandaries that have been exposed by this crisis, and to the question of how these could be addressed.

Another of Colley’s hopes is that Brexit will force “Global Britain” to, well, actually learn how to speak other languages and learn the history of other nations. We’ll see.

Museums of Everywhere

Emmanuel Macron, President of France, recently announced he wants to return African cultural treasures to where they had been looted from, so they could be shown “in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou,” not just Paris. The exact details of how this will come about – if at all – are still unclear. Perhaps France will make a series of long-term loans, or there will be swaps, or a simple transfer of ownership.

It’s a fraught question that teeters at the precipice of a slippery slope down into “but what if we had to return everything?” territory, which adjoins the land of “and who really has the right to these objects centuries on, anyway?” Of course, it’s all very well for western museums to raise these concerns when they did all the looting first…

For a different angle on this debate, try Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay Whose Culture Is It? It’s not available online (not unless you’re really good at finding pirated PDFs) but it’s well worth seeking out for his argument that we shouldn’t merely be talking about the return of objects “home” but “a decent collection of art from around the world” so that more countries might have ‘world museums’ like the British Museum:

…when I lament the modern thefts from Nigerian museums or Malian archaeological sites or the imperial ones from Asante, it’s because the property rights that were trampled upon in these cases flow from laws that I think are reasonable. I am not for sending every object “home.” Many of the Asante art objects now in Europe, America, and Japan were sold or given by people who had the right to dispose of them under the laws that then prevailed, laws that were perfectly reasonable. It may be a fine gesture to return things to the descendants of their makers—or to offer it to them for sale—but it certainly isn’t a duty. You might also show your respect for the culture it came from by holding on to it because you value it yourself. Furthermore, because cultural property has a value for all of us, we should make sure that those to whom it is returned are in a position to act as responsible trustees. Repatriation of some objects to poor countries with necessarily small museum budgets might just lead to their decay. Were I advising a poor community pressing for the return of many ritual objects, I might urge them to consider whether leaving some of them to be respectfully displayed in other countries might not be part of their contribution to cross-cultural understanding as well as a way to ensure their survival for later generations.

To be sure, there are various cases where repatriation makes sense. We won’t, however, need the concept of cultural patrimony to understand them. Consider, for example, objects whose meaning would be deeply enriched by being returned to the setting from which they were taken—site-specific art of one kind or another. Here there is an aesthetic argument for return. Or consider objects of contemporary ritual significance that were acquired legally from people around the world in the course of European colonial expansion. If an object is central to the cultural or religious life of a community, there is a human reason for it to find its place back with them.

But the clearest cases for repatriation are those where objects were stolen from people whose names we often know; people whose heirs, like the King of Asante, would like them back. As someone who grew up in Kumasi, I confess I was pleased when some of this stolen art was returned, thus enriching the new palace museum for locals and for tourists. Still, I don’t think we should demand everything back, even everything that was stolen; not least because we haven’t the remotest chance of getting it. Don’t waste your time insisting on getting what you can’t get. There must be an Akan proverb with that message.

There is, however, a more important reason: I actually want museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered in the years when my grandfather was a young man. And I’d rather that we negotiated not just the return of objects to the palace museum in Ghana, but also a decent collection of art from around the world.

For my part, I wonder whether a transnational trust might be a good way forward. Perhaps museums and governments might be encouraged to transfer ownership of looted artefacts to this trust in return for the right to hold on to them for a few more years, or the right to loans of other objects in return. Anything to get the ball rolling.

The Wind Rises, 2013 – ★★★

There’s a moment when the aircraft designer says, “I just want to make planes. We aren’t arms dealers.” This is, at best, incredibly naive and had the opposite effect on me that I suspect Miyazaki intended. The treatment of women was a waste. But hey, it’s beautifully drawn? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Vía Letterboxd – Adrian Hon

Health is important, but not if you’re old

Today’s big feature in the UK iPhone App Store is Babylon health. They’ve grown quite a lot in the past few years, raising $60 million in 2017 to expand. One of their major selling points is that you can see a GP (via video consultation) within just two hours. What a wonderful world they’ve created! Except

Babylon said, however, that patients with the following conditions could be excluded from the service:

  • Women who are or may be pregnant
  • Adults with a safeguarding need
  • People living with complex mental health conditions
  • People with complex physical, psychological and social needs
  • People living with dementia
  • Older people with conditions related to frailty
  • People requiring end of life care
  • Parents of children who are on the ‘Child at risk’ protection register
  • People with learning difficulties
  • People with drug dependence

Oh well.

How many British women want to have no children?

I was astounded by a particular statistic in a piece about Mother’s Day by Donna Ferguson in today’s Guardian:

About one in five (18%) of British women aged 45 are childless, the Office for National Statistics revealed last year, and Britain has one of the world’s highest rates of childlessness among women aged 40-44.

For some women, this will be by choice – but for many others it will not be. Only 0.67% of British women aged 15-39 do not want to have children, according to a global survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). To put this in context, the eurozone average is 1.5%, meaning fertile women in Britain who do not want to be mothers are among one of the smallest minorities measured in Europe.

Only 0.67% – really? Less than half the EU average? I was so surprised I had to look up the original source. Sure enough, the story is more complex. Here’s the full table from the OECD Excel file containing the 0.67% figure:

According to the table, 20.26% – over a fifth of British women – have no ideal number of children, or they don’t know. That’s the highest proportion in the EU, and very possibly the sort of socially-acceptable response a woman might prefer to give in place of the truth that they’re embarrassed or afraid to say. As a paper on “childlessness” by Professor of Demography and Social Statistics Ann Berrington notes,

…there may be a social desirability effect whereby British respondents may be unwilling to express a desire to remain childless, as British society and media tend to have a pro-natalist bias

There are other peculiarities. How is it possible that 0.00% of women in Estonia want no children? A glance at the population pyramid for Estonia shows there are roughly 180,000 women aged 15-39. 0.0049% of that is 882. So, in all of Estonia, there are only 882 women in that age range who truly don’t want any children? At the very least, the use of two decimal points implies a level of accuracy that is almost certainly unwarranted.

(Update: In the comments, sev points out that the table I show above, which is the same used by the Guardian as the basis for their article, is about the ideal general number of children in a family. That’s very different from the personal ideal number of children. The former would pose the question “Generally speaking, what do you think is the ideal number of children for a family?”; the latter would ask “And for you personally, what would be the ideal number if children you would like to have or would have liked to have? ” So, in conclusion, the Guardian article is completely wrong, and you can more or less ignore the paragraphs above as well…)

I haven’t been able to find any information about how the OECD figures were gathered so it’d be premature for me to go much further, but this wouldn’t be the first time a survey didn’t accurately reveal people’s true preferences; just for comparison, a 2014 paper by Berrington and Pattaro, using data from a large British cohort study, showed that in 1980, 6.2% of women aged 23 wanted no children – a number ten times that of the OECD results.

Numbers have power. If you’re going to use statistics in an article as emotive as one about “childless” women (or “childfree”, as many prefer), you best be sure they’re rock solid. Because if you confidently state that practically zero women in the UK want no children, and in reality there are more, then you are unnecessarily othering those women and their choices.

This article is trying to be sympathetic, but in reality, it’s making people feel alone – and it might be totally wrong.

I really need to stop paying attention to The Verge’s book reviews. They loved The Gone World, which struck me as a novel-length SCP written by a fan of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. Gratuitously gruesome, weirdly incompetent (woman) protagonist, plot that doesn’t hold up under inspection at all. So… let’s make it into a movie!