Are Beckett and Joyce the new X Factor?

Nick Clegg hero-worships Samuel Beckett, Joe Biden adores James Joyce. Are politicians telling us th

At the end of April, with the final televised debate complete and Cleggmania already on the wane, Nick Clegg wrote a blog for the Guardian in which he waxed lyrical about his love for his "hero" Samuel Beckett.

The Lib Dem leader explained passionately that he has read Waiting for Godot "over a hundred times" and revels in the writer's "sparse, unembellished prose". He concluded that "it is impossible to grow tired of Beckett".

While this provoked a certain amount of chatter in the campaign gossip columns and on theatre blogs, it was by no means a game-changing election story. Given that Beckett is a notoriously nihilistic and impenetrable writer (Clegg admits that he finds his style "direct and disturbing"), the contrast between the revelation and the usual pandering-to-the-people tone of politicians' cultural preferences is undeniable.

Election interviews are full of the inanities that politicians feel they have to peddle in order to hoodwink the electorate into believing they don't have intellectual, "highbrow" tastes -- David Cameron's professions of love for the Smiths and Bennie Hill and Gordon Brown claiming to watch The X Factor regularly are notable examples.

But here is the leader of a British political party admitting to hero worship for a very "highbrow", difficult author with whom most of the electorate will not be very familiar. Are the politicians slowly escaping the clutches of their PR machines?

Beyond the small world of the UK blogosphere, others were paying more attention to Clegg's unusual declaration. It was pretty comprehensively covered by the main US political bloggers, including the Daily Dish and Politico, and they were unanimous in their view that this affection for Beckett on Clegg's part was political cyanide, or, as Michael Tomasky put it:

You British folks understand, don't you, that if an American presidential candidate said his hero was Samuel Beckett, he'd be finished. I mean totally finished. He couldn't even get away with an American equivalent. It'd be one thing for a US pol to say Mark Twain. That's about the only serious writer in history a pol could name and survive.

And yet, despite astonishment from across the pond, Clegg's personal profile was not noticeably marred by his admission. Perhaps it will stand as a valuable example now that a similar preference has leaked out about one of their own -- the vice-president has just been caught in an act of affection for James Joyce.

Joe Biden's annual financial disclosure report has just been released, and although it showed that he had accepted notably few gifts, one does stand out. He received a first-edition copy of a chapter from Finnegans Wake, signed by the author, James Joyce, and valued at $3,500.

Now, Joyce is just as obtuse and highbrow an author as Beckett, and it will be interesting to see whether Biden receives any adverse coverage for valuing such a work so highly. Or perhaps, as demonstrated by the limited impact of Clegg's admission, we have moved a little further into a new kind of relationship with our politicians.

Admittedly, it is a very small step, but it could be that we are starting to trust them to speak of their true personal preferences and to accept what is revealed.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.