In the Critics this Week

An attack on Gove's education reforms, Vernon Bogdanor on David Runciman, and Tom Watson plays Batman: Arkham Origins.

The book section this week begins with Vernon Bogdanor’s review of The Confidence Trap: a History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman. Bogdanor explains that the path to democracy has been a difficult one, and that it hasn't always been certain that representative democracy would represent a global norm. However, as waves of democritisation have swept over the globe on the 20th century, Runciman sets himself the difficult task of "analysing the crises facing modern democracies and how they have been overcome". The eponymous 'Confidence Trap' is the tendency for democracies to rest on their laurels:

…because democracies are so adaptable and know that they are adaptable, they allow problems to escalate. Confident that they will be able in the end to meet the problems, they defer resolving them… comforted by the knowledge that the system remains resilient.

Bogdanor is initially impressed; Runciman illustrates Alexis de Tocqueville’s theory about democracy in a "fresh and convincing way". Nonetheless, from the introduction onwards the book loses its steam and the structure of the book, a "tour d’horizon of seven crises of democratic uncertainty", fails to impress. The crises “amount to little more than a dusting over fairly familiar episodes from 20th century history and on occasion lack perception.” All in all, Bogdanor is left unimpressed; the book fails to address, according to the reviewer, the real confidence trap: "the tension in many advanced democracies between the inherited forms of democracy and the new ideological forces of modern society".

Educational reform is the name of the day in Francis Beckett’s review of Peter Mortimore’s book Education Under Siege: Why There Is a Better Alternative. This is a book that challenges the reactionary policies of Michael Gove and New Labour’s education secretaries. Beckett is thoroughly impressed by Mortimore’s prose and seems even more impressed and surprised by his restraint to descend into polemic. In relation to Gove adopting a history curriculum that, in his words, "portray[s] Britain as a beacon of liberty", Beckett writes:

As a historian, I’m horrified by this. History teaching worth the name doesn’t celebrate anything, any more than mathematics does; nor does it portray Britain in a particular way. That sort of history teaching belongs in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, not here. Mortimore, again, is more restrained than I am…

Ultimately, Beckett produces an illuminating review on a crucial ongoing debate.

Our critic at large this week is Craig Raine who has looked at the work of Paul Klee at the Tate modern. He finds both magic and mechanism in the paintings:

In Klee, function meets fantasy. We learn from the Tate’s unusually helpful and interesting catalogue that when Klee was 50, his birthday celebrations included hiring a Junkers aeroplane to fly over his house and parachute down presents from students and colleagues – somehow an appropriate conflation of technology and whimsy, of magic and machinery.

The review brilliantly depicts the plurality of Klee’s methodology: his invention of the oil-transfer drawing, the use of pointillism and the fine watercolour sprays at the edges of drawings. Raine produces an insightful review to an extremely interesting artist.

The “single actor” movie is the crux of Ryan Gilbey’s review of Gravity, a film in which the majority of screen time is taken up by Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone. Gilbey sees this type of performance - an extended soliloquy - as the pinnacle of any actor's career. He notes that “such films are partly about the currency of the star” but goes on to argue whether Bullock “will be vital in bringing to the movie a type of viewer not statistically attracted to science fiction extravaganzas". That type? "female."

For Tom Watson, games represent nostalgia, and a comfort blanket. However, the new Batman game Arkham Origins was none-too-comforting and left him frustrated and grumpy. While being impressed by the combat system and Batman’s entire tech he just found the game too hard. "Cognitive science may be rebalancing the argument in favour of video games being good for humanity, but I’m afraid Batman: Arkham Origins is not."

This week’s critics section also features:

  • A review of Morrissey's Autobiography by Andrew Harrison
  • Douglas Hurd’s critique of Robert Harris's An Officer and a Spy 
  • Fiona Sampson on The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox and The Train in Spain: Ten Great Journeys Through the Interior by a book by Cristopher Howse
  • Norman Mailer: a Double Life written by J Michael Lennon analysed by Daniel Swift
  • Yo Zushi examination of Paul Robeson: a Watched Man by Jordan Goodman
  • Radio 4's Open Country reviewed by Antonia Quirke
  • Rachel Cooke looking at the depiction of Iceland on BBC2
Francis Beckett is not a fan of history according to Gove. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump