Bearing down: Miliband used the phrase so many times it was like being in a maternity ward. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Bearing down: how Ed Miliband got tangled up in jargon

Antonia Quirke reviews World at One on Radio 4.

World at One
BBC Radio 4

Some praise for Martha Kearney. One of the memorable things about her lunchtime interview with Ed Miliband (16 May, 1pm) was the quiet, untriumphant way she stood back and allowed the politician to tie himself into knots with his favourite new phrase: “bearing down”. “The idea is to bear down on low-skilled immigration,” he said. “It’s important we bear down . . . I’m gonna bear down, er . . . I believe we should bear down as a country.” He said it no fewer than six times. It was like being in a maternity ward.

At least Miliband came over as a human being. Perhaps this was because Kearney, as his interlocutor, is evidently a well-balanced person not remotely interested in making World at One all about Martha Kearney – unlike Eddie Mair on PM, which has long been about the presenter fancying himself as a comedian and dropping all manner of “deadpan” routines into the show.

I suppose it is the destiny of all newsrooms to wind up a little like The Day Today. But John Humphrys’s Today interview with Nick Clegg on 15 May, on the subject of an EU referendum, only made him sound even more like a strange, Rumpelstiltskin figure who would fit right into Ron Burgundy’s crew in Anchorman, ever twisting the debate into yes-and-no questions and yelping victoriously when Clegg – perhaps foolishly – used the word “unpatriotic”.

Kearney managed to get Miliband to move from flatly refusing to “make false promises” about immigration to articulating a firm election pledge during the interview: that newcomers will have to “wait at least six months, if not longer”, before they can claim benefits.

She managed to achieve this in under two minutes. Often, she simply applies the word “perhaps” to the end of her sentences, opening the door to compromise. “With the freedom of movement, perhaps?” she  might say to Ed, building up to the more insistent, “What about now?”

You could sense Miliband’s pulse slow,  his natural discomfort fading, and he started to drop some of those unyielding phrases. (“No, I don’t think so. And let me tell you why!”) Kearney’s tone is key: it’s serene and never smug. But in truth her secret weapon as an interviewer is simply that she listens.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Getty
Show Hide image

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