Vacuum cleaners vs French lesbian poetry: The eternal battle

James Dyson is dead wrong - studying things like "French lesbian poetry” can make people's lives better, even if they don't suck dirt up off carpets.

According to James Dyson the British are turning their backs on the things that once made them wealthy by studying humanities instead of science and technology. I reckon he’s onto something. Take me, for instance. I’m British. I have a BA in languages, an MPhil in European Literature and a PhD in German and I’ve never invented a single piece of useful household equipment in my life. I haven’t even had anything accepted by Take A Break’s Brainwaves Roadshow. And yes, it’s not very scientific to draw conclusions from just one example but I’m not very scientific. That’s the whole problem.

Dyson is worried, not just about getting vacuum cleaners around troublesome corners, but about the whole future of our nation:

Today we’re decadent. We’ve relaxed. [...] If we want to be wealthy and have our welfare programmes we’ve got to create wealth.

Which is fair enough, although to be honest, rich businessmen have been saying this for centuries. They used to say it 200 years ago regarding the German Romantics and their “decadent” influence on youth (I know this because I studied it, pointlessly, when I really ought to have been working out a means of improving on the humble tumble dryer).

So anyhow, I’m sorry, nation and economy, for spending so much time pissing about. It’s not as though I was even any good at it. It took me two goes to get my doctorate. To call me a “failed academic” would be flattering, to say the least. All the same, it does irritate me to hear Dyson making sneery comments about “little Angelina wanting to go off to study French lesbian poetry”. First, the subject of my thesis was German, male and straight, so ner (that’s the kind of debating technique one learns in an arts seminar). Second, just what is your problem, James Dyson? Would you have said the same thing about Shakespeare (who may have much to say about the human condition but, as far as I’m aware, knew sod all about bagless vacuuming technology)? To me it sounds as though you’re using the example of an imaginary artist who’s foreign AND female AND not straight to add extra weight to the suggestion that the arts just aren’t relevant. Because clearly, normal people – those who could be (but aren’t) making Britain great – are British, male and straight. A bit like you, really.

I realise that in saying this, I’m starting to sound like a typical lefty arts student. I’ll be honest – arts students do have that reputation. But don’t be fooled. We’re not always as woolly as we seem. We might aim to be inclusive but that’s not to say it’s not often tokenistic. Many’s the time* I’ve sat around with a bunch of middle-class arty types debating Marxist and feminist approaches to literature before the conversation’s moved on to mocking someone’s allegedly unattractive, uncultured cleaning lady. Even so, that’s not to say the inclusivity’s all lip service (or based on the fact that the more obscure the person you study, the fewer secondary materials you have to read. That’s true, but it’s not all down to that). The reception of good art – the kind of art that changes other people’s world views – doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes real treasures need to be dug out from all the prejudices that have buried them. And if you’re saying yeah, sure, but don’t expect other people to pay for it, well, sure. It’s a good thing AHRC funding is a complete bugger to access (although a pity this means promoters of diversity in the arts tend not to be very sodding diverse).

The truth is, I like vacuum cleaners. And I like books. What’s more, I don’t really believe absorption in the latter are responsible for the downfall of innovation or the decline of manufacturing industries (but that’s history. You don’t do history, James, do you? It’s one of the humanities, after all). Furthermore, things that improve our standard of living don’t just lie with science and technology. Sometimes good things come from arty-farty, pretentious, poncey, pondering types, the kind of people who don’t study disciplines where there are “right” answers (which, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t mean they’re easier. How many pre-teen prodigies do you see getting GCSE English Lit compared to maths and IT?). We gain from having people who reshape our cultural landscape and put things in new contexts. People who don’t use “lesbian” as a shorthand for irrelevant. People who challenge bigotry rather than flippantly reinforce it. Engagement with feminism and queer theory – when it’s done properly (ie not as disastrously as I used to do it) – can change people’s lives far more than a modification to a vacuum cleaner and the fact that it’s made one person very rich. While I have never owned a Dyson, I still have feminism. And yes, one cannot live on feminism alone, but that’s why I’ve bought a cheap Tesco model, complete with bag.

* Oh, okay, it was once.

PS Here it may sound like I am agreeing with Michael Gove for once. Rest assured I am not Michael Gove. Just in case you were wondering.

This post originally appeared on Glosswitch's blog.

James Dyson would like us all to get rich by inventing things like this. Photograph by Nimbu on Flicker, via Creative Commons

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle