Who Is On The Level?

Just before Christmas, some Irish writers on the RTE home page were suggesting historic parallels between ongoing UK-EU negotiations and circumstances during the 1960s. Surprisingly, it was not mentioned that the central issue at that time was that the reason why the French said “non” to the UK application was the latter’s effort to attain the privileges of EEC membership not just for itself but for the entire British Commonwealth. If Britain had access to the European Common Market and, at the same time, could potentially utilise the British Commonwealth’s “common market” to compete with the European, it was feared that this could lead to the break up of the EEC from within through Britain having a means to set both its internal and external trading priorities simultaneously. As per the French view, this was not a “level playing field”.

The recent UK-EU agreement is certainly big news and perhaps a historic moment. Media coverage implied that its negotiation was, literally speaking, a “fishy” affair, although surely the key concept raised in the publicly-mentioned negotiations was the “level playing field” idea? The reasoning behind the EU allowing the UK only a conditional access to the European common market may not be entirely dissimilar to the 1960s situation, no matter how much “times have changed”. Behind the UK-French spat of the 1960s also lay the United States, which was favourable to UK membership partly because the UK, then as now, was evidently more enthusiastic about NATO than France. The “great reset”, advertised on the World Economic Forum web page, that awaits may have a lot more to do with the future financing of NATO than anything that directly relates to ordinary peoples’ lives. Co-sponsored by the UK (which is due to chair several global financial bodies next year), it is an initiative to bring about changes in the global economy and, in particular, improve the coordination of international bodies in response to issues such as pandemics by reforming the World Bank. The politics of this is rather mind-boggling, because it is a purely “high finance matter”, and this can explain why conspiracy theorists have enthusiastically latched onto the “great reset” idea: its consequences will be hard to guess and impossible for all but some bank and finance officials to follow. Therefore, one can make whatever claim one likes regarding it and no-one is likely to contradict you. A field day for polemicists.

Do writers, including me, need word play to keep life interesting? The rhetoric of “level playing fields” created a literal association for me: “who will be on the level?” Or “who is on the level?” Silly as it may sound, it would not surprise me if new media euphemisms about “spirit-levels” shall be in vogue in the next year or two in a comparable fashion to how euphemisms about “populists” were a couple of years ago. That actually reminds me of a thought I had contemplated “blogging about” before. “Demagogues” were often criticised in the past for being anarchical in claiming to represent masses’ interests against elites in a purposively vague, polemical and provocative way (populism). Perhaps the most famous example of that in Irish history was actually Daniel O’Connell. And what happened? People ended up erecting an imposing statue to him and renaming a capital’s main street after him. If you want to make something popular, criticising it for not meriting its popularity is perhaps the surest way of achieving that goal. So why on earth did “the establishment” criticise “the populists”? Go figure. And then…once that goal is achieved the rhetorical device can cease because it has served its purpose. Is that a repeating media pattern in modern life to the extent that is actually quite “normal”? Perhaps…but, being a historian, I am inclined to think that it is not an entirely “new” phenomenon. Seasons pass but the wheel of life keeps turning and every new generation will include its own rhetoricians and writers, including historians, who are like spokes in a wheel or, at least, so it seems to me. Meanwhile, my own personal “great reset” for the new year is simply the nuisance of having to buy a new computer and all the operational changes that requires.