‘Ram Packed’

Language is a slithery thing, as everyone knows. Try to hold it down and it will wriggle from your grasp. It’s said that the French try the hardest to catch and throttle it, and the Icelanders have had a go at it too, but prescribing how language should be used, and banning the use of new and imported words is a hopeless task. Language changes all the time. The best you can do is describe, as the Oxford English Dictionary does, not prescribe. Even proud nations such as Hungary, with a language that slithered into Europe a thousand years ago from somewhere terrible beyond the Urals, and which belongs to a group to which few other languages belong, is a hotchpotch of words borrowed locally from the Turks, the Slavs and the Germanic peoples.

You notice changes to your own language most if you’re an expat, as I am. Or, I suppose, if you’re the child of a minority language group exiled to another country. It’s like seeing friends again after many years have passed. They suddenly look older, though the people you see every day never age.

And I remember working with Americans of Hungarian descent in Budapest during the early 1990s. Some were second generation Americans, the children of those who fled in 1956,some third generation Americans, the grandchildren of mostly Jewish emigrants from Hungary in the 1930s, or of survivors of the Holocaust who found a new home in the USA after the Second World War. They were eager to practice the language they’d learned from their parents or grandparents and which some of them had used at home. But what they found was that this was a charming, utterly out-of-date variant of the language spoken in the streets of Budapest today or twenty years ago.

I write this because I was perplexed by an expression Jeremy Corbyn used to describe the crowded train he boarded a couple of weeks ago. There’s a controversial video of him sitting comfortably on the floor of a railway carriage, having walked past a number of empty seats (some of them unreserved), complaining about the overcrowding of Britain’s railway services. ‘The train is ram-packed,’ he said, or something like it.

ram-packed

I’m unfamiliar with the expression. I know ‘crammed’. I know ‘packed’. I know ‘cram full’, perhaps even ‘cram packed’, but I don’t know ‘ram-packed’. It brought to mind those white-gloved train packers who cram or ‘ram’ passengers into the carriages of Tokyo’s metro, but I don’t think Virgin East Coast has yet resorted to that kind of violence.

I put it down to a local dialect that Jeremy might have acquired as a child, though he grew up in the Midlands and went to the same primary school that I went to, but perhaps his ears were better attuned to the streets than mine, as they are now to the shrill street-activists who support him.

But then I read the same word today. Not exactly the same, but a similar usage unfamiliar to me. In an article on low footfall over the Bank Holiday weekend at Britain’s shopping malls – http://www.bbc.com/news/business-37212179 – a man called Mr Nathan is quoted as saying, “It certainly looked very busy yesterday – the restaurants were rammed.” (I must have been desperate to be reading an article about retail statistics, but the headline caught my eye as perhaps a sign of post-Brexit-decision economic decline.)

Dictionaries appear to be more up to date than I am…

rammed

So ‘rammed’ and ‘ram-packed’ must be words that have slithered into use whilst I’ve been away and inattentive. Or rather, they’re new usages, since I know what ramming means. It worries me. I still intend to return to live in Britain someday soon, but will I understand my fellow citizens, and will they understand me? I have no wish to sound quaintly anachronistic.

On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right about the trains. They are ram-packed and someone ought to do something about it.. I only just found a seat on the train from King’s Cross to Peterborough last Tuesday. It was dog eat dog.

Democracy, Sovereignty and Leadership

democracy2

It’s been a challenging few days for democracy. In the United Kingdom democracy has been something we’ve taken for granted. Despite the oddly persistent fact that we’re mere subjects of a flesh-and-blood sovereign, sovereignty, in practice, lies with us, the people. The UK is a democracy, and when there’s a General Election we delegate our collective sovereign power to our Members of Parliament, who debate and vote in Parliament. What they decide, our Sovereign signs into law. So far, so simple.

But of course it’s not simple at all. Sovereignty is limited in dozens of ways: by the unelected House of Lords for a start, by the European Parliament, by domestic and international law, by the media, by treaties with other nations and supranational bodies, by the United Nations, and by the interconnectedness of the world’s economies and ecologies.

The events of the last few days, unusually, have brought many of these issues into the limelight:

The Brexit Referendum has, at least partially, been about ‘taking control’, clawing back sovereignty from the EU. Though, as many of us predicted, the Leave camp are now discovering that control of our borders isn’t possible as long as we want access to the single market. Is that ‘control’?

And then there’s the Referendum itself. Is it actually a democratic process? A Referendum is technically ‘advisory’ in the United Kingdom, though tradition demands that the people’s ‘will’ be respected. That said, Referendums are so rare in the United Kingdom that they end up being mere  travesties of democracy, at least if regarded as true reflections of the people’s will on a single issue. The Brexit choice was so complex, the ‘facts’ so unclear, the emotion so strong, that it’s hard to see the vote as reflecting a thoughtful view on a single issue, rather than expressing a more general dissatisfaction with the Government and the world.

We delegate complex issues to Parliament for a reason. Our MPs have the time, the knowledge and the experience to consider issues more narrowly. Perhaps if Referendums were more frequent (as in Switzerland) issues could be more coolly considered on their merits rather than, as last week, used as an opportunity for a splurge of misplaced emotion and hysteria.

And then there is democracy and party politics. The hideous wrangles in the Labour Party stem from differing views as to where power lies when it comes to determining policy and electing a party leader. Jeremy Corbyn is an old activist who sees the Party as the source of power, as the sovereign body when it comes to the exercise of power by elected Members of Parliament, though nearly all of his Parliamentary colleagues take a different view, and consider themselves as representing the wider body of Labour voters who elected them, and all their constituents whether they were Labour voters or not.

Democracy is difficult.

  • Is the EU undemocratic? (Everyone seems to forget that we actually vote for our unknown MEPs. It’s just a rather large institution and even the loudest MEP will rarely be heard.)
  • Should the leader of the Labour Party enjoy the support of the Members of Parliament that he leads? Or is it enough that he’s supported by tens of thousands of activists?
  • Do Referendums really allow ‘the people’ to express their views on a single important issue?

There is no single form of democracy. There’s no right way of doing it. Its various forms may reflect tradition and culture in different countries and regions.

In the end there is only one really important test of democracy.

I am reminded of a dispute between two different schools of Logical Positivism in the mid-twentieth century. Alfred Ayer, an Oxford philosopher, put forward the idea that meaning derives from the means employed to verify a proposition (an idea curiously incapable of verification itself, but never mind that for now), whereas Karl Popper, a London philosopher, put forward the idea that a proposition makes sense only if it’s capable of falsification. So, for example, when it comes to science, a theory can only be accepted if criteria can be defined for disproving it. Freud and Marx fail as scientist on this analysis.

In fact it is always easier to disprove than prove, and something similar is true of democracy. It is very difficult to define it, and everyone has different ideas about what it means, but there’s a simple litmus test that looks at the same thing from the opposite direction: a country isn’t democratic if its Government can’t easily be replaced. We shouldn’t always be considering how the will of the people can be expressed. Rather we should concentrate on how the will of the people can be thwarted.