Bits and pieces

The media have been consumed for days by the Charles Kennedy mini-saga, part smallish tragedy, part comedy.  Since the LibDems have no conceivable hope of forming a government at any time in the foreseeable future, and whoever leads them is never going to be prime minister, we can afford the luxury of enjoying their leadership shenanigans on a purely personal level and not bother about the alleged ideological differences between the various protagonists.  The only circumstances in which these people might have a marginal influence on government policy are if there’s a hung parliament, not entirely unthinkable now that Mr Cameron seems to be rousing the Tories from their long sleep and with all three major parties (if one can pretend for a moment that the LibDems are a major party) fighting the next election under new leaders, making prediction unusually difficult.  We all feel sorry for Charles Kennedy, naturally, but the sanctimonious tributes to him all over the radio and television programmes by those whose knives are still quivering in his back are a little hard to take.  Funny that this is the third Kennedy assassination.  Well, not really funny, I suppose.

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The irrelevance of the LibDems is the subject of a typically sharp and perceptive column in today’s Sunday Times by the irrepressibly patrician Simon Jenkins, always worth reading even (or especially) when at his most mischievous.   Several of his remarks so closely resemble what I have been saying for years about the LibDems, here and elsewhere, that I might almost suspect him of plagiarism, if I thought he was likely to visit this blog occasionally (but see below).  For example:

  • The Liberal Democrats represent no great interest. [This always seems to me to be their greatest weakness, rarely remarked on. — BLB]
  • For decades the one distinctive Liberal policy
    has been not to replace one of the two big parties but to win electoral
    reform and thus a centrist “blocking third” in the House of Commons. It
    has been to exchange too little power for too much. It has sought
    perpetual minority government, to remove democracy from the polls to
    the bartering rooms of parliament.  [The pithiest and most economical demolition of the PR myth that I can remember — BLB]
  • The business of Commons leadership, of shadow
    cabinets and frontbench portfolios, is a charade for an opposition with
    no hope of power.
  • From the moment of his election in 1994 Blair
    was not going to allow the Tories to outflank him on the right. He
    would adopt the Thatcherite settlement lock, stock and barrel.
  • Blair’s strategy worked for Blair. But it left Labour’s
    demographic base vulnerable, a free pass to the Liberal Democrats. To
    exploit that pass the latter needed a leader capable of seeing the
    opportunity on the centre left and pursuing it with passion and
    ambition…. Kennedy… opposed the war in Iraq and was
    emphatically to the left of Blair on income tax, student fees, drugs
    reform and civil liberty….  But no war
    was declared, no trumpet sounded. Kennedy was not the leader to shift
    the tectonic plates of British politics and restore the old Liberal
    pre-eminence. The opportunity, such as it was, passed.


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A few blog-posts ago, I was lamenting the gradual passing of that grand old word ‘me’, the accusative and other cases of ‘I’, with hardly anyone nowadays daring to say or write (for example) ‘my mother and me’ even when it’s obviously correct, and ‘my mother and I’ would be ear-piercingly wrong (as in: "It always seems to my mother and me that…").  There was a corker last month in a Guardian interview by James Harkin with Gerry Adams:  

We walk out of the House of Commons to look for the photographer. As
soon as we find him, he asks Adams and I to chat while he takes his

Doesn’t the Guardian employ sub-editors or proof-readers any more?  Or did some wretched sub ‘correct’ "Adams and me" to read "Adams and I" in the belief that he was saving the unfortunate Mr Harkin from an embarrassing howler?

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Andrew MarrGoing back to the subject of party leadership issues, I wonder how many paid-up members of the commentariat will have picked up a remarkable feature of Tony Blair’s interview on the Andrew Marr Sunday morning television programme (formerly David Frost’s slot).  For the first time that I’m aware of, Blair referred several times to Gordon Brown in terms which clearly assumed, at least once explicitly, that Brown would succeed him as party leader and prime minister.  On all the previous occasions on which I have heard or read Blair on this subject, he has seemed to go out of his way to avoid articulating any assumptions whatever about a Brown succession, tacitly encouraging the speculation that he is privately manoeuvring to try to ensure that the hollow crown goes to anyone else but his old mate Gordon.  This morning, though, he even referred to Gordon having been his partner in creating ‘New Labour’; he poured cold water on the idea that on succeeding Blair as leader and prime minister Gordon would revert to Old Labour policies and destroy his, Blair’s, New Labour legacy; and he expressly disagreed with Marr’s provocative suggestion that when Blair went, the succession might usefully pass to one of the younger generation of Labour MPs rather than to another member of Blair’s own generation.  What on earth can this mean?  Has peace broken out in the upper reaches of the Labour leadership?  Perhaps Tony-and-Gordon, that suddenly elderly double act, have cottoned on to the intriguing prospect that when Tony finally steps down, shortly before the next general election, both David Cameron and whoever succeeds Kennedy as LibDem leader will be old hat, their leadership roles by then no longer interesting or newsworthy:  by contrast, it will be Gordon Brown as a new prime minister who will have the novelty value, itself probably worth a few hundred thousand votes in the marginals.

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One other remark made in one of this morning’s cornucopia of television political programmes, this time a throw-away line, rang a bell with me that (to continue the cliché) was music to my ears.  Alan Watkins, doyen (and best-informed, often funniest and most penetrating) of political commentators, speaking through one of those strange television monitors mounted on the Sky News studio wall in a discussion on Adam Boulton‘s weekly programme, speculated that arguably Roy Jenkins and David Owen more than anyone else had been responsible for the decade-long hegemony of Margaret Thatcher. 

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Much of this blog has been devoted in recent weeks to the issue of the use in British courts of evidence likely to have been procured originally by the use of torture.  Back in 2004 when the Court of Appeal, by a 2-1 majority, declared that such evidence should indeed be admissible in our courts (a ruling much later overturned with horror by the law lords), hardly anyone seemed to take much notice of it.  For some reason I did notice it and wrote a letter to The Times expressing my dismay over its implications.  Happily, my letter was taken up in a splendid newspaper column that concluded:

In The Times on Monday a former
immigration scrutineer, Sir Brian Barder, attacked the appeal court
decision. Surely, he said, the court should have issued “a ringing
condemnation of reliance on evidence obtained by torture, wherever and
by whomever practised, as a basis for imprisoning people indefinitely
and without trial”. 

It is scarcely believable that such words need writing in Britain in the 21st century. They do.

That was Simon Jenkins, writing in The Times on 18 August 2004.  He told me subsequently that if it had not been for my letter, he would not have been aware of the controversial and objectionable decision of the Appeal Court.  (Maybe he does read my blog now after all.)   I would like to think that my Times letter, which seems to me to stand up quite well in the light of much subsequent analysis of the issues, played a modest part in sparking off the great debate on the ethics of using, in court or in the investigation of terrorism or other crimes or plots, torture-tainted evidence.  Not many people at that time had even heard of Craig Murray!


4 Responses

  1. edjog says:

    Perhaps it was the unlikelyhood of government which allowed Charles Kennedy to question the war in Iraq, a service to Britain which cannot be overlooked, in my opinion. The manner of his ousting points up a particularly nasty prejudice also.

  2. Thersites says:

    I almost always get I and me wrong, the OED has this FAQ:
    Which is correct: ‘my friend and me’ or ‘my friend and I’?

    That depends on where you and your friend are in the sentence. In colloquial speech ‘me’ is often used where standard grammar requires ‘I’, especially when someone else is mentioned too. Sometimes people use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’, because they know ‘me’ is sometimes wrong, but have not understood the principle. (Others resort to ‘myself’, which can sound rather pompous.)
    I am the subject of the sentence, but the object of the sentence is me.

  3. Owen Barder says:

    I was taught an easy way to decide whether to use ‘I’ or ‘me’, which seems much more intuitive than the OED explanation.Just try the sentence but delete the additional person and see how it sounds.  So:

    As soon as we find him, he asks [Adams and] I to chat while he takes his pictures.

    You can immediately hear that this is wrong.  So it is still wrong when you add ‘Adams and’ into the sentence.  Conversely, this sounds correct:

    As soon as we find him, [Adams and] I decide to chat while he takes his pictures

    … and it would sound wrong with ‘me’ instead.

    Brian adds:  In the good old days when all educated people had been taught Latin  (and most of them some ancient Greek as well), there was a general understanding of cases – nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative, etc., and the function of each.  Since the Norman Conquest (but only since then) English has had so few nouns which decline (change their form according to the case) that without a knowledge of Latin or some other language in which the cases are clearly and commonly delineated, most people aren’t aware of the case of the pronouns they are using which do decline.  Hence the confusion when it’s necessary to decide between I and me, we and us, he and him, she and her, and so on.  (‘Who’ and ‘whom’ seem to be properly distinguished by only a handful of pedants now:  an article in the New York Review of Books that I was reading the other day, written by a Professor of History, boasted no fewer than two examples of ‘whom’ wrongly used where the nominative ‘who’ was obviously required, and the Guardian is littered with the same howler.)  Fortunately some sense of proper usage still lingers on in most anglophone heads, however unlettered:  as you point out, by eliminating the other person in these ‘Horace and me’ phrases, it’s obvious whether ‘I’ or ‘me’ is needed.  Few people over the age of about three are happy about saying ‘Me went to the theatre’ or ‘My father gave I tickets for the theatre’, and adding Horace to me can’t change the correct form of the pronoun.  Actually the full article in ‘Ask Oxford‘ (not, incidentally, the OED), quoted in part by Thersites, makes the same suggestion.  As you would expect, there’s an illuminating article on this in Burchfield’s edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (see entry on ‘cases’, first section).

  4. Ronnie says:

    I have been reading Robert Gibson’s (excellent) new critical biography of Alain-Fournier.  A retired professor of French, he might be expected to be sensitive in matters of language,  but he translates from Fournier’s notebooks: "I keep on seeing Place Richelieu…….with Isabelle and I going across it," very p[ossibly from avec Isabelle et moi qui la traversent. Was he unconsciously afraid of the solecism, beaten out of us in childhood, of using me where the nominative is required?  Like Edna Everage’s " Scuse I"..  One difficulty is that in both English and French some of the nominative personal pronouns – I, he, we, je, il – sound weak.  so we need the emphatic form "That’s me".  And so the priests in "The Jackdaw of Rheims "heedless of grammar cried That’s him".  Even so, though there may be other factors, Judas’s "Master, is it I?" has more than grammar on its side.  I do try to use "than" as a conjunction with the same case after as before.  "I’d rather you killed the dragon than me" is not the same as "I’d rather you killed ther dragon than I", though in the first example in speech, I suppose, one wouild simply emphasise "you".  It is a delightfully flexible language, and so useful for distinguishing us from them.  

    Brian adds:  Lovely!  (The question of the correct case after the verb to be — "That’s me", "Is it I?", etc. — needs a separate essay, of course, and gets one in Burchfield’s Fowler.  I doubt if it’s useful to look for a universal rule on this, though:  best, probably, to rely on one’s sensitive ear and stick to whatever is idiomatic.)