25 November 2015

Not so Little England

The December 2015 issue of Prospect magazine seems particularly exercised by the possibility that the UK could leave the European Union. Anatole Kaletsky tells readers that “Leaving Europe could be the biggest diplomatic disaster since losing America” – An ugly divorce. Peter Kellner, President of pollster YouGov, warns that “It cannot be taken for granted that voters will keep Britain in the EU” and Edward Docx (Word ® users should resist reading that as edward.docx) thinks that the “in” campaign is faltering, while the “out” campaign has the benefit of Dominic Cummings, who he describes as “ferocious, committed, unafraid, serious, passionate and utterly certain of his cause”. In his article, called The problem with the EU Debate? The “In” campaign… and the “out” campaign on the Prospect website and Nigel Farage’s Dream in the magazine*, Docx warns:
Make no mistake: in less than a year, Great Britain could be out of the EU and no longer Great or, indeed, Britain. David Cameron’s departure will surely follow Brexit, which will also be followed by Scotland’s attempted split from Britain. The splenetic strain of the Conservative Party will be left running Little England—for that is what we will be—and its business for decades to come will be the treaty-by-treaty renegotiation of our relationship with every other country in the world.
Perhaps he’s right, but just how small would this “Little England” be? To answer that, it first has to be defined and presumably for Docx it would consist of the UK less Scotland, that is to say, the countries of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In terms of area, he clearly has a point as the table above shows. During the discussion of Scottish independence in 2014, rUK, (r meaning rump, residual or ‘rest of’), was used rather than Little England, so for brevity I will use it here. rUK has only 68% of the area of the present UK, something which would be reflected in comparisons with the other major EU countries (and the USA):

The UK is the 8th largest EU country (of 28) in terms of area, between Italy and Romania. Curiously, rUK would still have been 9th between Romania and Greece. Scotland would be 15th between the Czech Republic (up to 14th in rUK’s absence) and Ireland. However, in population terms, because Scotland has only 8% of the UK’s people, the difference is rather different, as the next table shows:

So, within the EU, where UK is 3rd largest between France and Italy, rUK would have only dropped to 4th between Italy and Spain. Scotland on its own in the EU would be 19th between Slovakia (up to 18th in rUK’s absence) and Ireland.

Another way of presenting these conclusions is to plot population size against area as below. This shows that rUK would have remained one of the handful of EU countries with a population over 20 million, while Scotland would join the ‘shrapnel’ of over 20 smaller ones. Of course, the disproportionate influence of these countries in terms of their population is an important aspect of the EU’s democratic deficit. It might also explain in part why EU membership would be so attractive to an independent Scotland.

While on the subject of population, the UK Office for National Statitics (ONS) has recently published its projections to 2035. As the table below indicates, if Scotland were to become independent by 2025, the rUK population would be 5.6 million lower than the UK’s would have been. However, by 2035 rUK’s population has increased to the same level as the UK’s had been 10 years earlier.

Even more instructive are the equivalent Eurostat projections out to 2080. By 2050, the UK has become the most populated country in Europe. However, so would be rUK by 2060 – hardly “Little England”. (This table is calculated assuming that Scotland’s population remains at the same percentage of the UK’s from 2030 onwards, whereas the ONS figures show a downwards trend from 2015 onwards).  The quality of life in such a densely populated country as rUK (essentially England) will become is also likely to be on a downward trend.

Finally, and probably most importantly for many who will vote in the Brexit referendum: perceptions of the economic benefits of leaving the EU. The chart below, again from Eurostat, shows GDP per capita in PPS**relative to the EU’s overall 100. Many people would expect rUK to be better off than the UK, which now makes net payments to the EU while rUK is making transfers within the UK to Scotland. Conversely, Scots could be expected to be worse off. Perhaps the “in” campaign, rather than worrying about “Little England”, should concentrate on disproving this expectation – if they can get their arguments past Dominic Cummings.

* On Docx’s own website, it’s called Are we Sleepwalking to Brexit?

**According to Eurostat: “Gross domestic product (GDP) is a measure for the economic activity. It is defined as the value of all goods and services produced less the value of any goods or services used in their creation. The volume index of GDP per capita in Purchasing Power Standards (PPS) is expressed in relation to the European Union (EU28) average set to equal 100. If the index of a country is higher than 100, this country's level of GDP per head is higher than the EU average and vice versa. Basic figures are expressed in PPS, i.e. a common currency that eliminates the differences in price levels between countries allowing meaningful volume comparisons of GDP between countries. Please note that the index, calculated from PPS figures and expressed with respect to EU28 = 100, is intended for cross-country comparisons rather than for temporal comparisons."

21 November 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

A year ago here I posted about the exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s works being held at Blenheim Palace, and anticipated Ai Weiwei, now at the Royal Academy in London. The current show has received considerable publicity, so this post need not be too long. The Ai Weiwei catalogue is excellent, particularly the artist ‘in conversation’ with Tim Marlow, the RA’s Artistic Director. It is a welcome addition to the surprisingly small number of books about Ai Weiwei, the first monograph on the artist appearing as recently as 2009. An Introduction for Teachers and Students can be downloaded from the RA website. Here are some of the exhibits which made an impression on me.

Only when looked at closely does the detail of works like Bed (2004, below), assembled without nails or glue in Iron wood (tieli wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), become apparent:

The RA show has nothing from before Ai Weiwei’s return to China in 1993, so the oldest pieces are from that time, the Furniture series continuing since, for example Grapes (2010, below left) made with 27 wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty and similar to a work at Blenheim, and Table with Three Legs (2011, below right):

The ample size of the RA galleries means that there is space for works like Straight (2008-12, below). In 2008 an earthquake province exposed shoddy construction in China.  Government buildings are notoriously badly built and their materials are commonly referred to as “tofu-dreg”, i.e. porous and flimsy like the remnants from making bean curd.

Straight is formed from steel reinforcing bars which had to be straightened by hand after being bent and twisted when school buildings in Sichuan collapsed. The names of the victims are in a nearby large print, Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation (2008–2011, below).

A gallery is given over to the problems Ai Weiwei had with a studio constructed with the agreement of the Shanghai authorities in 2010. The central government immediately ordered it to be demolished. Concrete and brick rubble from the destroyed studio, set in a wooden frame, form Souvenir from Shanghai (2012, below top). On 7 November 2010 Ai placed an open invitation on the internet, encouraging supporters to attend a party during which they would feast on river crabs to commemorate both the completion of the new building and its imminent demolition. The Chinese word for river crabs, He Xie, is a homonym for “harmonious”, a word much used in government propaganda, but which has lately become internet slang for censorship. 3,000 pieces of porcelain make up He Xie (2011, below lower).

Ai Weiwei alters vases (ostensibly Neolithic or antique, but fakes are common in China) by painting, or more drastic means, to make points about authenticity and the tension between old and new in a rapidly changing society. Examples are Coloured Vases (2015, below top), made from twelve Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and four Neolithic (5000–3000 BC) vases with industrial paint, and thirty glass jars with powder from ground Neolithic pottery forming Dust to Dust (2008, below lower):

Gallery 5 at the RA is given over to one very large work, Fragments (2005, below left), a timber frame created from recovered materials: iron wood, table, chairs, parts of beams and pillars from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples. Fragments brings together the Furniture (see above) and Map series. Another example of the latter, Map of China (2009), was at Blenheim. The notice in the gallery states that:
The work at first appears to be a random construction made from unrelated objects. … Yet when it is seen from above – a physical impossibility within the gallery – the timber frame is revealed as a map of China including Taiwan (represented by the conjoined stools).
This seems rather a limp excuse for not putting a wide-angle camera above and a screen in the gallery to reveal the geography, which doesn’t appear in the exhibition guide either, although there is an image of sorts (below right) in the leaflet handed to visitors.

The artist’s interest in marble led him to purchase an interest in a marble quarry in Fangshan. Ai’s craftsmen have produced a wide variety of objects like a surveillance camera (see the Blenheim post), video recorder and gas mask as well as a much larger group of the Cao (2014) pieces than at Blenheim with Marble Stroller (2014, below) set among them:

The next two galleries were the least interesting with one meter cubes, albeit finely crafted, and subversive objects like sex toys and handcuffs made in jade. The Finger wallpaper (2014, below top) was, of course, wholly appropriate for this display, as was the Golden Age wallpaper (2014, below lower) for Gallery 10. 

S.A.C.R.E.D. (2014, below) is a series of six dioramas of Ai’s 81 day incarceration in 2011, all modelled at half-size. The Chinese authorities should have realised that Ai is a tough and brave man, quite capable of getting his own back.

The exhibition ends in the Central Hall with Bicycle Chandelier (2015, below):

while outside in the courtyard is Marble Couch (2011) and Tree (2009–2010, 2015) - the latter, when nearly finished in September, can be seen on Western Independent Instagram.

In retrospect, it was interesting to compare this exhibition and the one at Blenheim. By comparison with the interiors of a baroque palace, the RA galleries seem almost clinical: better probably for learning about Ai and his work, particularly the larger indoor pieces, but lacking the resonances and juxtapositions of Blenheim which provided their own insight into this most political of artists. Ai spent the years from 1981 to 1993 in the USA, mostly in New York where, among other artists’ work, he encountered that of Andy Warhol. So Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, which will open at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia on 11 December, can be expected to start with this period in Ai’s artistic development. There will be a suite of major new commissions by Ai alongside key works from the past four decades, whereas the RA show begins in 1993.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy ends on 13 December.