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Hugo Rifkind

I no longer understand what ‘Ireland’ means

The defining commentary of this on-going financial crisis, for me, came from Gerald Hill of the Midlands, in a letter to the Times in March 2009.

27 November 2010

12:00 AM

27 November 2010

12:00 AM

The defining commentary of this on-going financial crisis, for me, came from Gerald Hill of the Midlands, in a letter to the Times in March 2009. ‘Sir,’ he wrote, ‘I can now understand the term “quantitative easing” but realise I no longer understand the meaning of the word “money”.’

I’m with Gerald. Take the IMF and EU bailout to Ireland, intended to calm market fears over that country’s debt crisis. I understand ‘IMF’ and I understand ‘EU’. I understand ‘bailout’ and I understand what a ‘debt crisis’ is, and why this particular one has happened. I also, pretty much, understand ‘the markets’, even if I do struggle to grasp why we’re all happy to use this vague, distancing term, and don’t replace it with ‘this particular named list of bankers who are making a killing out of ruining the world’. But what I no longer understand, in any sort of meaningful sense, is ‘Ireland’.

Who has this debt? The Irish? But the Irish can leave. They leave all the time. They’re famous for it. So what happens to Ireland if they do? Does it become an economic plagueland, a fiscal Chernobyl, where the air is fine and the water is fine, but where nobody can actually live because of the nebulous, suffocating pollution of debt? How weird is that? And the Irish themselves, cast out into the world… for why? Not stateless, not refugees of war, not even your typical economic migrants; not seeking better prospects, but fleeing negative prospects. Fleeing a suffocating debt they owe to the rest of the world, that will stop being theirs if they move to the rest of the world.

Did you know that McDonald’s pulled out of Iceland a year ago? Mr Ogmundsson, the franchise-holder, told reporters that people still wanted Big Macs, desperately, but it was impossible to provide them at a profit. Poor Mr Ogmundsson. There’s commercial tundra for you. One article I read suggested that 5,000 Icelanders are leaving each year, and that the country now has a chronic shortage of electricians. The pervading atmosphere, among those who remain, seems to be one of battening down the hatches, blaming the rest of the world for everything that has happened, and doing your utmost to convince yourself that you can survive the next century on volcanoes, mackerel and rhubarb alone. Ireland isn’t Iceland, though. The Irish have Ryanair. If they want Big Macs, it’s so much easier to get out.

When the emperor claims he has new clothes, it seems harmless enough to humour him, particularly if it means that you, too, can go out in the buff. The flipside, though, is when he crawls on the floor, believing himself to be shackled by chains, and you can’t see them either. When globalisation meant money soaring inexplicably into my pocket, I could kid myself that it was a sensible, coherent economic philosophy, fine-tuned and managed by people simply smarter than me. But now that it means debt, bursting from nowhere onto seemingly random bits of geography, I must confess I’m no longer convinced. It was all bullshit. It’s still bull-shit. How is this going to end?

Can I write about the royal wedding? Will you stand for that? Or will you hurl this magazine to the floor, in disgust, and stamp on it, because your newspaper had 18 pages on the thing this morning, even though there’s an actual, honest-to-God nuclear war pending in Asia, and you’ve bloody well had enough?

You know, I don’t think you will. We’re all fascinated, really. Even those who huff and puff about how much they don’t care. Because they do care, really, otherwise they wouldn’t bother with all this huffing and puffing, and would just go off and do something else. Such as the ironing.

The tone of the moment — reluctant hysteria, I’d call it — is the result of the British people not quite knowing what they think about the monarchy. We’re in favour of it, broadly, but we’ve rather lost sight of why. Deference has fallen away, but it hasn’t been replaced by disregard. We all still feel something. We’re just not quite sure what.

I think it’s affection. I know this sounds terribly rude, and I can only promise it’s not meant to, but I think it’s a bit like the warm, benevolent feeling that a family might feel towards its pet dog. They’ve disappointed us, they’ve embarrassed us, they’re forever humping the wrong things in public, but they’re ours, nonetheless, and we love them and want them to be happy.

Through scandal, divorce, anni horribiles, Nazi uniforms, wayward footmen and awkward comments about disabled people and Indians, they have ceased to be our gods, and have become our pets. It’s good to have them around, for the kids to play with, and to amuse visitors, but we’d never dream of engaging with them as though they were bona fide human beings. The Queen has her corgis. She and her family have become ours. It’s a wonder they don’t hate us. Maybe they do.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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