Dialect and identity: is Mandarin bad for China?

44 min listen

Across the span of China, a country as big as Europe, there are countless regional dialects and accents – perhaps even languages. Often, they’re mutually unintelligible. The Chinese call these ‘fangyan’, and each Chinese person will likely be able to speak at least one fangyan, while also understanding Standard Mandarin, the official language of the People’s Republic. It means that the Chinese are more multilingual than you might think. But it also means that the question of language is inherently a political one. Standard Mandarin has a relatively short history, created by the country’s founding fathers to unify the spoken word in a huge country. But with the ubiquity of

What does it really mean to feel English?

Referring to the precarious future of the Union of England and Scotland, the authors of Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain conclude their book with the observation that ‘it is hard to imagine that any break-up would not be the source of regret and recrimination’. I imagine our present prime minister, even though he has a pandemic to handle, thinks of this with increasing force. There would be few faster routes from office for him than to awake one morning to find he had presided over the end of the Union. We are weeks away from elections in Scotland that seem certain to bring another SNP victory, and calls from

A handy guide to flags

The Union Jack is back. No TV interview with a government minister is complete without a flag and their departments have been ordered to hoist them above their offices. Soon our country will look like a never-ending Golden Jubilee street party, but with neither refreshments nor festivities. We’d all like a street party, but many are embarrassed by constant flag waving, especially when the flag in question is the Union Jack. The students of London’s Pimlico Academy were so put out by the idea of flags that they even went as far as to argue that the Union Jack flying outside their school was an emblem of racism, demanding that the

The EU’s ugly vaccine nationalism

We have to rid the world of vaccine nationalism. No one is protected until we are all protected. And we need, above all, solidarity to fight a virus which by its nature does not respect borders or boundaries. Over much of the last year, European Union officials, led by the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen, have led the world in grandiose rhetoric about how we have to lead a global effort to fight Covid-19, contrasting its own noble internationalism with the grubby self-interest of the likes of Donald Trump or indeed Boris Johnson. But hold on. After much speculation, the EU has itself started firing the first

Letters: why Scots want independence

State of the Union Sir: Writing in a week that an opinion poll shows 58 per cent support for independence in Scotland, it seems bizarre for Professor Tombs to claim that commentators are ignoring ‘the death throes of separatism’ (‘Out together’, 17 October). He argues that nationalist supporters rely on the Brexit and Covid-19 crises to advance their cause, and that they will be in retreat once things return to normal. Then, once doubts begin to bubble up about the financial and economic uncertainties of independence, Scottish voters will return to the unionist cause. These arguments may give him some comfort, but here in Scotland they seem unreal. Covid-19 has

Only a ‘good’ Brexit can stop Scottish independence

Victimhood has always been the core of nationalism. We are oppressed by Them: if We were free, our problems would be solved. This has been the lure of nationalism, and the reason why it is invariably disappointing once achieved. Scottish nationalists have their own myth of victimhood, but it has to go way back into the mists of time: to William Wallace (died 1305), Robert the Bruce (died 1329) and the Declaration of Arbroath (1320). More recent and relevant history does not so easily fit the victimhood bill. After all, the Stuarts had their eyes on the throne of England at least as much as the Tudors fancied theirs. Mary

The Tories are Boris Johnson’s Conservatives now

How much does Boris Johnson’s move to an early election resemble Mrs May’s disastrous one in 2017? In two important respects, not at all. He had to call an election because of the numbers in parliament: she did not. Voters understand this. He is also a born campaigner, while she — well, no more need be said. But there is a possible similarity between the two situations. In 2017, the manifesto described the Tories as ‘Theresa May’s Conservatives’. All the eggs were in her basket. It feels as if the Tories will be ‘Boris Johnson’s Conservatives’ this time, though no doubt that phrase won’t be in the manifesto. Whenever Boris

Tony Slattery is still a miraculously gifted comedian

Some of the marketing efforts by amateur impresarios up in Edinburgh are extraordinary. I was handed a leaflet for a poetry show called Don’t Bother. I didn’t. Tony Slattery appears in Slattery Will Get You Nowhere (a good pun that advertises the content), in which the ageing comic takes the audience back to the 1990s. In those days he was a handsome, clever, charismatic wag who suffered from an excess of self-regard. Now he’s a grizzled, ramshackle presence, jowly and ill-shaven, like a forgetful pensioner on his way to the day centre. He starts his show with a lot of banter about wine but he doesn’t drink on stage. Alongside

‘The Green Room’ Podcast from Spectator USA: the virtue of nationalism, with philosopher Yoram Hazony

‘Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,’ French president Emmanuel Macron said at last weekend’s Armistice Day ceremonies. ‘Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.’ You’d have to be a philosopher to make sense of that. My guest this week on The Green Room, Spectator USA’s Life & Arts podcast, is one: I’m casting the pod with the Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony, an expert on the philosophies of both religion

The sound of Iceland

The lur is a horn, modelled in bronze after a number of 3,000-year-old instruments discovered at various archaeological sites across Scandinavia. Its unrefined yet distinctive sound — penetrating, direct and rough-edged — seems to rise up through the body rather than enter through the ears, like the stirring of a long-forgotten memory. The instrument, whose long neck reaches high above the heads of its players, is the first thing one hears in Jon Leifs’s second Edda oratorio. Two of them intone bare, open fifths, resonating against sustained low notes in the woodwind, rising up through the orchestral texture as it fills out. When the choir enters, they too sing in

High life | 22 February 2018

Gstaad It was nostalgia time at Prince Victor Emmanuel’s birthday party here, with many old friends reminiscing about our youthful shenanigans in times gone by. Victor, the pretender to the Italian throne, and I go back a long way — more than 60 years. In a very roundabout manner, so do our families. His namesake and grandfather King Victor Emmanuel III facilitated Benito Mussolini’s rise to power, although he was the one who dismissed him in July 1943 and declared Italy no longer a combatant. My mother’s youngest brother wrote a fan letter to Il Duce, aged 12. Benito invited the boy to visit Italy as his guest, and sure

Period drama

Harpsichordists are supposed to make love, not war: Sir Thomas Beecham famously compared the sound they make to ‘two skeletons copulating on a tin roof’. But now two masters of the instrument, the Iranian-American Mahan Esfahani and the German Andreas Staier, are locked in mortal combat. For connoisseurs of finely tuned insults, it’s riveting stuff. For their colleagues it’s a wretched business, because one of the two musicians is setting fire to his own reputation. Also, a third harpsichordist — a gifted young Frenchman, Jean Rondeau — has been cruelly dragged into the feud. It goes without saying in period instrument circles that Esfahani picked the fight. The 33-year-old has

High life | 9 March 2017

A lousy fortnight if ever there was one. Two great friends, Lord Belhaven and Stenton and Aleko Goulandris, had their 90th birthday celebrations, and I missed both shindigs because of this damn bug. Lord Belhaven’s was in London, at the Polish Club, but flying there was verboten. Robin Belhaven is an old Etonian, served as an officer in Northern Ireland, farmed in Scotland, and has four children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He spent 35 years in the House of Lords when that institution was a responsible arm of the government and not a cesspool full of smarmy lawyers. His wife Malgosia is Polish-born and never fails to stand up

The Spectator podcast: May’s third way

On this week’s Spectator podcast, we discuss Theresa May’s Third Way, whether we could have an Uber for social care, and look at Mies van der Rohe’s unrealised plans for a Mansion House skyscraper. On the cover of this week’s magazine, Theresa May plots a course through the twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis, as she creates a new centreground between nationalism and globalism. So says James Forsyth, who writes this week on the new binary that has emerged in international politics. James is joined to discuss this on the podcast by Spectator editor Fraser Nelson. On the emergent dichotomy, James writes that: “Forget left and right — the new divide

Liam Fox confirms that Britain now has a nationalist government

Unlike the boss, I thought Liam Fox’s comments on fat and lazy British businesses that could be exporting more but aren’t because, well, an afternoon on the golf course is more comfortable than striving for Britain were deplorable. But they were also telling. Because they were a further confirmation that the United Kingdom now has a nationalist government. The liberal Toryism of the Cameron era is gone, sunk with a whimper in record time. In its place is a Conservative nationalism that envisages SS Britannia buccaneering its way across the world’s oceans. This, after all, was the animating spirit of what we might call the Brexit campaign’s more cheerful wing. Well, it’s a nice

The continent in crisis

Sir Ian Kershaw won his knight’s spurs as a historian with his much acclaimed two-volume biography of Hitler, Hubris and Nemesis. He is now attempting to repeat the feat with a two-volume history of modern Europe, of which this is the opening shot.Inevitably, the figure of the Führer once again marches across Kershaw’s pages as they chronicle the years dominated by Germany’s malign master. First the Great War that gave Hitler his chance to escape obscurity, and then the greater one he launched himself. Opening with the continent’s catastrophic slide into generalised conflict in 1914, Kershaw apportions blame or the disaster more or less equally to all the combatant nations.

Merkel’s folly

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”James Forsyth and Holly Baxter debate Merkel’s offer to Syrian refugees” startat=38] Listen [/audioplayer]Of all the irresponsible decisions taken in recent years by European politicians, few will cause as much human misery as Angela Merkel’s plan to welcome Syrian refugees to Germany. Hailed as enlightened moral leadership, it is in fact the result of panic and muddled thinking. Her pronouncements will lure thousands more into the hands of unscrupulous people-traffickers. Her insistence that the rest of the continent should share the burden will add political instability to the mix. Merkel has made a dire situation worse. On Tuesday last week, Germany declared that any Syrian who reaches the

Diary – 20 August 2015

This is the Corbyn summer. From the perspective of a short holiday, my overwhelming feeling is one of despair at my own semi-trade — the political commentariat, the natterati, the salaried yacketting classes. Who among us, really, predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would be romping ahead like this? Where were the post-election columns pointing out that David Cameron’s victory would lead to a resurgent quasi-Marxist left? And that’s just the beginning: how many of the well-connected, sophisticated, numerate political writers expected Labour to be slaughtered in the general election? Not me, that’s for sure. Going further back, how many people in 1992 told us John Major was an election winner? That Parris,

Does anybody still believe that the EU is a benign institution?

Ever since Margaret Thatcher U-turned in the dying days of her premiership, there has been a kind of agreement between Left and Right on what the European Union is. Most Conservatives followed the late-vintage Thatcher. They stopped regarding the EU as a free market that British business must be a part of, and started to see it as an unaccountable socialist menace that could impose left-wing labour and environmental policies on a right-wing government. As many critics have said, the Tory version of British nationalism that followed had many hypocrisies. It did not want foreigners infringing national sovereignty when they were bureaucrats in Brussels but did not seem to mind


Usually, one of the first indications that you’ve entered a bilingual country is that the road signs are in two languages. At least this is the case in Ireland or Wales — but not in Belgium. In Flanders, the signs are written in Dutch. In Wallonia, they are all in French. French is spoken in Flanders, by the small local Francophone community, but more notably by the huge number of French people who descend on Brugge for the Christmas sales. The French registration plates and the gaggle of overly loud wanderers with cameras are giveaways, but don’t even think about trying French here yourself. It’s considered rude if it’s not