Don's Diary

August 7, 1998


Attend the faculty research committee. This represents the culmination of a vast trawling exercise into the status, location, performance and solvency of every student in the large graduate school. As usual, the meeting generates the kind of tension only known to poker players down to their shirts. The opening exchanges are even but then a rush of adrenalin with a nasty case of a missing Tunisian. I hit back with a strong hand of in-depth knowledge on the upgrading of an MPhil to a part-time PhD status, complete with backdating and financial options. But all to no avail.


Letter-writing to postgraduates is made difficult by the sounds of frantic drumming from the arts centre and screaming seagulls on top of the nearby physics building. The two al fresco master classes in behavioural dysfunction epitomise the surreal juxtaposition of Aberystwyth's many identities. It is one of the reasons why the study of international politics has flourished here. Aber is at one and the same time isolated and crowded, insular and cosmopolitan, contemplative and extrovert - a centre on the periphery constituting in effect a city state where there is sanctuary for subversive ideas and critical licence. Keeping an eye on the big picture here is not a problem. Look around and there it is in every direction. Denis Healey's "hinterland" as a spatial construct.


As the immediate aftermath of Blair's reshuffle starts to subside, it is clear that the important story of a reorganised cabinet office, equipped with managerial systems and mission statements, is being lost behind the depiction of Jack Cunningham as a lone "enforcer" - another case of the personalisation of structural change through a premiership that embodies constitutional reform by other means.


The contrast could not be greater between Blair - high on the cycle of personal projection and public engagement - and Bill Clinton on the down side of saturated exposure. The British premier gives visual and symbolic weight to his sense of otherness by his "rose garden" review of the government's record. Clinton's own celebrations of leadership have long since imploded behind the savvy of presidential forms. Scandals have become an art form in the United States. They are subsidised by the state through special prosecutors and concentrate on periodic exhibitions with effects similar to those produced by the Tate Gallery in London - much earnest acknowledgement of the exhibits' importance yet accompanied with little sustained interest.

Wordsworth's allusion to the "savage torpor" of the general public is an apt one in this case because for a scandal to become a political scandal, it has to connect to that which is normally suppressed; it has to provide a point of access and paranormal intensity to what would otherwise be protean complaint. Not much sign of that with this one. The needle on the moral fundamentalism seismograph is hardly twitching. My own torpor is broken through being strafed by angry seagulls in the car park.


The Bill and Monica show has now pushed Tony and Gordon off the front pages and conversations among colleagues begin to assume the "Carry On" genre of the British press. Once again, the politics of the world's only remaining superpower is reduced to the reassuring frivolity of the double entendre. Everybody is "at it". Even the seagulls cackle inanely and interminably. Given the inventiveness and promiscuity of the English language, it is almost impossible not to stumble across a risque remark.

And yet in the home of conspiracy theories, there is little affection for the conspiracies of the English language where "the other" is involved. The American regard for understatement, indirection and the rest of the intricate freemasonry of winking ambiguity is low. Maybe a Pentagon spokesperson will soon confirm that "we do mountains, not twin peaks".


Clinton-watching leads to idle speculation over whether the development of the presidential dimension in British politics could lead to a similar emphasis on decapitation strikes over here. Could we do high-octane political scandals? Are we up to staging a tragic spectacle in which a prime minister's inner turmoil becomes a Rorschach test for the general public? Just as it is difficult to imagine Bobby Charlton imitating O. J. Simpson, so it is difficult to think of a prolonged investigation into whether or not the premier had indeed pursued the third way in the Social Exclusion Unit. Far more likely to be business as usual in which politics is scandal by other means. A seagull slams into the window. What can it mean in a week when Linda Tripp asserts that "I am all of you" and the term "transactional immunity" enters the language? Is it Heathcliff or merely Camille Paglia? No time to fathom the Gothic resonances. I have to go out and check on the big picture.

Michael Foley

Professor of international politics, University of Wales,Aberystwyth.

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