Tuesday, 20 December 2011


As out of date now as all those old ones...
Kádár, Ceaucescu and Hungarian oranges

In the mid eighties, Mária Hári liked telling this one. In her fractured English it sounded something like this –
In Germany, everything that is not permish is forbidden.
In England everything that is not forbidden is permish.
In Hungary, everything is forbidden, but it is permish.
(In retrospect, I wonder whether in her head she was actually saying permisch.)

I was reminded of this yesterday when browsing through the seasonally overflowing ‘humour’ section in a local Waterstone’s bookshop, where I lit by chance upon the following, from the Anglo-Irish jurist Robert Megarry –
Whereas in England all is permitted that is not expressly prohibited, it has been said that in Germany all is prohibited unless expressly permitted and in France all is permitted that is expressly prohibited….
Not specifically one of those Communist-era jokes after all then, as Google quickly confirms!

Then and now

There was a time when such broad generalisations might truly have reflected certain social truths in British and European societies with respect to the individual rights of citizens, at least with respect to the lives of their middle classes.

It was this understanding of our rights that emboldened and permisched us to go ahead and initiate conductive services in the nineteen-eighties, and establish conductor-training at degree level in the nineteen-nineties. Continental contemporaries could not understand how we g coouild do it, in either case, since there were no regulations to allow what we were trying to do. The answer of cours was simple. There was nothing to say that we could not.

The erosion of simple liberal freedoms was already then under way, however, on all sorts of fronts, amounting by the early twentieth century to a veritable landslide of centralism and bureaucratic regulation, burying all sorts in its path. It is always easy to blame such on ‘Europe’ or ‘Brussels’, and doubtless there is some truth in this. Things would not, however, have come their present pass, had the whole stifling process not fitted in with a chronic, pervasive streak of authoritarianism and illiberalism amongst the British ‘progressive’ classes, flourishing under Blairism but book-ended by regimes before and after.

I still try to live my life, however, as though my world were still much as I grew up to expect. It gets harder and harder to do so, though, and I do wonder whether we could get away today with what we did in the eighties. Put it differently, whether the windows of opportunity open to us then, are not now screwed firmly shut.

Ah, Europe!

By the way, Robert Megarry had added (for some reason missed out of Steven Gauge's excellent little compilation) –

In the European Common Market no-one knows what is permitted and it all costs more.
Is that still so now? I have no idea.


Gauge, S. (2011) Political Wit, Chichester, Summersdale

Megarry, R. (1972) Law and lawyers in a permissive society (lecture), 22 March

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