Matthew Parris

Greeks just want to keep what they’ve got

The ‘no’ vote in Athens is simply what all of us would do – thanks to avantage acquis

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

We were breakfasting outside on the morning of the Greek referendum. The result could only be guessed at and all the polls were saying it was neck-and-neck. I thought ‘yes’ would win because surely Greek people believe in membership of the EU. Our friend Marie, however, who is French, announced that it would be a decisive ‘no’. Marie is neither a left-winger nor a Europhobe. ‘Why?’ her husband asked, ‘how do you know?’

Avantage acquis,’ she said. Few of us were fluent French speakers, but I made a guess: ‘You mean people’s sense of continuing entitlement to something they have already got?’ Yes, she said, such things are very hard to take away. So though we had agreed that the Greek electorate were being obstinate and irrational about hanging on to pensions, perks, jobs and salaries that had been funded by mounting national debt, that (said Marie) was just how most people are. It wasn’t a wrongheadedness peculiar to Greeks. It was the way people — all people — think. There arises in minds and hearts a presumption that what you’ve always had is rightfully yours. Reason alone, however compelling, can be powerless against that instinct. You don’t feel you’re being selfish. Custom, practice and long-standing possession become a moral argument in themselves.

Now in a sense this is obvious, and well-known in politics. That is why our government would never alter the pension age for people already receiving a pension. It is why, when they take away (as eventually they must) some of the silly benefits available to rich pensioners — heating allowances, free public transport, no prescription charges and the like — they will have to announce the change so far in advance that the first cohort to be affected will hardly yet have begun to think those benefits theirs.

It is why, too, when it becomes absolutely unavoidable that an avantage acquis be withdrawn, the group who are singled out must not be not too numerous, or popular, or sympathetically regarded by others. The poll tax withdrew from the great majority of our population their exemption from local taxes. The logic was powerful but the change hit too many people too hard, all at once. I wish I’d realised this at the time.


Why didn’t I? A clue to the answer lay in the composition of the little group of us around that breakfast table last week. Almost all of us were involved in politics or the media.

It struck me as we talked that we were, every one of us, taking a God’s-eye view of issues of rights and responsibilities. We were thinking as judges think: standing back disinterestedly. Unwittingly we had slipped into the mindset of the adjudicator. This created, between us and the vast majority of citizens, a most significant gulf. And I do wonder whether our journalists, commentators and the whole political and administrative class, are fully aware of that gulf? It was keeping us from making accurate estimates about how people — in this case the Greek people — would react. The mindset we needed to adopt was that of the estimator or assessor, not the magistrate.

Fitfully, I think, capable politicians do understand this. Margaret Thatcher did in her earlier years sense the need to reward even undeserving friends, and to pick enemies off patiently, partially in small groups, one by one and when the time was right. She could block her ears to moral logic. It was when she started making grand arguments about what people deserved rather than sly ones about what they expected that her political judgment began to slip.

Media people like myself, however, are less aware than we should be of the extent to which our calling inclines us to become half-assimilated into the political and administrative class we are supposed to be observing. Discussing the generality of our fellow citizens we slide, like politicians, into the language (and mental habit) of ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘by rights’ and ‘fairness’. We editorialise. We pronounce when perhaps we would do better to count.

We do, of course — as even MPs and mandarins do — experience life as ordinary citizens. We are subject to tax, the criminal law and traffic regulations. We listen to a Budget statement with the occasional thought as to how a measure might affect us personally. Less often — but occasionally — we do try to put ourselves in the frame of mind of the millions of ‘ordinary’ people we do not know. But time and again our minds return to what we might call the ‘national interest’ — and, there we go again, judging, adjudicating, moralising. Perhaps we think this is high-minded and perhaps it is, but there are circumstances when high-mindedness in a journalist can be almost unprofessional.

Amongst commentators like myself the vice is encouraged by our readers. Our likely audience is stacked against the ‘But how does this affect me?’ tendency and in favour of the ‘What’s best for the country?’ brigade. Our readers tend to be wise citizens who value impartiality, well able to distinguish between their own interests and those of the nation, and who themselves incline to the judicial rather than the pocket-calculator view of politics. Good people, all of you subscribers to The Spectator or the Times — very much my kind of people — and we can fair-mindedly discuss who should get what. We can conclude that the Greeks are being ridiculous; or that people on higher earnings should pay more for social housing; or that the old domestic rating system was manifestly unfair.

But what we cannot do is suppose that our conclusions are of the remotest interest to a struggling Greek innkeeper or a dustman who has always paid a capped rent for his family’s council flat. ‘The Greeks’ are not ‘feckless’. They simply want to hang on to what they’ve got.

Avantage acquis. Had I thought about that, I might have predicted the Greek shock last week.

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  • Archibald

    Avantage acquis v acquis communautaire

  • Richard Eldritch

    It was a sh1t article the first time Mathew, can’t think why you’ve written it again…..
    But just so you know; You aren’t very clever Mathew, nor are you much of a writer. You are in no danger of speaking from an elevated position, in fact it’s your feeble intellect thats catching up with us Clacton plebs. You seem to be a limited man who has based his whole shtick around being a Tory (well Libdem really) Homosexual as if anyone cared…… Go and do something usefull instead of boring us with your absurd opinions and ten year late “Insights”

  • Tom M

    The thought I am left with after reading the article is that it takes some longer than others to see the obvious.

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  • michael lindley

    What a loose headline comment, If everyone paid honest dues into their country’s coffers and that revenue was carefully monitored before investing in the maintenance of all infrastructures the world would be a safer place for everyone

  • Dominico

    “The Greeks just want to keep what they have got.” ????
    But they’ve got B*gger All!

    • Hugh Jeego

      They want to keep what the rest of the EU has lent them. In a way, you can’t blame them, as they have absolutely no way of repaying the loans, without more loans, which they have absolutely no way of repaying without more loans……..

  • trace9

    Beginning to think that – nice-looking, eh Matty? – new Greek PM was really The Euro-ian Candidate.. Has he a really Demanding mother?…

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2015/01/12/charlie-hebdo-reveals-next-cover-a-cartoon-of-prophet-muhammad-behind-the-sign-je-suis-charlie/?tid=pm_pop

  • jeffersonian

    Oh no…not again?

    Doesn’t she ever shut up?

  • Dan O’Connor

    Non-mainstream media news ;

    The Greek goverment is in the process of doing a Labour goverment
    ” rub the right’s face in diversity ” on the Greek people, by fast tracking
    ( gerrymandering a new electorate ) by fast tracking as many illegal African and Muslim immigrants as possible into Greek citizenship so they can socially engineer the demographics vote and keep the Greek CultMarxians in power for ever
    Greece has a population of 11 million .

    • Mode4

      Merkel is doing exactly the same in Germany.

  • Mc

    The more important failings that MP didn’t mention, from which the overwhelming bulk of journalists suffer: rank stupidity, zero logic, narcissism, self absorption, colossal egos and an unwavering belief that they have something important to say.

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  • Goinlike Billio

    I certainly agree that Matthew deserves some of the abuse he is clearly receiving here. He puts it forward as if it were some great insight and one ‘well known’ to politicians . No Matthew it is well known to people other than politicians .It is you who has a blind spot about it.
    The idea that people adapt their habits to gain advantage from a political system and then are loathe to change that system however rotten is surely not that remarkable or is it only people who vote UKIP who are aware of the dangers ?
    It is not surprising that it was his French friend Marie who pointed this out to him. She understands the French Revolution. A system of tax reliefs , tiny privileges ,tax advantages etc extended way down into society creating a stable system which was supported by large numbers of people within it. Revolutions are the only certain way of removing political systems once they are established

  • Precambrian

    “‘The Greeks’ are not ‘feckless’. They simply want to hang on to what they’ve got.”

    Did they get “what they’ve got” by being feckless though?

    “Our readers tend to be wise citizens who value impartiality, well able
    to distinguish between their own interests and those of the nation, and
    who themselves incline to the judicial rather than the pocket-calculator
    view of politics”

    Are you being ironic here, or are you genuinely trying to pander to vanity?

  • Always_Worth_Saying

    There’s a completely self absorbed media political bubble in London? Thank goodness for Mathew Parris’s unique perception, the rest of us would never have guessed.

  • will91

    Sick of people alleviating the responsibility the Greeks have for this mess!

    Greek public sector employees are entitled to 14 monthly paychecks per annum. As well as 14 monthly retirement checks to per annum till death. Sounds very nice, but unfortunately, Greece has one of the lowest birth rates on the planet (just 1.3 children per couple). Therefore, there’ll be no around to pay for any of this.

    Furthermore, the majority of public sector workers retire at 58!!! As Mark Steyn remarked “When ten grandparents have for grandkids, whose going to pay for you to spend one third of your adult life loafing around!”

    In Greece, there are 580 professions which qualify as “Hazardous” meaning you can retire at 50 on full pension. Hazardous professions? You mean mining and bomb disposal? Nope hairdressing (due to handling different chemicals every day).

    One last funny one, in response to government austerity packages in 2010 Greek tax collectors went on strike and refused to collect taxes!

    This rot is set deep within Greek society.

    • UKSteve

      I assume you saw Channel 4’s “Go Greek for a week”?

      Some civil servants can retire at 38, and some are paid an extra 400 euros per month if they can work a photocopier and fax machine.

      World’s highest Porsche ownership per capita? North Athens.

    • Sue Smith

      I’m afraid it isn’t just confined to Greece. Many western countries have the entitlement mentality which is so fundamental to the corrosive economic mindset in Greece. I can’t remember, in my own lifetime, where entitlement was such a huge issue in the western world and I can only put that down to shrill leftist activists/class warriors who’ve screamed so long and so loud that socialism is the new world order. And they will hear no alternate opinion. As I’ve said before “thinking” and “the left” should never appear closely contiguous in any sentence. These people don’t “think”, they “emote”. Or, as another commentator recently said here in Australia, “the left doesn’t have principles, it has positions on issues”.

      Let Greece be a warning….

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  • edlancey

    Glad to see the dreary Parris has as much of a clue about Greece as he has about the UK – absolutely none.

  • HeavensGremlin .

    Keep what they’ve got….? What they have got is Billions of Euros of OTHER PEOPLES MONEY….!!!!

  • Bonkim

    Greeks had too much of a good thing and were not aware that they have to pay the bill some time.

  • Ambientereal

    Almost the same happened in Argentina in 2002. People refused to give up some rights like reduce their salaries or reduce the debts the state had with them. In principle, the whole crisis could have been overcome with a reduction of about 15 % in the state obligations. Without that reduction, the value of the money fell by 200 % so, that the salaries had after the crisis only one third of their value. The ones that had high debts (of course the richest) saw their debts reduced (in real value, because they where calculated in the currency that had lost its value by 200 %).

  • Ambientereal

    If I ask my son “would you like me to give you some money or would you rather not?” He will surely answer that he has no objection in receiving that money. But if instead I ask him “would you like me to give you some money, that you will return next week with a 10% interest” then he will give a second thought to the matter. Asking the Greeks if they will give up willingly some of their rights can only have a no for an answer. They should have been asked if they want to stay in the euro zone or if they want instead be payed by the state with valueless drachmas, because if Greece leaves the Euro zone, the most damaged will be the ones that receive help from the state in form of salary, pensions and so one. If you ask the wrong question then you will receive the wrong answer.

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      He robs banks. But only part-time.

  • Spock Puppet

    How to write such a turgid article that it makes the Greek crisis sound really boring.

  • I would imagine that, after today’s news, the Athens Police will have the water cannon out again tonight. Civil war beckons.

  • Augustus

    It’s all very well for Greeks to take their so-called ‘advantage’ for granted, but nothing can justify their representatives comparing their creditors to Hitler’s regime. An unbelievable insult to contemporary Germans. Nobody accuses the children of the former Greek colonels of being responsible for the human rights violations of the colonel’s regime. Which just goes to show what a complete lack of negotiating skill their Prime Minister showed with his country in such a dependent situation.

  • Mode4

    It’s a very poor article and offers no insight into the Greek situation that we hadn’t already guessed way before Parris’s French friend had her moment of epiphany. Parris needs to look for another profession if he’s going to continue with this drivel.

  • grammarschoolman

    The point is that welfare states are toxic. The sooner we dismantle ours, the better.

  • FF42

    It’s an interesting idea. Your friend obviously called the result correctly, but she was wrong on the interpretation in my view. The possession advantage would go with the Yes vote in this case. You can make a case that Greece would be best to leave the euro, inflate its obligations away, and start with a clean slate. Those obligations would include people’s bank accounts and other assets, fixed pensions promises and so on. There was a reason why older and richer people voted Yes. They had more to lose – the possession advantage.

    The motivation for voting No is something else and it also ties into the Yes vote in Scotland’s referendum last year. It’s partly sticking two fingers up at the status quo, voting for the idea of change, but not expecting consequential change. So Greek No voters expected to remain in the Euro, even though they were voting against the measures that would make it possible. Scottish Yes voters expected the Scottish economy and welfare system to remain at least as good as it is now, even though the country would definitely be outside its very closely integrated main market, possibly outside the EU and probably outside the UK currency zone. It would also lose the pooling of welfare that is advantageous to Scotland.

    The point is, voters are not making choices between alternatives where Yes and No have their advantages and disadvantages. They are voting as a statement, without considering the consequences. A bit worrying.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    It really is appalling………………

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