The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Just a “Matter of Time”

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London Mayor Sadiq Khan © Frederic Legrand – COMEO

June 26, 2018 11:01 EDT

With Brexit in mind, is the UK neglecting its historically defined responsibilities with the rest of the world, especially former colonies with darker populations?

As the deeper implications of Brexit become clearer and its untold consequences murkier, The Times of India reports on the concerns expressed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan with the UK government’s immigration policies, in particular as they apply to Indian students.

The government’s recently announced policy aimed at facilitating visa application procedures specifically excludes India, the pretext being the prevention of Indians overstaying their visas. In a gesture to reassure the troubled mayor, UK Foreign Office Minister Mark Field “told the audience of senior business and political leaders at the UK-India Awards that the government was determined to make the changes necessary and it was just a matter of time before these become visible.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Matter of time:

A convenient expression promising that unknown factors will prevent a desirable action from ever occurring, even though everyone agrees it should be a priority

Contextual note

The visible rise of populism, kicked off by the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in 2016, has engulfed the entire Western hemisphere, although pockets of resistance are emerging in different places. Trump’s extremism with regard to his border policy has set off a major backlash, forcing him to back off slightly, if only temporarily. Mayor Khan’s protests appear to resonate enough to cause the minister to affirm that the government would make “the changes necessary,” though he didn’t bother to define “necessary.” The Daily Devil’s Dictionary would offer the following definition: The minimum required to keep critics from vituperating.

We’ve chosen instead to focus on “a matter of time,” which the French, having a more ironic attitude toward time, would express as “à la St Glinglin” — i.e. it refers to something that should happen sometime before the feast day of St Glinglin (a non-existent saint’s name). As an expression, “a matter of time” is a godsend to bureaucrats because it sounds official, neutral and even scientific. After all, matter and time sum up Albert Einstein’s four-dimensional universe.

Historical note

It’s doubly ironic that the minister should speak about time to a mixed British and Indian audience. As cultural analysts long ago discovered, the British conception of time puts a high value on punctuality, in contrast with Indian time, which is extremely flexible. What this means is that if you have planned a meeting in London for 4 pm or a dinner for 8 pm, they will happen at 4 pm and 8 pm and latecomers will be noticed, with an obligation to offer an apologetic explanation. In India, the time and timing of appointments will be flexible.

Moreover, as one expert reminds us, “ Contrary to in Western society, it is considered bad manners in India to arrive on time, and good manners would be to arrive 15 to 30 minutes late.” When a Brit promises something that will happen “in due time” or in “a matter of time,” it simply means that the usual rule of careful planning and punctuality has been suspended.

The real problem revealed by this debate has nothing to do with time. It reflects the pressure created not just by the Brexit vote, but by the populist mood associated with it, that sees Indian culture and those of other former colonies as unwanted parasites that have defaced merry old England. Politicians can’t deny the historical link with India in particular — now a powerful nation in its right — but with the surge of xenophobic populist sentiment they fear real or imagined voters who want to “make England great again” by neglecting and effectively effacing, once the ties with Europe are severed, all their historically defined responsibilities with the rest of the world, especially former colonies with darker populations.

There was a time when a famous 20th-century poet from a former colony, who adopted England as much as England adopted him, insisted on tying together the consequence of acts in time, wrote: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future.”

Politicians have good reason to prefer separating them, pushing the past, present and future as far as possible from one another. What matters may always be returned to (or forgotten) “in a matter of time.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand – COMEO /

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