Decline of an empire?

Almost three weeks on. The USA is out of Afghanistan. Recriminations continue, and pundits have their say. Tony Blair called it imbecilic, and argued West should stay to protect its gains. Niall Ferguson looked to historical analogies, and specifically Britain’s experience after 1918, focusing on the idea of decline of empire. He quoted Winston Churchill bitterly recalling a ‘refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the state.’ He quotes this against Biden, when it could be quoted in his favour. Biden has always been consistent on Afghanistan – see my last blog.

Ferguson as always gets to the heart of the matter but I’m not convinced by analogies. My experience as an historian tells me to enter caveats at every stage. Ferguson raised the spectre of American economic weakness, and the size of American debt.  But with a strong internal economy in no way is its economic situation comparable to Britain’s in the 1920s.

And what are the ‘gains’ the West has achieved in Afghanistan? We established a thriving outpost, with less than friendly counties on all sides. Abandoning it is a calamity, and it was massively mismanaged, but it had an inevitability about it. The Afghan army without the all-important bond and commitment of a national (as opposed to tribal) identity was always an artificial construct, and unlikely to hold together under duress, as the Taliban proved.  

It sounds as if I’m writing with the advantage of hindsight – which I am, of course. But the military reality should have been perfectly clear to the Americans. To Biden it may only have been the sheer speed of the collapse that took him by surprise.

The Economist was forthright: ‘America’s power to deter its enemies and re-assure its friends has diminished.’  ‘Its withdrawal is likely to embolden jihadists everywhere.’

Is that right? The Taliban will have no truck with terrorists. To have their success seen as a rallying call for Al-Shabaab, or any branch of IS, is in no way in their interest.  They made that mistake back in 2001. Their leaders know a little of life in Qatar.

It’s in the West’s interests to engage with the Taliban, to release (subject to conditions) the World Bank funding that is currently suspended, and to allow food programmes, specifically the World Food Programme, to continue, without conditions.

The first condition must be to show that the Taliban can assert its authority over all the whole country, and hold it together where all previous attempts have failed. The second is humanitarian – above all women’s rights, with regard to education and employment.

The Taliban may go part way, testing Western resolve. Our approach has to be pragmatic.

Biden, and Trump, and Obama, were all right: the USA has to focus on the Pacific, and China, while Europe and NATO ups its game in Europe. The oil imperative is not what it was. The Middle East and by extension Islam and Afghanistan no longer need to be theatres of Western operation. And we now know that the wider world doesn’t look upon Western-style democracy as some universal panacea.

Impose values (however sure we may be that they are right) and resentment, and then outright opposition, are likely to follow. We need to remind ourselves that we lead best by example.

And that, turning the focus back on ourselves, is a hard hard road.

Why?

Kabul has fallen. What can I say that doesn’t sound trite. Listen to the ex-solder Tom Tugendhat, who served in Afghanistan, speaking in the House of Commons, and I’m minded to hold back.

But there is one question I keep on asking myself, the big question, the ‘why’ question. Why did Joe Biden allow it to happen?

I thought I’d check what Barack Obama has to say (in ‘A Promised Land’) about the discussions they had within his newly-elected administration in 2009. The USA, he writes, already had 30,000 troops there, plus 10,000 troops from other countries, and the military were pressing for the deployment of another 30,000. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates warned of unintended consequences that could follow from rash actions.

In Obama’s words: ‘Unless we established limited and realistic objectives, he [Gates] told me, “we set ourselves up for failure”.’

Obama continues, ‘Among the principals only Joe Biden expressed his misgivings. He had travelled to Afghanistan on my behalf during the transition and what he saw and heard on the trip – particularly a contentious meeting with Karzai – had convinced him that we need to rethink our whole approach to Afghanistan…he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire and urged me to delay deployment, suggesting it would be easier to put troops in once we had a clear strategy as opposed to pulling troops out after we’d made a mess with a bad one.’

Biden has been by his lights entirely consistent. American strategy over the twelve years since he became Obama’s vice-president has been focused on nation-building, and putting that new nation on a secure basis, and guaranteeing that security. That simply hasn’t happened. The Taliban never went away. Warlords guarded their patches. Bribery remained endemic. Kabul, with many of the trappings of a big Western city, was the exception. And why should we have ever supposed that an Afghan government army drawn largely (I’m assuming) from outside Kabul would ever stand and fight against a single-minded and often brutal Taliban insurgency?

China and the ex-Soviet republics lie to the north. Taliban-sympathising Pakistan to the east, Iran to the west. What chance was there of guaranteeing Kabul, let alone Afghanistan, a Western-style democratic future?

Only if the US retained a big military presence – and the American public, 70% in one poll I’ve seen, wanted out.

Jon Sopel on the BBC website suggests the Americans could have delayed their withdrawal to the winter season, when no-one fights in Afghanistan. But that wouldn’t have made much difference in the end. Kabul would have fallen.

But not in such a catastrophic fashion.

Did Biden really believe the Afghan army would put up strong resistance? Was he just badly advised? Is this just another, and terrible, example, of that American insensitivity, that lack of awareness, which has so bedevilled its foreign policy ventures since World War Two?

This one matters. Women in Afghanistan face an uncertain future. It may be a terrible future. Kabul is far more than another political catastrophe. It could be a humanitarian catastrophe of an extreme kind.

Big decisions need fallback positions. Halting the withdrawal, or maintaining full air cover for the Afghan army, at the very least. All or nothing is no strategy.

The new buccaneers

A curious piece, tongue-in-cheek, but neat, in a recent edition of The Economist.

‘Mr Johnson understood intuitively that the financial crisis had ended the neoliberal consensus…No mere Trumpian wrecking ball he is trying to reshape globalisation in the mould of Britain’s buccaneering maritime past, rather than in the European Union’s bureaucratic pettifoggery.’

Buccaneering. How do you ‘buccaneer’ these days?

Container ships could be the new buccaneers. Where once we had tea clippers and cargo ships. We’ll need a bit of the old aggression, against Chinese and indeed the Americans if we’re to capture markets, and of course against our old friends, the Europeans. Piracy would help. Conquest shouldn’t be ruled out.

Or if that’s beyond us, overseas markets will least welcome a bit of the old imperial chutzpah. It will be as if we’d never been away.

The EU’s ‘bureaucratic pettifoggery’. But isn’t it what successful free trade requires, a bit of pettifoggery? Small print. A few regulations, so we’re all on the same page. In olden times, we wrote our own. It was easier then. (Yes, regulations need to be reined it: it was always thus.)

You need the high seas and a big reach if you’re to buccaneer. But ‘big reach’, also known as globalisation, isn’t really that fashionable at the moment, beyond our shores. Buy American is the watchword over the pond. China is focusing more on its internal market, and on its Belt and Road for which there’s no equivalent here in the West. China on its doorstep bludgeons with overwhelming economic power. We negotiate as best we can.

We had our own strong internal market, just twenty miles away over the Channel, twenty-eight countries strong, but we gave it up, and put stop-gaps and confusion in its place. And hide our confusion with hyperbole.

Liz Truss’s article on the Politico website back in March is a fine example. A few quotes:

‘We will work together to reshape the rules of global trade to reflect our core values…The U.K.’s values-driven policy has already delivered successes in trade negotiations….Just as free trade made the U.K. great in the 19th century, we can be even greater still in the 21st by becoming a global hub for services and digital trade.’

We’re back to being … buccaneers. And nowadays the world’s awash with buccaneers. We could find ourselves with brief spells of comparative advantage, where we outperform our rivals, or corner a niche in the market, only to find we’re overtaken as other countries seek to build advantage for themselves in the same areas, which could be digital, medical or services. As a mature economy we specialise at the high end. As other economies mature, so will they.

Free trade in the highly fluid modern world can’t remotely be compared with the 19th century as a driver of community prosperity. That was built on certainty, and the confidence born of certainty, and it was even then a long, rocky, risky and highly uncertain road. Politics in the wrong hands deals in simplicities. History hits you hard with a reminder of just how extraordinarily complex is the reality.

Strong communities and long supply lines can be a poor mix, with little connection between businesses tucked away in business parks and nearby towns and villages. Community in its widest sense requires shorter, more guaranteed lines of supply, with industries which can sell strongly into local markets, or into UK-wide markets, or indeed into EU-wide markets. We need a different and wiser mindset, which focuses in developing our UK and European markets, and which, while promoting trade with China, Japan, India and the ASEAN countries, avoids obsession.

We’ve also had Johnson’s 15th July ‘levelling up’ speech.

‘We are turning this country into a science superpower, doubling public investment in R and D to £22 billion and we want to use that lead to trigger more private sector investment and to level up across the country so that we have hubs or research and innovation like the one we are in today which is actually driving battery technology.’

All this is admirable. But is this government competent to deliver? Have we any reason save their bluster to believe them? Our best hope lies in the local mayors of cities lie Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, also Teesside. Labour and Tory – they do have the competence.

We simply have the wrong people in power to get close to addressing, let alone solving, the issues of our time. We’ve over the last twenty years seen the disappearance of men and women of calibre from our politics. Johnson has ensured that the old high-calibre politicians won’t touch his party. On the other side, Corbyn didn’t help. The way back isn’t proving easy.

Let’s hear it for ideas and intellect

I note that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a new exhibition, opened last month, on the history of enslavement in the Netherlands and its former colonies. Shouldn’t we be doing the same? Wasn’t slavery an integral part of the socio-economic system out of which grew our own?

I’d thought until recent years that the genie was out of the bottle. There would be no going back. But that’s what our government, by attempting to repress debate, is trying to do. Ideas, intellect, social responsibility, compassion – they should be driving the modern world.

Compassion, at a government level, went missing in the years of (unrestored) welfare cuts in the Osborne era. Now after fifteen months of Covid it’s been rediscovered by the government, and commoditised. It has a value, it can be directed. ‘Penny Mordaunt, a minister responsible for social contingencies and co-author of “Greater: Britain after the storm”, wants the state to harness those who volunteered to battle coronavirus, directing them towards “national missions such as elderly care”.’ (The Economist)

These are the carers who battled away through the years of government austerity cuts. They have been there, all the time. Unrecognised. Now they have ‘utility’.

Intellect, ideas… we have a government scared of universities, scared of academic debate, scared of museums. And the mood is picked up by the dominant media (all right of centre, save for the Guardian and the Mirror).

David Aaronovitch had a considered piece on the subject of restitution in a recent edition of The Times. The Benin bronzes feature. So too the ardent decolonisers, who scorn museums as great colonial hangovers. We have the liberal leaders of the British Museum and the V&A, the likes of Tristan Hunt and Neil MacGregor, ‘with their talk of “universal” institutions.’

What he doesn’t address is the stonewall refusal of the right-wing to recognise there’s any kind of issue. But that refusal is there in the article’s headline, which I trust Aaronovitch didn’t approve, ‘We can’t allow radicals to strip our museums.’

The Times is sometimes in danger of being little more than alternative Telegraph. There is in this case nuance in the article – but the headline suggests a rant.  It’s white and black post-Brexit world where we must take sides.

Two pages back in the same issue we’d an article by a young guy called James Marriott headed ‘Academic intelligence is absurdly overvalued’. As an example: ‘I spent most of a term studying 17th century sermons.’ I did something similar in my time reading history at Oxford. But I also studied the Crusades, the American Civil War, the Renaissance, the medieval world, and I damned well thought about them – and had to get my ideas down in essays. I applied my critical faculties to history, and that’s what I still try to do.

Marriott waffles about ‘practical intelligence which is to do with the “tacit knowledge”’ of how things work and how  do get things done’. History would appear to have been a wasted education in his case.

We’d also a Times leader arguing against ‘taking the knee’. A posh white-man’s newspaper – is that really how The Times sees itself these days? It’s for the players black, white, African, Asian… it’s for them to decide. They are close to discrimination. They live with it. Not the editors of national newspapers.

John Witherow, as editor of The Times, and an employee of Rupert Murdoch, has a difficult tight-rope to walk. I can see that. The country needs a paper like The Times. I will continue to read it (and other papers as well of course!), and read between the lines.   

Museums – first steps toward censorship

A quick note this sunny bank holiday morning. Get the serious stuff off my mind before enjoying the day.

My last blog took in Empire and trade and how we handle our colonial legacy. I mentioned that Oxford’s Oriel College had decided not to ‘begin the process of removing’ the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Instead they’ve outlined a series of initiatives which will take the controversy as a starting point – a strategic plan for improving equality, diversity and inclusion, a tutor to cover the same, scholarships, an annual lecture, student prize…

This has to be the right way forward. The focus on context. By understanding context the college and by extension the university and indeed anyone who will listen can move forward.

The following report from the Independent has a very different story. It speaks for itself:

A trustee who backed the ‘decolonising’ of the curriculum has been purged from the board of a prestigious museum group, triggering the resignation of its chair in protest. The refusal to reappoint Aminul Hoque – a leading Bangladeshi-British academic – at the Royal Museums Greenwich is being seen as the latest example of the government’s ‘culture war’.

Likewise this item from the Museums Journal, highlighting a letter sent to national museums by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden which stated that ‘publicly-funded bodies should align with the government’s stance on contested heritage’.

‘The government did not “support the removal of statues or other similar objects” and told recipients (of a letter sent to national museums) that he “would expect arm’s lengths bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position”’.

This is simply sinister. The issue here is not the removal or otherwise of statues. It is the wider agenda implied. It represents an attempt to influence research into and the presentation of our cultural heritage which is simply unprecedented. That heritage, the impact of colonisation on the world, is what it is. And it needs to be centre-stage if we’re to understand the world we live in, and change it for the better.

Dowden insists that museums ‘continue to act impartially’ and by so doing interferes in an unprecedented and highly partial and dangerous way.

It is consistent with attempts to stir up a wider opposition to the BBC as a licence-funded operation, using its news coverage, which is to an impartial observer (check out opinions from other country’s on this!) remarkably impartial in an ever-more divided world, as an excuse for turning it into just another subscription channel, and thereby losing its identity as a national channel – leaving British TV open to market forces, which has of course been Rupert Murdoch’s aim all along.

The Diana/Martin Bashir story is almost twenty-five years old but is being treated as if it’s current news. By the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press. Murdoch is of course about to launch Times Radio to compete with BBC Radio.

We live in dangerous times, with the Americanisation of our media, and the serious consequences that could result, a real possibility. The tabloids and Telegraph and Times won’t help us. Their owners ensure their readers are unaware of the hard realities. Journalists and writers to get published need to toe the line. The BBC likewise must toe the line: it cannot make a case for itself. Social media is a deeply divided and contentious space.

Those of us who can must make our case as best we can. The wider public, most certainly in the case of the BBC, is on our side. Open minds and impartiality have become part of our DNA. We must not give them up lightly.

And so the Empire lives on….

I visited Daylesford in the Cotswolds yesterday, famous for its farm shop, and explored its vast and well-tended (woodland and pasture and water meadow) estate. How many I wonder connect the estate to Warren Hastings, famous, or infamous, as the 18th century governor-general of India, and subject of remarkable impeachment proceedings (beginning in 1788) when he was labelled by Edmund Burke among other epithets as ‘shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious’.

The East India Company in the 18th century was the forerunner of the Raj. But it was back then in essence a trading company, militarised under Robert Clive, not least to combat French influence on the sub-continent. Trade brooked no rivals. The moral conscience of the nation was stirred, but trade had its own momentum. In Burke’s words, ‘(the Company appears) more like an army going to pillage the people under the pretence of commerce than anything else’.

Ten years later (1799) victory over Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, ensured control of southern India. ‘Scarcely a house in the town [Seringapatam] was left unplundered,’ Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, wrote to his mother. The loot was extraordinary. It overwhelms our museums.

How, I wondered, does trade morph into empire, when the exigencies of trading relationships are replaced by the subjugation of whole populations? Local agreements with Indian merchants required local representation, which in turn required residence, and defence of person and property, and of commercial privileges – which extended so easily into a pretence, and then a reality, of empire.

William Dalrymple’s monumental history of the East India Company (‘The Anarchy’) is marvellous on the subject. Also worth reading is Sathnam Sanghera. He’s the Wolverhampton-born son of Sikh immigrants, and a journalist on The Times. His new book, Empireland, pulls together in one short volume many of the elements of our imperial legacy – loot, immigration (‘we are here because you were there’), identity, legacy, amnesia, trade and slavery.

Trade is to the forefront today. Literally today. The commission appointed by Oxford’s Oriel College to review the college’s decision to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has decided against its removal, and the college has concurred in that decision. The protest group ‘Rhodes must go’ is up in arms. But the ground has shifted even in the last year. The government’s proposed legislation would have had all plans to remove statues called in, and probably overturned.

The growth of Empire was linked to specific products. Rhodes is associated with southern Africa and diamond mining. He founded De Beers. The slave trade and the sugar plantations of the West Indies were synonymous. Cotton textiles were one of the mainstays of 18th century East India Company trade.  The Calico Acts of 1700 and 1721 prohibited their importation, but not raw cotton, opening up later in the century to the import of raw cotton from slave plantations in the southern USA, and creating the conditions for the rapid development of the cotton industry in late 18th and 19th century Lancashire. India became a major market for Lancashire cotton. Indians had no choice in the matter. The connection between slavery, trade, and the industrial revolution is direct.

I speak as a Manchester man, proud of his city. Do I feel guilt? No, that’s not a helpful emotion. And if we apologise – who would do the apologising? And who to? Look over the Channel and see the quandary the French have over North Africa. Macron described the Algerian War as a crime against humanity. But no apology as such has been – or I guess will be – forthcoming. You could argue that those who should be apologising are those of us who still maintain some kind of ‘imperial mindset’. Who still have some notion of British exceptionalism. Look across the pond to America, where ‘exceptionalism’ is also rife.

Brexit evoked comparisons with 19th century free trade and revoking the Corn Laws. But back then we controlled our markets, controlled the seas, and enforced tariff-free trade, always to our advantage. We crushed domestic production in India to create a vast market there for our own goods. I’m researching my great-grandfather’s business in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire – cotton country despite being over the boundary from Lancashire. Did his business, as a merchant tailor with a wide reach, extend beyond Manchester to overseas markets?

There is a curious reverse colonial mentality among some well-known supporters of Brexit. The EU is turned into a surrogate empire, and the only way we can reassert our status is by turning back the clock. And so the British Empire lives on….

The subject, as Sanghera found, is vast, and I’ll limit myself here to one further comment, on the subject of religion, and muscular Christianity, and the role of the missionary. I recently read Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. It’s a short, and remarkable novel, drawing on Achebe’s own family’s direct experience, which, despite having sold twenty million copies worldwide, had passed me by. Missionaries find their way to a Nigerian village, and the old customs of generations are undermined. The old gods don’t stand a chance. One missionary employs a softly softly approach, another brings in the might of the district commissioner, and you realise how imperial power married to a religious conviction re-casts a proud people as inferiors.

Nigeria was still a colony in my early childhood, and we collected for the work, as a teacher, of a local lady who’d been a missionary in Nigeria all her life. I claim to be a Christian. Can I apportion right and wrong here? Can I have any sympathy for a tribal society in which superstition and shamans called the tune? One God better than multiple gods? Of course. But hand in hand with mission work went subjugation. Subjugation dehumanises.  That is a terrible consequence of empire. It also took root, after more open-minded beginnings, in 19th century India.

We were by that time, in the UK, moving beyond the slave trade. The campaign for its abolition was led by William Wilberforce. But Wilberforce was deeply religious and Indian religions were for him no more than superstition. Conversion was a Christian duty, and implicit is the sense of superiority which characterises the missionary. ‘They’ lack something that ‘you’ have. An attitude in the Raj that had terrible consequences, not least the Indian Mutiny, and more than sixty years later the Amritsar massacre.

I’m a child of empire, and I’d love to think that my children’s generation could see the last of them. But old attitudes live on, and America and China are sharpening up their spheres of influence. How empires of the future might differ, are already differing, from the empires of the past, is another story.

April, and no politics

It’s 26th April. We had snow three days three weeks back, and we’ve had sunshine since then, often brilliant sunshine, days on end, and the sky’s been a Siberian blue. But it’s not been enough. Not enough to tempt the blossom to really get going. True, the blackthorn which so brilliantly belies its name has been bursting white for several weeks. Only now is the green peeking through on the lilac and the rowan and the laburnum in the garden. The early beech leaves are that so-perfect lighter shade of green. Oak is poking, reluctant, slow.

And the ash is nowhere to be seen. It’s always late of course. Some branches have a few desultory flowers. But how much will they leaf this spring?

And yet…

Yes, it’s chill. But I’m enjoying ‘slow’. I want to lock in this April, its blue skies, and long-drawn out sense of promise.

I’m even listening to the news. At 8am and 1pm. And Channel 4 at 7pm. It’s not winding me up as it has through these torrid and foolish Brexit years. April has worked wonders.

Ted Hughes maybe overstates it, but I’ll go with

A soft animal of peace/Has come a million years/With shoulders of pre-dawn and shaggy belly

Has got up from under the glacier/And now lies openly sunning/Huge bones and space-weathered hide.

We’re up on the moors, grazing sheep, lambs maybe, above Calderdale where Yorkshire meets Lancashire. Ted Hughes country. Also my grandfather’s.

Imagine, also, if we could hear as once we did the cocks crowing across the morning:

I stood on a dark summit, among dark summits –/Tidal dawn splitting heaven from earth,/The oyster opening to taste gold.

And I heard the cockcrows kindling in the valley/Under the mist –/They were sleepy,/Bubbling deep in the valley cauldron.

Then one or two tossed clear, like soft rockets/And sank back again dimming.

(Others join in, ‘challenge against challenge’)

Till the whole valley brimmed with cockcrows,/A magical soft mixture boiling over,/Spilling and sparkling into other valleys….

Sadly, not into my valley. But we can imagine…

A little bit of lobbying – revisited

(If you read my last post you might want to miss this. It is simply a shortened, and updated, version. Last time there was too much Adam Smith, however fascinating he might be.)

We have finally put austerity behind us. We’re no longer frightened of deficits, here or in the USA. $1.9 trillion is Biden’s rescue package, and then some. More than ever, in these times, we need financial probity. How government interacts with the private sector, in all its aspects, is a key issue for our time.

As a convenient reminder, we have the lobbying scandal involving Cameron and Greensill Capital. And in the last two days we learn that, in March last year, Boris Johnson was exchanging text messages with his friend and Tory supporter Sir James Dyson. We needed ventilators quickly, Sir James could provide, and Johnson promised (‘“I will fix it tomo!’) no negative tax implications for Dyson staff who came to the UK to help.

It was a time of crisis, Johnson argued in the House of Commons. That doesn’t excuse. It only exemplifies how government without proper supervision, of the kind exemplified by the government’s plans to reduce the scope of judicial review, can operate via back doors and personal contacts. Whether ‘cronyism’ is the appropriate word I’ll leave for the reader to judge.  

I’ll skip direct quotes from Adam Smith, but will include a pivotal quote from Jesse Norman’s book about Adam Smith: ‘Yet as technology spreads big data, insider knowledge, digital technologies, there are increasing dangers of a new tech-enabled crony capitalism: a self-reinforcing cycle in which greater insider power encourages the development of bent markets…’

What intrigues me is that Jesse Norman is a Tory MP and Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and like Cameron, an Old Etonian. He will, I trust, have been making his views on crony capitalism widely known.  (There was, quite co-incidentally, a curious spat between Cameron and Norman over House of Lords reform back in 2012.)

‘What me, guv?’ I imagined Cameron as saying. The game is so entrenched. Market forces as experienced by ordinary consumers are one thing.  Financial engineering and derivatives are another story. Begetters of boom and bust, and multiple shenanigans.

Greensill Capital, advocacy for which got Cameron into trouble, was a clever financial idea (I wondered about the term ‘ruse’) where business bills are settled immediately for a fee, assisting thereby with the issue of late payments.

Cameron, a humble politician earning a relative pittance, stood to make a lot of money. Big share options were on offer. I sense he simply got out of his depth. That’s the kindest thing one can say.

And finally (as I mentioned in my last post) …I was intrigued to see how the Daily Mail is trying to turn the lobbying scandal into a plot by Labour anti-Brexit insiders within the Civil Service trying to blacken the government. It goes with Palace ‘insiders’ telling us what really went at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral between Harry and Kate and Will.

As always with the Mail, don’t believe a word of it.

A little bit of lobbying on the side

Remember Philip Hammond desperately trying to balance the books as Chancellor? Now all the talk is of how foolish Osborne was to batten down for so long. And it looks as if Hammond wasted his time. Expansion and big rescue packages and capital spending are the order of the day. In the USA, the same. Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package. And big plans for infrastructure. The debate in the USA is whether it will cause inflation to get out of hand. The Economist is putting out dire warnings on the one hand – but supporting a big spending approach for the EU on the other.

How government interacts with the private sector will be more than ever in the spotlight. The lobbying scandal involving David Cameron and Greensill Capital is just one example of how this relationship can go wrong.

Adam Smith provides context. He tends to be associated, by way of a selective reading of The Wealth of Nations, with a freewheeling free-market philosophy. By which bad behaviours might be somehow balanced out by good. Not so, as his ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ reveals. ‘It carries within it a crucial Smithean insight, that innumerable human interactions can yield vast but entirely unintended collective consequences – social benefits, yes, but also social evils…’ (Jesse Norman, ‘Adam Smith, What He Thought And Why It Matters’)

There is a good, and ‘Smithean’, argument to be made as follows. In a commercial society we are all merchants. The pursuit of wealth is of itself a good thing (depending on how ‘wealth’ is defined). The desire for human betterment drives that process. War and violence have, for all of history, brought about division. Commerce binds us together.

But over-accumulation, growth for its own sake, inequality, the pursuit of self-interest, the handing-on of wealth from one generation to the next – wealth for its own sake and not as the driver of a society’s welfare – they are among the great enemies. The fact that David Cameron’s activities were ‘legal’ exemplifies, all the more, how easily the pursuit of wealth as an ultimate social good can be corrupted.

Jesse Norman, who is incidentally an Old Etonian, and Tory MP (read into that what you may), has an intriguing paragraph in his biography of Adam Smith: ‘Yet as technology spreads big data, insider knowledge, digital technologies, there are increasing dangers of a new tech-enabled crony capitalism: a self-reinforcing cycle in which greater insider power encourages the development of bent markets; these in turn create popular demands for more government regulation, create more complexity and opportunity for lobbying, a further boost to the power of insiders, and so on.’

‘What me, guv?’ I can imagine Cameron as saying. The game is so entrenched. We’re, many of us, wary believers in market capitalism, where market forces ‘drive prices down and quality up, and consumers have a very wide choice’, in Norman’s words. We’re talking of food, clothes, everyday items.

Financial engineering and derivatives are another story. Begetters of boom and bust, and multiple shenanigans. (They were of course unknown to Adam Smith.) Greensill Capital, advocacy for which got Cameron into trouble, was a clever financial idea (I wondered about the term ‘ruse’) where business bills are settled immediately for a fee, assisting thereby with the issue of late payments.

Now, as much if not more than ever, with big money and big contracts in play, we have a whole new raft of opportunities for crony capitalism, re-working old business and school networks, rent-seeking, inside knowledge, and conflicts of interest. More than ever we need to be wary – to be aware.

Heading off at a slight tangent there’s a paragraph from an American author*, writing on the subject of meritocracy, I’d like to quote: ‘Someone who wants an elite income … must do one of a narrowly constricted category of jobs, heavily concentrated in finance, management, law and medicine.’ Teaching, public service, ‘even engineering’ don’t get a look in. (How medicine and money came to be quite so conflated is a uniquely American story.)

Cameron, a humble politician earning a relative pittance, wanted to be part of that big-earning brigade, with big stock options on offer.

Many had a high regard for Cameron. He will be wondering how he surrendered it so easily.  

And finally …I’m intrigued to see how the Daily Mail is trying to turn the lobbying scandal into a plot by Labour anti-Brexit insiders within the Civil Service trying to blacken the government. It goes with Palace ‘insiders’ telling us what really went at the funeral between Harry and Kate and Will.

Don’t believe a word of it.

*Daniel Markovits, ‘The Meritocracy Trap’, quoted by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books)

More thoughts for the day

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has the nation in mourning. We have something we, most of us, agree on. He was a good man, who, as Prince Albert before him, used his position to advance a wide range of good causes – the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme above all. He was also a fine cricketer, which does count for something.

And Rachael Blackmore won the Grand National quite brilliantly: the first woman jockey to do so.

The BBC ran tributes across all stations to the Duke. But elsewhere…

Hungary: ‘The last radio station that is critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is due to go off the air.’ Poland: ‘Media freedom …now faces its greatest set of challenges since 2015 as the government continues to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media … ‘ Both reports are dated February 2021. In the Czech Republic and Slovenia the independence of the state broadcaster is also under threat.

As for the BBC, we’re used to grumbles from left and right about bias toward the other side. Now the left, obsessed by its own squabbles and with a wholly outdated understanding of the working man, and with minimal support in the popular press, has lost all influence. Murdoch, on the other hand, that happy paragon of all that’s best in Aussie and American, is unchallenged. The Sunday Times on the Greensill collapse and David Cameron: hammering the Tory old guard might just suit Murdoch’s politics. Should I be suspicious?

Maybe now, with arch-disruptor Cummings consigned to outer darkness and Covid and the Red Wall north and big spending to focus on, the government will worry less about the BBC. They can burnish their social conservative credentials by insisting refugees go through official channels, as if any refugee has access to such things. They can espouse freedom of speech (in the face of ‘no platforming’) and mock wokery, but legislate to limit freedom of assembly. We will see how far they go.

I referred to ‘an outdated understanding of the working man’ on the left. That takes me to Red Wall seats ‘up north’, and the smart housing estates that are popping up everywhere, where houses are cheap, by comparison to London, and the standard of living, despite lower wage and salary levels than down south, relatively high. That is the new north, and it’s this that is probably driving the big increase in the Tory vote.

The old working class before the WW1 was instinctively conservative and Tory. They knew their place. The new prosperous working class has more confidence, they doff caps to no-one, and they’ve bought into what may or may not be the fiction that they have in the new Tory dispensation a recognised and valued place.

I’m reading Jesse Norman’s splendid biography of Adam Smith. Why would someone of Norman’s obvious sanity be serving in a government where pragmatism and the wide sympathies as evinced by Norman can be in short supply?Norman, on the way Friedmanite economics distorted and still radically distorts what Adam Smith really stood for, is revealing. Peter Kellner in the current edition of Prospect has a letter which suggests we should see the Tory party in terms of a Vann diagram, with old-style conservatism overlapping the new ideological variety. Norman maybe is the true conservative, and he needs to be in there to make certain the ideologues don’t take over.

And, finally, how the 18th century prefigured the 21st. Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, which had been a major port serving Europe for hundreds of years. His father was Comptroller of Customs for Kirkcaldy. The big switch over to Glasgow and the Clyde, and the American trade, not least tobacco, was already happening. By the 1750s Glasgow was importing more tobacco than all the English ports combined. It was the American economy that intrigued Smith. He looked west, not east. We have that dilemma to this day. Do we look west, or east? Glasgow ironically is now a stronghold of support for Scottish independence, and the Scot Nats look to Europe. England on the other hand would love that US trade deal….