Infrastructure and the Genoa bridge

Infrastructure hasn’t over the years been a topic of too much debate. It simply went on, all around us, yet curiously out of sight. We’d complain, some of us, about HS2 and Hinckley Point, but these are new glamour projects. Not the day to day. The day to day is about detail, hard graft, the invisible – and the maintenance of what we have.

All has been suddenly thrown into a much sharper perspective by last week’s collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa. The human cost is terrible, the economic cost (access to Genoa’s port, north-south communication) serious, the political cost (Italians disillusioned with government now even more so – but to whom do they turn?) likely to be high.  Italy’s interior minister blames the Eurozone’s strict rules on budget deficits – but as the Financial Times points out ‘a bigger constraint is the crushing burden of interest payments on Italy’s public debt’, 132% of annual economic output. (Source: Tony Barber, FT 18/19 August.)

Italy is not alone. Germany has bridge issues of its own. Obama’s transportation secretary described the US as ‘one big pothole’. Much of the road network across Britain, once you leave the motorway system, is in a poor state of repair: not dangerous, but a significant impediment to good communication.

(How many other bridges small as well as large on motorways across the developed world are suspect? The Genoa bridge had passed all its tests. I’m reminded of the long-term roadworks on the M5 just south of the M6 junction. You see few workers on the motorway itself: there are 40 or so (notices tell us) out of sight, working below the road surface. That at least is re-assuring.)

Quoting Tony Barber again: in the UK, ‘governments of all political stripes tend to neglect unglamorous small scale infrastructure projects and repair work in favour of ostentatious schemes with predictably spiralling costs.’

HS2 (high speed rail link) is a case in point. Local infrastructure (taking in the north-west, north-east, south, and south-west of England, and Wales and Scotland – HS2 may in twenty years time, with a following wind, just about reach Manchester and Leeds) and high levels of maintenance of existing infrastructure would be a far wiser way to spend money. In the case of Hinckley B (our very own Chinese-financed nuclear power station), funding requirements have trumped political considerations – and reduced our scope for independence and influence in the world.

One other consideration, which Italy’s situation highlights. Massive infrastructure self-evidently requires massive maintenance and repair costs, and that assumes continuing stellar economic performance. Will we need our skyscrapers in fifty (or a hundred) years’ time? Will our road networks be underused, radically underused, as we develop new modes of transport?

We move too fast, too blindly, and that won’t stop any time soon. The Chinese Belt and Road initiative is one guarantee of that. Development is driven as much by political and strategic as well as economic considerations. (One powerful reason why we need to be part of the EU – only that way will we have serious political heft in the world.)

What we can do is hold to the simple truth that infrastructure requires maintenance, and put aside the money in national budgets across the world to ensure that it is carried out to the highest level. That is the imperative now. (Easy to say, immeasurably harder to ensure it happens.) As for the future, we cannot simply rely on continuing high levels of prosperity as a guarantee of the required levels of funding, via taxation and borrowing or private investment.

If we cannot be confident in the long-term maintenance of our infrastructure, then we shouldn’t be building. One day our leaps into the dark will come to haunt us.

Summer in the English countryside

Zenpolitics takes a break …

The wind is blowing strong this morning, the cloud is heavy and there’s drizzle on the wind. It’s August and we’re waiting for the summer to return. Sunshine has been the default since mid April, and we’ve had 3 1/2 months of almost drought, with temperatures holding steady above the 80s (Fahrenheit of course!) for much of July.

But with so much winter rain, and so late, the land held its water well, and wild flowers have been abundant. We searched them out in the meadows and the hedgerows of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire as never before. Orchids in May and June, with the pyramidal orchid hiding amidst the common orchids. Bugle by the Thames at Kelmscott – one of these flowers I’d wondered about but never identified before. The name intrigues: as if it wants to sound its colour across to the further bank.

Early July, and one corner of the field above the trout farm was all betony, a mass of purple on long spikes: I thought they were orchids until I knew better. Knapweed and devil’s-bit scabious were ever-present. But the drought took hold, and as the grass yellowed the omni-present clover all but disappeared as well. August has seen a little rain and a light greening here and there, but flowers are now singular rather than overwhelmingly plural. A single knapweed. A left-behind clover. The wild marjoram, a relative of oregano, flowers abundant and late, but that’s passed over.

The ground has been so hard, and dead patches snake everywhere, greening up with the rain, an in-between, not-one-thing-or-the-other state. Aerial photographers have had a great time, recording the outlines of walls and buildings dating back to Roman times and earlier, where the richer or heavier soils associated with settlement have held their moisture better against the parched and yellow fields surrounding them.

Once upon a time I searched out deserted villages in the Oxfordshire countryside, with churches standing lonely in the midst of fields the easiest identifier. This summer has made it so much easier – but a plane has advantages over a Morris Minor.

Photography has revealed prehistoric crop marks associated with burials and a settlement near Eynsham, a few miles from Oxford. What you miss from above is of course any sense of a lived-in landscape. Scrabbling through hedges won’t get you there either. But sit in a churchyard, they’re often on a slight elevation, and look across the land. You may be in good company: some churches don’t cut back ‘God’s acre’ until August, and wild flowers and summer grasses engulf the graves.

Meadow flowers don’t have a long lifespan. Don’t stay away for too long. Villages operate on a different timescale. Tucked away in Cotswold valleys you sense they’ve been there for ever. But when change comes, for villages as well as flowers, it comes quickly. New estates are built, and local towns extend out and absorb. Back in medieval times it could be rapacious landowners, enclosure, plague, weather. Change could be abrupt, often accompanied by penury and starvation.

There is no finer place on earth than a rural English landscape on a perfect summer’s day. The whole world it seems is God’s acre. But we know it won’t last. Even the villages. Even the towns. So a little humility is also the order of the day. My own lifespan is a little longer than the flowers, somewhat shorter than the villages.

The sun’s now broken through the clouds, and the edges of the lawn need trimming, and that’s my job, it seems. So this short blog ends here.

That bloody liberal establishment …

I took in the newspaper headlines in the supermarket yesterday. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) caught my eye, snugged in near the Daily Mail. I bought a copy and over lunch read up on a recent biography of Descartes and the correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casares, celebrated author and the most celebrated French (though born in Spain) actress of her time. I was taken down back alleys which intrigue in themselves, and also have resonances with the here and now. Descartes escaping to the Netherlands to be free to explore his ideas on the primacy of human reason, away from the frivolities and scepticism of the Richelieu-dominated court. Camus and Casares: a correspondence that’s so distinctively French – could there be an English equivalent, and a bestseller to boot?

I’ve not found such byways of the intellect so rewarding recently. They belong to the old certainties, and the old certainties have faced a pretty ruthless challenge.

We had crises in politics ten years ago, indeed the biggest financial crisis for eighty years, but reason and rational debate were still the order of the day. That curious liberal idea of progress, however intermittent, however blighted, still underlay our attitudes, incremental, one step forward, one back – but we had a direction of travel. The House of Commons took a big hit with the expenses scandal, and austerity divided the nation in the years that followed, but debate still followed the traditional course in parliament, the media sniped and panicked, but didn’t dominate. Likewise the Tory right with their psychodramatic skills: they were kept on the periphery.

Post-referendum, the idea of a perverse ‘liberal establishment’ has taken hold, with all the anger toward and alienation from the ‘establishment’ now pinned on a  supposed liberal elite. Thinkers like David Goodhart have not helped, recusing themselves from a ‘liberal establishment’ (overly fond of smart dinner parties) of which they claim to have been a part.

Now we find liberal democracy ‘fighting for its life’. There’s a Times (newspaper) debate at the forthcoming Cheltenham Literary Festival entitled ‘Is Liberal Democracy Dying?’.  The Economist has just launched, as a counter-punch to doubters, a series of articles on great liberal thinkers, beginning with John Stuart Mill.

In much of the media the word ‘liberal’ is pitched against the ‘will of the people’, expertise against an instinct for change regardless of where change might take us. A new establishment, which has pulled strings covertly for many a year, asserts itself, funded by billionaires, pursuing apparently simple solutions to intractable problems, and supporting leaders who they think might enact those solutions.

How does this connect back to the two Frenchmen, Descartes and Camus? Simply that intellectual debate, and the pursuit of intellect byways as well as highways, is the very substance of our humanity. We might hide from it, in front of the TV many an evening, we may affect to scorn intellectuals and highbrow pursuits. The Economist quotes the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, ‘who thought that pushpin, a board game, was  “of equal value … with poetry”’.’

The intellectual life, as well as cultural life, is about sustained thought, sustained engagement, about expertise, about the ability to argue and debate, and change and challenge. It’s all about imagination, but not about dreams or fantasies. (Though they have their place.) Deeper pleasures build on themselves, take us in new directions. Simple pleasures endlessly repeat. There should be no snobbery here, but it’s too easy to paint intellectual life that way.

Taking John Stuart Mill as an exemplar, in The Economist’s words: ‘He renounced shibboleths, orthodoxies and received wisdom: anything that stopped people thinking for themselves.’

I don’t want to see this country ruled by a liberal establishment, or a media establishment. But I do hold to liberal ideas of openness and debate, and to the belief that intellectual life should be part of the warp and weft of everyday life, and not an adjunct hived off to universities.

That’s a tall order of course. But what if we re-define ‘intellectual life’ and take it out of its ivory tower. To quote the Economist on Mill again: ‘[He] wanted [people] to be exposed to as wide a range of opinion as possible, and for no idea or practice to remain unchallenged. That was the path to both true happiness and progress.’

And it allows us to re-define intellectual life, as the life of the mind.

Holding to that definition, we won’t suddenly solve the world’s problems. But we will at least be opening doors, rather than closing them, and that is the first pre-requisite of progress.

The politics of aid

The press, parliament and the aid agencies

Press and parliament have had a field day damning the aid agencies for their handling of sexual misconduct among their employees – for allowing (that one word is weighted) the exploitation of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

No-one, least of all the agencies (whatever committees of MPs might report), would downplay the issue. But there is another side. As Kevin Watkins (of Save The Children) wrote in the Guardian a story that started out ‘as a report on predatory behaviour by some Oxfam staff in Haiti has transmuted into a crisis of trust, an attack on aid, and a threat to humanitarian action’.

Why does it matter, he asks:

‘That question matters for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. Agencies like Save the Children are a link in the chain between UK public money and the women and children whose lives have been torn apart by humanitarian emergencies. UK aid and public donations mean that we can provide life-saving maternal and child health services for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They enable us to deliver education to Syrian refugees, immunisation to children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and protection to unaccompanied children in South Sudan.’

Last Monday (30th July) a parliamentary committee released a report, which the BBC summed up as follows:

‘The aid sector is guilty of “complacency verging on complicity” over an “endemic” sex abuse scandal, a damning report from MPs has said. Stephen Twigg, chairman of the international development committee, said charities were “more concerned to protect their own reputation”.’

John Humphrys’ interview on the Today programme on Monday morning, just after report was published, gave only a complainant’s story. I believe her story, but the advantage in such interviews, when you have the interviewer’s support, is all with the attack. There’s no place for the defence. Humphry’s, and the BBC’s, approach in such matters is tied to the 24-hours news culture. As it was (and is) with the MPs’ expenses scandal, climate change and Brexit. Reithian values of ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ should be demanded of the headlines and the opening stories as well as the back story.

The BBC still does the back story very well. And I’m not suggesting we should hold back on our anger with aid agencies who fail to address one of the big issues of our time. But they are the ones with the difficult job. Reporting, whether a House of Commons’ committee, or the BBC, comes easy. They don’t have to face the consequences of their actions.

I don’t believe for a moment that the sector is ‘complicit’, or ‘more concerned to protect their own reputation’. They have the hardest job in the world, working with least privileged, in often terrible circumstances. There are sexual offenders wherever adults work with the young or the defenceless or the underprivileged. In children’s homes, in the Catholic church, in aid agencies.

The ‘back story’, the real story in this case, is put well by Kevin Watkins in the same piece in the Guardian: ‘An epidemic has affected institutions across our society… [an] epidemic rooted in the unequal power relationships that enable powerful and predatory men to exploit women and children through bullying, sexual harassment and outright violence. The only antidote is a culture of zero tolerance, backed by rules, recruitment practices, and leadership.’

‘Development agencies cannot get this wrong,’ he continues.  ‘We are dealing with some of the world’s most vulnerable people.’

The news I want to hear is how each agency is handling this issue, not just in terms of codes of conduct or investigations, but in practical terms, on the ground. I will give Kevin Watkins the last word:

‘In Save the Children, we have been working to strengthen our screening systems to keep predators and bullies out of the organisation … How do we stop humanitarian aid workers who violate our values moving from one organisation to another?’

We don’t need the hyperbole, we need people like Kevin Watkins reporting back, keeping us in the loop.

Political dream worlds – the case of Daniel Hannan

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams …

WB Yeats was writing about love… but I’m thinking here of shattered political dreams. Dreams of love, yes, they drive our lives, and they are, just occasionally, fulfilled. But they are personal, one to one. And we accept and expect the risk.

But do not transfer the world of dreams to politics. Aspirations, yes. Not dreams.

Why do some people who are trained as historians not act like them? Bring the rigour that history requires to argument? One reason is that they see history as story, they’re story-tellers, conjurers of dream worlds, they fit the realities to the story and they come to believe the story. Another is that they engage in hypotheses, and parade them as fact, without the rigour of peer-review that we get in scientific disciplines. Story and hypotheses can of course inspire each other.

Why would, for example, the arch-Brexiteer and free-trader Daniel Hannan (and Oxford-educated historian) miss the mark by such a margin? Brexit, he wrote on the Conservative Home website back in May, isn’t working out as he thought it would. I remember a piece he wrote in the Daily Telegraph before the referendum vote about how a post-Brexit Britain would look in ten years’ time. He imagined the future – or rather, a future, anticipated it as if truth and certainty were engrained within it, which no trained historian should do. He believed his own imaginings. Hope became a certain future reality.

He fooled himself, and he gave substance to the visions of others.

The past is full of accidents, wrong turnings, expectations which are never realised, impossible to realise, based on dreams and imaginings. We have no choice but to have radical ideas, our world requires it, on the way the world economy functions, disparities of wealth, population growth and movements, the poverty of much of mass-culture, climate change – Christ, yes! – be radical. But pursue change incrementally. Avoid the sudden turnings.

The NHS, which we are busy celebrating, came about and has survived over seventy years, because it was of its time, it was a logical and necessary step. It may seem to us, with our hindsights, like the fulfilment of a dream, but it was anything but.  It came out of the hard necessities of its time.

Fifty shades of folly

I thought I’d touch this morning on the many kinds of folly. Not fifty, I have to admit. But it makes a good title for this post.

Zenpolitics, born in the measured Obama era, in the first months, didn’t allow for folly. That was my big mistake. There’s much to criticise, much to be angry about, in the years 2009 to 2016, but the wheels just about stayed on track. We argued the parameters of austerity, whether they should be wider or narrower, about the boundaries of wealth and enterprise, and the constrictions of poverty and exclusion.

But I didn’t allow for folly. Which isn’t to say the follies I highlight below are in any way new. They are as ancient as the hills, in one form or another. But they now have become by twists of fate the dominant discourse.

Once folly take root, it shows up in many guises.  One of the most common, and damaging, is taking outlying incidents as the norm. Regaling us with incidents (I’m quoting a recent conversation of mine, typical maybe of half the nation, if polls are to be believed) involving Lithuanian criminals, and benefit scroungers, and over-crowded schools, as if these were the norm across the country.

Anecdote and emotion dictate the debate.

Taking sides is another variant of folly – you’re one one side or the other, no shades of grey inbetween, and that multitude who live on the other side of town from you, and claim benefits, they’re all shrinkers and shirkers.

Following the same line of thought, you’re a refugee, or you’re an economic migrant. The former good, the later bad. No shades of grey. And no recognition of the fact that all our forebears  were migrants once upon a time.

In dealing with mass movements of population, maybe the greatest issue of our time, it does no service to either argument or individual to stigmatise.

Brexit might in time, with a clear run, have learnt to speak truth, but with a siege mentality taking hold the old shibboleths are gaining new traction. The same mentality is feeding another kind of folly. Denial. Denial that it could all go wrong – has gone wrong. The comforting belief that Northern Ireland can be shunted forward forever as an issue. That we have a plethora of options other than a customs union with the EU.

Only last week the outgoing president of the CBI said that sections of UK industry faced extinction unless the UK stayed in the customs union.  And yet that is precisely what our prime minister has ruled out.

Denial invites rhetoric. Boris Johnson recently argued to Conservative donors that Britain is at risk of ending up in ‘a sort or anteroom of the EU’. He blamed this on insufficient resolve from the PM, and strong resistance from – the establishment. That old and easy target. (Who are Tory MPs, other than the establishment?) Keep the faith, and all will be well, I believe was the tenor of Johnson’s speech. Churchillian rhetoric may have a time and place. But it sounds foolish now.

That take us neatly on to another kind of folly – the strong leader. Oh, how we need one. Trump ‘would go in bloody hard’, argued Johnson. So we would be pugnacious toward the EU, and go cap-in-hand to a US president we can’t afford to offend… And we’re assuming that Trump will emerge triumphant from all his bombast.

And if he does, and the idea of strong leader triumphs, representative democracy will be the loser. It’s argued that American democracy is strong enough in its institutions to withstand Trump. Would our unwritten constitution stand up so well? It is folly to put it to the test – to attack the judiciary, to bandy words like traitor.

The folly of blame, and panic. Blaming the prime minister who ‘is a Remain voter who has sold out the Brexiteers at every possible opportunity’. (I’ve borrowed the paraphrase from the Economist.) Brexiteers are being stabbed in the back. Much could be said about the resolute incompetence our PM, but I’ll spare her that charge.

But I will level another – the curious pusillanimity of Remain-supporting Tory MPs who have lined up behind Brexit, mealy-mouthing their change of mind and heart, engaging in protracted acts of self-preservation, in the face of possible de-selection.

They may wish to row back from their conversion, but having changed their minds once would they dare do so again? They’re trapped. Maybe a few journalists out there, on the Telegraph, and the Spectator, find they’re in the same place. They’ve spoken out so strongly in the past – dare they turn their coats now?

The likes of Arron Banks have long sought to change the frame within which we see and understand our world – to something less liberal and more confrontational, the loner doing better than the pack, ideas backed by the Koch brothers in the USA, and realised after a fashion in Donald Trump. Folly lies in the failure of so many to realise that the frame has been manipulated, by money, Super-PACs in the USA, media owners in the US and UK, so they think they’re on the same song sheet they always were, but someone’s changed changed the words, and they haven’t noticed.

We haven’t reached that point here, but Trump’s caging of immigrant children, after separating them from their parents, should be simply inconceivable. Yet swathes of the American public went along with it. And Tory politicians here were slow to condemn, fearful of upsetting a government on whom they will depend to an unconscionable degree if a hard Brexit were ever to happen.

The frame becomes a cage. The folly of not reading and remembering your history.

Folly also lies in an increased propensity to lie as your position weakens. Brexit supporters always played fast and lose with the truth – promises come cheap and uncosted. The increase in NHS funding promised this week resurrected the idea of a Brexit dividend for the NHS, famously associated with the Brexit red bus. All serious commentators make it clear that the British economy will sustain significant damage as a result of Brexit. And even if that only applies to the short and medium term, and trade secretary Liam Fox is able to conjure trade deals further down the line that magic our GDP to new levels (an unlikely scenario) – that is the long term. The increases in NHS funding are for the period up to 2023-4. There can be no Brexit dividend over that period.

We have here a simple unvarnished untruth. Folly shades readily into untruth to protect itself. We’re engaged now in the most egregious and protracted act of folly in modern British history. When a pressure group surprised by power flounders. Historians will have a field day. Unless of course folly wins the day, and as in other countries historians come to toe a party line.

Hay Book Festival 2018: David Miliband

David Miliband was there, in Hay,  in two guises, as president and CEO of the International Refugee Committee, and …  no surprise, as a politician, otherwise engaged, and yet, we all want to know what he thinks. A king over the water?

The title of his conversation with Jim Naughtie was ‘Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time’. The IRC does extraordinary work, and Miliband focused on the long-term problems posed by displacement, and specifically, health, welfare, safety and re-settlement. The IRC has an annual operating budget of over $700 million. The main focus of the IRC’s work is inevitably women and children. A core issue is the long-term nature of displacement: as one example, 100,000 of the 330,000 in camps in Kenya have actually been born in Kenya – not Somalia, their parents’ home country. But the great majority of refugees live not in camps but in cities (more than 80%), which puts aid and support in a very different context.

Miliband had praise for the Department of International Development, which is in his words a ‘smart aid’ donor. The UK’s continued commitment to foreign aid of 0.7% of GDP is a source of pride as he travels around the world.

For more on the IRC see Miliband’s book, published last autumn, entitled (similar to the title of the Hay event) Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of our Time.

He reminded us that his own parents came to the UK as refugees.

The IRCs work is impacted in directly by the populism and that’s come so much to the fore in recent years. Miliband recognises the failure of liberal democracy to protect its ideas. Complacency on the one hand, a failure to recognise how inequitable globalisation can be on the other.  ‘The forces driving inequality are stronger than we realised.’ He quoted John Kennedy from back in 1962, on 4th July, making a ‘declaration of interdependence’. There’s no problem putting yourself first, but Trump puts the dangers first, and fails crucially to recognise that international agreement- interdependence – makes countries stronger.

Brexit and other attacks on EU were ‘ripping out the underpinnings of the social market economy’. Brexit ‘is squeezing the life out of politics and its ability to address precisely the concerns that drove people to vote for Brexit in the first place… There is no legislation on social care, there is no legislation on housing and homelessness, there’s not even legislation on immigration.’

Referenda, Brexit and parliamentary votes were the main concerns for the rest of the conversation. Jim Naughtie has had too much experience presenting the Today programme not to assay the occasional provocative question. So too the audience. I won’t give Miliband’s responses here. Save to say that Brexit crops up in so many guises these days, and Hay was no exception. Sadly. It would be wonderful to escape. If only we could. My final talk of the day was the Oxford professor, Timothy Garton Ash, talking on… Brexit. I’d hoped for much more on the subject of free speech, on which he wrote brilliantly in a recent book.

Would that Miliband had been able to talk only about the refugee crisis. That is the subject on which we ought to be focusing.