Serial incompetence

‘The only conclusion is serial incompetence,’ were Keir Starmer’s words when replying to Boris Johnson at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Every government makes egregious mistakes – hovers on the brink from time to time. But incompetence has never been institutionalised, as it is now, from education across to foreign policy. Theresa May’s government hovered close, but she at least had six years as Home Secretary behind her. Johnson’s cabinet has various skills, not least first-class degrees in economics and PPE. But little or none when it comes to government. If competence is the left hand, then the right hand is flair. There is little of that either – maybe one senior minister, and he shall be nameless.

Theresa May relied on Nick Timothy. She wasn’t fully her own person. Boris Johnson relies on Cummings. The last Tsar and the Tsarina relied on Rasputin. Leaders should be their own men, or women. Merkel, Macron, Shinzo Abe are all good examples.

Erdogan (Turkey), Orban (Hungary), Kaczynski (Poland – I’m staying within EU boundaries) are their own men, you could argue. And at another level Xi Jinping and Trump. But they are out and out nationalists, all with an interest in restricting or, worse, suppressing rather than expanding debate.

But if we believe in representative and accountable democracy then it’s the Macrons and Merkels we need. Even a Cameron.

Accountable. That presupposes open debate. A press that presents and represents all shades of opinion. A society that welcomes ideas, and values expertise.

We’ve never been happy with the notion of an intelligentsia in this country. For Michael Gove, attacking expertise, it was an open goal. Universities are a target. Intellectual debate does indeed go down some odd byways. The likes of Douglas Murray find easy targets (post-structuralism, cancel culture), and disparage the wider institution. (15th August, Telegraph headline: ‘British universities have become indoctrination camps.’) If it’s not universities it’s chattering classes.  The problem is elites. We don’t like elites. I wouldn’t argue against that. But when ideas and informed debate are characterised as elitist – then we should worry.

That gives the opening to populism. Single ideas. Single identities. In our case, of course, it’s Brexit. We can’t, it seems, agree on fisheries policy, or state aid. David North is out there not-negotiating hard for a no-deal Brexit. (And as of today there are suggestions the government might renege on the Northern Ireland protocol in last year’s withdrawal agreement.)

Single ideas and identities are by their nature non-negotiable. Finding common ground, working with and not against others, is an alien mindset. Anger drives debate or negotiation. An instinct to confront and disrupt dictates.

Barack Obama set out in 2009 with an agenda of bringing countries together – new agendas for the Middle East, for Africa. Finding common ground. He discovered how difficult that could be.

Coming together in politics is so much harder than pulling apart. The Arab Spring brought that home, and the Syrian outcome was brutal. Obama could claim rapprochement in Cuba and indeed Iran. But it was a small reward for much effort.

The US economy under Obama had recovered well from the 2008 financial crash. It was at the very least (though Republicans of a Trumpian persuasion would disagree) a competent administration with good intentions.

But competence is not enough. Emotion and instinct behind single and easily assimilable ideas set their own agenda. Competence is non-essential.

That said, thinking of the UK, a government characterised by incompetence does at least give its opponents an opening…

‘Ah ’opes tha drops down de’ad’

Back in 1920, Neville Cardus, legendary writer for the old Manchester Guardian on music and cricket (a fine combination) reported on a Lancashire victory in the Roses match at Sheffield. It had been a famous against-the-odds victory.

‘Ah suppose tha’s feelin’ pleased with thisen?’ a Yorkshireman he meets at the station comments. ‘And tha’s goin’ back to Manchester…?’

‘Yes,’ Cardus replies.

‘Well… ah ‘opes tha drops down de-ad before thi gets theer.’

Compare political squabbles in our own time. If only humour could help us.

Anne Applebaum (an American writer married to Polish politician Radoslaw Sikorski) refers in her recent book, ‘Twilight of Democracy’, to a dinner party she held back on New Year’s Eve 1999.  They were a group of people, as she describes them, broadly of the right, liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites.  

‘Even those who might have been less definite about economics certainly believed in democracy, in the rule of law, and in a Poland that was a member of NATO and on its way to joining the European Union—an integrated part of modern Europe. In the 1990s, that was what being “on the right” meant.’

‘Nearly two decades later,’ she comments, ‘I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. … In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half.’

Brexit brought the same reality to the UK. The right fractured.  The rest of us carry the can. Carry on as best we can. How we got there has been analysed and re-analysed, and the two sides can never agree. What we have is bad blood, which before 2016 simply wasn’t part of our politics.

Disruption, Cummings-style, is a fool’s game. It takes out the middle ground. You have to take sides.  (See my last blog on Orwell.)

*

Not always easy, as a big issue of the moment, would-be immigrants trying to cross the Channel, demonstrates. 4000 so far, hardly an invasion, but turned by the right into a defining issue. I’m on the side of the immigrants. Their bravery and determination is extraordinary. But it isn’t, as much of the press portray it, a ‘yes/no’ issue. I’m not in favour of unrestricted immigration. And I’m no fan of people traffickers. A door once open will be an invitation to others to head north across France. Heart and head don’t take me in the same direction. But I’m not looking out for the UK Border Force. Or Priti Patel.  I’m looking out for the immigrants.  

We’ve had TV programmes in recent months on Dominic Cummings, Rupert Murdoch and Fidel Castro. All excellent, so too a five-part series on Iraq, seen through the eyes of Iraqis. Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is also much in the news.

Let’s see where they take us.   

Iraq: no issue there. I was always adamantly against the second Iraq War. War never delivers what the instigators imagine it will. Any status quo is a balance of a multitude of interests. Break that balance, and you reap the consequences. Watching Baghdad being torn apart by arson and violence while American soldiers, without a brief to intervene, and therefore powerless, will stay with me for ever. Blair was culpable to a high degree.

Murdoch: how closely the New Labour interest, and Tony Blair, were tied to Murdoch!  A shared enjoyment of power overrode differences. Murdoch’s third wife openly fancied Blair. (Is this relevant, you ask?) This is the Murdoch who in 1996 set up Fox News, which later took up the Tea Party obsessions – and fed the half- and un-truths that opened the way for Trump. And now that free-market Murdoch and protectionist Trump are no longer on the same page, we have the even worse and more mendacious and new Trump favourite, the One Americas News Network. ‘Coronavirus may have been developed in a North Carolina laboratory.’ ‘Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug…’ See ‘Lexington’ in  The Economist for more on the subject.)

So, yes, you can be worse than Murdoch. But how about Murdoch on climate change. The Murdoch media have been strongly criticised in Australia over their attitude to recent bush fires and the link to climate change. Murdoch claims to be a sceptic, not a denier. There’s something more fundamental here, shared by much of the right – we don’t need to change, we only need to adapt… and if that means re-siting cities and people further from the ocean, then so be it.

Andrew Bolt, a political commentator for News Corp’s Australian newspapers, recently ‘criticised politicians who said carbon emissions needed to be cut to avoid future fires. “As if that would stop a fire. You’d have to be a child like Greta Thunberg to believe that fairytale.”’ (Quoted in The Guardian.)

*

Before I get to Cummings, there’s Rishi Sunak. I admire the guy. Almost. He’s bright, and on top of his brief, uniquely so it seems among the current shower that masquerade as a cabinet. Curiously, given the Brexiteers loathing of expertise and specifically the Oxford PPE degree – that was Sunak’s degree. He didn’t join the Tories at Oxford, but chose the Investment Club instead. He’s a natural wheeler and dealer. Sailing quite close to the wind working for hedge funds, though of all hedge funds the Children’s Investment Fund (TCI) wasn’t a bad one to be involved with.

As an example of his mindset, he’s long been a proponent of free ports, where goods can be shipped in, and shipped out, and turned into finished goods in the meantime, without incurring tariffs, which isn’t likely to increase overall revenues or employment, but may shift our manufacturing locations around a little.

Free ports sounds good, they’re an easy sell. But it’s the hinterland, the old industrial heartlands, the off-the-radar towns and cities, on which we should be focusing.

Free ports would be impossible under EU rules. But, surely, not a reason for leaving the EU…

You could say he’s the right guy for improvising short-term measures, but the wrong guy for a balanced vision of where the country might be headed. But, to be fair, let’s say the jury is out on that one.

Sunak wrote a paper on free ports for the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think-tank, back in 2016. As a brief but significant aside – another right-wing think-tank, Policy Exchange, launched a new research project, ‘History Matters’ this June.  It featured a poll in which 67 % of people opposed Churchill’s statue being sprayed with graffiti. (See William Davies’s article, ‘Who am I prepared to kill?’, in the London Review of Books.) People were also asked if British history is ‘something to be proud of’ or ‘something to be ashamed of’?

‘Yes/no’ questions of this kind serve no purpose other than to polarise.

This isn’t a game played as far as I’m aware by Sunak. His lack of interest in politics at Oxford suggests that he may not be a born-to-the-role polariser.

*

Which brings me to Dominic Cummings, the subject of an excellent BBC documentary (Taking Control: the Dominic Cummings Story) presented by Emily Maitlis.

What came through is that if there is any skill he has above all others it is mis-representation to achieve a particular outcome.

First, back in 2004, there was John Prescott’s attempt to establish a regional assembly in the north-east of England. Cummings organised opposition to the referendum on the issue on the basis of distrust of politicians. ‘The equating of money spent on more politicians instead of doctors resonated … It isn’t about, to the penny, what slogan you use about the NHS. It’s about the principle of it,’ as a Nesno (North-East Says No) video put it.

Cummings’ campaign was one of calculated mis-representation. Allowable, he might argue, in a greater cause. After a few wilderness years he found himself in cahoots with the arch-opposer of any expertise save his own, Michael Gove – and the debacle which is free schools was the result. And the appalling stigma they tried to plant on the teaching profession at large, employing an expression borrowed cheaply from the USA – the Blob. And then Brexit, and taking back a ‘control’ we‘d never lost, and losing far more in the process. Easy notions of disruption.  A government of innocents led by an all-knowing arch-innocent.

And as far the other BBC documentary I mentioned above, on Fidel Castro: I was rooting for him. Not because of what Cuba became – an almost police state. But because of what it avoided becoming – an offshore version of all that’s worst about big-spending America – exploiting and using smaller nations. The USA’s record from Guatemala to Chile was appalling.

Anti-Cuba rhetoric appeals to the big number of Cuban expatriates in Florida – so is always a part of presidential campaigns. Biden if elected will revert to Obama’s more conciliatory policy.

From Cummings to Cuba, to Florida, to the US election, to a trade deal with the USA, which our government has no choice but to prioritise as trade with the EU, and with China, falls away … and we get to where Cummings and the old free marketers always wanted to be – a US-style open market, only it will be rather smaller than they imagined, and in the eyes of the world we will be much-reduced, as indeed we already are.

So, yes, we have to take sides. And avoid at all costs the blandishments of Murdoch, and a few other newspapers, and so many others on social media, who make it all seem so black and white, and so easy.

Orwell in our own time

‘Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest.’ (A quote from Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941).

We ask the same question today. And too often come up with the same answer.

And we’ve Orwell on the subject of Boys’ Weeklies (a remarkable essay from 1940), which pumped into boys ‘the conviction that … there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern that will last forever’.

So what indeed is new. We have to assume, to judge from their actions, that the current crop of right-wing Tories grew up reading similar material.

I enjoyed Wizard and Hotspur and Eagle and the like as a child. I did absorb creaky ideas of Empire, but happily it was Roy of the Rovers (front pages of Tiger magazine) who was my hero.

Though, come to think of it, Orwell wasn’t too keen on football … The Moscow Dynamos team had just visited the UK. This was 1945. He hoped we’d send a second-rate team to Moscow that was sure to be beaten, and wouldn’t represent Britain as a whole. ‘There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.’

He got this one wrong. An introduction to Marcus Rashford might have helped him.

But, football apart, he usually gets it right. He set himself a high standard, not least in language itself. ‘What above all is important is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way round.’  (Politics and the English Language, an essay from 1946.) He put down six ground rules, one of which is ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’, and another (and this one’s a serious challenge), ‘never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’

And his final ‘rule’: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ Orwell was writing in 1946. The war was over, but the totalitarian state still very much a reality.

He concludes: ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties …, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable.’

Michael Gove take note. (I’m not, I should point out, accusing Michael Gove of murder…)

**

Zenpolitics – I argue in this blog for compassion, for seeing the other person’s point of view. Against anger and cynicism, as if they could be avoided by the exercise of good old English common sense – by following a few of Orwell’s rules.

But it’s not always so easy.

Read Orwell, and the anger is there, and all the more powerful for not being overt: ‘One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class is morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.’

No longer. And how do we define ‘ruling class’ these days? By a readyness to shelter in tax havens, or on ocean-going yachts?

**

We have to take sides.

Our opponents are angry, we trade accusations. We will be flattened if we hold to the moral, un-confrontational high ground. We have simply to make our arguments better, and more cogent. We have to take sides.

How do we respond to China’s persecution of the Uighurs, its suppression of Hong Kong liberties  … to Huawei – partner or threat? … to our decline from being a key and influential operator within Europe to being a lackey of the USA … to indifference to Russian hacking … to the way ‘free trade’ arguments high-jacked Brexit … to the inadequacies of our response to Covid 19?

To focus on Covid – does it help to accuse? Yes, it does.  If we don’t have a ‘mission’ to investigate, then an investigation will not happen. (Or, as Boris Johnson would wish, we’ll have it a few safe years down the line. Preferably after the next election.) And anger will course come into play – linking tardiness of response and lack of preparation to the numbers of lives lost.

Mrs America, the splendid American TV series about Phyllis Schlafly and her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, features two of the great early advocates of feminism, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) are debating on TV, and Friedan loses her cool. Steinem (Rose Byrne) had wanted to avoid confrontation, which she saw could work to Schlafly’s advantage – give her publicity. But Steinem came to realise that Friedan was right. The debate had to be polarised. You had to take sides.

We have, in the here and now, the ‘cancel culture’ debate, which is all about taking sides. Do we call out statue-retainers – or supporters of JK Rowling? Is now the time to strike out once and for all for the rights, the absolutely equal rights, in all areas of life, of black people and white people, and likewise for transgender rights? Many of us are in ‘take no prisoners’ mode.

It’s at this point in an argument that we wonder if we should step back. Maybe taking sides isn’t as easy as we thought. Anger generates resistance. We may believe in an outcome, but want to bring a wider public along with us.

How would Orwell have responded?  There’s a book to be written on that subject! By putting over facts and argument as clearly and cogently as possible – his starting-point in the ’30s and ’40s has to be our starting-point now.  We will know pretty quickly what side we’re on. 

How will they see us fifty years from now?

Impute a moral basis to society and you’re immediately on dangerous ground. If it’s hard to define morality in individuals how much harder is it to define morality in society. To keep the subject at a practical level I’m taking the UN declaration on human rights (see below) is a starting-point. But, as the issue of climate change exemplifies, it is only a starting-point. We have a responsibility to our own generations – but also to future generations.

American writer, Rebecca Solnit, in ‘Hope in the Dark’ (new edition 2016) asks ‘how human beings a half century or a century from now will view us … when climate change was recognised, and there was so much that could be done about it .. They may … see us as people who squandered their patrimony … regard us as people who rearranged the china when the house was on fire.’

She may be right, but new generations have always had the ability to adapt to their circumstances. Their world is the ‘new’ normal. Radicals will challenge it, as ever. And conservatives defend, as if the world had always been this way.

We must always beware complacency. Politics (not society as while) has over the last forty years lost its moral narrative. So many would argue. Some on the political right would counter that society shouldn’t have a moral narrative: the market, the free market, is the best determinant of human fortunes, and the state should interfere in only the most minimalist of ways. This also includes any attempt at world governance, so the United Nations and its various agencies, the WHO and the like, will always be suspect.

The Preamble to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reminder of how moral purpose was defined in 1948 – and a marker against which we can judge our present society.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, … Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations

(NB The Preamble refers to ‘peoples’, not ‘nations’.)

Steven Pinker (psychologist, and author of ‘Enlightenment Now’, published in 2018) might not dissent, but he has an optimism which many of us wouldn’t share. He sees the progress in reducing inequality around the world (primarily in China and developing countries) as proof that moral purpose is still embedded in our society. Looked at in numerical terms there’s also been a massive reduction in violence (see ‘The Better Angels  of Our Nature’, published in 2011). This, he’d argue, is the working out of reason, the highest Enlightenment ideal.

There are powerful counter-arguments against both positions.  Inequality, and indeed poverty, and violence are still deep-woven into our society. Natural or man-induced calamities could have catastrophic consequences.

Reason, for Pinker, underpins progress and progress is essential, and sustainable. Take the environment as an example. He sees the damage done by carbon emissions, but the answer, he argues, is not to rail against consumption. Consumption is tied to many human goods, not least keeping cool in summer, and warm in winter. To quote from Andrew Anthony’s 2018 interview with Pinker in The Guardian, ‘how do we get the most human benefit with the least human damage’.

Pinker is right. We need, all of us, to take great care in lambasting consumption. Most people might well agree in principle, but demur when it affects them. We cannot avoid in society as currently constituted the kind of focus on science and technology, working in a capitalist context, that Pinker would advocate.

But how does Pinker imagine we got to where we are now? He rests too comfortably in the present. His argument for reason of necessity plays down the role the passions have played in driving social progress over the more than 250 years since the ‘Encyclopedie’ was published in 1750s France.

The old working class has to a great degree been ‘brought into the community – as voters, as citizens, as participants’. (See ‘Ill Fares The Land’, by the historian, Tony Judt, 2010) We didn’t get there simply by the exercise of reason. We avoided revolution, in Western Europe, but not by much. Post-war society addressed the five wants (squalor, want, ignorance, disease, and idleness) highlighted in 1942 by William Beveridge head on. But we’re now faced with what Judt described as ‘the social consequences of technological change’, as the nature of work changes radically. Judt was prescient. The historian, Peter Hennessy, has recently put forward five wants for a post-Covid times: solving social care, social housing, technical education, climate change, artificial intelligence.

Finding answers will require passion and moral purpose, and the application of enlightened and far-sighted ideas. Consumption will not get us there. (Though high levels of consumption are imperative if we’re to keep the economy firing at the level it will need to do if goals are to be met. High ideals, in the old phrase, butter no parsnips.)

Yes, capitalism will drive the foreseeable future as it has the recent past. (How it might be reconstituted is a whole other subject.) But it will challenged by, and ultimately will have no choice but to come to terms with, crises of inequality, population, resource exploitation and climate which could spell the world’s demise.

Pinker is not wrong: we have made progress in the context of human values and living conditions. But we are also radically dis-connecting from the natural world, changing permanently our ways of communicating, and our environment. We are heading into territory we don’t understand. We may or may not have the wherewithal to deal with this new dispensation when we get there. Dis-connect is high risk. Having the wherewithal doesn’t mean it will in any sense be a good place.

Science in this sense cannot be morally neutral. And does sometimes get on a roll, and head in directions which are high risk.  The theory of evolution took on a life of its own. The splitting of the atom opened a Pandora’s box we have no way of closing. Neuroscience and AI are working in tandem toward higher forms of intelligence which may yet radically change who we are as human beings. *

Rebecca Solnit imagined an observer in fifty tears time who is very much a replica of a typical individual in our own time. But we may be moving into very different spaces by that time.

Back to the UN Charter and its focus on ‘the dignity and worth of human person’. We vest in them specific meanings which we cannot take for granted.

—- —- —-

* The Economist, referring to academics who worry about existential risk, which could be super-eruptions, climate collapse, geomagnetic storms and the like, comments that they ‘frequently apply a time-agnostic version of utilitarianism which sees “humanity’s long-term potential” as something far grander than the lives of billions on Earth today: trillions and trillions of happy lives of equal worth lived over countless millennia to come’.   The Economist is referring specifically to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.  We should indeed be engaged deeply  in such matters. But while doing so let’s never forget – the worth and the moral worth of each individual in the here and now has to be our starting-point.

Notes from the countryside

I’ve explored the local countryside this year as never before. Not only discovered plants and flowers I never knew existed, but also put names to flowers, and corrected the names I’d got wrong. I’ve also noted how plants come into flower in our local Cotswold area at the same time – it seems on the same day. There is a deep pattern to this floral madness!

The presenters of the BBC’s Springwatch series have found the same. Locked down they’ve taken the opportunity to explore their immediate localities, again as never before. The series has now come to an end, after three weeks. I came to it late this year, but the programmes I’ve seen have been a delight. Badgers in Cornwall, storks in Sussex, goshawks in Montgomeryshire – with a focus on nests and fledglings. It’s easy to be sentimental about small birds, but the spectacle of goshawks feeding fledglings and squabs to their young goes without comment. Which is as it should be.

Dung beetles were a highlight. They are coprophages – dung-eaters. What impressed me is the way they are adapted, with hard shells and burrowing capabilities, and sensory apparatus to pick up smells, to their task. The result of evolution over hundreds of millions of years. It is the precision of their adaptation that struck home. Evolution tends to perfection.

The beavers damming a small stream in a copse on a Cornish farm were another highlight. The way they both hold back the flow of water, to create ponds, and release it, to avoid it swamping their lodges. With benefits to the local ecology downstream.

What also struck me was the aerial view of the ponds. Such a small areas, so vast the fields around. The farmer, naturalist and author, John Lewis-Stempel, raised eyebrows several years ago for criticising Springwatch. It can convey a false reality – the areas in which wildlife survives or, better, prospers, are vanishingly small.

The government’s Agriculture bill has passed its first reading in parliament. The big controversy has been around the government’s voting down a widely-supported amendment that would have guaranteed that imports meet the UK’s current high standards of environment, animal welfare and food safety. The argument being that all restrictions on free trade are by definition bad. It is a sad example of free-market dogma overriding common sense.

It doesn’t give me any confidence that the Agriculture Bill will come to grips with the big issues facing the countryside. It phases out the direct payments to farmers that lie at the heart of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and replaces them with a system that rewards farmers for the provision of ‘public goods’, which include ‘better quality air and water, improved soil health, public access to the countryside, animal welfare, and flood-risk reduction’.

The focus on Covid 19 has meant that the bill has had little press coverage, and the bill’s ability seriously to address conservation – and restoration – has hardly been discussed.

Can we have any confidence that issues of conservation, and indeed of ownership, will be seriously addressed? Lewis-Stempel highlights how disastrous pesticides and herbicides and the practice of ploughing fields to their margins have been for wildlife and wild flowers. ‘I have had a gutful of chemical farming.’

Springwatch, I appreciate, cannot be political. The BBC’s Countryfile also skates round political issues. Farming is usually conveyed in a positive light. They are both, Springwatch especially, fine programmes. But we cannot allow ourselves to be shielded from realities. As with climate issues we need to break out from within our comfort-zone carapace, and pick up a few cudgels.

The way ahead for the countryside is, and will not be, an easy one.

Statues – we’ve been here before

The world this morning is white. Or black. The inbetween where wisdom lies is in danger of being squeezed.

Tory MPs are on their knees attempting to wipe graffiti of the Churchill statue in Parliament Square. Priti Patel goes ultra vires telling Bristol police they must prosecute demonstrators who tore down the Colston statue. Melanie Phillips in The Times asserts that ‘On both sides of the Atlantic, this mayhem is the result of decades of appeasing those determined to bring down Western culture.’

(Am I, I wonder, one of those seeking to bring down Western culture, or one of the appeasers? I think I’ll reverse the charge in this case. This mayhem has more to do with people like Ms Phillips who choose white over black, or for that matter black over white.)

On the other hand, I’m hardly in favour of lining up dustcarts or convenient quaysides as dumping grounds for every statue which offends. Colston had to go. He just went sooner. But Cecil Rhodes?

Nelson Mandela, with his ‘Cecil, you and I are going to have to work together now’ line, suggested a way forward. Statues may once have been celebrations of individuals. Now they help us connect with how we’ve got to where we are, and how brutal that process often was. Colston was simply in too public a place, and his slave-trading simply too egregious a crime.

(Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, quoted Mandela this morning on the Today programme. It is a very apposite quote, but Patten came over as too complacent. We aren’t where we were four years ago, or indeed where we were in 2003.)

I’ve a personal interest in Rhodes. Oriel, where his statue stands, all but invisible, high above the High Street, is my college. It’s almost as if, more than a hundred years ago, even then they didn’t want to shout about Rhodes. Most of us never knew he was there. (We frequented a hot dog stand on the other side of the road, but never thought to look up.) Oriel decided four years ago that the statue should stay. Now they are in a bind. Most statues are more or less public property. Councils can decide. The Rhodes statue is Oriel’s and the college risks being drawn into a very public and very animated debate.

We know where the Daily Telegraph will stand, and donors to Oxford college finances may well, many of them, be Telegraph readers. If the college decides to remove the statue donors may look elsewhere. That’s the impression that’s given. Whether true or not, I can’t say.

But what matters more is the wider debate. The Black Lives Matter debate, about inclusion and job opportunities and education. In the USA it’s focused around the police. Our police function as guardians, not enforcers, and while there are policing issues, it’s important to keep the focus on the wider issues of inclusion. I want to see action which is radical and conclusive, so we don’t have to keep returning to the issue of discrimination. Likewise I want to see NHS and healthcare workers, and all support staff, properly recognised, and remunerated. That included immigrant populations. Minimum salaries shouldn’t guide immigration policies. The contribution immigrants make to society, and it is huge, is a far far better guide.

I’m an historian by training, and history isn’t about identifying with your favourite bits of the past. (Though history is a marvellous diversion.) Or the more nefarious bits. We shouldn’t get hung up on Cecil. If it’s anything, history is about recognising the interplay between continuity and change, and how they work out in the present. So don’t get stuck in an antiquated timeframe. Be aware that values change, and in our time they have changed radically for the better. Western culture, and that includes much though not all of religion as practised in the West, now has a much wider and more inclusive moral basis. Pope Francis is a good exemplar.

We’re in danger in the current debate of getting stuck behind our statues. Letting them dictate its terms. We’d do far better to seek out the ground we hold in common, and work out from there.

Have we gone too far for that? I’d like to see most – not all, but most – statues remain. Let them help us connect with our history. Whether that should include Cecil Rhodes or not, the next few days will tell.

I don’t want to see a much important debate highjacked by the fate of statues. Nor do I want see my college becoming the subject of public opprobrium. If in the end the statue has to go, then so be it.

Seize the day

‘And then every now and then, the possibilities explode. In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a ‘we’ that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency; new possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society re-emerges and – at least for a little while – shines.’ (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 3rd ed 2016)

We’ve had a week of protest in American cities following the murder of George Floyd. It’s at another level compared to anything I can remember – even compared to Chicago in 1968. Protests continue against police brutality and the wider issues connected with the Black Lives Matter movement. Coronavirus, fear on the one hand, jobs under threat, or already disappeared, on the other, is also a very real, and divisive, issue. And there’s Donald Trump, stoking the fires.

America has again that sense that change might be possible. In 2008, Obama just elected, we’d a sense of a vision which might be actualised. (And maybe it would rub off a little in the UK and Europe. ) Now it’s simply that the need for change must be more than recognised, it must be acted on. I don’t want to look at possible agendas for change. Americans can do that better than Brits. But what we as Brits, and Europeans, want to see is the USA coming together again. Politicians of different persuasions speaking to each other, devising common agendas.

And that is hard, just because the American hard right has pushed a defensive, free-market at all costs, and fundamentally anti-intellectual agenda. A white American agenda. Racism engrained, inherited wealth a sign of blessing, poverty the result of indolence. The courting of the ‘theo-cons’, the religious right, and their supposedly divinely-blessed socially-conservative agenda, with Trump picking up and bearing their standard in the most naked display of self-interest in American history.

What has suffered are ideas and argument and debate. As with all populist regimes, in Europe and the UK. Working in book publishing for the last few decades I saw it coming with the emergence of a new strand of avowedly right-wing publishing in the USA, a reaction to what was seen as a liberal consensus. The ‘problem’ with a liberal consensus is that it is about inclusion, about opportunity for all, and about safety nets, in the best Beveridge tradition, and indeed it seeks consensus. Trickle-down economics as a story gave Reaganite economics credibility for a while. Rising inequality has given the lie to that. In the UK as the USA. No more Peter Mandelson: ‘We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.’ (Though, to be fair, he did add, ‘as long as they pay their taxes.’ And that’s another big big issue.)

Argument and debate can in the current climate only get us so far. We now have a desire for change. Not just in the USA. But a wider desire, across countries and issues, as we come out of coronavirus much more aware of who really matters, and what really matters, in society. (We’ve a government which wants to get us back on to the same old rails, as soon as possible, though it’s looking possible, given their incompetence that they might go completely off the rails in the process.)

Status and pay for nurses and social care workers – and, for example, supermarket shelf-stackers, who are also taking risks, as key workers. This requires a new and radical activism. But street demos aren’t an option. Here at least. Only – not so. Thousands demonstrated yesterday in support of US demonstrators, and with their own ‘Black Lives Matter’, here in the UK as well, agenda. It may be that causes can combine, and a wider activism generate real hope and expectation for change. And renewed hope can in turn generate activism.

In this country we’ve also seen the despair, so under-reported, that’s resulted from austerity measures in recent years. However grand the current government’s spending plans are, restoring some of the more brutal austerity cuts hasn’t been been considered.

Now has to be the time to break out. To get active. Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’ was first published in 2004, and a primary focus was the anti-Iraq War movement of 2003. The war happened, with terrible consequences, but there have been many other instances where pressure from below, from outsiders, has seeded change. Solnit writes, ‘Activism can itself generate hope because it already constitutes an alternative and turns always from corruption at the centre to face the wild possibilities and the heroes at the edges on your side.’

Climate change already has its heroes. A wider activism will generate a few more. Who they will be in this country only time will tell. And we should include, not exclude. Hard practical agendas as well as wild possibilities. I’ve hopes Labour under Keir Starmer might take a lead. But let’s not exclude renegade Tories. At a street level, there will be new leaders and new movements. As the anti-war movement demonstrated they may get nowhere. But there is now an opportunity, of a kind we haven’t seen for quite a while.

The USA has at least an election coming up, focusing minds as almost never before. We are lumbered with our least-liberated government for a generation or two. But given evidence of an almost unprecedented level of incompetence, and a Brexit agenda radically unsuited to the times, who can tell where our politics might lead.

All we know is we have uncertain times, massively uncertain. And we should not them slip by without turning them to our advantage.

 

Distant rooftops

I watched Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats last night, via YouTube and The Show Must Go On.  I loved it – for its music, its singing, dancing, choreography, characterisation. The whole things knocked me out.

I’m taking it as my stepping-off point on a very different subject. From musical theatre to hard-core political theatre.

There’s a revealing short article, part of a feature on trade, by Liz Truss (Minister for Distant Rooftops) in the current edition of Prospect.

She highlights the many long international supply chains ‘with little resilience to shocks’. The answer is, she believes, ‘not isolation and self-sufficiency – neither of which are credible in the interdependent world we live in. Instead we should broaden our range of trading relationships, so we are not limited to just one country, bloc or continent. We can then begin to achieve the kind of diverse supply chains that will safeguard us against future crises.’

This is what you’d expect from one of the authors of that cheerful libertarian document, Britannia Unchained, and trailblazer of the dream world of Global Britain.

(I’m reminded of Dick Whittington, a cat from another time and place, seeking his fortune – but this time in China.)

I’d like to pitch against that, as a down-home example, Preston’s policy of prioritising local suppliers. Two radically different paradigms. Preston’s is compatible with global trading relationships. But not with a libertarian free-market paradigm, whereby you source the cheapest goods and services, regardless of origin. Boris Johnson has indeed singled-out Preston for back-handed praise: recognising its success but making it clear it isn’t the way forward for the country.

(Boris, our absentee prime minister: ‘Whatever time the deed took place,/Macavity wasn’t there!’ Only, in Boris’s case, he too often hasn’t been there in the first place.)

It should be self-evident, but sadly isn’t to the current Cabinet, that local and international need to work in tandem.

Diversified supply chains, even if they are achievable in Truss’s romanticised world, will not safeguard us against future crises. The further we reach beyond Europe, and the more we’re exposed to issues of distance and transport, and all the problems that arise from political and military conflict, the higher the levels of risk.

The latest edition of The Economist is on the same page, though not quite the same tack, as I am: ‘The pandemic will politicise travel and migration and entrench a bias towards self-reliance. This inward-looking lurch will enfeeble the recovery, leave the economy vulnerable and spread geopolitical instability.’

No-one is arguing against global trade. The reverse. Pursue it as hard as we can. But it’s essential we secure our base, and that is our local and national economies – and indeed European economies. That need not be ‘an inward-looking lurch’.

I shouldn’t push parallels with Cats too far. But – secure your own rooftop, then your wider patch. Don’t rely on Mr Mistoffelees, aka Dom Cummings, to magic your way out of trouble.

An obsession with global trade is especially bizarre from a government which secured its election on the basis of an appeal to the country’s insular instincts. But that’s taking us back to old arguments.

‘… a new day will begin,’ as Elaine Page sings. It won’t come the way we’re going now.

 

 

We live fragile times …

Evening skies are, it seems, always clear these days. Even when the day turns cloudy and cold, and winds hit 40mph, by 8pm the sky is clearing, and Venus shines brilliantly, as it has since February. It will later this year shine brightly as a morning star, and return as an evening star in the autumn of 2021. We have the certainty of billions of years.

How marked the contrast with the fragility of our Covid times. None of us knows how the exit will work out. There are two fundamental directions – two well-defined attitudes. One, a re-set to where we were. There will be some big shake-outs, but we will revert to the old norms as we did after 2008. Old inequalities may be embedded even deeper. We will be in denial.

The other, an awareness of the fragility that our climate and health crises have highlighted, translated into a determination, in Europe and the USA at least, to re-set our priorities – with regard to conditions of work and taxation, and to the way we care for our planet, and moving beyond our respective health services to the way we care for each other.  (The USA in this regard has further to go than others.)

Nadia Whittome, at 23 the youngest MP in the House of Commons, is working weekends during the crisis in a care home. She recalls how, a couple of months ago, she ‘asked Priti Patel which aspect of social care she considered to be low skilled and she couldn’t tell me’. She thinks Patel’s response might be different now. ‘We’ve found out,’ Whittome continues,’ during this pandemic whom we couldn’t do without. It’s not the offshore companies, the hedge fund managers and the bankers; it’s the porters, the cleaners, the delivery drivers, care workers.’

This is the change of emphasis, more than emphasis – a change to fundamentals, we might hope to see. Though I’m not sure I share her optimism about Patel.

But we can’t do without growth. Without it we’ve no hope of financing the vast deficit we’re racking up, rising (according to a leaked Treasury document quoted in the Telegraph) from £55 billion before the pandemic to £337 billion. Extending the furlough scheme alone could be £80 billion on its own.

At the same time, growth on its own, without a re-set, will only polarise societies even further. ‘Agitation for more progressive and distributive policies’ will not go away. (Historian Walter Scheidel, quoted in The Guardian.)

There’s little sign that the government has any understanding of this. They’ve intervened in an extraordinary way, out of sheer necessity, but their instinct is and will be to free up market forces as soon as possible. Some Tory MPs are demanding that the government shouldn’t, post-crisis, be supporting unprofitable companies. I won’t critique this daft idea further other than to say that profit is too often a short-term measure, and a poor guide to the public utility, or longer-term success, of an enterprise. And what agency would be deputed to make these decisions?

This would be a different kind of shake-out for the one we might hope for. But it would fit well with the government’s Brexit agenda. As I’ve argued before, a post-Covid financial crisis will hide the economic debacle that’s likely to follow from a country operating post-Brexit under WTO rules.

Keir Starmer has declined to join the other parties in demanding a delay to the 31st December cut-off date for negotiations with the EU. I’m not sure he’s right on this – but it does mean he keeps his powder dry. Brexit is a high-risk card to play in any form for Labour. If, or when, talks collapse, and the government shows no signs of wanting to make the compromises a free trade deal with the EU will require, he will be in a stronger position.

His focus, as it was in the second (and largely unreported) part of his reply to Boris Johnson’s speech last Monday, has to be on creating a better society post-pandemic. One, as he put it, where we no longer under-invest in our public services – and yet expect front-line workers to protect us.

I don’t want this blog to be party political. First principles for me are compassion and enterprise, or enterprise and compassion, operating in tandem. But in the current climate I have no trust in the Conservatives, and I do have some hopes that the sheer common sense and decency of Starmer might yet deliver – exactly what, time will tell.

A society, and a wider world, which is a little, maybe even a lot, less fragile, is something to aim for.

VE Day 2020

8th May 1945 – 8th May 2020 

One striking statistic marked the day. We’d a quiz via mobile phone in the afternoon and Miles, my partner’s eldest grandchild, asked us how many people died in World War Two. Mine was a massive underestimate. MiIitary deaths were  21-25 million, including about 5 million deaths in captivity.  Include civilian deaths and the number rises to 50-56 million. Add in deaths from disease and famine, and that makes a total of 70-85 million. From the ambitions of the over-mighty came brutality and holocaust.

We had just returned from a wonderful walk up into the woods and back across the Common. From speedwell and periwinkle, via ground ivy and vetch, to bugle and early purple orchid, the abundance of flowers is mind-blowing. Chalk milkwort is rare, with white touches around the tiny blue flowers. Prevailing easterlies always bring clearer air, and pollution levels are hitting new lows. Sun and clear skies and clear air – the flowers just seem richer this year.

After the quiz we’d a street party, suitably socially distanced. Our neighbour had sat quietly with her two young children at 11am. She’d explained what the silence was all about, about how people had died, and how they celebrated on VE Day. The children listened, and kept silence. They will remember, as I remember the Queen’s Coronation, as a six-year-old in 1953.

Families everywhere are home schooling, and VE Day has been a focus for studies. Schools would normally have provided that focus. In times of lockdown it’s been family.

We’ve all got used to silence in recent weeks. We are fortunate. We have open country nearby. There’s one place deep in the woods, where the wild garlic spreads its widest carpet, and the birds never stop singing. Forget the morning chorus. This is 2.30 in the afternoon. The leaves of the beech trees are thick enough now to achieve full woodland shade, so the patches of sunlight in the clearing beyond stand out more sharply.

War and silence. I’ve been reading Anne Frank’s Diary. We’d visited the annex where the family had shut itself away last October. They could hear the Allied bombers overhead, they knew about the concentration camps. They must keep silence, and they did, remarkably so, for more than two years. In these coronavirus lockdown times that beggars belief. They knew the Allies would win. But would they be able to hold out? What hits home so terribly hard is that they were betrayed.

The big and terrible picture of war, set against the close observation of nature. The noise and joy of VE Day, and the (relative!) quiet of a street party under lockdown.

Not a day I’ll forget.