Who knows anything about anything?

Referring back to my last blog, there is the question of course, who knows anything? Are we really any of us competent to comment on any issue, let alone exercise a vote which determines policies which often change lives dramatically?

It’s easy to be elitist. ‘I understand these things.’ There will be others who set themselves up in the opposite stall. They too will be sure of their own rectitude. 

Maybe we ‘understand’ the news. We understand that in Afghanistan there’s a civil war, on the one hand, which we’d be best well out of, and a vicious Islamic dictatorship on the other, which for good geopolitical reasons, we have to oppose with all the might we can muster.  Both are, on their own, convincing arguments. Are any of us competent to choose between them? 

Often we have a half-formed idea, and an event out there seems to confirm it, and we think eureka! I’m right, I know the answer. We’d be better off being objective. But we don’t learn that way. From an early age we all have our mindsets, with whole intellectual constructs based on them, and we’re looking for ideas that confirm not challenge. 

In the end we’re all kidding ourselves. Some of us are entrenched. We’ll never change. Others allow themselves a little more freedom, and I’d guess it’s there where our hope lies. In the floating voter. They’re often voting on a basis of hunch and assumption as much as anyone else, but at least they’re there to be challenged and influenced and persuaded. 

A few may have humility in the face of all they don’t know. But they will be few. I’ve never been one to date. Maybe I should try and be one now. But family and friends have to listen to me sounding off about policies and politicians. Reining myself in doesn’t come naturally. 

It’s also boring. 

‘If there were any justice in politics it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.’  Simon Heffer’s comment explains much of the Telegraph’s recent behaviour. We know they didn’t act out of a sense of probity or concern for the national interest (other than the interests of the island of Brecqhou) but, yes, it has been fun. If we had been disengaged from politics then we’re all engaged again now.

That old chestnut

We’ve the sad sight all around us of horse chestnut leaves turning brown and dying. The first blotches in June, hardly noticeable, but by the end of July they scar the landscape. (And affected trees don’t it seems produce conkers.) The caterpillar of the leaf miner moth is the culprit. But there’s also the bleeding canker, which is about as expressive a name for an affliction of man, beast or vegetation that I’ve ever heard.

We all remember Dutch elm disease and the devastation it brought. It’s still hard to believe how quickly we lost one of the stalwart trees of Britain. I personally don’t blame the Dutch, and more than I hope the Italians blame us for zuppe inglese, or we the Spanish for their flu. 

Ironically it’s the Dutch (subconsciously influenced by wanting to restore their good name?) who seem to have come up with the answer. And what an answer. They’ve created an infusion of garlic which they inject into trees, and, well, it seems the caterpillars don’t like it, and curl up and die. I don’t know how it affects the bleeding canker. But there’s a chance that horse chestnuts will in future smell of garlic.

Let’s hope it’s not garlic after a good meal the night before, which will empty the pavements and parklands, but that wonderful smell of wild garlic which with its hanging white flowers is the only rival to the bluebell in the woodland spring, to my mind anyway.

The first British trees are being trialled with the injection next week. Hailes Abbey is I believe one location. I await further news with interest!

Public trust in the news…

The Reuters Institute report last month, Public Trust in the News, based on focus group findings, revealed that the majority of people didn’t understand the news and therefore didn’t trust it. For anyone interested in the workings of democracy this comes as no surprise, but to have it spelt out in a report is something new. At the same time, we have news organisations encouraging instant comment, welcoming contributions from the floor in Question Time style debates. The one follows on from the other.  We’re encouraged to have an opinion whether or not we have the full picture, and then we have the press out there desperately keen to create a partial picture.

I enjoy Question Time. But what I hear from the floor often scares me. It’s not the opinions, which we need to hear, but the certainty with which they’re expressed, the bitterness, the alienation …

We have a major issue here. A perplexed public is an easily prejudiced public, and easily manipulated. We can’t expect the press to take a lead, given its current ownership structures and attitudes, and so it falls to the politicians. There is simply no alternative to constructive debate, ensuring the key issues in any debate are properly understood, identifying common ground, elucidating points of difference. Both sides, all sides, need to buy into this. The only points scored should come about as a result of clarity and conviction of argument.

It all seems so simple, and yet … so impossible? Who will dare? Demagogues have always preyed on democrats, and it will take courage and determination (our old friends) to raise the standard of debate. But it is critical that we do so.

Andy Coulson, ex News of the World editor, friend of Simon Cowell, press secretary to David Cameron… giving a populist angle to Cameron’s presentation. That’s where we are at the moment.

As a postscript, written two days later on 24th July, David Cameron enthused about the new politics that had helped win Chloe Smith the Norwich North by-election. For once I caught the mood, not least because Harriet Harman then came on and chattered on about Labour investment against Tory cuts which is just the argument they tried to hammer home in Norwich, and which failed them abysmally. Bury Andy, and let Harriet bury herself, and Labour with her, and the Tories just might begin to catch the public imagination the way New Labour did back in 1997. But they’ve a long way to go.

Ducks, rivers and ponds

‘What happens when we die?’

Not a  subject to ask a politician though quite a few will have died a thousand deaths recently. What happens when we ask a Zen master instead? In Zen as in politics the answer isn’t always want we want, or expect.

So what do we learn from the precocious and over-knowledgeable young Zen monk who couldn’t answer that simple question when his master asked him. ‘What happens when we die?’

He thought the answer would lie in the Buddhist scriptures and when he couldn’t find it there he insisted his master tell him, seizing and shaking him when he refused to do so. Appalled by what he’d done he left the monastery, spent years as a wandering monk, then tended the tomb of the sixth Zen patriarch, Huineng. One day as his bamboo struck stone the answer came to him. In a moment. It wasn’t the answer he’d have expected as a novice, something measurable and clear-cut. He’d taken many years unlearning (not learning) what he knew to find the answer.

If we seek too hard we’ll never find. All we can do is put ourselves on the right path, seek no certainties, have no expectations. It’s the path that leaves ‘I’ behind, that accepts suffering (being the distance by which reality falls short of our expectations), lets every day, every moment in that day, take its course. We have the illusion that we shape the world, when the world shapes us. We create ripples on the surface, and they are gone in a moment.

A story of my own. I stood by the river flowing through the garden one recent Monday morning. That river also works for me as an image of the Tao, the steady inevitable flow of life that we think we can influence but flows ever onwards at its own pace. It’s that flow we all need to be a part of, aware of the changing rhythms of the day, the elements, the earth, life itself.

The ducks who paddle that stretch of river saw me, one mother and four young turks, almost grown, full of energy, waiting for the bread we regularly feed them. That moment it seemed wrong, with the water coursing through the flowering ranunculus, and the trout steady against the stream, and the ducks pecking at bits of greenery here and there. But if we don’t feed them, then they won’t come back. That’s what we tell ourselves. There are other cottages upstream who also feed them, and they go just like us humans for the easy life, do ducks. So I fed them, and throwing the bread here and there, this moment one way the next the opposite, I create a scurrying and a spurting and a flurry and fuss that I never seen before.

‘Sorry, chaps, I’m out of bread.’ They didn’t answer, and they didn’t go way. They were still there an hour later, hoping no doubt that I’d re-appear. I’d had fun and the ducks had too (I think, although maybe they were angry with me) but I wasn’t quite happy about it. All that kerfuffle had broken the mood, reduced the river to the same crazy place as the world beyond the garden hedge, and down the M4 only a few miles away.

Our world only exists because we imagine it. It’s our minds that give reality to the world and we give names and attributes to everything so that the world makes some kind of sense. The names (within a language group) we all have in common, but we all of us imagine the world in very individual, very different ways.

Try also a pool as an image… imagine it somewhere out in India, or in the African savannah. A watering hole where all the animals come to drink. They don’t come at the same time. They come in their own time. And that’s how we take wisdom from life. Not by all our crazy communal efforts but by sampling, listening, drinking, doing it as individuals, finding our own truth.

The river, the Tao, and the pool, that still source of understanding, are both metaphors for the inexplicable. We cannot explain the way, or understand wisdom in any intellectual way. Both take us beyond all our attempts to describe or understand the world. As happened to that Chinese monk all those centuries ago, we find wisdom when we don’t expect it, and then we live that wisdom. It’s not a subject for study, it cannot be enhanced by learning. We may try and explain how we get there to others, and the scriptures of Buddhism and other faiths have done that for two millennia and more. But wisdom itself is beyond explanation.

There are no answers. There may be some courses of action that are better than others. But there are no answers.

Dave does it again

Talk of a bonfire of the quangos set me thinking.  Cameron wants to return all the policy functions of quangos to government, to ensure accountability to parliament. The exceptions are quangos whose role involves technical advice (eg the Monetary Policy Committee and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence), impartial advice (eg research councils), and transparency and independence  (eg the Office of National Statistics).

But why the change? I can see no reason why there can’t be tighter regulation of existing quangos outside government, with ministers held accountable for the quangos for which their departments have responsibility. It looks to me as if Cameron is playing games again, playing to a public mood without regard for the best interests of government. Just how much disruption will switching the functions of quangos back to Whitehall create? And are government departments always the best place for developing policy?

Recent consultation on the Climate Change Bill asked for a comment on the proposal for an independent analytical organisation, arguing that ‘an independent body will improve the institutional framework for managing carbon in the economy’. One  response was simply a plea for ‘not another quango’…..

And yet …climate change policy is one of many which needs to be informed by recommendations that are independent of government, not tied to previous policies or funding decisions.  It needs a long-term view.  Policy determined within government departments could be at the mercy of ministerial whim, itself swayed by electoral considerations and whatever pressure groups can get the strongest media campaign behind them.   

Quangos as I’d define them need to focus on the long term, and advise on policy areas which it’s hard for the public to have an informed opinion about. There needs to be accountability in terms of cost and competence of course, but to disparage quangos per se is simply foolish, and opens up the possibility of evidence-based decisions being open up to media influence and short-termism.

Cameron in power will find the same situation as Thatcher, Blair and Brown did: he’ll realise early on the benefits of involving third parties in policy development and recommendation.  And he’s find himself tied by the foolish pronouncements he thought he had to make to get him into power.

Target practice

Reference Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society of Arts’ blog (italics) of 29 June, the day of Gordon Brown’s National Plan announcement. 

The idea of moving from top-down accountability delivered through guidance, bureaucracy and inspection to a bottom up accountability delivered by citizens enforcing their rights is attractive. Although we await to hear how exactly the entitlements are to be enforced. No one wants a field day for lawyers.

We’ve heard much about accountability. But we have a contradiction here. To be accountable there has to be agreement as to the procedures and standards schools and hospitals and indeed governments follow. That needs to come about ideally through consensus but as likely as not by government diktat expressed in legislation. The popular will doesn’t set standards. Governments acting in what they see as the best interests of the population do that, balanced against what’s realistic.

We’d all like to be seen by a consultant immediately we’re referred, but no government would accept that as a target.

We’d all like to see light-armoured replaced by more heavily armed vehicles, but armies need to adapt to new fields of warfare, to prioritise working within a limited budget. So no government would agree that. Scrap aircraft carriers and Trident, do I hear? Don’t kid yourself. That’s not an easy decision for anyone to take. (An issue to come back to.)

An interesting plan’s credibility will sadly be undermined by the failure of the plan to tackle the political machine of Whitehall. We have too many ministers looking for work to do. They constantly generate new priorities and guidance which are all too often interpreted at the front line as instructions. Gordon Brown will want to make the case that his new framework frees up the front line and makes government less bureaucratic and complex, but until he slims down and muzzles the ministerial monster this is not believable.

I like this. Hold ministers accountable. Too busy and they are reprimanded. We want less legislation, not more…  (And we want ministers in place for longer, so they don’t feel each time they have to make their mark.)

Matthew Taylor elsewhere strikingly contrasts Michael Gove (education, radical change) and Andrew Lansley (health, steady as she goes). At the end of a recent seminar both got applauded, but all the talk was about Michael Gove. It seems universally accepted that he’s very bright, but it sound like he’s going over the top before the war’s even started.

Mustn’t grumble

There’s this guy called Quentin Letts who writes for the Mail and won an award recently. He published a book last year, called ‘Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain’.  (Sequel, next year, is ‘Bog-Standard Britain’.)

Great idea, great for argument – and great for reinforcing prejudices, and feeding the Mail readers’ paranoia that if we haven’t already gone to the dogs we’re heading pell-mell that way.

The list includes Jeffrey Archer, Kenneth Baker, Ed Balls, Richard (Dr) Beeching, John Birt, Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Rhodes Boyson,  Gordon Brown, Paul Burrell, James Callaghan, Alastair Campbell, Anthony Crosland, Richard Dawkins, Princess Diana,  Greg Dyke, Sir Alex Ferguson, Tony Greig, Edward Heath, Graham Kelly, Graham Kendrick, Sir Denys Lasdun Dame Suzi Leather, John McEnroe, Stephen Marks, Michael Martin, Alun Michael. Rupert Murdoch, John Prescott, Nicholas Ridley, Geoffrey Rippon, Charles Saatchi, Sir Jimmy Savile, John Scarlett, Janet Street-Porter, Margaret Thatcher, Alan Titchmarsh, Harold Walker and Helen Willetts.

Thatcher, in summary: did lots of good things, pro-business, won in the Falklands – but was vindictive toward a remarkable body of men, the miners, and re-inforced, set in stone almost, the North-South divide as we have it today.

I wondered how Mail readers down south responded to that. (Are there any up north?)

I haven’t read up on Helen Willetts, happy weather girl, and I won’t bother.

The biggest problem these days – column inches to fill, and a public who expect to be titillated. But talking people up rarely titillates anyone, unless it’s Andy wining at Wimbledon at 10.40 pm, so we get endless talking down, reinforcing negative modes of thinking on every subject.

Try setting out with a  smile and not a grumble and it’s amazing how much happier and sunnier the world looks. Helen Willetts always smiling does her best… although I must admit it can be wearing…

…but mustn’t grumble.

Sorry, that sounds corny. But, damn it, it’s 100% true, and I, we, most of us anyway, just don’t do it.