Good books, bad politics

Book festivals are, to vary a phrase, a long time in politics. We’ve just emerged from the ten-day long Cheltenham Literature Festival. While we listened there were few ripples out there in the wider world. UK gilts prices were going through the roof. Markets were in turmoil.

First off Friday evening was Jeremy Hunt, yes, that Jeremy Hunt, talking about his new book ‘Zero: Eliminating Preventable Harm and Tragedy in the NHS’. The book has been described by a junior doctor (writing in The Guardian), one of the strikers who vilified Hunt during their 2016 strike, as ‘a thoughtful, serious and well-written book that tackles an immensely important subject’. That’s how he came over to us listening in the Town Hall. He’s serious, and means well. He was Health Secretary for six years, the kind of long stint more government ministers should have in office.

Hunt became Chancellor of the Exchequer just six days later. Looking back there was an almost charming innocence about proceedings.

Saturday lunchtime, we listened to Cheltenham-born writer Geoff Dyer talking about his new book, ‘Growing Old With Roger Federer’. We reach the point in life here we have to move on, admit the great days are past. Federer is the exemplar, doing it gracefully. He is 41, Dyer early 60s. Dylan, one of Dyer’s heroes is in his 80s. After the session we headed out into the sunshine talking about our own icons (Dylan being one), and the likes of Mick Jagger and how in that one case the rules don’t quite apply. (But, Mick, they will, in time, even to you!)

(As an aside, let me mention David Foster Wallace’s essay on Roger Federer quoted by Brian Phillips in a 2016 New York Times article: he ‘advances the impossibly ambitious, totally doomed and thrillingly beautiful idea that high-level spectator sports serve an aesthetic and even quasi-spiritual function, namely to reconcile viewers to the limitations of their own bodies.’ We can muse over that wonderful notion as we contemplate our own physical decline!

Later that afternoon we heard Justin Webb talk about his new book (‘The Gift of a Radio’) with a full-on chirpy Nick Robinson. Justin and Nick work closely together on the BBC’s Today programme and are obviously great pals. Justin smooth, with an upper middle-class mum who ‘lived’ that status. Nick set himself up as a northern terrier. Drives a Ford Capri. (No, he doesn’t, but Justin is a little bit on the smooth side, in, of course, the nicest possible way.)

Sunday evening, getting dark, and the festival site quieter. I drove in specially to hear Geoff Dyer and others talking about Jack Kerouac, author of ‘On the Road’, and leading figure of the Beat Generation. It’s one hundred years since he was born. ‘Still Roadworthy? was the title of the event. Yes, the answer, the book still strikes chord. I looked up quotes back home. How about, ‘What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.’

Back down to earth…

Monday, a panel discussion focused on the topic, ‘Can Economics Save the Planet’, with Oliver Balch chairing, and Gillian Tett in full flow. Can economics shake off its obsessive focus on numbers? Are we at another turning point, where the ‘dismal science’ experiences its own green revolution, going way beyond the ‘green-washing’ of ESG (Environmental Social and Governance). Can we really have ‘green growth’? And what of the ‘no growth’ school, which argues that we can only save the planet by adopting a no-growth approach. But is that, for a moment, given all our crises and our nine billion population, remotely realistic?

After regrouping for tea and cakes it was the turn Chris Patten and Hong Kong refugee and hero Nathan Lee, talking about Hong Kong, taking their cue from Patten’s Hong Kong Diaries. But their focus was on Hong Kong now, and Nathan’s experience, and the territory’s future – and should we ever have trusted the Chinese. And now of course we’ve Xi Jinping. We cannot hide from the threat he poses. Or autocracies more widely, BUT what impressed was how neither Nathan nor Chris seemed born down by gloom. Nathan is a fighter – as we must be, fighting for liberal democracy.

Tuesday drilled home the same point. It was ‘Ukraine day’ at the festival and we listened to novelist Oksana Zabuzhko (‘Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex’, ‘The Museum of Abandoned Secrets’) talking with Rosie Goldsmith. Oksana is unstoppable, she has to deep-think herself into her replies in English (Ukraine her first language, Polish second, English third, Russian fourth…) and then she engages, and talks non-stop. Western Europe doesn’t know Ukraine, doesn’t even connect to it as part of Europe. Security is what Ukraine’s needs once and for all, in the face of Russia’s repeated predations… We had to clear up after World War Two, now we have to fight and do it again. We haven’t faced up to dictators, in Russia or China, and (reprising last evening’s message) we must.

Thursday morning, it was the turn of Steven Pinker, talking about his new(ish) book, ‘Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.’ He’s wonderful on cognitive biases, picking up from the work of Daniel Kahneman. His big question: can we by the exercise of objective reason get to something approximating to objective truth? After Chris Patten and Nathan Law, and Oksana Zabuzhko, he did come over as somewhat detached from the real world. Is the world really less violent? Can that argument be sustained? ‘Progress’ has surely only re-contextualised violence. Putin and even more Xi Jinping are by their own lights eminently reasonable.

Late afternoon, we’re into the festival again for the BBC champion ‘explorer’ (though that word almost demeans him) Simon Reeve. He was brilliant. The cerebral chat of Pinker replaced by the humour, the goodwill, the openness, the experience crossing frontiers, geographical and personal, of someone who has travelled where the world hurts.

That evening, the big news: Kwarteng is out, and our old friend Jeremy Hunt is in. And the great unwinding has begun.

Friday morning, a conversation between a long-winded Times writer (good for contrast!) and a brilliant, mercurial, unstoppable, wonderfully detailed and informed Anthony Beevor, author of ‘Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921’. Violence lay at the core to the 1917-21 implosion, Lenin single-minded in 1917, when everyone else hesitated. Single-minded again, Lenin and Trotsky, when the Reds took on the different allegiances that made up the Whites. A conflict characterised by the brutality which seems to be a continuing part of the Russian psyche when it comes to the exercise of power. Despite its length, 592 pages, a must-read: there are big issues involved, not least relating to Ukraine as it is today,

Saturday morning, a panel discussion with ‘Crisis: Ukraine and Europe’, as its subject. Bronwen Maddox in the chair. Support by way of armament is crucial. So too popular support, despite privations which lie ahead. Can we hold the alliance together? Is Macron, arguing that France wouldn’t use its nuclear deterrent in the current conflict, a weak link? Or is he just adding to the uncertainty – which is what we of course want Putin to feel. And what of those countries which still sit of the fence. Why, and how can we change their minds? We can’t change Xi Jinping. But what of the rest of Asia, and Africa?

Our last festival visit: the actor Hugh Bonneville, star of Downton, Paddington, and Notting Hill, and much else. A complete contrast – we were ‘VIPs’, courtesy of my friend Hazel, so got a free book. Hugh was brilliant: laid back, unassuming, funny, full of theatre insights and stories.

We needed that, needed him. Take a break! Even Rings of Power (Tolkien re-worked, re-fantasised for Amazon Prime) which we watched that evening is, if we take it seriously for a moment, about the rise and fall of civilisations, about good versus evil. I shall take one of Michael Bond’s Paddington books to bed with me tonight!

A not-so-warm welcome for our new PM

As we change prime ministers, a few thoughts.

Let’s start with integrity. Journalists at the self-described ‘right leaning’ GB News weren’t like the BBC, ‘because at least they got their facts right’. This was Liz Truss a few weeks ago. A throwaway line from one of the candidates in the Tory leadership debate. No more than that? Or Truss, in pursuit of Tory member votes, peddling a ‘fake news’ agenda.

Emily Maitlis just now setting up her own podcast with Jon Sopel is good on the subject. Politics she argues has changed fundamentally and journalism and broadcasting haven’t caught up. ‘We haven’t realised that when people say fake news they are trying to disorientate you and demean your work, so they can ignore any scrutiny you put them under.’

I jib at calling the new incumbent ’our PM’, just as I did with Johnson. Playing the ‘fake news’ game is, let’s not beat about the bush, pretty base. Not that she would understand for a moment the deeper implications of what she said. She’s doing no more than her predecessor did during the Brexit debate. Plus ca change…

Another cheap line from Truss: the jury is out on whether ‘Mr Macron is Britain’s friend or foe’. A quote from the poet Ian Duhig’s ‘Fauvel’s Prologue’ applies:

‘De Gaulle would snigger; he well knew
The tactic of imperialist Brits
Who ruled by inculcating splits.’

Tories of the current dominant persuasion have this preference for enmity over amity, for two fingers rather than a handshake.

Facts are one thing. What about opinion? Maitlis is also good in this subject. The BBC back in Brexit time tried to balance argument. But their notions of balance were politicised.

‘Balance is a word we always used at the BBC but balance is complicated. If it takes me five minutes to find ten economists who think Brexit is a terrible idea, and five hours to find an economist who says it will be absolutely brilliant, then having one of each side isn’t balanced.’

The Daily Telegraph carried an interview a few days ago with someone who might claim to be ‘the one economist’. (Though to be fair there are a few hanging out at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange and the Adam Smith Institute – low-tax ‘free-traders’ all.) I’m thinking of Patrick Minford, one-time advisor to Thatcher. He rails against the Treasury’s short-term rules ‘in which borrowing mustn’t happen’.

But with massive support about to be announced for energy bills, £100m or more, and built-in increases in health and social care expenditure, and defence, and other areas, which will push borrowing to an even high level, maybe unsustainable as the Institute of Fiscal Studies has warned – how and where do we cut?

Borrowing as a proportion of national debt was 41% in 2007 and 74% in 2010, and it’s 99% now. But Minford remains cool. ‘Solvency doesn’t mean we should be paying off debts tomorrow. It means a long-term strategy in which state spending is consistent with our tax revenues…’ Minford argues for the importance of infrastructure, health and education, ‘but ‘state spending has to be controlled’.

‘The NHS has to be made more efficient.’ One good example. For Minford and far right opinion more generally this is an ancient mantra. And we can all agree. But they see it in market terms. The competition-led Lansley reforms under Cameron were a miserable failure. So where now for ‘efficiency’. The focus should have been then and must be now on the better integration of health and social care. What chance Truss?

A recent Telegraph leader laid into Matthew Taylor, CEO of the NHS Confederation, for highlighting the impact of the energy crisis on the NHS. Focus on reform and leave the energy crisis to others was the deeply unhelpful conclusion.

Taylor, policy advisor to Tony Blair, author of a key report for Theresa May on employment practices, and for fifteen years chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, is one of the people to get behind to help reform the NHS, someone with a skill set and experience way ahead of anything the government, or a Telegraph leader writer, could offer.

Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank, reminds us of the wider context. ‘Public spending that yields clear economic and social returns, including spending on the welfare state, enhances the performance of the economy, but beyond a certain point the cost is greater than the return and government spending begins to crowd out private sector economic activity and the tax base that public spending depends on.’

It’s an old-as-the-hills mantra. ‘Crowding out the private sector.’ And it might have applied in the days of mass nationalisation. But the state these days works, and has to work, in different and much more productive ways – working with the private sector.

Ultimately, we’re back to the old small-state low-tax trickle down shibboleths. Free traders argue that recent Tory governments pushed up taxes and obsessed about borrowing. The wrong targets they think. They argue for a diametrically opposite approach. At the same time they miss altogether the real focus, which has to include maximising opportunities in markets close to home – far more important than the Antipodes. Also, the Chinese aren’t a bunch of free traders. And the Americans have a vast internal market. We’re 70 million, and on our own. We need to get real.

Let’s see how the next year or two pan out. I think Truss and her team will find that they are radically disconnected from realities. Also, that they simple lack the ability to carry their policies through. They’ll jib at Civil Service resistance – from people who have to be cautious because they know the implications of foolishness.

They’ll also increasingly divorce themselves from the levelling-up cohort within the party. To argue that levelling up has to come from improved economic performance will not cut the mustard. The regions have been promised some evidence of jam now, or in the foreseeable, and they won’t get it.

Truss is also on record as saying that people outside London don’t work hard enough and, going back to a book she co-authored in 2012, that British workers as among the ‘worst idlers in the world’. ‘If you go to China it’s quite different. There’s a fundamental issue of British working culture.’ Yes, we are falling short compared to our neighbours on measures of both growth and productivity. I’d agree absolutely we need a more entrepreneurial spirit in this country. But blame the workers??

From all I’ve seen I have to conclude that Truss is simply unqualified for the job, a woman lacking the experience and the ability, and connection with realities, that we have a right to expect from our prime ministers. The same applies to her cabinet, a right-wing rump which has self-excluded the wisest and brightest in the wider party.

Do I (and so many others with me) misjudge? Time will tell. But I thought I’d put marker down, against which I can judge her in future time.

Upon that mountain

I’m escaping politics, though maybe not quite escaping Zen.

I’m down by the sea, and walking the cliffs, but living a very different terrain. I’ve been reading Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air’, his remarkable account of a disaster when multiple organised groups, of one of which he was a member, attempted the summit of Everest one day in May 1996.

He quotes from Eric Shipton’s classic ‘Upon That Mountain’ (1943):

‘Perhaps we had become a little arrogant with our fine new technique(s) ….We had forgotten that the mountain still holds the master card, that it will grant success only in its own good time.’

The mountain, in Shipton’s words, ‘holds the master card’. The mountain as a person, an enabler and a denier. It has an identity. Friend or foe. And you never know which, although in recent years we’ve come to think we do.

We’ve moved on 250 years, from mountains as the fearsome and impenetrable ‘other’, to mountains as less of a challenge to us as individuals and more to our equipment. We know we will return. Our Mastercard will buy us the mountain. I exaggerate. But the right equipment can take the danger (much, maybe most, but not all) out of even the hardest ascents.

Organised trips of the kind Krakauer joined in 1996 mountains have enabled boxes – bucket lists – to be ticked off. Have we forever lost our sense of awe and wonder, of the other, the impenetrable? Where is there still a snow leopard to be found? I remember watching the Frank Capra movie, ‘Lost Horizon’ (1937, remade as, remarkably, a musical in1973). Passengers from a crashed aircraft find themselves in a sheltered high Himalayan valley, known as Shangri-La, where spring is eternal and ageing is suspended. When they escape a girl they take with them, Maria, almost instantly ages. Once you could imagine such a valley.

Beyond the Himalaya lay the Silk Road and Samarkand, an almost mythical land of wonders, of magic and the arcane. This was the world Gurdjieff, a guru figure of the early/mid 20th century, wrote about in his Meetings with Remarkable Men.

Soviet Russia and now, and even more, the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, have drained all possibilities for dream and imagination from these one-time far-off lands. And Tibet itself has become a work and play space for the Han Chinese.

I want to reclaim mountains as places apart, as oceans were to another great climber, Shipton’s climbing partner, H.E. Tilman, who headed out into the South Atlantic in 1977 and was never seen again. Even the ‘void’, as touched by Joe Simpson, in that other great mountain survival narrative, ‘Touching The Void’, has a presence.

Evolutionary biology and neuroscience haven’t helped by providing explanations for all our fears and apprehensions, maybe too for our sense of awe before the world – our sense of mountains as personalities, as the ‘forever’ other.

But not quite. If we let awe and wonder meld into a sense of the numinous, of something beyond – beyond our comprehension. If we remember the hallowed status the mis-named ‘Everest’ had and has for Tibetan Buddhists, who call it Chomolungma. (The Nepalese name is Sagarmatha. For both the name means goddess.) Or at another and, literally, lower level, the Monch, Eiger and Jungfrau in the Bernese Oberland, my favourite mountains from childhood – the monk, the ogre and the maiden.

They had personalities, and the Eiger earns its name to this day.

It’s too easy in our time to deny mountains that ‘master card’ they held for Shipton. A recent mountain movie, ‘14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible’, recounts how an extraordinary Nepalese/British Sherpa mountaineer, Nirmal Purja, climbed all fourteen 8000-metre peaks in the space of seven months. Funded by Netflix and all possible corners cut. An extraordinary achievement, that’s not to be doubted, but it was mountains (to viewers, at least) made easy, and danger and disaster dismissed with a shrug. (For others, I admit, the movie was inspirational.)

Better to go back to Reinhold Messner’s accounts his ascents of Everest, Nanga Parbet and K2 without oxygen. Or George Mallory trekking in for weeks from Darjeeling in 1921, 1922 and 1924. Read the books. Avoid the films.

Above all, read up on the career and the controversy surrounding the remarkable Russian/Kazakhstani mountaineer, Anatoli Boukreev. He is central to Krakauer’s narrative where he is both criticised and lauded. Many have taken up the cudgels on Boukreev’s behalf. Whichever side you take (and you can take both) theirs is the real high mountain story, not that of ’14 Peaks’.

The mountains of England’s Lake District were considered fearsome until tamed by notions of the picturesque in the later 18th century. But even today walkers can be caught out by rain or storm or blizzard.

It pays us to be humble toward the mountains even in our own backyard. Far far more so before the high peaks of the Himalaya and Andes.

*

And finally … one day after posting this blog, I read an interview with mountaineer and Everest guide Kenton Cool in the Financial Times Weekend edition. He’s climbed Everest sixteen times, ’a record for a non-Sherpa’.

The interview refers to Nirmal Purja who now has two million Instagram followers. Cool himself is troubled by the number of permits issued by the Nepalese government, but ‘most troubled by events on other mountains, where Purja’s feats have promoted a rush of 8000-metre peak-bagging’.

Is any kind of restraint possible? Short of the Nepalese and other governments withholding permits I can’t see it happening. But maybe in time we will adjust our priorities, give mountains and ourselves more space – and remember always to step back, before we step up.

The Tory leadership debacle

How can we best create a compassionate and enterprising society, that functions for the benefit of all? That, surely, is a question we could all agree on as a reasonable starting point.

But not the Tory leadership candidates. All they talk about is a smaller state, alongside low taxes and their assumed natural concomitant, high growth. Compare Denmark, Sweden and Finland: all outperform the UK despite higher levels of taxation. And check out the Legatum Prosperity Index, with its wide-ranging criteria: the northern European countries come top, and we are thirteenth.

Only one candidate seems to recognise that there is a big price to pay for tax cuts. In an inflationary environment any stimulus, in the form of lower taxes, is more likely to lead to higher prices than higher incomes. Inflation pushes up interest rates… We have a growth crisis, that’s where we should be focused, and at its core is our low productivity, historically, and compared to other countries.

[‘Between 1995 and 2007 output per worker grew by around 2% a year, roughly matching the rate in the 25 richest members of the OECD. But during the next 12 years that figure for Britain was a dismal 0.4%, compared with an average of 0.9% among the rest.’ The Economist]

Moving on. You’d have thought arguing for an education system which reaches down to all levels, which achieves that balance between science, technology and culture, not just maths and English, on which a successful civilised country has to base itself – you’d have thought that might get a look in. Has anyone mentioned education? (We’ve had six education secretaries in the last six years, the longest in post a mere two years. Any good ideas come from the Civil Service, not from government.)

One benighted candidate has argued for 20% cuts across the board. NHS? That would be operating expenditure. Nurses, doctors, technicians, cleaning staff…

Or we avoid cuts, but still cut taxes, and build up deficits in the same gung-ho way that’s now argued on the Republican side in the USA. Civil service: reduce by 20%. That’s existing policy. But remotely deliverable while retaining efficiency in government? This old notion that cuts somehow generate efficiency. The ‘low-hanging fruit’ as it’s described (unless it’s the increased numbers of civil servants required to handle Brexit, no longer needed now that the damage is done) is long gone.

Climate change and conservation. The most important issues of all last autumn…. now hardly mentioned. Levelling up: of minor concern to most Tory members, so sidelined. Income redistribution: leave that to ‘grumblers’ like Thomas Piketty.

That wonderful word, ‘cakeism’. Having your cake and eating it. Small state, low taxes, and economic nirvana.

Two rallying points, both highly contentious. Brexit and immigration. Brexit: a ‘done deal’, yet half the nation still against it. Though accepting that up to a point it’s ’irreversible’. (We have a minister still seeking out those mythical mini-beasts known as ‘Brexit opportunities’.) EU cooperation: for the birds, if you believe Liz Truss, our over-promoted foreign secretary. Immigration: appalling policy, and a brutal Rwanda ‘solution’.

Arrogance, cakeism, scandal, self-interest (who really cares about levelling up?). They should guarantee that the Tories will lose the next election, if Labour and the Lib Dems (the one up north, the other down south) don’t mess up.

(The Economist reminds me of that famous quote from the Renaissance humanist, Erasmus. ‘In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ We have to make very sure that we never inhabit the land of the blind, however much the right-wing press might seek to lead us there.)

Candidate selection procedures it seems automatically exclude the brighter, more socially committed, more hard-bitten real-world candidates. Would anyone of real ability want to put themselves forward? He or she, more likely than not, would have to deceive any selection panel should they have wider goals or a broader sense of our shared humanity – shared across all classes, all races, all countries.

So we’re back to that wider issue – our shared humanity. Who we are in the world. Not just as a nation, but individually. The financial crash, Brexit, Trump, Covid, Johnson. The old certainties challenged.

And now with Ukraine – under existential threat. Just 1,300 miles away.

Humility. A difficult concept for the Tory tight. A little would go a long way. We might then come up with serious answers as opposed to all this embarrassing braggadocio.

‘Avoid anyone with ideas’

Isabel Allende in her wonderful novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, highlights the extraordinary achievement of Pablo Neruda in arranging the transportation to Chile of two thousand refugees from the Spanish Civil War on an old cargo ship, the Winnipeg, in August 1939. The decision on who or who not should be accepted lay with Neruda. He cast his net wide to include ‘fishermen, farm and factory workers, manual labourers, and intellectuals as well, despite instructions from his government to avoid anyone with ideas.’

A cross-section of working populations would today look very different, but there is one category which governments feared, now as then, and that is ‘anyone with ideas’.

The market as understood by neoliberalism, epitomised probably better than anywhere else by Pinochet’s Chile, after the 1973 coup, but still pervading so much of Western, and especially American, society, has little time for ideas. Chile is a classic case where ideas, and freedom of expression, were pitched against market forces, and market forces won.

Tom Clark focuses on neo-liberalism in an excellent book review* in the current edition of Prospect. One point (of many) that caught my attention: ‘….a lot of the neoliberal agenda can be thought of … as akin to the historic enclosures of common land, excluding some in order to strengthen the property rights of others’. Readers of my blog will remember my review of Nick Hayes’ ‘The Book of Trespass’. Tom Clark goes on to remind us of ‘the American intellectual property regime that (prior to a 2013 court ruling) developed to allow 4,300 genes to be patented as if they were inventions’.

At an everyday level we have ‘other audacious enclosures’ which ‘have blocked most Britons from watching live football of TV and obliterated awareness of cricket from the young’. (Recent England internationals on free-to-air channels have been so bad that watching is best seen as an act of penance. Cricket on the other hand has been superb – and should have been out there on free-to air TV.)

Isabel Allende in ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ sums up the situation in Pinochet’s Chile succinctly. ‘The government had decided public services should be in private hands. Health was not a right but a consumer good, to be bought and sold.’

This ties in neatly with Clark’s conclusion: ‘Only with a “property first” rather than a “freedom first” reading of neoliberalism can we …. grasp how [Friedrich] Hayek would defend the 1970s coup against an elected socialist government in Chile, which brought Pinochet’s murderous regime to power.’

The irony is that ‘ideas played an important part in the neoliberal story’. Its great proselytisers, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, thrived in that environment. But in Chile the coup closed off debate, closed out ideas, put an end to freedom of expression. Property (traditional landowners and American-owned mining companies) usurped freedom, when ultimately, in a democracy, the balance has always to be toward freedom.

The ‘audacious enclosures’ referred to above may seem small beer by comparison but as we’ve seen they are part of the same debate. Market forces are part of our lives, they drive our economies, but when they’re allied too closely with wealth, to property in the form of land and investments, as opposed to the incomes each of us earns, on our merits, in each generation, they over-reach – and the challenge lies in containing that over-reach. And for that we need, more than ever, an open market in ideas.

* ‘How the rich ate us’, reviewing books by Francis Fukuyama and Gary Gerstle

‘A man without trust’

See also my last post, ‘The Mandate of Heaven’.

In the West we have no over-arching sense of the political and spiritual spheres conjoined. They have over two millennia been mutually engaged but never (despite the Papacy’s best efforts) combined in one individual. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God, the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22, 22.) The divide is clear. Think back to the Papacy versus Empire, in the Middle Ages, or Henry VIII versus Rome, ultimately a marriage squabble, in 16th century England. Secular and spiritual rest uneasily, or at worst, violently, together.

Our politics in the UK have long been pragmatic, mercantile, self-interested. God treated as a justification ex post facto. Our political system, and that of other Western countries, is underpinned not by divine sanction but by the rule of law. Compare the Confucian order, where there is no place for a legal system as we understand it. Confucius believed in moral education as the best way of creating a just society.

However radical their differences it is true to say that at the heart of both systems, Western and Confucian, lies the basic concept and imperative of trust. An acceptance that justice will ultimately be done. Tibet, the Uyghurs, and most recently Hong King, all demonstrate how far China, where moral education is equated with the diktats of the Communist Party, has departed from Confucius.

Michael Wood, in ‘The Story of China’, quotes from the diary of ‘an old Confucian farmer, teacher and mine manager’, Liu Dapeng, writing near the end of his life, and under Japanese occupation, in the 1930s.

‘The superior man must be trusted before he can impose labours on the people….Confucius said, “I do not know how a man without trust can get on.”’

The old order was already under terminal threat.

*

But Confucius does have relevance for us, here in the West. Trust remains a universal requirement of open government and, if we define ‘superior man’ as someone who governs, and with no wider sense, we can see how it might apply to our own time, to our own politics, in the UK, in early summer 2022.

We have no mandate of heaven in our politics. We elect MPs to a House of Commons, we don’t elect a ‘president’ as they do over the Channel, with parliamentary elections following later. The MPs have the mandate. And they need to ensure that the ‘superior man’ is someone we can trust.

This you might argue is no more than a squabble, a ripple on the vast ocean of history. But ripples are indicative of what lies beneath. Without trust in individuals, and more broadly in a political system, people will disengage. Liberal democracy is a balancing act and trust is required to maintain that balance. Take away that trust and the way is open for the apparently simple and crude solutions of the populist.

We need only look across the pond to the USA to see the consequences, actual, and still worse, potential, when trust breaks down.

The Mandate of Heaven

By what right does any person or group rule over any other? Or any dynasty? I thought it worth taking a brief look at China, with the help of historian Michael Wood. See also my next post.

Chinese emperors as far back as the Western Zhou, circa 1000 years BC, governed under a ‘Mandate of Heaven’, linked to a specific astronomical event, a rare five-planetary conjunction that occurs every four or hundred years. A king who acted tyrannically would arouse the displeasure of heaven, disturbing cosmic harmony.

So was born the notion of the sage-king, preserved in our time in the person of Mao, and now Xi Jinping. Challenging that notion in the 19th century were the very down-to-earth British, who speeded the decline of empire in their demand for trading rights. Sea power and weaponry ensured victory in the Opium Wars and humiliation for the empire after the Boxer Rebellion.

Wood’s splendid book, ‘The Story of China’, draws on his remarkable TV series of that name, and provides as close as any history can a visual sense of China as it changed – towns and cities achieving unmatched levels of prosperity and civilisation only to collapse before barbarian invaders – over four millennia.

At the heart of the story lies Confucius, still the great sage as he has been for 2500 years. For Confucius the ideal ruler must be humane and learned. ‘Chinese thought, it may be said, has revolved around two central questions, the harmony of the universe, and the harmony of society, cosmology and politics.’ (I’m quoting from Wood’s book.)

‘As for the role of the intellectual, the key was to determine the Way (dao). When the Way is lost, the sage has a moral duty, above all else, to reform society, to set the away back on track, to define the tradition and advise the prince.’

We have no sage, no Confucius. But we did have Socrates, and indeed Plato, who shared with Confucius the ideal of power vested in a wise ruler, a philosopher king. Karl Popper in the aftermath of World War Two (‘The Open Society and its Enemies’) made clear how damaging that notion has been in the West, and we see in too many countries how dangerous it still is. ‘Wise rule’ descends into tyranny.

Comparisons between China and the West can be instructive. But any presumption on the part of a Westerner that he or she understands China is foolish. We have no notion of a ‘mandate of heaven’, now vested in the Chinese Communist Party, woven into our national psyche. Our ‘mandate’ has to be our democracy, and specifically our parliamentary democracy.

We are the ‘barbarians’ at the gates of China, and they at ours (‘ours’ being the West, broadly defined). Is it too alarmist to say that only one can prevail?

‘Putin, Russia and the West’

The series ‘Putin, Russia and the West’, dusted down by the BBC, has been compulsive viewing over the last three weeks – the last episode was on Wednesday night. Made in 2012 it was highly controversial at the time. It was described by the UK-based Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky as ‘nothing less than a party political broadcast for Putin and his United Russia party’. An article in the Moscow Times suggested that the makers of the series viewed ‘Putin’s anti-democratic crusade [as] largely a legitimate reaction to the hostile policies of the West, especially the United States’.

It’s ten years on, and that’s not remotely how I’d describe the series.

The USA under George Bush does come over as being naive, and outwitted by Putin – in that first episode. (Bush argued that he had been able ‘to get a sense of Putin’s soul.’) The many interviews given by Russian government ministers were all very plausible. But they all fell then, and even more so now, into line behind the boss.

Episode two tells a different story– 2004 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putin is shown as being devious in the extreme, and still he lost out. Georgia, and its attempts in 2008 to reclaim the secessionist and pro-Russian areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is the subject of the third episode. Russia held all the cards, Georgia could be wiped out militarily if it chose, and the Georgian president, Saakashvili, was more than rash to take him on – however justified it might have seemed.

Honours even, maybe, up to that point. But if you watch nothing else – watch episode four. Medvedev is president, and new president Obama reaches out, and it’s all smiles and mutual understand. You get to like Medvedev. He signs a new START agreement with Obama. We have brinkmanship on both sides. But Medvedev signs.

He and Putin had, however, an agreement – one or other would be president after the next election in 2012, and Putin won their United Russia party over to his side. Medvedev’s attempts to open up Russia to the West, to Silicon valley, to Western-style media – all sidelined, ultimately crushed by Putin.

What is so galling – we, Russia and the West – we got so close.

By the end of episode four you know the die is cast. The invasion and occupation of Crimea and the Donbas came two years later. Now even the Russian Orthodox Church is arguing the cause of Mother Russia: ‘God’s truth’ is on Russia’s side.

A rapprochement with Russia would have been an example to the world, with very practical consequences in the case of Syria, and for China given the unholy alliance it has now forged with Russia. That said, how much it would have reduced the Western world’s obsession with its own self-interest is debatable. Many if not most of the world’s problems would be as they are now, albeit in a different form.

There is one overriding conclusion I’d draw, and that is the danger of ‘great men’, or ‘strongmen’, to use Gideon Rachman’s term in his new book, ‘The Age of the Strongmen’*. They can come to characterise a nation, as Putin is now attempting to characterise Russia. And we are tempted to judge the Russian people as we judge him.  When we make judgements, draw up sanctions and cut economic ties we need to keep this in mind. Why ban Russians from playing at Wimbledon if they are avowed opponents of the regime? Why stop playing Russian music?

Putin is Rachman’s archetype for the ‘strongman’. Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary all fit the bill. All maintain friendly relations with Putin. And Marine Le Pen?

Remember Dmitry Medvedev? My final image has to be of Medvedev, at a session immediately before the invasion of President Putin’s 30-member security council, of which he’s now deputy head, parroting his master’s insistence that Ukraine is a natural part of Russia. He looked strained, and his other recent pronouncements suggest a degree of brainwashing.

How could the reasonable man of 2011 fall so low?

* ‘The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World’.

Reading the Telegraph

Buy a newspaper you don’t normally read ….

Last Monday (11th April) it was the Daily Telegraph. The headline of an article by Tim Stanley had caught my eye: ‘The French establishment is not fit for purpose.’ In this context it is the French ‘centre’, and Emmanuel Macron, he’s referring to.

That word ’establishment’ again. A club no-one owns to being a member of. Think … the MPs’ expenses scandal, think Brexit, think ‘us and them’, with the Telegraph, the ‘us’ brigade par excellence, trying to kid ordinary folk that they, the Telegraph, represent ‘them’, the outsiders, the done-down.

I turned to the centre pages. To the left, an article by Theresa May’s old right-hand, Nick Timothy, and indications of Tory infighting. He agonises about complacency in the Tory party. That Johnson, he suggests, should survive is absurd. The Party is deluding itself. ‘Johnson has deliberately formed a third-eleven cabinet, to avoid creating powerful rivals.’ (Having played third-eleven cricket when I aspired to the first eleven, the analogy hits home.) Timothy is talking sense.

Only so far – he indicates support for the government’s despicable plan to despatch asylum seekers to Rwanda.

To the right, a typical Telegraph, gung-ho, latter-day-Thatcherite leading article. Under Thatcher a ‘defining characteristic’ of the Tories had been ‘an unashamed celebration of self-made success’. The Left derided this as a ‘loads-of-money’ fixation with wealth. ‘Right’ and ‘Left’: this dumb polarisation of Right and Left. We have, it seems, to be one or the other, when most of us are somewhere in between. But the Telegraph and the right wing of the Tory party aren’t comfortable without an enemy. 

Read on. ‘The government is ‘fearful of doing anything that might benefit moderate or high earners’. It is ‘like Labour obsessed with the distributional impact of its policies’, though the fuel tax cut in Sunak’s recent budget would suggest otherwise. If there was any (re-)distributional element in that budget it passed me by.

At the bottom of the page we have the article I mentioned above, by Tim Stanley, about France and last Sunday’s French election. The centre in French politics is it seems ‘zigging about like a jelly on a wild horse’. Marine Le Pen has been ‘detoxified by the French establishment’. It seems the centre and the establishment are, once again, one and the same. That old trope. With an immigrant issue that has been massively politicised by the hard Right, one hand, and a radical left galvanised by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Bernie Sanders of American politics (that may be unfair on both of them!) on the other, the centre in France, if it is to hold, has a fight on its hands.

Le Pen has said that she ‘would quit NATO’s integrated military command and seek a closer alliance with Russia if she were elected’ (New York Times)

That’s where a better and wiser journalist than Tim Stanley would be focusing his attention.

To London, and back (to normal)

The wild garlic is about to flower, acres of it, covering woodland slopes. The first cowslips are opening, the skylarks are ascending, the long tailed tit echoes itself. But yesterday it was London and the long lines of destination-driven travellers always keeping left in corridors below Paddington station. Occasional mask wearers on the underground, otherwise near normal. Normal would be delays and hold-ups, but now we flow smoothly.

My destination – meeting an old friend at the Royal Academy to view an exhibition of the paintings of the Japanese artist, Kawanabe Kyosai. His was a time (he was active c1850 to his death in 1889) of extraordinary change, the overthrow of the Shogunate, and the Meiji Restoration. There’s a saké-influenced crazy irreverence about Kyosai, his emblematic black crow in stark contrast with armies of frogs battling with bullrushes. I learnt about shogakai, parties where professional painters and calligraphers ‘produced spontaneous creations’. They were not known for ‘their seriousness or sobriety’.

Contrast the major Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, where I headed later in the day. Everything is measured and controlled, carefully worked through in drawings, and the effects precisely and wondrously calculated. Raphael’s workshop was legendary in its time and I can’t imagine alcohol featured. I’m assuming Kyosai sold his work on the open market. Raphael in contrast would be working within the constraints of patronage, not least the church in the form of Popes Julius II and Leo X.  Contrast the endless virgins in different poses with a naked child, studies in affection and reverence, with Kyosai’s long scroll which features a much-more-than-lifesize profile of the Buddha’s face with on its upper lip a tiny Zen Buddhist monk working his way up, an extended parasol in his right hand. ‘Today, once more, saké after saké,’ he captions a painting of a ‘shojo’, a mythical red-haired saké-loving creature out of Japanese folklore.

Later in the day I’m standing in front of an almost full-scale reproduction of Raphael’s extraordinary School of Athens, identifying Euclid and Pythagoras, and joining Plato and Aristotle’s discourse on the nature of reality…

Was Kyosai, in truth, no more than an illustrator? Ephemeral, a commentator in the style of Rowlandson or Gillray? A man of the people. Great art on the other hand belongs in cathedrals, churches, great houses…

Museums and galleries have opened Raphael’s world to ordinary folk, and he’s become part of our wider cultural heritage. Kyosai belongs to his time, his imagination is in your face, he’s a crazy acquaintance, not, maybe, a companion for the long term. If Raphael is for quiet and private contemplation, Kyosai is for sharing – ‘hey, look at this, check it out!’ Not that Kyosai is all comedy, all parody. There’s a sinuous grace to ‘Egret over Lotus Pond in the Rain’. But a minute or two later you’re looking at ‘Fart Battle’, which is just that.

The day ends with coffee in the café in the crypt in St Martin in the Fields. No-one pitching you out 5.30 or 6. Graves beneath your feet, brick-vaulted ceiling above. Then the tube and Paddington. Back to open spaces, commons and hidden valleys, where I can run or walk without seeing a soul.

Only the rumble of a distant train, heading to … London.