Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019 – part two

Back to Cheltenham. It’s now the second weekend and I’ve returned for a few more events, including (and all referenced below):

Simon Schama (as himself)

Booker Prize 2019  shortlist preview

The Times Debate: ‘The best and worst prime ministers’

The Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?

India Now

I’m staying with my earlier theme of language. I have no choice after listening to Simon Schama (promoting his new book of newspaper and magazine articles, from the last few years,  mainly from the FT, entitled ‘Wordy’). He has, as he put it, ‘always loved literary abundance’. He quoted Erasmus, and a book which had escaped my knowledge, ‘De Copia’ (of copiousness), from 1512. Think of words ‘surging in a golden stream, overflowing with an abundance of words and thoughts’. With the qualification that all this abundance should not be confused with’ futile and amorphous verbosity’.  Richness of imagination and elasticity of argument should be the key. 

A strict Zen approach might argue for less is more! But I love listening to Schama, and there’s not a word wasted. He loves lists, and they take you down surprising byways. (For example, the multitude of colours available to an artist’s palette, and their provenance.) Explore these byways, and you learn. Stuff you don’t need to know, or didn’t think you did. Schama has a facility of memory, and a certainty of recall, and a sureness of argument that is unusual. Maybe your dad reciting Shakespeare and readings Dickens to a young child helps a little.

Someone with a similar facility mentioned by Schama is Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s love of lists and popular culture can wear you down, but, again, nothing is wasted.

Another event at the festival, the following day, was the Booker Prize 2019 shortlist preview, and Rushdie is on the shortlist. His new novel has a 1950s American quiz show as its setting-off point. Schama chucks in a few references to popular music, but high art is more his focus. On Rembrandt he is peerless.

Talking of lists, Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted book is ‘Ducks, Newburyport’, and that is one long list, each item beginning with ‘The fact is that…’, all one sentence over 1020 pages plus. Surprisingly easy to read, and non-repetitive, but a 1020 pages list is a stretch…

But I’m one day ahead. After Schama I had one of those events that you don’t have to go to. But it sounded fun. ‘The best and worst prime ministers.’ Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist (who I used to read before they put the Times online behind a firewall), Anthony Seldon, biographer of every prime minister since the year dot, including Mrs May, and Deborah Mattinson, one-time pollster for Gordon Brown, and now running ‘Britain Thinks’. And what does it think? How do we define leadership – dominant, assertive, quick-witted, on the one hand, listening, engaged, persuasive, on the other – these may not quite be her categories. But close. You can place PMs on a spectrum extending between the two. Churchill comes out top as best PM, of course, Attlee, in the second camp, not far behind. Blair doing well pre-Iraq. Brown, as Anthony Eden, cursed by an over-long wait, and an urge to make an impact when he finally took on the role. The worst – Goderich, who cried when making his resignation speech after seven months in office. Bonar Law.

Gladstone got a mention – but what about Disraeli? The original one-nation Tory. Jewish, becoming PM against all the odds. The great sparring partner of Gladstone.

What wasn’t directly addressed was the effect that the pursuit of power, and the exercise of power, has on people. Has on prime ministers. Success in politics has a short timespan, it’s normally a response to events – to war, to the unions (in Thatcher’s case), maybe a new vision which the public buys into (Blair). Cameron might have refashioned the Tory party had the imperatives of austerity (as he understood them) not got in the way. Callaghan, the last of the old-school trade unionists politicians, wise, avuncular, but brought down by the unions. Harold Wilson, presiding over a powerful cabinet, but sterling was his undoing, and it’s his ministers who these days get the accolades.

I missed an intriguing panel discussion on PMQ – prime ministers’ questions. The worst, of British politics, or the best? Adversarial, a bear pit … but also a game, and a good one, played within the rules.  But now played out for media soundbites.  And, back to my theme of language…

… what of a PM who uses terms likes ‘surrender’, to the EU, and ‘collaboration’, with an enemy, the EU, and sees no issue with the glib use of wartime language. In the way that Trump uses terms like ‘traitor’ and ‘spy’ of his opponents in the impeachment proceedings. This crosses a threshold.

The one-time (and still?) journalist who is happy to mis-speak, and shrug it off, thinks he can still play the same game in high politics, as PM, no less.

Not only have we lost integrity – we’ve also lost oratory. Does that matter? Back to Schama. The ability to use language, to inspire, and at the same time to put over arguments cogently, and honestly. Passion and intelligence. Churchill had it. Michael Foot had it: you listened, you might not agree – but you listened. Where are they now? The orators. The Obamas. Do we have any? It’s impressive to strut up and down a stage, speaking without notes, but it’s a feat of memory, not oratory. Parliament should be a place for oratory. Maybe not PMQ – but PM and opposition leaders who could rise above point-scoring – that would be a transformation.

Inbetween all this I tried an oddball item. There are many such at Cheltenham. ‘The role of the poetry critic.’ I am no wiser.

Back to politics, and our big event on the Saturday, the Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?’ A pollster from Populus, Andrew Copper, placed parliamentary seats on a grid, with income levels one axis, and social attitudes from liberal to small-c conservative on the other. The analysis was intriguing. ‘Recent polling has shown that voters identify more strongly as Remainers or Leavers than with the two main parties.’ The Tories are now chasing the lower-income socially-conservative vote, they’re on Brexit Party territory, Farage territory. They may win traditional Labour seats, with new-style more socially-conservative MPs – and where then the more open social agenda Johnson talks about. Five, make it six, parties are in contention – more if we include Northern Ireland.

This was simply the best panel discussion I’ve been to – at Cheltenham or Hay. Chaired by Justin Webb, with acuity and affability. Philip Collins provided perspective, and Jess Phillips and Rory Stewart were the politicians. Jess Phillips out of tune with her leadership, but in tune with her constituents in Birmingham. And open and honest because that’s the only way she knows. Leave her party? She’ll hang on in there, hoping it will switch back from its Momentum ways to something still socialist but within the old parameters of parliamentary discourse. Rory Stewart has given up on his party. He’s now standing as an independent candidate for London mayor. Intelligent and totally on the ball. And damn it, like Jess, likeable. And like Jess, not playing games with the audience, and trying to be something he isn’t. As either Andrew or Philip remarked, he’ll get a ton of second preferences, and may win on a run-off as the second-favourite candidate. Sadiq Khan is weighed down by Corbin as party leader, the Tory candidate by Boris. Rory is a free agent. (It seems I’m on first-name terms with everyone!)

As Jess pointed out, she couldn’t do anything like that. Abandon party, stand as an independent. Rory has the dosh. He’s an old Etonian. If he may/may not have the money, but he has the connections. He can build an online base with ease. Jess has no such advantages, save for her political and personal skills. She literally couldn’t afford to re-invent herself.

As someone said – it would be good to see the two of them in the same cabinet. Sanity would prevail. One hopes.

Language – focus on language – in life and politics. The ability to express yourself cogently and honestly. We all fall short.  The danger is now that were all so inured to misuse and abuse of language that we go along with it. With Boris, a small-scale operator, for now, and maybe always too innocent – and Erdogan, Modi, Trump on a rising scale. And Xi Jinping at the top, with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ now forming the preamble to China’s constitution.

That takes me to Narendra Modi and a panel discussion on India, entitled India Now, chaired by the director, Robin Niblett, of the think-tank, Chatham House. My friend, Hazel, wa,s in the meantime, enjoying the ‘Sunday Times Culture Discussion with Andrew Lloyd Webber’. Would have been – and was, I gather – fascinating. But politics came first.

The tenor of the discussion was well-caught by the title of book by one of the panel, Kapil Komireddi, ‘The Malevolent Republic’. Modi didn’t come off well. A Hindu nationalist wanting to re-shape India as a Hindu state, creating a hostile environment for dissent, building a personality cult, undermining the open democracy which India has, despite its size and convoluted history, managed to maintain, revoking the status of Jammu and Kashmir as a province, an unconstitutional act, upping the stakes in the hostilities with Pakistan. Playing the populist, embracing, literally, Donald Trump.

It would have been good to have someone on the panel just a little bit more onside with Modi: the growth rate is still 5%, could go higher, he’s strong in infrastructure projects … And we should remember, India will soon be, at 1.4 billion people, the most populous nation on the planet. Put against that – the question I’d meant to ask and didn’t – will India be able to feed itself in future, and water itself – will the rains and aquifers hold out?

Where are we, the UK, in all this? We were advised by the panel that, yes, there’s still a kind of fondness for things British in India, but the idea that the old ties of Empire would help us ease our way to post-Brexit deals with India is patently absurd.

I’ve hardly mentioned Brexit. The festival by and large avoided it. Negotiations this week may or may not conclude with a deal, which may or may not pass parliament. And that is all there is to say.

Cheltenham has been a wonderful few days. It rained and it poured, and the tents fluttered in the occasional big gust. But the place was teeming. And we had fun.

Three days at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019

I read that Ian McEwen has read everything on Brexit, admitted to being an obsessive. He’s just written a book, Cockroach, about a cockroach which wakes up to find it’s become prime minsiter. He admits to a lack of subtlety.

I keep reading on Brexit. Never was a subject so pervasive and invasive. But any kind of orginality requires deep reading. And life just now has other attractions!

What can a literature festival offer? The Cheltenham Literature Festival is on my doorstep. One of the great advantages of living out of town, in the country, but not as much in the country as you might think. Maybe the Hay Festival is my favourite, by a small margin – the scale and vibe is overwhelming, and I love it. Cheltenham is urban, and you’ve a cafe and street culture which sets it apart.

I’ll take language as my theme. Not maybe what the organisers of the Cheltenham Literature Festival had in mind. They’re celebrating their 70th birthday. But what is literature if not language. Though language may not be literature.

It’s Saturday morning. I’ve yet to read David Nott’s book, ‘War Memoir’, about his life as a frontline surgeon, operating, literally, in the world’s most violent places. He was our first event, and he came across, initially, in interview, as out of his element. But honest. He’d found when working under fire in Sarajevo a kind of high, an excitement, this was where he wanted to be. Less a moral compass than a vocation. But he found that compass and now trains surgeons to work beyond the specialisations into which they’re shoe-horned by modern hospital practice. He has met Mullah Omar, met ISIS, and his dedication to life made his denunciations of those who seek and exercised power and the language of power for its own sake, careless of death, all the more powerful.

Our next event, the debate ‘Populism: Death of Democracy’, was topical, though there was always the danger we’d simply be re-visiting well-trodden territory. So it proved. The debate was chaired by Leslie Vinjamuri, of the think-tank Chatham House. Matthew Goodwin brought a British perspective to the subject, and Amy Pope, ex Obama advisor, an American perspective. Do the origins of populism lie more in cultural or economic issues? Identity or issues relating to jobs and income? Populist leaders exploit both – the apparent undermining of national cultures, of ways of life – being left behind – victims – of a political system, of elites operating in their own interest. The issues are real, and the crisis, with hindsight, inevitable. But the debate went round in circles.

Focusing on language would have helped. The misuse of language has turned a crisis which might have brought people together in a common understanding into conflagration. Language brings together, its misuse divides. Post-truth was well-established before 2016. Fake news and disdain of real expertise took hold in 2016 and beyond. Current parliamentary debates have coupled disdain and anger in a way that challenges truth in language still further.

Amy Pope contributed an American standpoint: she sees hope in the wider race and gender representation in the House of Representatives. But as she admitted, that doesn’t address the issue of the resentments of the ‘flyover states’, everything, that is, between the East Coast and California.

Sunday morning. Time for my next event, a celebration of the life of the American novelist, Toni Morrison, who died in August. As an editor at Random House, the first black editor in US publishing history, she opened doors for black writers, and she herself opened up the realities of Afro-American life as never before. She didn’t whitewash, or glorify, or sympathise. She allowed language to tell it as it is, and as she saw it. And the language is wonderful, inspired, magic passages of writing which capture all the hurts and hopes and failures, resignation on the one hand and the search for identities and roots on the other. The panel were black women, writers and publishers, and I’m a white and male, and in a big minority in that Cheltenham tent. But I came away inspired. The panel spoke Morrison’s language – Miss Morrison as two of then called her. They quoted favourite passages, and the most resonant was the speech she gave at the Nobel-Prize-giving ceremony.

‘…the recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.’

‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’

Next, another debate, ‘Who’s Next for the White House’. Leslie Vinjamuri again, joined by Sarah Baxter and Adam Boulter, both now of the Sunday Times, festival co-sponsors. As a choice, this was interesting, intriguing, but probably a mistake. We were on the same ground as the populism debate. And the same radical uncertainty of outcome. I may for my part see hope in a new and raised awareness coming through, or at least a cause we can identify with, in the opposition to populism. But where lies hope in the battle to be president? The Democrats are divided centre and left. Theirs is at least a debate I can connect to. Elizabeth Warren a powerful candidate, but with big-state ideas which could panic centrist voters. Trump is Trump, widening his river of no destination ever further and carrying his supporters along in the turbulence. We were asked for a show of hands at the end. Who do you think will be the next US president? Two-thirds, at least, thought Trump. Not me. I’d thought – Trump, no way, last time. Not again, that I cannot believe. Though were I to expect a Trump victory maybe my penchant for guessing wrong would somehow influence the outcome – and Trump would lose …

In the evening we had ‘An Evening of Joni Mitchell’. Note the ’of’. She is recovering slowly from a brain aneurysm, re-learning how to walk. She is not travelling. I knew that. Some didn’t. They expected Joni to be there. A 40-minte four-way ‘expert’ conversation talked about her childhood polio, speculated on its influence, touched on her relationships – but never on the detail of her songs. We’re back to language. They never touched on the language of her songs. What inspired her to write them. They are her legacy to the world. Would that come over in the second half? No. Her songs were given the full jazz band, wild sax, treatment, and the words got drowned. Very occasionally her rhythms came through. But while the music was almost OK, the treatment was a travesty.

And, finally, two events on the Monday. Smaller venues. The first in The Pillar Room, in the Town Hall. Two writers. Philip Marsden writing about a single-handed boat journey from Cornwall via the west of Ireland to the Summer Isles (the title of the book as well – I love the name) off the north-west coast of Scotland. You’re face to face with the sea, with the world, when single-handed. He’d walked with his aunt who lived in the North-West Highlands, and she’d died out there in an accident. Her library was full of books on (if I recall aright) on simplifying life, on Zen. Also talking at the event was Dan Richards about his book, ‘Outpost’, where he writes about bothies and cabins and lighthouses and even sheds at the bottom of gardens – your stepping-off points, as an explorer, of wilderness, or as a writer, the open spaces of the mind. The idea appeals, and I will buy the book. The authors are different as personalities,  Marsden aspiring to the slightly grizzled loner, Richards rather more (if he will forgive me) urbane. But for both experience is everything, and truth to experience, and truth to the way it’s expressed in language.

And finally, Laura Cummings, chief Observer art critic, and her family memoir, ‘On Chapel Sands’. Another smaller venue, The Nook: we sit round small tables, in greater comfort and more intimacy than usual. This was better for a writer whose book is about the brief and unexplained disappearance of a little girl for five days from a Lincolnshire beach, when she was only three years old. The little girl was the author’s mother. A long-time unsolved family mystery. She bravely followed the story where it took her. The small venue allowed intimacy and author tears.  In pursuit of the truth about the abduction, she dug behind family stories, as we’d expect, but she also interrogated family images. Her art critic skills proved useful. Photos can tell lies, or they can be bland – just another family photo. Or they can, as in this case, hide secrets which only a practised eye can reveal. A husband and wife photo from 1910 – but posed like a Vermeer, but Vermeer was all but unknown in England back then.

So, three days at the festival. For me it’s been, so far, above all about language. About the integrity of language. The natural substrate of a book festival you might think. But what’s struck me this time around is the importance of awareness of the role of language. A surgeon whose role would be so much less needed round the world if only power was subservient to truth. Politicians will, they must, use language as best they can to put an argument across. But to weaponise truth, which quickly becomes weaponising untruth, is a very different story.

Toni Morrison, and Philip Marsden and Dan Richards, opened/open up not narrow down the world. Language and shouting don’t go well together. Toni Morrison – a writer who engaged with an agonised world with extraordinary honesty – a writer of genius. And two writers who talk of quieter times, sailing or walking or writing. They’re not out to change the world, they don’t insist or demand. But they tell it like it is.

Apology gets political

Apologia: ‘a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct.’

Apology: ‘a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure.’

The focus these days is on regret. It’s easier it seems to regret than defend.

‘Democrats are a sorry bunch,’ always expressing regrets, ‘for racial, gay or women’s rights, failing to call out sexism and harassment, dubiously claiming ethnic heritage and for being white and privileged.’ (David Charter writing in The Times last Saturday)

Their ‘apology tour’, Charter continues, ‘contrasts with the man they all hope to beat next year. President Trump has tweeted that it is the media that owes the nation an apology after the Mueller report…’

Charter’s is an odd piece. It almost reads as if he’s on Trump’s side. But he makes a powerful point. If you not only dictate the agenda, if you set the agenda, as Trump has done to a remarkable degree, you’re in the driving seat. If you’re always looking over your shoulder you won’t win the race.

On the same day there was a good piece in The Guardian on this subject. But a very different context. Entitled ‘Battle lines’, it’s well-summed up by the intro: ‘It’s given us Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and many spellbinding stories. But now the world of Young Adult fiction is at war with itself. There have been accusations and public apologies, novels have been boycotted and withdrawn. There have even been death threats against authors. What is going on?’

The vehicle for all this is of course social media. I’m not a regular user. But if I was an author wanting to get to the widest audience, I would be.

Put a racist character in a book, and they might assume your racist. Write outside your own colour, or indeed gender, and you run a risk. Your perception might not be another’s, and they may be vociferous on the subject.

My answer, for what it’s worth… Avoid correction and apology. (And avoid apologias as well.) For publishers as much as authors. If criticism is legitimate, acknowledge it. Otherwise hold out. Easy to say, I admit.  But as the author of the Guardian article (and it is, unlike Charter’s, a very good piece), Leo Benedictus, says, ‘It may not be realistic to hope for restraint from social media, but it is clearly what’s required.’

One consequence is that supporters of gender and racial equality damage their own cause by this relentless and sometimes vicious self-examination. Supposed supporters of Democratic candidates for the presidency likewise. Give authors, give candidates space to breathe. Recognise they make mistakes, leave them be, save for the most egregious offences. It doesn’t mean you don’t criticise. But you don’t harangue. Avoid instant reactions, that immediate resort to social media when something offends.

Go beyond that, and the wider public you’re looking to influence, or looking to for support, will turn to the likes of Trump instead, and say they prefer the simple, the unvarnished, the non-truth, to all this argument and introspection. Gender and racial issues are inconvenient for many. They don’t wish to face up to them. Don’t give them a let-out – an easy, Trumpian let-out.

The beech and the oak – and the ash

So much going on out there… and a nature diary?

Yes indeed – time to walk, or if you’re so inclined, as I am, to run, out into the hills, through the woods, and the farmland. Seek out another perspective on the world.

Six weeks ago the first pale green leaves showed on the beech, now the wood is dark, and the light seeks out chinks, or clearings where the foliage is less intense. Many climb tall, planted close together. In time, many years hence, they will be harvested, fuel for our wood burners.

But, given the chance, beeches spread their trunks wide. On one, pollarded long ago, I counted ten trunks. It and its fellows mark the edge of the woodland, where it meets the big hedge-less field, where the barley now four-feet tall is growing abundantly.

Oaks are fewer where I run, but they are there. I know of none of the old, the 500-or-600-year-old, oaks. But across the Severn estuary, into the Forest of Dean, they are abundant. Felled for shipbuilding – and replanted (at Nelson’s instigation, so I read) for the same purpose. But by the time the trees had matured iron had become the main building material.

Can you mention the oak, without mentioning the ash? I often wondered about the old saw, ‘when the ash’s before the oak, there’s bound to be a soak’. When in my experience was the ash in leaf before the oak? Never. (I read that, back in the 18th century, the ash did sometimes beat the oak. But our climate has changed.)

The ash. … the ash is in crisis. They always gave a lighter cover, with their compound leaves. But now leaves are fewer, twigs and branches bare.

I used to sing the old Welsh folk song, The Ash Grove, at school.

The ash grove, how graceful, how plainly ’tis speaking;/The harp through it playing has language for me…/I lift up my eyes to the broad leafy dome…/The ash grove, the ash grove again is my home.

The lover found solace beneath the ash. And now it seems it is the ash itself we must weep for. Our only solace – there are resistant strains, we can replant.

The ash is woven not only into song but into our history – and Norse mythology. What off Yggdrasil, the great ash if Norse mythology? Must the tree of the gods also suffer dieback? (There is a symbol for our times!)

‘The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. …The third … root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root … [there] the gods have their court.’ (Extract from the Prose Edda, see also below.)

Tree recognition hasn’t been a strong point of mine.  How might ash differ from sycamore or oak, or lime or white poplar? I knew the shapes, sort of, but I guessed. Now I know the ash. They are in groves, and near me, lining hedges, and especially, they’re where local farmland rises to a gentle summit, prominent, lording over the land. They are thinner now, you can see through them. When they go, so will our landmarks.

(Ash and sycamore – I puzzled a day or two ago over two trees apparently growing together, their trunks conjoined – it’s called inosculation.)

At a more mundane level, we were wondering over lunch – is there a plan, a national plan, to replant? Or at least recommendations? Or guidance? None as far as we can tell. A recent report in Current Biology estimated a total cost to the nation of the loss of trees (no mention as far as I am aware of replanting – of ultimately restoring the landscape) at £15 billion.

And the ash trees that line our lanes? Are they the farmer’s responsibility? The local council? Primarily the latter, according to the report. I’m told when they’re felled in the diseased state, weakened by fungus, they shatter, and there is a mighty mess.

I’ve recently returned from the Hay Book Festival. Robert Macfarlane was there, talking about his new book, ‘Underland’. There’s a marvelous chapter that focuses on the ‘understorey’ in woodland, where fungi spread their hyphae, a network which not only consumes dying matter but also supports the living.

‘The relationship between plant and fungi is all about exchange, swapping chlorophyll for nutrients, but far more than this, ‘the fungal network also allows plants to distribute resources between one another … sugars, nitrogen and phosphorus can be shared between trees in a forest:  a dying tree might divest its resources into the network for the benefit of the community, for example, or a struggling tree might be supported with extra resources by its neighbours.’ (Underland, p98)

But the dieback fungus is at another level, a fungus which feeds only to destroy. A dead-end fungus.

So I despair to see the ash die back. And I wonder what lies ahead. But I also wonder at what lies beneath. My eyes have been opened to something extraordinary. But as town-dwellers, most of us, we take it all for granted.

We take the ash for granted.

**

(Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, 15) “The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. One is among the Æsir, the second among the frost-giants, where Ginnungagap once was. The third extends over Niflheim, and under that root is Hvergelmir, and Nidhogg gnaws the bottom of the root. But under the root that reaches towards the the frost-giants, there is where Mimir’s well is, which has wisdom and intelligence contained in it, and the master of the well is called Mimir. …The third root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root is a well which is very holy, called Weird’s well (Urd’s well). There the gods have their court.

Making the case for rebellion

My last blog made the case for silence. I argued that silence needs to be more active, more pro-active. Can I now make the case for rebellion? I’m thinking of Extinction Rebellion. Yesterday at the Hay Book Festival I listened to Mike Berners-Lee discussing his new book, ‘There is No Planet B’, and to a panel discussion involving three Extinction Rebellion activists. There’s optimism in the Rebellion ranks, much greater caution from Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee advises businesses. He’s well aware of the abject failure of the fossil fuel industry to invest more than paltry sums in renewables. But what of the consumer? As the recent Committee on Climate Change Report made clear in its recommendations, changing public behaviour is key to meeting its ‘net zero’ emissions target by 2050.

Individual targets (for example, setting your thermostat in winter at 19 degrees) catch the eye. But far more important is the national mindset. By that I mean the extent to which the public accepts the need for a fundamental and wide-ranging change of attitude, in the way that attitudes to gender and to smoking have changed radically over the last forty years. There is a point where the consensus tips the other way.

Extinction Rebellion I love for its enthusiasm, and self-belief. The Economist sees problems with its ‘inchoate enthusiasm’. It matches another, opposite problem, cynicism. A false opposition in this case, they have this wrong – but they highlight a danger.

I’m on-side, and accept its methods are eyecatching and have helped change the mood and generate debate. But there is, and I’m speaking in the most general of terms, a faith in human goodness, almost a sense of a new age dawning, which takes me back to the 1960s and the Age of Aquarius, Hair and Woodstock. That degenerated into disillusion, cynicism and at worst violence in the 1970s. It took on an overly political ‘them vs us’ aspect and fostered an anti-capitalist agenda. It has been agitating out on the sidelines ever since. Never getting close to the mainstream.

My concern, my interest, has always been how we how we work within existing systems. To effect change, and it could be radical change. But you have to build and maintain consensus if change is to embedded. Obamacare is an example of a battle between an old and new consensus, now being fought through the US courts.

We may sense that opinion on climate is changing, that the consensus is moving toward radical action. But how confident can we be in the age of Trump and Bolsonaro, carbon champions both, that high-minded sentiment will win out over national governments in alliance with big business?

Trump has undermined the Environmental Protection Agency, and is busy signing new executive orders to facilitate the building of pipelines.  Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro aims (I quote the New York Times) ‘to open up the rain forest — which has already lost 20 percent of its cover — to new development.  …. Satellite data shows that deforestation has grown steadily since his victory in October. In the first month after his election, deforestation increased more than 400 percent, compared to the previous year.’

The news from Australia has been equally depressing. The right-wings Liberals were hit hard in the cities but (quoting The Economist) ‘in the end the election was won in Queensland, a state full of marginal constituencies. Global warming is exacerbating its frequent floods and droughts…. But the state’s economy is dependent on exploiting natural resources, notably coal, and many of its voters are wary of environmental regulation.’

Climate is indeed up there as an issue as never before, but the battle lines of old are simply being built higher. The battle is – to win and hold the public consensus.

And that is where Extinction Rebellion might just be different from the old Aquarians. But they should hold to the issue, and avoid adding anti-global or anti-capitalist agendas to the mix. Which won’t be easy. Too wide an anti-establishment agenda and all agendas could be swept aside, climate change among them.

Maybe not surprisingly one of the objections of old-guard journalism, supposedly echoing the views of ordinary people, is that we, we Brits, have nothing to gain by going alone – we will simply be disadvantaged compared to other countries. The argument may be false but it strikes a chord. We also have to deal with market enthusiasts, who may accept that the market needs to be primed a little, or nudged – we can be nudged to insulate our homes, or use less plastic, but that should be the limits of our interventions, The market, it’s argued, is ultimately the best guarantee of effecting environmental change. The fact that it may be far too laggardly doesn’t get mentioned.

Trump and Bolsonaro notwithstanding, climate change now has a wide acceptance as a stark reality. But don’t we have other priorities, more pressing? The effects on us as individuals are minimal… and what, in any event, can we really do? The planet will go its own way.  And we won’t, we older folk, be around anyway.

Indifference, ideology, entrenched interests – there is much to rebel against.

A sense of humour

Thinking back to my last post, on the subject of language….

NVC, Nonviolent Communication, is an organisation founded by Marshall Rosenberg several decades ago. (Check out the book.) The name speaks for itself. It sets the benchmark high.

Humour, surely, is non-violent. And yet …

A weeks ago (23rd March) in Central London  more than a million marchers kept their sense of humour. Below are a few placards:

We know about cliff edges in Cornwall….Brutalists against Brexit….Even Tesco has better deals….Without free movement we can’t get rid of Nigel and Boris….I’m British. I’ve taken to the streets I protest. Things must be jolly bad….I wasn’t old enough to vote. I am now….I’d rather run through a field of wheat….I’m so angry I could make a placard…On second thoughts…

The Sun newspaper absolutely failed to bring any humour to the party. ‘Snarky little placards’ is how The Sun describes the placards. Who I wonder came up with that joyful phrase? (Likewise, ‘No sane person is impressed, even by 5.6 million Remainers signing a petition.’)

Humour can breed hostility. I don’t think most marchers set out to goad. Their humour was simply a way of handling what they saw as a disaster. But it riled the other side…

George Orwell in his pamphlet ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) is concerned about the language of debate, at a rather more elevated level than The Sun. But his message is clear.

‘All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.’

When the atmosphere is bad, even humour is drawn in.

We are treading on egg-shells.

Not the end of democracy – not so fast

Democracy is in crisis. So many believe. David Runciman’s recent book has the title, ‘How Democracy Ends’. He takes a very different approach from Yascha Mounk – see my last two posts.

Democracy it seems cannot survive on its own. It needs (Runciman suggests) the shock of war, or something akin. The coming together after war. It also needs targets: the widening of the franchise, a shared vision of a society where everyone has a vote, was one such.

A target readily becomes a vision, with optimism and even idealism wound in. Trade unions were the vehicle for the working man, the Workers Education Association for the middle classes extending a hand up to the working class.

Now we all have the vote. And, for older generations, they’ve seen no further advantages in wealth or status come their way. Arguably the reverse. No matter that in terms of comfort and lifestyle most of us score more heavily now. We’ve lost the vision. For younger generations there’s the perception that their parents’ generation had it better than they have. They’ve never had the vision.

Those in power, in business, in the City, and indeed in the cities, small ‘c’, those down south, especially the south-east – they have the status, and the wealth. And they flaunt it. (In past times the division of wealth might have been seen as part of the natural order – but no more.)

Older generations now sense that they’ve found a voice, calling out against change – wanting to return to the old safe areas. (The old borders, real and metaphorical.) The institutions of democracy take a hit, with some hefty encouragement from the media.

For younger generations it’s a different issue – they see themselves as outside the system, not so different from previous generations you might say. But they’re not indifferent: typically they are issue-driven, and social media have taken the insistence and passion of their beliefs to another level. To the extent that political scientists like Yascha Mounk are asking the question, ‘can liberal democracy survive social media?’

Not quite as alarmist as ‘How Democracy Ends’. Mounk is talking of liberal democracy, and survival, not an endgame.

Democracy has always been inadequate to the task. That’s written in to its unwritten constitution. So much is expected of it. So much more demanded than it can readily deliver. Incompetence is the other side of the coin: always there to a greater or lesser extent, and always will be. ‘The blunders of our government’ (to quote King and Crewe’s phrase) reflect back on democracy itself.

*

Old-style deference, working to middle, middle to upper class is no more. We, the people, across all classes, have asserted ourselves. There are no ‘betters’. We the people call the tune, and there is indeed a specific ‘will of the people’, which can be identified – and if we can’t do it ourselves, then there are others who will do it for us.

We’re in a battle against a globalised world, against the City, against elites, and vast inequalities of pay, against real pay doing no more than hold its level over the last thirty years, against the EU, against immigration.

Democracy isn’t doing it for us. We don’t worry that it’s a lot to ask, we deem democracy to be in crisis.

*

In David Runciman’s view it’s a mid-life crisis, and that assumes old age and death. He does argue in defence of democracy that unlike any other system it has inbuilt recovery mechanisms – but they may not be enough.

I think Runciman, and many another, have got it wrong.

Our focus should be on how democracy can best take on and deal with the challenges that society faces. The hard work, the argument, the big picture, the detail. Talk down the ability of a democratic society to make the right decisions, we make those decisions harder. Short cuts. Apparently easy answers. Looking back rather than forward. Fringe even extreme views gain currency.

This is where the distinction made by Mounk (see my last post) between liberal and illiberal democracy becomes key. Where is the vision if we reduce democracy to no more than a convenient and hitherto just-about-effective modus operandi? Or, worse, to a Trump-inspired transactional nationalism?

In our current Brexit context, how are we to deal with the worldwide and EU-wide immigration issue if all we can think to do is tighten our own border controls? How do we take on big business and big money, if we’re obliged for want of other allies to kow-tow to the USA? And just how much power might a free-trading ‘Anglosphere’ wield in a world out east driven by the Chinese Belt and Road initiative?

To borrow a phrase, liberal democracy needs to take back control.

Runciman puts up Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan and the sociologist Max Weber as proponents of a mechanistic de-humanised view of society, where we cede power to the state out of self-interest, defending ourselves against an innate tendency for society to descend into violence.

He is curiously shy when it comes to liberal democracy. (It doesn’t get a mention.) But he’s clear regarding representative democracy, which in its contemporary form is ‘tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffective’.  The more gloomy we are, the more old Hobbes comes to the fore. And characterised in this way, why bother to save it?

His shyness extends to the role of the individual, who hardly gets a mention. (Though he does appear as a depersonalised online unit.) Liberalism brought the individual into play – the individual finding expression in democracy, and democracy in the individual. We have rights and freedoms, as long as we do not trespass on those of others. Yes, it is a minefield, an almost impossible task, there is no ideal world, progress can only ever take us so far, and we will lose ground as well as gain it – but that, if you want, is the stuff of democracy.

Democracy is not, to use Churchill’s characterisation, the least worst form of government. It is a bloody miracle we’ve got this far: we are fools to disdain it.

What we have to be focusing on is making it more robust. And that of course means the liberal democracies, not the emerging illiberal democracies of Hungary, Brazil, Turkey. Venezuela. It is not democracy as a system that should be at issue, but rather the scale of the problems we’re faced with.

Democracy has to adjust to deal with many challenges – and that (taking one example) has required and will require ceding of power upward to supranational bodies, with the European Commission the most controversial example, but balanced by a devolving of greater responsibility to local levels. Democracy works best at multiple, and connected, levels. The debate should be about structures of accountability, from local to supranational. The transactional approach cheered on by Donald Trump, with self-interest and specifically national interest always paramount, throws the issue into sharp relief.

Denigrate democracy, treat it with disdain, or part of the problem, or at best as suffering a midlife crisis, then you open up the other possibilities which Runciman discusses in his book – oligarchies (specifically  epistocracies – see below), pragmatic authoritarianism (as realised in the Chinese model of state capitalism), and liberated technology (internet utopias and  accelerationism, whereby a liberated economy and liberated networks, ‘crack the future open’).

Epistocracy, government by the best, is considered (though ultimately dismissed) as a serious alternative to democracy. Runciman quotes the American philosopher, Jason Brennan author of ‘Against Democracy’ (2016): ‘Political participation is not valuable for most people. On the contrary it does most of us little good and instead tends to stultify and corrupt us. It turns us into civic enemies who have grounds to hate one another.’ Runciman acknowledges that attaching power to knowledge can create monsters, but he leaves us in no doubt that he has some sympathy with Brennan’s direction of travel.

His conclusions – ‘Mature, Western democracy is over the hill …(it) will almost certainly have a drawn-out demise … democracy is not us. The demise of democracy is not our demise …’ I could continue, but I will desist.

Above all, what we miss in Runciman, as we do in Hobbes, and in the cheerless bunch of prophets he enlists to make his case, is any role for the positive aspects of human nature, for enterprise and compassion working together, for vision, ideals and aspirations – for new goals, for coming together rather than falling apart, for instinctively supporting rather than denigrating. For notions of liberty and responsibility. For any evidence that he’s taken on board any of that great liberal tradition from John Stuart Mill, and his precursors, to John Rawls, Amartya Sen and beyond.

The challenges facing society are terrible and wonderful, depressing if we wish them to be, exciting if we will ourselves to see them that way. We need champions not purveyors of doom, optimists not nay-sayers, a little bit of joy to put up against the gloom.

Connected, need I say, to a hard pragmatism. There need be no end to democracy, any more than there as been (pace Fukuyama) or ever will be an ultimate triumph.

‘Yes we can,’ was only ten years ago.