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!

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 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?

Trespass – good or bad?

A few thoughts on The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes. Published in autumn 2020 it was released in paperback last autumn.

Hayes has written a remarkable book. He trespasses on some of England’s biggest estates, climbing walls or crossing rivers as necessary. But all his trespasses would be allowable under Scottish law.

His focus is on property, and on how attitudes to property have evolved to accord with (or, put another way, dictated) the status quo in each generation. He’s not advocating revolution or confiscation. The world is as it is. His argument is for open access, and he makes it with learning and skill, and of course the necessary irreverence.

Vast acres of our landscape are the results of enclosures going back to the 16th century. And earlier. He’s good at that break-out into early modernity which followed the Reformation. Captain Pouch, and the brutality that followed rebellion in response to hunger, in the 17th century, is just one example. Hayes’s is an outsider’s view of history, and you learn new things – see them in a different way. All the while he’s gently trespassing and lighting fires and camping out.

One hero is Roger Deakin, another natural outsider. But Hayes for his part has a more  political message. There are so many examples one could quote. The 1824 Vagrancy Act as a response to soldier returning from the Napoleonic Wars without employment and hungry. He homes in on the Drax family and fortune (the head of the family is an MP) and its origins in slavery. They see no reason to feel any guilt.  William Beckford’s fortune was also based on slavery, his reputation muddled up with his status as a gay hero. Basildon Park and India, and the cornering of trade and disempowering of India and Indians, on which its fortunes were based.   

Early on Hayes brings in then foundational tome of English law, Blackstone’s Commentary, to show how the law was on the side of the men of property. Thomas Hobbes has property as a man-made construct, ‘designed to lift us out of our state of nature’. Grotius considers property as an institution invented by man but once invented it became a ‘law of nature’. For John Locke Locke if you mixed labour, ‘something this is his own’, with land he ‘thereby makes it his property’.  Blackstone asserted that ‘occupancy gave also the original right to the permanent property in the substance if the earth itself’.

We haven’t moved on much from Gainsborough’s gentleman’s idea of the English countryside. We don’t challenge the origins of the great estates. Or at least we didn’t. Which side are we on in that great debate? The National Trust is doing its best to steer a course.  There’s Croome Park in Worcestershire, half an hour from where I live, where the Trust is restoring the park to its Capability Brown glory, with some farming added in. It’s what the public wants and there lies the great irony.

We love the landscapes we’re allowed into, but don’t worry too much about being excluded. Or most of us don’t. We’re urbanised. Open up the country and most of us wouldn’t go there anyway. Hayes’s will never become a great national cause. Landowners needn’t worry. Wilderness, the festival, is safe (less so the real thing, but that’s not Hayes’s subject), despite Hayes’s attempt to fray the edges.

‘Sealing of one part of the world from another’ is Orwell specifically on nationalism. Immigrants as cockroaches. Legitimised superiority by virtue of inherited property, birth and land, blood and earth. Fascist ideas of Blut und Boden. Now we have Putin: like the rest of us Hayes didn’t see him coming.  

Hayes is the forever outsider. At Heathrow or Basildon Park or Windsor Park, he captures the landscape and the mood and the story. If they weren’t there and we were all insiders… but that can never be. (Each generation generates its own breed of powerful men, and maybe women, and they marry into the old money and land. Socialist experiments have got nowhere. Private enterprise allies with land and as liberalism is shoved aside, the boundaries shift a little or as in China radically change but boundaries remain. What do William the Conqueror and modern China have in common?)

Hayes the outsider. But I want to go with him where I can. To the hills above Hebden Bridge, bought as a shooting estate, where the moors are ‘systematically burned each year to increase the yield of new green shoots…’ I can’t see why I shouldn’t kayak on wide stretches of river. Apart from the fact I’m maybe too old. The USA seems to have got river access right early on. I’d like to see multiple footpaths opened up through great estates. And scrap this crazy world of breeding birds and then letting them out on the land for a few months in managed woodlands before shooting them.

Hayes begins with the 1932 Kinder Trespass – that’s my part of the world. Setting in train the idea that ultimately we’ll follow Scotland and open up access. Is he right that once you’ve seen the importance of land rights you can’t unsee them? Once seen, you can’t unsee the cat, as Henry George put it.

I love the ideas of heterotopia, spaces for outsiders forged deep inside society, and ‘third spaces, ‘where real life occurs’. Check them out. My daughter used to work for an organisation called ‘Free Space’, which found temporarily unoccupied spaces in London where arts projects (as I recall) could base themselves.

We need more wildernesses. (But that isn’t really Hayes’s subject. He’s not a romantic, a Muir or a Hopkins, espousing wildness for its own sake.) And charging for Stonehenge – maybe we have to. That means we exclude ‘whole sections of the population’. But is there anyone out there, other than midsummer Druids, who actually feel themselves excluded?  

So I’m with him all the way… only I’m not. And maybe he isn’t either. Turning the world upside down with some utopia at the end of the rainbow is a mug’s game. Anarchy will get us nowhere. Hayes would be lost. He’s happy with his tent and campfires. But a Robert Tombs-style history, upbeat about England and everything English, won’t get us anywhere either – unless it’s deeper into Brexit and petty nationalism. And we’d continue to walk as landowners dictate, and we may find as I have local field paths barbed-wired into the sides of fields, and rights of way diverted at a landowner’s behest, so that he can, as in one case I know, keep the best view for himself.

Apart from anything else it’s beautifully written and illustrated. In its own way it is a wonderfully wise book.

The world de-mystified

We, the people on this crazy planet, seek at one pole to identify, and work with, the world perceived as gaia, the mother of life, and at the other to command it: nature as enemy, to be tamed in what William James described more than a hundred years ago as ‘the moral equivalent of war’. The latter has indeed been the direction of travel for in the Western world for several hundred years, but we were, until even as late as the mid-20th century (if we exclude the USA and Europe), still getting no further than the edges.

Central Asia and Tibet were lands of mystics and Buddhists. There lay ancient paths to wisdom. Now those paths have been wiped by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Britain may have governed India but its impact on Hindu and Muslim culture was minimal. A piece is a recent Economist highlighted how Indian cinema, Bollywood, while as popular as ever is now accessed in rural communities not by showings at the traditional communal fairs known as mela but in the privacy of private homes, which may be no more than shacks, via mobile phone.

The Economist also recently ran pieces on the railways which had opened up the Middle East in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. East briefly met West in conditions of harmony, even if old attitudes to the Orient hardly budged. Tracks now run as far as borders, or have been torn up. Out of connection we brought division. And another piece describes and evokes the last kampong, or village, in Singapore, where the long-established Land Acquisition Act allows unrestricted development, the commercial maximisation of limited space.

The world has been thoroughly demystified.

Now we have Elon Musk seeking to re-make the world, and the solar system, in his own image. Tesla is green. He is scornful of climate change deniers. But he’s also loading the atmosphere with thousands of miniature satellites as part of his Starlink communication programme. From the distance in space where he or his satellites look back in the earth individual citizens are invisible.

Time Magazine made him their Man of the Year. ‘This is the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit: clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars.’

This is close to worship. You lose one deity, you create another…

Another aspirant deity out in California is libertarian Peter Thiel. Thiel, David Runciman writes in the London Review of Books, ‘rails against the use of public money for the betterment of people’s lives, especially the poor. Who are politicians to decide how we should live? The state only exists to protect the lives we build for ourselves, including the wealth we acquire along the way.’ Monopoly is the logical aim of any good capitalist.

A favourite book of Thiel’s is The Sovereign Individual (published 1997), co-authored by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father, William. The authors predict ‘the demise of the nation-state and the emergence of low or no tax libertarian communities in which the rich can finally emancipate themselves from ‘the exploitation of the capitalists by workers’.

Thiel ‘helped to bankroll the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create independent, ocean-based communities free from all government control.’ He was ‘an early vocal champion of Donald Trump’s presidential bid’. (All quotes are from David Runciman’s article.)

So where does that leave the still small voice of Zen, so optimistic in 2009. Where does the ordinary guy fit in? Likewise, run-of-the-mill limited-term democracy? And the big issues of migration, the armaments race, land use, species survival?

Thiel we can shunt off into one of his Seasteading communities. The state could build it for him.

And let’s have Musk focused literally down to earth, where he’s doing some real good, and could do so much more. But his mindset… he is a commander. He doesn’t do humility. We have messed up the environment and using the same machismo approach that landed in this mess he thinks he can put it right. I don’t share his premise. But we could use his ideas and energy. He could use our humility, but, well, let’s face it – that won’t happen!

Richard Dawkins comes to town

Saturday morning, 10am, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Richard Dawkins has been woven into our lives if not our rainbows for a few decades now. I can still remember reading The Selfish Gene. It’s somehow associated with a bus from up north heading down to London, sitting near the front, with big views either side of the motorway. Yes, it changed how I view the world.

Before last Saturday, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I’d not heard him speak in person. Interviewed by Matthew Stadlen, who he knows well, it seems, not least from previous interviews, he was as direct and blunt as I’d expected.

One cheerful discussion was around whether ‘altruistic’ rather than ‘selfish’ would have been a better title for that famous book. But it wouldn’t have had much of a zing to it, but there’s certainly a good case for arguing that genes are operating altruistically, since our survival, and progression up the evolutionary ladder, is tied intimately to our genes. Where they go we follow.

Genes have our interests at heart, though watching The Mating Game last night I was rivetted, as, accompanied by David Attenborough’s whispered, I-don’t-want-to-interfere’ voice, a male praying mantis manages to get its head bitten off by a larger female and yet, abdominally alive for several hours, still manages to mate. At the same time it provides the female with sustenance to feed the brood which will in due time follow. The male is allowed no time to rejoice in successful procreation.

Back from the jungle to Cheltenham. What I miss, and I’m more aware of this from a front-row seat, so not more than a few yards away, is the absence of a human dimension in his projection of himself as a scientist. Human beings of social, cultural, mixed-up, error-prone, imperfect beings. The human dimension doesn’t get a look in.

Take religion as the classic example – and Dawkins’ favoured territory. For my part, it’s so closely tied with ideas of love and compassion, and security, and re-assurance, and atheism does such a bad job of providing any substitute, that you’re throwing out a great chunk of human civilisation if you dismiss religion. The easy target of a personal god is only one manifestation. The instinct to believe or, if not to believe a such, then find re-assurance somewhere beyond ourselves, is innate to human beings.  Science, you could argue (and it would be interesting to do so!), is skeletal without it.

On climate change there was something similar. Dawkins didn’t mention the human dimension, and all the actions that will be required of us if the no-more-than 1.5% increase above pre-industrial levels is to be achieved. (‘What are your thoughts on Greta Thunberg’ would have been a good question.) He accepts Global Warming, and responded (I read) positively to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. If only, he once commented, Gore rather than Bush has won the presidential election in 2000. A few hanging or dimpled chads changed the world. But his focus last Saturday was only on the science.

We have the surveillance state that is China on the one hand, and the spectre, so appealing to one section of Republican opinion in the USA, of scary Peter-Thiel-style libertarianism on the other. We need to promote the human dimension across the board, at all times, in all things. The religion-versus-atheism debate is old hat. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, atheists – we’re all in this together. Science must be and remain the servant of humanity, and without that context it can become so easily, as China demonstrates, the instrument of an authoritarian state.

(I’d like to chip in here with comments on Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality. But I haven’t dipped into it yet. One comment from a Guardian interview from last month: ‘If only everyone were capable of reasoning properly, Pinker sometimes seems to imply, then our endless political arguments would not occupy so much of public life.’ There’s the rub, of course. We don’t reason ‘properly’, and the application of reason doesn’t always lead to the same conclusions.)

Dawkins signed off with his thoughts on the transgender debate. Men and women are defined by their chromosomes and whether or not they are born with a penis. That is the biological definition. How they define themselves to themselves and to others is up to them.  No questions from the audience, so no debate ensued. But Dawkins had been clear, as always – the science must prevail.  

Hassan Akkad – a Syrian refugee

The Cheltenham Literature Festival ended yesterday. The beauty, and the challenge, of a book festival is the range of voices you get to hear. In my case it’s included Michael Wood talking about China, both his TV series, and recent book; Hassan Akkad, Syrian refugee and author of a new book, Hope Not Fear; Richard Dawkins, single-minded in his advocacy of science; and Colm Toibin, talking in inimitable Irish style about a sometimes very taciturn novelist, Thomas Mann, the subject of his latest novel.

Hassan Akkad, speaking in one of the small, almost off-festival venues, was for me the stand-out event. I mentioned that events can challenge. This one did. How might we, how might I, in our comfortable lives, do better. It’s not enough to read, or write blogs.

‘Hope Not Fear’ is the title of his book. Both are primary emotions. They are basic to our lives, as near opposites as can be. Imprisoned after demonstrating and film-making in Damascus, tortured, invited to meet Assad, re-imprisoned after that bizarre meeting, tortured again, both arms broken. A refugee in this country since 2016, he filmed his journey from Syria, contributing to a film which won a BAFTA.

Discovering that there was a condition known as PTSD made a big difference for him: he realised the fear and anxiety he felt was something others experienced, and could be treated. Listening to him talk his hands moved nervously, and yet his smile was wide and infectious. So much better hope than fear.

He would want to bring his children up in the UK. And yet he wants to go back to Damascus. How might the future work out not just for him, but for the world, someone asked. He smiled. How do you answer a question like that. Talking to people, taking someone in need out for a coffee or a meal – that was the gist of his answer. If we talk, if we’re open, if we care.

He volunteered as a cleaner early in in the pandemic, working with a remarkably multi-ethnic group of volunteers. Appalled by a government decision to exclude cleaners and porters from the NHS bereavement scheme if they died from coronavirus he put a film addressed to Boris Johnson on Twitter which was instrumental in changing government policy.

As a country, as a people, we welcomed him. But our politics has puzzled and disappointed. After a society in Damascus where stability hinged on notions of shame and honour, he’d expected to find the openness and freedom he’d briefly found as a demonstrator in Damascus, only to find a Britain radically divided in its politics.

It helps to be reminded how others see us, and how far in recent years we’ve fallen short. In the Britain he’d read about, the ministers responsible for the egregious early failings of our response to the Covid crisis would have resigned. None have. What message do we take from that?

There’a vulnerability about Hassan Akkad. He’s been through more than most of us could ever imagine. We should listen.

And so the Empire lives on….

I visited Daylesford in the Cotswolds yesterday, famous for its farm shop, and explored its vast and well-tended (woodland and pasture and water meadow) estate. How many I wonder connect the estate to Warren Hastings, famous, or infamous, as the 18th century governor-general of India, and subject of remarkable impeachment proceedings (beginning in 1788) when he was labelled by Edmund Burke among other epithets as ‘shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious’.

The East India Company in the 18th century was the forerunner of the Raj. But it was back then in essence a trading company, militarised under Robert Clive, not least to combat French influence on the sub-continent. Trade brooked no rivals. The moral conscience of the nation was stirred, but trade had its own momentum. In Burke’s words, ‘(the Company appears) more like an army going to pillage the people under the pretence of commerce than anything else’.

Ten years later (1799) victory over Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, ensured control of southern India. ‘Scarcely a house in the town [Seringapatam] was left unplundered,’ Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, wrote to his mother. The loot was extraordinary. It overwhelms our museums.

How, I wondered, does trade morph into empire, when the exigencies of trading relationships are replaced by the subjugation of whole populations? Local agreements with Indian merchants required local representation, which in turn required residence, and defence of person and property, and of commercial privileges – which extended so easily into a pretence, and then a reality, of empire.

William Dalrymple’s monumental history of the East India Company (‘The Anarchy’) is marvellous on the subject. Also worth reading is Sathnam Sanghera. He’s the Wolverhampton-born son of Sikh immigrants, and a journalist on The Times. His new book, Empireland, pulls together in one short volume many of the elements of our imperial legacy – loot, immigration (‘we are here because you were there’), identity, legacy, amnesia, trade and slavery.

Trade is to the forefront today. Literally today. The commission appointed by Oxford’s Oriel College to review the college’s decision to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has decided against its removal, and the college has concurred in that decision. The protest group ‘Rhodes must go’ is up in arms. But the ground has shifted even in the last year. The government’s proposed legislation would have had all plans to remove statues called in, and probably overturned.

The growth of Empire was linked to specific products. Rhodes is associated with southern Africa and diamond mining. He founded De Beers. The slave trade and the sugar plantations of the West Indies were synonymous. Cotton textiles were one of the mainstays of 18th century East India Company trade.  The Calico Acts of 1700 and 1721 prohibited their importation, but not raw cotton, opening up later in the century to the import of raw cotton from slave plantations in the southern USA, and creating the conditions for the rapid development of the cotton industry in late 18th and 19th century Lancashire. India became a major market for Lancashire cotton. Indians had no choice in the matter. The connection between slavery, trade, and the industrial revolution is direct.

I speak as a Manchester man, proud of his city. Do I feel guilt? No, that’s not a helpful emotion. And if we apologise – who would do the apologising? And who to? Look over the Channel and see the quandary the French have over North Africa. Macron described the Algerian War as a crime against humanity. But no apology as such has been – or I guess will be – forthcoming. You could argue that those who should be apologising are those of us who still maintain some kind of ‘imperial mindset’. Who still have some notion of British exceptionalism. Look across the pond to America, where ‘exceptionalism’ is also rife.

Brexit evoked comparisons with 19th century free trade and revoking the Corn Laws. But back then we controlled our markets, controlled the seas, and enforced tariff-free trade, always to our advantage. We crushed domestic production in India to create a vast market there for our own goods. I’m researching my great-grandfather’s business in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire – cotton country despite being over the boundary from Lancashire. Did his business, as a merchant tailor with a wide reach, extend beyond Manchester to overseas markets?

There is a curious reverse colonial mentality among some well-known supporters of Brexit. The EU is turned into a surrogate empire, and the only way we can reassert our status is by turning back the clock. And so the British Empire lives on….

The subject, as Sanghera found, is vast, and I’ll limit myself here to one further comment, on the subject of religion, and muscular Christianity, and the role of the missionary. I recently read Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. It’s a short, and remarkable novel, drawing on Achebe’s own family’s direct experience, which, despite having sold twenty million copies worldwide, had passed me by. Missionaries find their way to a Nigerian village, and the old customs of generations are undermined. The old gods don’t stand a chance. One missionary employs a softly softly approach, another brings in the might of the district commissioner, and you realise how imperial power married to a religious conviction re-casts a proud people as inferiors.

Nigeria was still a colony in my early childhood, and we collected for the work, as a teacher, of a local lady who’d been a missionary in Nigeria all her life. I claim to be a Christian. Can I apportion right and wrong here? Can I have any sympathy for a tribal society in which superstition and shamans called the tune? One God better than multiple gods? Of course. But hand in hand with mission work went subjugation. Subjugation dehumanises.  That is a terrible consequence of empire. It also took root, after more open-minded beginnings, in 19th century India.

We were by that time, in the UK, moving beyond the slave trade. The campaign for its abolition was led by William Wilberforce. But Wilberforce was deeply religious and Indian religions were for him no more than superstition. Conversion was a Christian duty, and implicit is the sense of superiority which characterises the missionary. ‘They’ lack something that ‘you’ have. An attitude in the Raj that had terrible consequences, not least the Indian Mutiny, and more than sixty years later the Amritsar massacre.

I’m a child of empire, and I’d love to think that my children’s generation could see the last of them. But old attitudes live on, and America and China are sharpening up their spheres of influence. How empires of the future might differ, are already differing, from the empires of the past, is another story.

A little bit of lobbying on the side

Remember Philip Hammond desperately trying to balance the books as Chancellor? Now all the talk is of how foolish Osborne was to batten down for so long. And it looks as if Hammond wasted his time. Expansion and big rescue packages and capital spending are the order of the day. In the USA, the same. Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package. And big plans for infrastructure. The debate in the USA is whether it will cause inflation to get out of hand. The Economist is putting out dire warnings on the one hand – but supporting a big spending approach for the EU on the other.

How government interacts with the private sector will be more than ever in the spotlight. The lobbying scandal involving David Cameron and Greensill Capital is just one example of how this relationship can go wrong.

Adam Smith provides context. He tends to be associated, by way of a selective reading of The Wealth of Nations, with a freewheeling free-market philosophy. By which bad behaviours might be somehow balanced out by good. Not so, as his ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ reveals. ‘It carries within it a crucial Smithean insight, that innumerable human interactions can yield vast but entirely unintended collective consequences – social benefits, yes, but also social evils…’ (Jesse Norman, ‘Adam Smith, What He Thought And Why It Matters’)

There is a good, and ‘Smithean’, argument to be made as follows. In a commercial society we are all merchants. The pursuit of wealth is of itself a good thing (depending on how ‘wealth’ is defined). The desire for human betterment drives that process. War and violence have, for all of history, brought about division. Commerce binds us together.

But over-accumulation, growth for its own sake, inequality, the pursuit of self-interest, the handing-on of wealth from one generation to the next – wealth for its own sake and not as the driver of a society’s welfare – they are among the great enemies. The fact that David Cameron’s activities were ‘legal’ exemplifies, all the more, how easily the pursuit of wealth as an ultimate social good can be corrupted.

Jesse Norman, who is incidentally an Old Etonian, and Tory MP (read into that what you may), has an intriguing paragraph in his biography of Adam Smith: ‘Yet as technology spreads big data, insider knowledge, digital technologies, there are increasing dangers of a new tech-enabled crony capitalism: a self-reinforcing cycle in which greater insider power encourages the development of bent markets; these in turn create popular demands for more government regulation, create more complexity and opportunity for lobbying, a further boost to the power of insiders, and so on.’

‘What me, guv?’ I can imagine Cameron as saying. The game is so entrenched. We’re, many of us, wary believers in market capitalism, where market forces ‘drive prices down and quality up, and consumers have a very wide choice’, in Norman’s words. We’re talking of food, clothes, everyday items.

Financial engineering and derivatives are another story. Begetters of boom and bust, and multiple shenanigans. (They were of course unknown to Adam Smith.) Greensill Capital, advocacy for which got Cameron into trouble, was a clever financial idea (I wondered about the term ‘ruse’) where business bills are settled immediately for a fee, assisting thereby with the issue of late payments.

Now, as much if not more than ever, with big money and big contracts in play, we have a whole new raft of opportunities for crony capitalism, re-working old business and school networks, rent-seeking, inside knowledge, and conflicts of interest. More than ever we need to be wary – to be aware.

Heading off at a slight tangent there’s a paragraph from an American author*, writing on the subject of meritocracy, I’d like to quote: ‘Someone who wants an elite income … must do one of a narrowly constricted category of jobs, heavily concentrated in finance, management, law and medicine.’ Teaching, public service, ‘even engineering’ don’t get a look in. (How medicine and money came to be quite so conflated is a uniquely American story.)

Cameron, a humble politician earning a relative pittance, wanted to be part of that big-earning brigade, with big stock options on offer.

Many had a high regard for Cameron. He will be wondering how he surrendered it so easily.  

And finally …I’m intrigued to see how the Daily Mail is trying to turn the lobbying scandal into a plot by Labour anti-Brexit insiders within the Civil Service trying to blacken the government. It goes with Palace ‘insiders’ telling us what really went at the funeral between Harry and Kate and Will.

Don’t believe a word of it.

*Daniel Markovits, ‘The Meritocracy Trap’, quoted by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books)

More thoughts for the day

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has the nation in mourning. We have something we, most of us, agree on. He was a good man, who, as Prince Albert before him, used his position to advance a wide range of good causes – the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme above all. He was also a fine cricketer, which does count for something.

And Rachael Blackmore won the Grand National quite brilliantly: the first woman jockey to do so.

The BBC ran tributes across all stations to the Duke. But elsewhere…

Hungary: ‘The last radio station that is critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is due to go off the air.’ Poland: ‘Media freedom …now faces its greatest set of challenges since 2015 as the government continues to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media … ‘ Both reports are dated February 2021. In the Czech Republic and Slovenia the independence of the state broadcaster is also under threat.

As for the BBC, we’re used to grumbles from left and right about bias toward the other side. Now the left, obsessed by its own squabbles and with a wholly outdated understanding of the working man, and with minimal support in the popular press, has lost all influence. Murdoch, on the other hand, that happy paragon of all that’s best in Aussie and American, is unchallenged. The Sunday Times on the Greensill collapse and David Cameron: hammering the Tory old guard might just suit Murdoch’s politics. Should I be suspicious?

Maybe now, with arch-disruptor Cummings consigned to outer darkness and Covid and the Red Wall north and big spending to focus on, the government will worry less about the BBC. They can burnish their social conservative credentials by insisting refugees go through official channels, as if any refugee has access to such things. They can espouse freedom of speech (in the face of ‘no platforming’) and mock wokery, but legislate to limit freedom of assembly. We will see how far they go.

I referred to ‘an outdated understanding of the working man’ on the left. That takes me to Red Wall seats ‘up north’, and the smart housing estates that are popping up everywhere, where houses are cheap, by comparison to London, and the standard of living, despite lower wage and salary levels than down south, relatively high. That is the new north, and it’s this that is probably driving the big increase in the Tory vote.

The old working class before the WW1 was instinctively conservative and Tory. They knew their place. The new prosperous working class has more confidence, they doff caps to no-one, and they’ve bought into what may or may not be the fiction that they have in the new Tory dispensation a recognised and valued place.

I’m reading Jesse Norman’s splendid biography of Adam Smith. Why would someone of Norman’s obvious sanity be serving in a government where pragmatism and the wide sympathies as evinced by Norman can be in short supply?Norman, on the way Friedmanite economics distorted and still radically distorts what Adam Smith really stood for, is revealing. Peter Kellner in the current edition of Prospect has a letter which suggests we should see the Tory party in terms of a Vann diagram, with old-style conservatism overlapping the new ideological variety. Norman maybe is the true conservative, and he needs to be in there to make certain the ideologues don’t take over.

And, finally, how the 18th century prefigured the 21st. Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, which had been a major port serving Europe for hundreds of years. His father was Comptroller of Customs for Kirkcaldy. The big switch over to Glasgow and the Clyde, and the American trade, not least tobacco, was already happening. By the 1750s Glasgow was importing more tobacco than all the English ports combined. It was the American economy that intrigued Smith. He looked west, not east. We have that dilemma to this day. Do we look west, or east? Glasgow ironically is now a stronghold of support for Scottish independence, and the Scot Nats look to Europe. England on the other hand would love that US trade deal….