We live fragile times …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do we go from here?

This is a long post, and I apologise for that. But there is a lot of ground to cover. The 12th December election was a turning-point. I want to establish points of departure. To put down, issue by issue, policy area by policy area, where we are now, as I understand it. And to take a view, from an avowedly liberal standpoint, on whether the government on the evidence available is competent to handle those issues.

Over the coming months I mean to return to some of the points made here, and see how the government is faring – and see if my judgements are correct. Or otherwise. I will try and be fair!

*

The key issues for the next five years: should we rejoice, be angry, or simply despair?

Did I collapse in despair, or rise up in anger? No, I surprised myself. Two days before the election, I’d been talking to LibDem supporters in Cheltenham and they were gloomy: their polling put the Tories 2% ahead. On my drive back home that day I reconciled myself to the reality, that politics would be anything but Zen-like in the years to come. The Tories would win, and handsomely. I could continue to be angry, or I could keep my cool. Hold firm to my ideas, beliefs and aspirations.  Let events unfold, influence them in my own small way if I could, and see where they take me.

Boris Johnson thought Brexit an impossible idea when asked at Davos in 2014. Who knows where we might be in 2024?

*

‘Should we rejoice,’ I ask above. Well, hardly. But let’s be positive. There may be, just maybe, some good news. The Tories will have to tack to the centre, even to the left, to keep on board the support that’s been loaned to them in Yorkshire and the North East. The NHS will get extra funding. But not at Blair-years levels of increase. And will it be thrown at the existing players – GPs and hospitals, when it is health and social care at every level that Tory administrations over the last almost ten years have brought into crisis?

Where are the beds for those well enough to leave hospital, but with nowhere to recuperate? Will the funding be there to relaunch the childcare, daycare and other facilities closed down during the austerity years?  To match the spending assessments allocated to local councils for social services not just to existing expenditure, but to the higher levels of expenditure that everyone recognises are required, not least for support for the elderly? Put another way, will the funding be token – or transformative? Will it be case of, ‘what can we get away with’? Or will commitment be total, and even passionate?

Johnson has promised proposals for later this year, but ‘asked for a date for action to finally be taken to improve social care, Mr Johnson said: “We will certainly do it in this parliament”.’ (Independent). The vagueness is absolute.

*

Infrastructure: big investment is needed, and might be good news, although HS2 is a poor starter by way of priorities. An infrastructure plan needs to be pumping funds into the North-West, well north of Manchester, into the North East, well north of Leeds – and it may be fifteen years before a link to Leeds is completed. And the South-West.  And Wales. The big hubs already have train and air links. The areas in between and at the peripheries should have equal if not greater priority.

Race and gender: there’s no evidence that the Tories will seek to unwind any of the changes of the few decades. But there is a hard core of Tory support that is seriously socially conservative, and wary if not intolerant of change. Arguments will be heated on the subject of political correctness, campus bans and the like. (Social conservatism is a fundamental instinct, and one I connect to. Not all change is wise! How far can we take the absolute liberty of the individual? When is intolerance just that – intolerance?)

Referenda: the curse of our political system. The one-off vote driven by half-truths, lies and misrepresentation, to which we all have to hold as if it is the voice of, the will of the people. The good news – the Tories sure as hell won’t want another for a good few years. They have the parliamentary majority, and it isn’t going to go away in a hurry.

Mandate: however much we might query his means Johnson has a clear mandate. From that comes stability. Things can at last get done. And we’ve a sense of urgency, or at least the appearance of one. Will it all in the end be dissipated by the muddle and machinations of Brexit? Will things indeed ‘get done’?

Luck:  Johnson has also had luck on his side. The caution engendered by the financial crisis and austerity has disappeared as in a puff of smoke. A fairy godmother? Does Johnson have one? Is he lucky, or does he make his own luck?  Greased pig was the appellation The Economist gave to him a month or two ago. He slides through obstacles, and nothing sticks to him. Is he that rare thing, a genius, as Charles Moore suggests? Should we give him his head, and see where he takes us?

*

Which takes us to the bad news.  There are vast issues out there, and I touch on many, maybe most, of them below.  There are few signs, as of now, that the new government has the nous or the commitment to deal with them. It is in fundamentals a continuation of what has gone before. Ten years of Tory rule. (The first five years somewhat constrained.) The government would have us believe that it is entirely new, and its ministers a new breed. Taking a fresh look at all problems. A dubious proposition. But let us, for now, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Leadership: Johnson is talking of a Golden Age, when first we have to climb out of a mire which he maybe more than anyone has dumped us in. A leader who took up the cudgels on behalf of ‘the people’, as the tabloid press defined it, against parliament, and against the Supreme Court as well.

So, to return to my question above, do we give him his head? As an opportunist, without any broad understanding public affairs, on all evidence to date, of course we shouldn’t. Do we have a choice? No, we don’t. Compare Churchill, Johnson’s hero, we’re told. Churchill anticipated a crisis and was brought in to resolve it. Johnson was a prime mover in creating our current crisis – and now he’s proclaimed as new Moses to lead us out of it.

The total dominance of one party. The utter incompetence of the main opposition. The side-lining of the LibDems. BBC won the election – Boris, Brexit and Corbyn. Corbyn won it for the Tories. All the other Far Left madcaps who think that all they need to do in time is somehow infiltrate the institutions, take over the system. Achieve ‘cultural hegemony’.  (This was Gramsci’s term. Gramsci was a Marxist, but it has a resonance for a few Tory ideologues as well. See below.)

Education: more money, but if that old Govean (Michael Gove ‘deserves an adjective) shibboleth of choice continues to hold sway then money will go to the good and excellent schools, and the free schools. Schools only registering satisfactory or below will find funding reduced still further on a per capita basis. Pupils from disadvantaged areas will continue to be disadvantaged.

Four years, maybe five, maybe longer: that’s the period of time Brexit has dominated affairs, and taken out minds off all the big issues we should have been focusing on. Important issues haven’t been addressed, important legislation has simply never happened. It will be hard to catch up.

Meritocracy: social mobility will get lip service and no more. The ordinarily well-off, the top quartile maybe of the population, will make certain they hang on to what they’ve got. Independent schools offer big advantages. Rather than their abolition (which simply at a practical level would be massively damaging) and trading down we have to focus on the state sector trading up. But there’s little sign of it happening. No government in recent times has come anywhere near getting the measure of the problem. State education may be marginally better funded under Johnson. But the benefits of the best teaching, the best preparation for university, good contacts when you leave university – they all work, and will continue to work, to the advantage of the affluent.

Social justice: where do you draw the line between ensuring people have incentives to work and providing safety net in the event of misfortune? George Osborne muddled austerity with cutting back benefits. Skivers were a popular theme in the press. Benefit fraud. Benefit tourism. Universal Credit has been implemented with a startling lack of understanding of its consequences, or the suffering caused. The bedroom tax was a mean spirit incarnate. There are no plans for any of the cuts in benefits to be re-instated. What I don’t see in the new Tory dispensation is much sign of compassion for the underdog. If Johnson wants to be a one-nation conservative he needs to strike a better balance between enterprise and compassion than his predecessors. This is difficult territory. But the bottom line has to be – compassion. Without it, all else that governments achieve is worthless.

Enterprise: maybe this should be under the ‘good news’ section above. Cutting business rates, which is in the Queen’s Speech, and maximising incentives for small businesses, are essentials. I’m a great believer in not-for-profit social enterprises, but the pursuit of profit is, for now at least, what drives this planet. The issue is how this can be squared with a vast reduction in emissions, a radical approach to conservation and resource depletion, and a re-balancing of wealth, in a way that improves living standards worldwide whilst avoiding crippling the planet.  The longer-term issue is how the planet can be re-educated away from its delight in profit and ever-increasing consumption. Is, indeed, there a remote chance of it ever happening? Don’t expect to see this government leading that debate.

The media. Johnson is talking of decriminalising non-payment of the BBC licence fee. The Tories grumble about BBC bias. So does Labour of course. And the LibDems don’t even get to join the big boys’ debates. (How much did being pushed to the margins affect the LibDems final vote?) Decriminalising will be a first step toward turning the BBC into another pay-TV channel, another Sky or similar. That’s a popular scenario with the Tory right. They have their newspapers, maybe 80% of the press is Tory-owned and wears its allegiance in a very public way. The centre and left have the Mirror and Guardian, and the ‘i’. But they are, in terms of absolute numbers, small players. Check out any newsstand.

The right-wing press will, as they have during four years of Brexit argument, continue to control the public debate through tub-thumping and a cavalier approach to truth. It will take multiple disasters before the Mail abandons its allegiance to whatever prejudice or distortion is likely to have the biggest appeal.

[20th December] The government has now banned cabinet ministers from appearing on the Today programme. (Nick Robinson was an ardent Tory at school.) I guess they don’t want to be interrogated and found wanting. Ensure, with the tabloids on your side, that your press is always favourable. Sky, being Murdoch owned, will never push criticism too far. ITV and C4 have good reasons to be cautious. The Tory take on the BBC is that it’s part of the urban liberal establishment. The rest of us may view it as the last best hope for intelligent debate in the country. But that is, of course, what’s at stake. If the anti-liberal establishment trope really takes hold then plans to scrap the licence fee will become even easier to put into law… That’s the way, no doubt, Tory thinking goes.

[20th December]  Matthew Goodwin, an academic at the University of Kent, came out for Brexit as a populist revolt a while back.  He did his own polling, he tells us. ‘Leavers knew what they were doing,’ as he put it. People were well aware that Brexit involved ‘risks’. So they factored that into their vote for Brexit. But ‘risk’ as we know was played down so as to be almost non-existent in Brexit propaganda. Risk can only be quantified and made real if people see it at work in tangible form in the day-to-day. And poor economic performance is easily disguised: we trundle on as ever. But put us against other countries: we’ve failed by that test already and there’s little doubt based on all independent forecasts that we will slip further behind in future.  (The government promises us the opposite of course: ‘a glorious future’. We shall see.)

There is a further worry. As long as the press is solidly right-wing, and even more now that the press and the parliamentary majority are aligned, there is a real danger that the balance of opinion in our politics, the frame within which it operates, may shift rightwards. (See the reference to ‘cultural hegemony’ above.) Liberal values of openness and equality may be risk if a government forces through a hard-right neo-liberal agenda. The British electoral system, with its five-year election cycle, has in recent times always held parties in check. The electorate has to be persuaded, cannot be bludgeoned. I’m less sure that this will still be the case over the next five or ten years. This could be the biggest and most worrying game-changer of all.

Roger Scruton, the leading Conservative philosopher, died a few days ago. I’ve long recognised him as a redoubtable advocate of Conservatism , with a capital C, and disparager of the values of liberal democracy. ‘The two goals of liberation and social justice are not obviously compatible, any more than were the liberty and equality advocated at the French Revolution.’  I’d seen him in fine form at the Cheltenham Literature Festival eighteen months ago. But his obituaries also highlighted his recent receipt of the Hungarian Order of Merit from Viktor Orban, the ever-more autocratic prime minister of Hungary, and champion of ‘illiberal democracy’. Given Hungarian attacks on a free press and the judiciary under Orban this is a worrying connection. We are a long way from an Orban-style democracy in this country, but there is a strand of Conservative thinking that gives cause for concern.

Democracy is also about local government of course. There’s much talk of a Northern Powerhouse. Direct funding for infrastructure. Major funding increases for the NHS and in time we’d hope social care – but this is central government funding. Will any consideration be given to extending local democracy? To involving people more closely with what happens in their own backyard? Or will localities be bought off by a hike in central government funding?

If the divide between right and centre and left in the media was no more than political we could all relax just a little. Focus on the arguments. But fake news and false alarms, marginal opinions consistently given equivalence with mainstream, the disparagement of expertise, they have been Brexit bread and butter over the last four years.

Law and order. There’s already talk of ECJ judgements being brought back under UK jurisdiction, with serious and unthought-through consequences. The Oxford historian Vernon Bogdanor suggests that in a post-Brexit world we will need some kind of British constitution. Sections of the press may for now hold off from further attacks on judges and the rule of law. But legislating for a constitution might open up a vast new can of worms. That apart, parliament and the executive shouldn’t be at odds for a few years. There should be no need for the Supreme Court to be involved. On the debit side there’s a worrying Tory manifesto promise to ‘update’ the Human Rights Act: intervening to achieve the ‘proper balance’ between the rights of individuals, national security and the government. Whatever ‘proper balance’ might mean.

The prison system: building more jails, locking more people up. Prison welfare, and rehabilitation, and increasing the number of prison officers: that’s not the way Tory talk about the system goes. The Tory knee-jerk response to the London Bridge stabbings suggest that we may well move rapidly in the wrong direction. Likewise Priti Patel’s comments on wanting criminals ‘literally to feel terror’ before breaking the law.

I mentioned fiddling the system. Under Cameron there was much discussion about boundary changes. Advocates on the right have claimed the system penalises them. It takes fewer Labour voters to elect an MP than it does Tory voters. I’m not sure that overall figures bear this out, or if they did once, they may do so no longer – but with one party in power for long periods who knows what might happen.

Brexit itself. I thought for a moment Johnson might feel able to sideline MPs the European Reform Group (ERG). Keep open the option of extending the departure date after 31st December 2020. But he’s legislating to tie himself into that date. (Legislation can of course easily be rescinded by another Act.) Is he playing a game here? Playing tough for now, more moderate further down the line, when the ERG have all but gone to sleep? (Unlikely, I have to admit.)

Once upon a time Johnson was a liberal, centrist Tory. Has he cast off this cloak for good? If power is his aim, then principle may be secondary. A cavalier approach to a hard Brexit suggests opportunism, and a ‘beggar the consequences’ attitude. It may on the other hand be pragmatism. Johnson likes sailing close to the wind, and tacking only when he has to. He’s been clever at ensuring that opprobrium doesn’t stick to him. See earlier my comments on his ‘greased pig’ attributes.

Acolytes: I have in particular Dominic Cummings in mind. Who was at Johnson’s side on election night? Dom, of course. With his laptop.  ‘Taking back control’ was a great slogan. No matter that any gain in ‘control’ is minimal, and our loss of influence a disaster. But he’s the kind of guy who does ‘cut through the crap’. I read that he’s been telling senior civil servants what they should be reading. And he has big ideas on military procurement, and wants to take on the generals and military establishment. See below.  And there’s also Isaac Levido, the Aussie who organised polling and research for the Tory campaign. He it was who was behind climate-change-sceptic Scott Morrison’s surprise victory in the recent Aussie election. He may be a decent guy. But supporting Scott Morrison?

Immigration will be based around a points-system. Aussie style. (Aussies again.) We will get only the brightest and best. I haven’t yet heard how we will get our fruit picked, or our hotels manned, or how other concerns which rely on cheap immigrant labour will function. We will be even more nation of parasites: attracting the best from elsewhere, the cost to the countries giving us their trained and educated doctors and technicians and nurses, and whoever else, being of little concern of us.

Immigration control can be dressed up as an entirely necessary response to job losses (for which there is little hard evidence) and EU citizens’ access to the NHS (though immigrants are in reality net contributors). But it is at a deeper level a fear of foreigners, a closing of doors. The UK recast for our time as ‘little England’. (I’m leaving Scotland and Northern Ireland out advisedly.)

Influence. Johnson will make his mark on the world stage through his bluster. But will anyone listen beyond what they have to? Has he – will he have – any moral authority? Will other countries look to him as someone who might lead? Can we regain the influence we had in Europe? Or the UN? Can we justify any more our permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Once we wrote or co-wrote the rules by which the EU ran itself. Now at best we will be lobbyists. To be listened to, or not, as others dictate. To move beyond that is perhaps Johnson’s greatest challenge. If he succeeds, as some believe he might, if he halfway succeeds, that will be a mighty achievement.

Trade: Brexit deals with the EU. Or not, if we can’t agree to align with EU regulations. Forget about services for now. 330 million Americans and a big-stick president. 447 million (not including the UK) citizens of EU member states. 1.4 billion Chinese. 67 million Brits. Wonderful trade deals are guaranteed. The best terms. And if another party wants to cheat or offload or renege or cancel, we can shrug and walk away and find someone else to do business with… There is madness here. And what kind of deal will we ultimately get out of Trump? We have few cards to play, and much to lose.

Business: ensuring that corporate taxes are paid in the countries where sales happen, and aren’t routed though low-tax countries. Issues of pay and business ethics. The priority given to dealing with vast and growing inequalities, as much in the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1%, or indeed the 5%, as in salaries.

Social media and automation: should the big social media companies, Facebook and the like, where there are issues of both taxation and size, be broken up? Where their influence is malign, how can that be tackled? Automation – the other great transformative issue: what will the workplace look like in ten and twenty years’ time, and how can we best prepare when there’s so much uncertainty around the issue.

The European Union: maybe this should have come at the head of the list. But I’d have been re-running all the reasons for not leaving. The question has to be – how to retain what influence we have left, and regain some of what we’ve lost. We have made ourselves look foolish in the eyes of EU countries, and the wider world. Decisive government now will help claw back some credibility – but prestige and influence are another matter. Beyond lip service, does Johnson really want to be good neighbours with the EU? (He and the new Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, were all smiles recently.) Or by preference a nagging offshore critic? How ‘open’ does Johnson want the country to be.

Peter Pomerantsev in the current Prospect has a definition of the European project which I can subscribe to: ‘… a project whose aim is not some woolly cosmopolitanism, but a way of squaring the circle of nationalism and the need for cooperation in a crowded continent. “European” is a way of doing things, a constant effort to understand others and compromise, to smooth polarisation.’

Can we continue to support this idea, without having any direct involvement in its realisation? Is it a project that Johnson and his government can in any way, even as outsiders, subscribe to? We will be big losers if we can’t.

Brexit has seen the EU compared to the 16th century Papacy as a malign force. Free trade as Brexiters interpret it and free trade following the Repeal of the Corn Laws have also had an airing, as if there were a relevant connection. And recently we’ve had comparisons between the gloom about Britain’s future after losing our American colonies and pessimism about our future post-Brexit. If we were wrong to be gloomy back then, then we are wrong to be gloomy now. The logic is overwhelming…  That misuse, misreading, of history, is one of the troubling aspects of the new Tory dispensation.

[20th December]  USA: how will our relations with the USA evolve over the next five years? Does any of this matter? There is a little discussed instinctual divide in the UK – between those who are natural, for good or ill, Europeans, and those who feel more attuned to the American way of life. Johnson claimed in 2016 that he could sing Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth, with the best of us. But that’s not the point. We’re endlessly doused with American popular culture. Not the high-brow stuff. And the American economy is a gung-ho unregulated paradise, isn’t it? Tory free traders have no choice but to love America: all other boats are burnt. A tilt to America is certain to happen: how blatant it is, how much we have to toady to Trump, we will see. And if a Democratic president gets elected next November… well, that will be interesting.

[2nd January]  The American election primaries are about to get underway. I reference a Californian friend in her Christmas letter. She hopes that the hit taken by a hard-left-dominated Labour in our election will get through to an American left seeking to secure the nomination for an Elizabeth Warren, or someone of similar opinions. If the left comes over scary then centrist opinion might yet plump for Trump.

[2nd January]  Defence: where does the recent announcement of the sale of the British defence company, Cobham (aerial refuelling an area where they are world leaders), to the American company Advent fit in the scheme of things? ‘It came [quoting The Times] after Advent proposed a series of legal undertakings designed to mitigate potential national security concerns, including protecting sensitive government information, and giving notice to the government of future sale plans.’ Rarely have I read anything less convincing. (Expressions like ‘mitigate’, and ‘giving notice’.) It is the business secretary, the redoubtable Andrea Leadsom, who announced the deal. Not, note, the defence secretary. Business, to be entirely cynical, comes first. But does it matter if the long-term plan is to tie our defence ever-more-closely to the USA? France and other European nations may see the advantage of an alternative EU defence establishment given an increasingly untrustworthy transatlantic partner. But not the UK of Boris Johnson.

[14th January]  The UK sits on the fence over the USA taking out  Qassem Soleimani. Johnson hedges over support for the Iran agreement of which, with the USA, the UK, France and Germany were co-signatories. ‘Mr Johnson said the Iran nuclear agreement should be scrapped and replaced with a superior “Trump deal” – as he shrugged off being shut out of the decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani.’ (Independent)

Agriculture: Michael Gove had big ideas as Environment Secretary for a subsidy scheme based around environmental impact rather than acreage of land under cultivation. How this works out now we shall see. The polluter pays principle would be a useful one to enshrine in policy – big farmers/landowners would take a hit. On the other hand sheep farmers and the Welsh rural economy could also be hit hard. I rate Gove’s competence, though not always his ideas – thinking back to his time as Education Secretary. He is of course no longer in charge of agriculture… The jury has to be out on this one. Fishing: there will be a big squabble between the EU and the UK.

Defence [2]: I mentioned above that Cummings wants to take on the generals and military establishment on policy and procurement. With two hugely over-cost mega-sized aircraft carriers … the American strike fighters (with problems of their own) which fly from the carriers not yet delivered … and only three destroyers available to defend the carriers when even the six there should be might not be enough given the capabilities of the long-range missiles both the Russians and Chinese have in development  … You can see his point. If Cummings can help Johnson make better sense of our defences then they will both deserve serious accolades. That is a very big ‘if’. But better the Tories on defence than Labour, who would have been clueless.

Civil service: Cummings also wants to take on the Civil Service. We can all agree that tenures for both politicians as secretaries of state and civil servants as department heads can be too short. We need expertise. But as Matthew Parris and others have pointed out, the difficulties lie more with politicians. The Civil Service has to advise on what’s feasible and what can indeed be actually implemented. The argument is worth making, but Cummings, I fear, is showing off.

Climate change: no such qualification on climate change. Can we have any confidence in the Tories? Maybe Johnson will blaze a trail, show his centrist, liberal, wide-world-aware credentials. But to his right he has the doubters writing in the Daily Mail and Telegraph: the British public we’re told just won’t wear all the disruption that would follow from serious engagement with climate change. Business, a Telegraph writer argued, is taking the lead – when it is increasing pressure from public opinion that’s driving business. Yes, the government is committed to zero net emissions by 2050. But we need to be radically engaged as of now. Carbon trading, support for countries at risk from sea level rise, tighter targets all round. The big issues left unresolved in Madrid recently.  

And what of conservation? The decline of species as mankind penetrates ever further into the last recesses of nature. And the other big issues of our time, closely related to climate and habitat – population growth, migration, and associated resource depletion. Are we now in the hands of a government and ministers who are at the ‘technology can handle it’ end of the spectrum? Trust technology to find a way. Whatever the cost. Or will they seek to take the lead on the world stage – and in Glasgow, at the next climate conference, next autumn. Have no truck with Trump.

There’s one big issue I haven’t mentioned. It could dominate the headlines in a year of two’s time. Scottish independence – the possibility of another vote. If Johnson refuses, how will the SNP, how will an all-SNP city like Glasgow, respond? Scotland wants of course to stay in the EU. As does Northern Ireland: the Irish border may become a big issue sooner rather than later, as for the Northern Irish closer relations with the Irish Republic come to seem a better option than a dysfunctional GB.

And finally, what about values, about who we are as people? Will we be, as is claimed, as open to the world after Brexit as before? Or will our focus be on self-interest, on narrowly defined UK interest? Will equality of opportunity and capability be core values? Social justice. Social mobility, with all its implications for a balancing of education provision and employment opportunities.  The dignity of every human being, in the poorest corner of our own land and every land. That’s easy to say of course, much harder to act on. But it’s not a bad starting-point. When we put care and compassion ahead of fear and anxiety and a closing of doors.

Citizens of the UK, of Europe and the world. Not for Theresa May, but for millions of us that’s who we are. And will remain, EU member state or not. That will for me the ultimate criterion. How we, and how I as a citizen, fulfil each of these roles.

Tory debate debacle

We will shortly have a new leader of the Tory party, and they will be our new prime minister.

I watched part of the Tory leadership contenders’ debate last night. I was expecting little and got less. Their answers to the climate change question were abysmal. The question the 15-year-old girl asked was about zero emissions by 2025, not 2050. They didn’t get close to answering it. They never mentioned 2025. They were obsessed with parading what they’d already done. The only urgency was Brexit. At all costs.

Rory Stewart said the format didn’t suit him. He to my mind fared better than the others. But he too got drawn in to the squabblers’ den. Appealing to 160,000 Tory members (they are rushing to join, apparently, so they can vote), all more or less ancient and affluent, when the winner will have a country of 67 million to govern.

(For more on the party membership, see below.  They have lost all reason, and so maybe it’s not surprising that their aspiring leaders have too.)

The five contenders showed no signs of appreciating the simple absurdity of their position. What is lacking is, in one word, awareness – and, closely related, self-awareness. A simple awareness that ego, the obsession with getting across your own views, your own somehow superior identity, is the pathway of fools. The awareness that seeking after something permanent, beyond challenge, a one-time panacea for all our ills, is a blind alley. Blind alleys are not safe places.

To invite chaos, as Brexit does, or simply fail to recognise the urgencies of our times, in the case of climate change and the natural environment, is unforgivable.

Buddhists, for whom non-self, or non-ego, and impermanence are simply part of life (in no way are they beliefs, they are the way life is), also focus on dukkha, often translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’ (also as ‘suffering’, but that has overly negative connotations) – not getting what we want, and too often getting what we don’t want. There is much talk out there of a post-Brexit disruption giving the country opportunities to set off in a new direction. The one guarantee is that the direction the country takes will not be that which they would wish upon it.

Before we slag them all off… The politician’s job is a tough one. The toughest, if they really want to get it right.  Many do have that self-awareness. Making enterprise and compassion their watchwords, and their perspective the whole wide world  looking out and not in. Getting that right isn’t so damned difficult, is it?

Policy will always be a challenge, and a nightmare. But get your head and your heart in the right place, and you’re in the right place to start. Yes, that’s stating the obvious. But it’s the obvious that so lacking among the Tory leadership candidates – and indeed the whole charabanc on board behind them.

* From today’s Independent (Tom Peck):

The latest day of fun in the Tory psychodrama was coloured by a poll on Tuesday morning, that showed that more than 50 per cent of the Conservative party’s membership do not care if Brexit destroys the Conservative party. More than  60 per cent don’t care if it hammers the UK economy and breaks up the union with Scotland or Northern Ireland. 

 

Climate change – just another news story?

‘At what point will we realise that the world we see on our TVs is actually our world – and that it is time to act?’

I was on London’s South Bank last Thursday, and realised something extraordinary was happening on Waterloo Bridge. I’d chanced on the Extinction Rebellion protest. As an infrequent visitor to London these days, I was taken by surprise – unlike most people in central London, who’d found not only Waterloo Bridge blocked, but also Parliament Square and, famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), with a pink boat, Oxford Circus.

I climbed over the crash barrier – wanting to enquire rather than directly participate. To find out more.  Warm weather helped. Trees and greenery had been brought in, a band was playing quietly (yes, quietly) and under an awning one of the organisers proffered advice on dealing with journalists and possible arrest to younger questioners.

For they were young, the protestors. Theirs is indeed the future. They have a claim on it, which we – we older folk – do not. It’s the point which the Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, has been making so eloquently. And we can’t, surely, just brush it off as another example of youthful high spirits and idealism.

The key aims of Extinction Rebellion? ‘The Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, … and act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.’

The upside: shaking us out of our lethargy regarding the consequences of climate change, and highlighting the action that must be taken to arrest it. (Whether or not a 2025 target is realistic, the aim is to shock.) The downside: commuter traffic has been seriously disrupted, and businesses and shops have suffered as a consequence.

Which side am I on? Are we on?

Section of the press would have it that the protestors are all middle-class hippies. The Daily Mail has printed pictures of the organisers’ homes in Stroud. Billionaire media owners are the beneficiaries of the status quo: yes, climate change may (just about) be real but responsibility is down to us as individuals. Plastic bags and the like. Governments, where lies the power to push through radical change, are off the hook.  

Readers of the Mail and Express and Telegraph, redoubtable papers all, are protected species in all this – protected from the imperatives of climate change. Given that reality, what choice do the protestors have but to put themselves out there?

So back to that question. What about us?

Are we prepared, as over a thousand were, to be arrested? Or is our support at second hand – we’ll argue their case (‘their’ case, not ours) and their corner, but we won’t join the front line. Or we’ll aver our support for action, but decry radical means to achieve it. (And thereby play into the hands of climate change deniers?)

There’s a rather dubious statistic doing the rounds. 3.5% of the population (only 3.5% …) committed to your cause and the momentum for radical change will be irreversible. I don’t buy this. But there is another tipping-point – beyond which we can’t avoid taking sides.

I’d like to think that could be now. I’m not going to rush to be arrested. But I know which side I’m on.

That same Thursday, 18th April, at 8pm, David Attenborough silenced any who question his commitment to action with his BBC TV programme, Climate Change: The Facts. No-one watching could be in any doubt about the terrible consequences of global warming. The facts as he described are brutal.

To repeat my opening line:

At what point will we realise that the world we see on TV is actually our world – and that it is time to act?

There can be no compromise

The Financial Times recently headlined warnings from leading economists about the dangers of Brexit. I expected something more forthright when I read the article. They were hedging their bets, not, I imagine, wishing to be caught out when things do not work out quite as they forecast.

The muddle-through-to-a-glorious-future approach has few supporters among economists. But simply muddling through, without the expectation of any glorious future, seems to be a currency shared by many among both economists and the wider population.

For me, and millions like me, opposition goes much deeper, and in the event of any kind of Brexit our opposition to a departure from the EU will remain as virulent as now, until such time as circumstances oblige us to re-establish the connection we have so rashly thrown overboard.

For reasons, as I see them, read on. Feel free to add, or subtract.

historical (1): fly solo at your peril, build don’t tear down alliances – never over-estimate your power or position in the world, or assume that past prestige guarantees future influence – never draw empty parallels, one example being the specious argument that the UK leaving the EU is a re-run of England versus Rome in the 1530s;

historical (2): the bond created over seventy years of peace and cooperation since World War Two isn’t one to be lightly set aside;

political: it may or may not be that, under Trump, a transactional, case-by-case approach to policy will work for the USA, but a smaller country, and the UK is a smaller country, holds few cards – self-interest not charity among partner countries will always prevail – negotiations involve unpalatable trade-offs, a blank slate is no place to start – always build from strong foundations, with plans in place for all eventualities – bluster is no substitute for hard graft;

economic: on what basis could we ever assume that the EU would agree that we can take out (i.e. trade) we do now, without putting back (financially and in other respects) at a level comparable to current levels? – that we can somehow reverse gravity theory and its thesis that our closest neighbours are our best and favoured trading partners? –  that the theory of comparative advantage, whereby we all specialise in those areas where we have advantages not shared by others, could ever deliver other than diminished returns and destruction of existing industries, not least because we would be inviting in tariff-free products from a world which is unlikely to reciprocate?;

philosophical: for many a vote for Brexit was simply a vote for change, a plague on all your houses, but change rarely delivers what we expect, and that applies especially to change as little planned and falsely argued as Brexit – the frequently peddled and spurious notion that there is some kind of a contract between government and governed, which begs the question of what’s in the contract, who wrote it, and who are the ‘people’ – how democracy functions is a fundamental question, see next item, and flawed concepts do not help;

democratic: decisions must be reversible, and are best handled by elected and representative assemblies, referenda being the favoured tool of those who wish to bribe and manipulate, or as happened in the Brexit vote promote a specious ‘free trade’ agenda on the back of hyped-up panic about immigration, that of itself an example of how a critical issue can be radically mis-represented;

humane: rules and regulations exist to protect the working population, not as some would have it for their own sake, and future trade deals will allow minimal change from what we have already have;

humanitarian: we are all citizens of the world, as well as the UK and Europe, by definition, a simple and to my mind ontological truth – what we can bring to the world, not how best we can hide behind borders, should be our focus, and we can drive that worldwide agenda far better through the EU;

environmental: as ‘humanitarian’ above, working together with people in other countries, pushing a climate change agenda, exercising influence on the US and China which we could never do on our own;

judicial: the rule of law must always be above politics, a notion that has been unwisely challenged in some quarters;

sovereignty: we have greater sovereignty as part of a wider body wielding influence in a US/China/EU dominated world, than a supposedly greater say on our own – ‘taking back control’ is a fiction whereby we lose much more than we gain;

demographic: where comes our uniqueness as a nation: from closed borders, from excluding foreigners? – the opposite has always been, and should always be, the case;

influence: why leave the forum through which are influence has been most effectively spread and felt around the world in recent times? – any more than we should leave the United Nations on the grounds of poor performance – we will effect change by working on the inside, rather than gesture politics on the outside;

reform: expanding on the idea of influence, there are vast issues out there in the world which British pragmatism and ingenuity can help solve, but we will do that as insiders, pulling levers, arguing in corners, never by grand-standing;

pragmatism: implicit in all the above, but worth separating out – pragmatism is what has always defined us as a nation, which is why so many beyond these shores are astonished to see so many in our land practising the politics of division – and badmouthing the institution with which they’re negotiating, and yet anticipating a happy outcome … curious indeed;

reputation: why be taken as fools, as we are being already, and risk being taken as greater fools, with our new friends the Republican right, the supporters of Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy….

The flag of St George turned into a jingoistic banner cannot be the way forward for this country (for sure, it can’t be for Scotland, or for Northern Ireland, and, despite a majority voting for Brexit, for the population of Wales). With sanity and pragmatism we can avoid fracture now, not least territorial. Without it the battle-lines will remain, and skirmishes and worse continue, for many years to come.

Hay Book Festival 2018 – Philippe Sands

The Hay Festival, as always, delivers. Tuesday (29th May) was a warm and cloudy day, shirt-sleeves after midday, which means the fair can be an outdoor as well as in-tent affair, and that always helps.

My first stop was Philippe Sands. His title, ‘Words, Memory and Imagination – 1945 and Today’. The title didn’t entice. It was enough that it was Philippe Sands.  What follows are expanded notes I took during his talk, with a few interpolations of my own.

Sands recounts the story behind his book, East-West Street, on which I’ve posted before. East-West Street is a street in a then Polish (now Ukrainian) town where his Jewish grandfather’s family had lived for centuries. He discovers how his grandfather’s life intertwined with that of Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, two great lawyers and key figures  behind modern, and recent, notions of the pre-eminence of human rights, genocide,  crimes against humanity, and limitations on state sovereignty.  They studied at the same university in Lvov as Sands’ grandfather.   

Sands has spoken about the book on many occasions before. This time he puts it in the context of a letter to his friend Ahmet Altan, a Turkish novelist recently sentenced to life imprisonment by a Turkish court. ‘My dear friend, Ahmet,’ he says from time to time, as if his talk is addressing him directly.

[I’m adding here Ahmet’s own words before his trial: ‘I am writing these words from a prison cell … But wait. Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me listen to what I will tell you … They may have the power to imprison me but no one has the power to keep me in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not.’]

Why, Sands asks, did his book, East-West Street, appeal to so many?  

1] We like in the context of the big picture small details which we can connect to. Often those small details have a personal connection.   

One such is that Richard Strauss (a favourite composer for many of us) composed a song for Hans Frank in 1943. Frank as Hitler’s controller in Poland was directly responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. He was a fine musician, a classically-trained pianist.  

2] The issues surrounding identity, so brutal in his grandfather’s time, and still so powerful today, across Europe and America – only a few brave Federal judges stopped a complete ban on all Muslins entering America. The assumption that someone who is a stranger to me must also be my enemy. 

3] More broadly, the connection to our own time. The authoritarian regimes of the 1930s, and the rules-based order that established itself after 1945, and how that order is under threat.

Hinterland – we all have our hinterland, and for writers it’s out of that that comes our writing. Ahmet has his readers, Sands has his. 

(What it would feel like to be incarcerated? That’s what I asked myself. And for life? For only speaking words… That’s what I asked myself as Sands spoke.)

Ahmet takes great delight in knowing his readers are still out there, he feels it like ‘a cloud touching his face’, as he put it, or something similar. Sands had to be taken through eight locked doors to meet him. He was Ahmet’s first visitor: his wife is only allowed to talk to him, on the phone, every two weeks. Sands gets to see him (and Ahmet’s brother, also incarcerated, who ‘only wanted to talk about globalisation’) in person. He’s representing the international court in The Hague, that’s how he gets access.  

Ahmet smuggles writings out. He and Sands meet and laugh at the absurdity of his situation. He’s lost weight – he has weights to work out with. (Where does civilised life begin, where end?) 

Ahmet implied that money moved out, and moved in, or something similar – enough to suggest someone high up was taking their cut. That was enough.

Judges – Appeal Court judges – are ‘enemies of the people’, in the Daily Mail’s language. Compare the UK and Turkey, where judges serve the president. Is this what the Mail would like? Remember we are the country who with the USA provided the leading lawyers at the Nuremberg trials. We established the European Convention on Human Rights, which Theresa May would now have us leave. ‘Citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere,’ she insisted. Does she, Sands asks, really understand what she’s talk about? (How much was she simply being fed lines by her team?) Compare also Boris Johnson’s reference to ‘half-Kenyan Obama’, as his explanation for Obama’s attitude to Brexit UK. Africans ‘with melon smiles’ – Johnson’s words. ‘Piccaninnies.’ And it’s he who represents us.

Johnson and May welcome Turkish president Erdogan a few days ago: the talk was only of trade, not the fate of novelists, teachers and journalists. We no longer have influence in the world, not least because we need trade deals too much – our trading partners know that.

The Chagos Islands – we lost a UN vote last year on whether or not the islanders have a right to return, which the our own Supreme Court has asserted they do not. Our main European allies abstained rather than support us. The case will now be referred to the International Court of Justice. And as for the ICJ – after ninety years of being represented there we now have no judge. It’s powerful evidence of our declining influence.  

Regarding Brexit, Sands believes the best we can hope for, and the likely outcome, is a Norway-style agreement – single market etc, but no influence. The idea that we could use arbitration effectively instead of the European Court of Justice is absurd. Arbitration at an international level, which is a specialist area for Sands, is both slow and unpredictable. 

Thousands of people have written to Sands. The Scotsman who voted yes to the union, but no wonders whether he wants to stay in an isolationist UK? How would he vote now?

Are we facing a breakdown of the post-1945 rules-based order? Ahmet still has hope. Turkey is not done for yet. But, worldwide, authoritarian and identity-focused politics are an ever-more-powerful threat. Europe and America need to take the lead, but is there out there a clearly expressed alternative scenario? Compare the current edition of the Economist on the subject of the Democrats in the USA. The Democrats are strong on race and gender issues, but what is their position on the America First agenda, resentments toward the rest of the world, trade with China, blue collar jobs, immigration – the agenda which helped Trump win the election? How can the Democrats regain some of that support which went to Trump?

How shallow is the support for Trump? Salman Rushdie in an interview later in the day at Hay recalled addressing a meeting in Florida recently. They were mostly Republicans, but they were civilised and courteous. ‘Didn’t he agree that the New York Times was simply telling lies?’ No. ‘The evidence for climate change is simply not there.’ But it is, argued Rushdie. ‘Where’s the evidence?’ he’s asked. His answer – just because you believe the world is flat, doesn’t mean that it is flat – it will still be round.  

Sands received a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Maybe from two-thirds of the audience. His talk was one hour long, no time for questions. Applause lasted at least a minute – maybe more like ninety seconds – I’ve never known anything like it at Hay.

And yet – for a couple chatting next to me as I left – ‘it didn’t seem to be going anywhere,’ he argued, though it did have a clearer focus at end. His partner agreed. Yes, Sands does range widely – but he never loses coherence.  It’s funny how what might seem heroic to me might be a matter of a shrug and indifference to others.

The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Never moving from a small patch of land…

Ten days of silence, no communication, ten days to meditate, and inbetween times to think a little.

The site must once have been a small farm, and on its eastern edge there’s a delightful patch of mixed woodland, and over the ten days I watched the leaf canopy reduce, and the leaf cover and mulch underfoot increase. The wind caught the birches rising above the canopy, and the sycamores and the beeches still held their colour. One morning the first rays of sun poured into the woodland from across the valley below the wood, and the beeches glowed, and a redbreast hopped in alongside me as I stood, motionless for ten minutes, watching, and there was a brilliant moment of colour when it turned to face the sun.

All the while the moon was waxing, from a crescent to full (the moon closer and therefore larger than at any time since 1947 I learnt afterwards) and I could just catch sight of Venus above the horizon as an evening star. Bed at 9pm. We were up at 4am, and Orion, Sirius and all the winter stars were brilliant, a crust and crunch of frost underfoot. Meditate for two hours, then breakfast at 6.30, and if the morning was bright back again to the woods.

A clearing gave big views of the sky, and vapour trails snaked across, the silver of the planes just visible as they began their descents to Heathrow and maybe Birmingham. To the west, a line of low hills, all meadow, green, a patch of woodland or two, and beyond I knew more open fields and the Black Mountains. And silence. I couldn’t even hear church bells. That puzzled me. Where were the villages? Curiously leaving on the Sunday I drove past Llanwarne, not more than a mile or two away, and the hollow shell of its parish church. (Abandoned in the 1860s because of constant flooding.) No bells ringing there.

My paths never varied over the ten days, and I picked up on all the nuances of the weather. No forecasts of course. But the wind backing south-easterly I knew probably meant rain would come the following days, even if the sky was blue and the sun brilliant at that moment. And the rain came. I felt like the farmers of old must have done, knowing what wind and wisps of cloud might presage for my small patch of land.

Meditations and musings, quiet perambulations, mealtimes where we observed noble silence – silence of body, speech and mind. So maybe I allowed myself too much licence with my musings. But watching weather and landscape I was, I think we all were, in the moment, and while the meditation could be hard, and the hours strict, my thoughts were gentle, and my burden was light….

All Hallows

Yesterday was All Hallows’ Eve, which makes today All Saints’ Day. Yesterday was also in warm and brilliant sunshine the last day of autumn (by my calculations anyway!) – the autumn colours burnt in the sun as I’ve rarely seen them, a multitude of shades, with their own luminescence – as if they didn’t need the sun to make them glow. Today is the first day of winter – the cloud is down on the hills, there’s a chill, the fire must be lit soon, and the leaves are thick on the ground. I raked them in the sunshine yesterday, but they’ve returned, and if I rake again, this time in the damp and gloom, they will return again, until the last one has fallen and I can put the rake away.

Yes, there’s an elegiac quality to all this. I listened to the adagio from the Elgar violin concerto driving back along the A419 heading toward the Cotswolds yesterday. That caught the mood. I knew this was the last day, the last of autumn, and there were not two hours till sunset.

The day before I’d listened to David Mellor on Classic FM, playing music from the Philharmonia under Otto Klemperer. A recording of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony when the great conductor was already in his 80s. He took it slowly. About the same time the recording was made I was, I remember, at a party at Professor Gombrich’s house. Ernst Gombrich was my professor at the Warburg Institute. Frau Gombrich mentioned they were going to hear Otto the following day. Otto being Klemperer. All with Viennese Jewish backgrounds, and the connections were still strong.

Klemperer had been recommended sixty  years before by Gustav Mahler (also that Jewish connection) to an orchestral position, and I felt my own connection listening to the final ecstatic bars of the symphony to Klemperer and Mahler. Almost a laying on of hands. Ridiculous in its way, but the music took me to another level. Triumphant – but also elegiac, and intensely moving.

Mahler died young, and two world wars had to work themselves out before Klemperer stood before the Philharmonia in the late 1960s.

I’ve felt betrayed by events this year – my values betrayed, values by which I’ve conducted by life over almost seventy years. The autumn leaves, the music, a sense of loss I wouldn’t ordinarily indulge. But I did this time, this once, just this once.

Norwegian wood 

And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown/ So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, norwegian wood? (Norwegian Wood, The Beatles, Rubber Soul)

One surprise Christmas bestselling book in the UK has been ‘Norwegian Wood’, which has the great virtue of being exactly what it says on the tin, or the book cover, ‘chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way’, and more particularly, the Norwegian way.

I knew I must have a copy. Why? In my partner Hazel’s Cotswold home there’s a woodburning stove, and a stack of wood outside, under cover, partly seasoned – that is, partly dried, and I have the regular and rather enjoyable task of bringing it inside and keeping the log basket by the lounge fire well-filled. Sometimes the wood – I believe it’s all local beech (though we have some old indeterminate wood recycled from the rebuilding of the house next door) – flames up and lights the room, and we damp it down, and the room warms quickly, other times it’s slow and we open the vents and still it’s reluctant to flame. It has a mind of its own. But then of course  – it doesn’t.

Read Lars Mytting’s book and all will be revealed. Wood as a highly practical activity, but also pastime, mindset, lifestyle, craft and (check out some of the woodpiles illustrated in the book) art form.

‘Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.’ (Henry Thoreau, by Walden Pond, in the 1850s.)

I remember my step-mother’s father, in his 70s by the time I knew him, building his woodpile along a garden path facing south, several hundred feet above Lake Lucerne, where his family had lived for generations. The woodpile may also have been there for generations. I was 13 years old, and impressed. I watched a total lunar eclipse from the same path, the woodpile, maybe I should call it a woodpath, behind me, the lake below, the mountains reaching up beyond, and the moon a deepening shade of red above.

‘The ideal way to dry wood is to stack it as loosely as possible.’ 

Keep the surface exposed to wind and sunlight. ‘Logs dry best when the surface contact between them is minimal.’ And I love this quote:

‘In Norway, discussions about the vexed question of whether logs should be stacked with the bark facing up or down have marred many a christening and spoiled many a wedding when wood enthusiasts are among the guests.’

There’s the sun-wall woodpile, the firewood wall, the round stack, cord stacking, the closed square pile – just a few of the stacking options.  There’s a wonderful photo in the book of a stack in the shape of a fish.

‘Splitting the wood is the part of the job Arne enjoys most.’ (Arne Fjeld, quoted by Mytting.)

And there’s sawing and chopping and splitting, though all are pretty much denied me. I don’t have a chainsaw, or a trailer, and that’s what you need in the Norwegian birch woods. But I do have memories of hand- and felling-axes from my Boy Scout days. How did we get away then with wielding such dangerous items? I loved the big felling-axe, lifting it up and bringing it down from well above my head, sliding my hand down the shaft, the smooth and mighty downstroke.

‘I don’t think people in the old days had a particularly personal or romantic attitude toward wood.’ (Arne Fjeld again)

These days it’s different, in England as well as Norway. Wood is a source of comfort, where once it was simply a matter of life and death over the long winter months. Piling and chopping and feeding the flames are these days recreation as well as necessity.

‘Wood is best when dried quickly.’

Drying gets conversations going. Cut trees down in the winter or spring, before the sap rises (and fungus and mould can’t get established in the cold) and let the wood dry during the summer for next winter use. And keep the leaves on! Strip the bark in two or three places and let the logs breathe. All apparently arcane but in reality hard, practical and close-to-the earth advice. (But not too close to earth – stack your wood off the ground.)

But many argue that you should leave it two summers. I guess it has much to do with space and time (a touch of relativity here): if you’re well set up, as a Norwegian farmer would be, then one summer’s drying may be enough.

‘Wood is the simplest form of bioenergy there is.’

Each wood burns in its own way, but what matters in the end is the density. An oak log will generate 60% more heart than an alder log of the same size, but ‘pound for pound (they) produce the same amount of heat’. The hardest wood makes the best firewood, but quick-burning woods may well be better for chilly early or late winter days.  Mix them with a harder wood of beech or oak.  For kindling use pinewood or twigs from deciduous trees. And there’s coppicing: ‘birch can have a rotation period of fifteen to twenty years and more.’

You can calculate how many kilowatt-hours of energy a tree can produce, and put a financial value on it.

Birch is ‘queen of the Norwegian forest’, not least because it grows tall and straight, with obvious advantages for felling and stacking. Ash is tough and strong, and ‘regenerates from the stool, and therefore is ideally suited for coppicing’. It’s also, for many cultures, Yggdrasil, the tree of life, so the symbolism as well as the reality of the threat from ash dieback is powerful. Green pine is almost impossible to burn.

I remember as a Boy Scout going on many a ‘woodfag’, and building fires for cooking that sometimes flourished and sometimes struggled. And with them the evening stew, and the immediate welfare of the small patrol of four boys in my charge. I’d have done well to know more about the kinds of wood I was collecting. But I do remember – we didn’t starve. The main criterion then as now is – collect dry wood. If you can break it with your hands, or it breaks easily under the axe, that’s what matters.

‘… thick woollen socks hung up to dry dripped and hissed onto the woodstove.’

Back to Gersau on Lake Lucerne, and my Swiss step-grandparents’ house on the hillside. Everything was wood-fired and there was a fine traditional stove in the sitting-room. (The earth closet extended a long way down into the ground, and was regularly emptied into a neighbouring field. But that’s another story!)

Modern clean-burning stoves compared to old-fashioned stoves have an extra supply of heated air. There are different kinds of stove: closed iron, soapstone, kitchen, tiered, tiled …. each with its own story. In so many areas of life we have lost touch with story, or we have story without history. Wood in Mytting’s hands, beneath his axe, is all about story, all about history.

‘Even in oil-rich Norway an astonishing 25% of the energy used to heat private homes comes from wood.’

Here in the UK woodstoves will never be a way of life as they are in Scandinavia. We’ll never have stacks of wood decorating our landscape. But as one source within an energy mix of renewables, with renewables part of wider mix of oil, gas, coal, nuclear, with the former growing as the latter diminish, wood could have a big future. Time is on its side, as stoves become more efficient, and if we take on board all the wisdom in Mytting’s book renewable woods might be more part of our own landscape, and carefully planned they wouldn’t need to be the scars on the landscape that pine forests have been.

And finally, there’s a poem I wrote a poem (The Woodman) two years ago, inspired by the sound of someone chopping one early morning, and that’s how I’ll end:

Across the field the woodman drags/ The log he would reduce with axe/ Raised high above his head it falls/ A wrench of sound breaks the still/ Of morning and there’s a rhythm/ As each repeated stroke is given/ A little extra force or thrust 

For he who cuts alone would still be best/ Of all the woodmen, though no-one knows/ But he how so sharp blade so cold/ Could cut to such design/ Or how he to such contracted space/ Could aim his axe and lay to waste/ In single moments a century of time