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!

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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?

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‘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.

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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?

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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.

Returning from the other side of the world …

Returning from two weeks away on the other side of the world (Chile) helps bring the reality of British politics into still sharper focus. Above all, the simple and basic incompatibility of referenda and parliamentary democracy. And the utter absurdity of our current politics. When an idea as ill-formed and unsuited to the task as Brexit is treated as immutable disaster inevitably awaits.

Europe before 2016 was a low priority among voters. Wild promises, a billionaire-owned right-wing press, and a presumption that equal time to argue a case (a prerequisite of a referendum) equates to equal merit in argument, turned it into the issue of our time. Attempts by a lunatic fringe (is ‘lunatic’ unfair?) of the Tory party dating back to the immediate post-Thatcher era have crystallised in the activities of the European Research Group, and the party is now split between free-traders who supped at Ayn Rand’s table at university and have never grown up (the student right and student left have much in common), and an overly-loyal mainstream which has allowed itself to be pulled right with hardly a protest. ‘One Nation’ Tories have been left stranded.

In one-time Attorney-General Dominic Grieve’s words, ‘Most oddly [Brexit] has been demanded by Conservative Leavers in the name of restoring “traditional” government… Yet to achieve all this [supposedly ‘restoring parliamentary sovereignty’] they demand that the principles of democratic representative government should be abandoned.’ (Prospect, March 2019)

The mainstream support for Mrs May is craven. (Again, is ‘craven’ unfair? How measured should we be in our language, where the reality out there is so dire?) However inadequate to the task the Chequers statement, and however inferior the EU withdrawal agreement is to our current arrangements, party members fall into line. Loyalty to the leadership comes too naturally, and a presumption that others ultimately know better than they do, a uniquely Tory form of deference, are part of the party DNA. The leadership is pulled to the right, and party members are only too happy to move with it. One Nation Tories might as well be in a different party.

Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen, all of whom resigned from the party last month, faced up to that reality. In their resignation statement they referred to a ‘redefinition’ of the Conservative Party, ‘undoing all the efforts to modernise it’ …. ‘a dismal failure to stand up to the hard line of the ERG’ … a shift to the right ‘exaggerated by blatant entryism’.

‘We haven’t changed, the Conservative Party has … we find it unconscionable that a party once trusted on the economy is now recklessly marching the country to the cliff edge of no deal.’

Dominic Grieve is on the same wing of the party, but more a traditionalist. ‘Pray that we may be quietly governed’ are words from the Prayer Book which to his mind should apply to government as well. His instinct is to intervene less, where others believe that ‘some shaking up and disruption can be beneficial to furthering social progress’. (Beautifully phrased!) But ‘quiet government’ is no longer policy. ‘The Conservative Party has a problem. It is no longer conservative.’

Grieve does, however, show a little more sympathy than Soubry and her colleagues toward Mrs May, ‘whose career has been intimately bound up with the grassroots of party membership’. (All the more reason to show leadership, one might argue.) Some may predict the Conservatives will break up as a party, but ‘I certainly have nowhere else to go’. Whether that might preclude him from resigning the whip and becoming an independent Conservative, who knows.

So what about the other side of the Tory argument? Not quite the ERG wing, but those more inclined to be libertarian that interventionist?

Altruism and opportunity, working together, are core to the beliefs of Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, as an article in Prospect magazine (March 2019) makes clear. Both wings of the party, and most of the electorate, could connect with that.

And yet … Javid still reads the courtroom scene from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead ‘twice a year’. The Fountainhead, as anyone following American politics will know, is notorious.  In the courtroom scene Howard Roark asserts that ‘the man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves…’ ‘The “common good” of a collective… [was] the claim and justification of every tyranny that was ever established over men.’

Nelson Mandela nonetheless is Javid’s hero, and he accepts more of a role for government (in house building, for example) than he once did. ‘Altruism is one of the reasons I’m in government – the most important part of my job is to help those who find it hard to help themselves.’ On the other hand his driving purpose is ‘opportunity’. Government, taxation, regulation can all get in the way, so less of the first two, and smarter versions of the third.

Where does this leave us? With the idea that pursuing opportunity for yourself you create opportunities for others … You may feel for others, but acts of kindness toward them are not always in their best interest. … We all (privilege or parenting notwithstanding) have the same start in life.

That is, of course, a massive over-simplification. But somewhere here lies that key distinction between One-Nation Tories and the libertarian, Randian wing. Javid hovers between the two.

The old pre-2016 Tory party could accommodate both sides, just as long as they accommodated to each other. That tolerance of difference has been shattered by Brexit. The likes of Javid are, when it goes up to the wire, instinctively closer to the ERG, Soubry and company to that One Nation tradition.

Theresa May who studied geography needs that discipline (a better word than subject) laced, as it should be for all good geographers, with the wisdom of history. She’d then appreciate how the democracy and parliament in British history are inextricably intertwined. The notion of accountability in parliament is our single greatest contribution to peace and prosperity across the world. To try to wind the threads in a different way, and to assert that, whatever the circumstances, she has to deliver on the result of the referendum – they are foolish acts.  Where the foolish tread there is surely, and I’m thinking of both party members and supporters, no need to follow.

Ten years on

Ten years ago I was full of optimism.

More to the forefront than ever was our common identity, as human beings – coloured, black or white, male or female, or what or whoever they might be.

There might I thought come a time when love and compassion could be mentioned more readily in everyday discourse, without raising cynical hackles.

Zen with its focus on living in the present, and not in imagined pasts or impossible futures, might have something to teach us.

The personal would naturally elide into the social, and the political. The local into the big picture. Society would be more just, more open, and liberal democracy more firmly rooted.

I still have my optimism. But it’s tougher road to travel.

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Ten years on my starting-point remains the same – the innate sense of justice and compassion which lies within each of us. Violence is the distraction. For Thomas Hobbes, favourite political philosopher of many, on the other hand, violence is the reality, society a necessary construct to allow social values space to operate.

I’m arguing we should take compassion as the reality, and build out from there.

It’s hard to imagine the practice of compassion beginning at the top, with government, though it would be wonderful if it did. Its natural launch pad is the family, from which it extends out into neighbourhood, into local institutions, school, colleges, local government. Identification with neighbourhood is key. But identity too easily becomes exclusive, narcissistic, intolerant – identity operating against rather than with others. We operate our politics from behind barricades. We don’t talk at bus stops, on street corners, or in pubs. We prefer social media …

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Many see social media as a panacea for all our ills, people coming together. I’d question this.  Coming together is about eye contact, about all the nuances of expression, about changes from moment to moment, about listening more than speaking, about compromise – about the moment, about the instant – about holding hands, walking together, taking in the sky and sunset together – social media offer none of this.

Larry Diamond argued back in 2010 that new digital tools would empower ‘citizens to report news, expose wrongdoing, express opinions, mobilise protest, monitor elections, scrutinise government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom’. The Arab Spring, inspired by social media, followed. And we know what came later.

#MeToo is another matter – it proves how much of a driver for change social media can be. I’m counselling caution, not opposition.

Who are the gatekeepers of social media? We may think the digital world has left the analogue, the old pedestrian face-to-face outmoded and behind the curve. But we should beware. Keyboard democracy has the same instant appeal as referenda, and all the disadvantages, and more. The ‘will of the people’ is unrealisable, because there must always be a question-master, a rule-setter, an interpreter, a judge – whereas representative democracy has the rules, the check and balances, and, for the USA and Europe, the traditions in place.

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Politics is about compromise – it is the art of compromise. And it needs to be personal, and pragmatic. So when we move out of our localities, or our social media space, we need our social spaces to link up to find common ground with each other. We need to look beyond our immediate identities. Find common ground with other groups. Political parties exist for this purpose. They need to be broad churches, where change and compromise are the order of the day. Media which demand positions which are always consistent which never change, are the enemy here.

Political parties aren’t popular. At times they’ve had the world before them – ridden the wave, at other times they’ve turned inward, exclusive – one interest group triumphs, ideologues take over the agenda … I needn’t say more.  But I don’t believe they can be easily substituted. Gauging opinion via social media assumes an entirely open and unmanipulated space out there, and that doesn’t and will never happen.

So, yes, it’s the street corner, the pub, the club, the church – they’re the spaces where we start. With the individual, operating in person and not with a virtual identity. We move up the chain from there, by consultation and election, to representative institutions, places for debate and the exchange of ideas, ultimately to parliament.

There are vast differences of view out there. Conflict and change will remain the order of the day. But let us at least ensure the foundations of our institutions are dug down deep. They don’t belong in a virtual space, they belong in ordinary human contact – moving up and out on to larger stages.

Those institutions well established are our best guarantee that we will reach the right decisions – on identity, immigration, infrastructure, business, welfare, how wealth is distributed, how media should be owned and operate ….

For some what I’ve said here many seem obvious, others may see it as no more than faux sociology. But I’m not attempting here an academic proposition. Rather, no more than to outline the way the personal and political need to link if society is to prosper.

As individuals, while we may lay into politicians, we need to tread carefully railing against institutions. They’ve come about not by accident, but because they worked. Take note of China, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela. Whatever you do with the bathwater, hold on to the baby.

The politics of aid

The press, parliament and the aid agencies

Press and parliament have had a field day damning the aid agencies for their handling of sexual misconduct among their employees – for allowing (that one word is weighted) the exploitation of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

No-one, least of all the agencies (whatever committees of MPs might report), would downplay the issue. But there is another side. As Kevin Watkins (of Save The Children) wrote in the Guardian a story that started out ‘as a report on predatory behaviour by some Oxfam staff in Haiti has transmuted into a crisis of trust, an attack on aid, and a threat to humanitarian action’.

Why does it matter, he asks:

‘That question matters for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. Agencies like Save the Children are a link in the chain between UK public money and the women and children whose lives have been torn apart by humanitarian emergencies. UK aid and public donations mean that we can provide life-saving maternal and child health services for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They enable us to deliver education to Syrian refugees, immunisation to children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and protection to unaccompanied children in South Sudan.’

Last Monday (30th July) a parliamentary committee released a report, which the BBC summed up as follows:

‘The aid sector is guilty of “complacency verging on complicity” over an “endemic” sex abuse scandal, a damning report from MPs has said. Stephen Twigg, chairman of the international development committee, said charities were “more concerned to protect their own reputation”.’

John Humphrys’ interview on the Today programme on Monday morning, just after report was published, gave only a complainant’s story. I believe her story, but the advantage in such interviews, when you have the interviewer’s support, is all with the attack. There’s no place for the defence. Humphry’s, and the BBC’s, approach in such matters is tied to the 24-hours news culture. As it was (and is) with the MPs’ expenses scandal, climate change and Brexit. Reithian values of ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ should be demanded of the headlines and the opening stories as well as the back story.

The BBC still does the back story very well. And I’m not suggesting we should hold back on our anger with aid agencies who fail to address one of the big issues of our time. But they are the ones with the difficult job. Reporting, whether a House of Commons’ committee, or the BBC, comes easy. They don’t have to face the consequences of their actions.

I don’t believe for a moment that the sector is ‘complicit’, or ‘more concerned to protect their own reputation’. They have the hardest job in the world, working with least privileged, in often terrible circumstances. There are sexual offenders wherever adults work with the young or the defenceless or the underprivileged. In children’s homes, in the Catholic church, in aid agencies.

The ‘back story’, the real story in this case, is put well by Kevin Watkins in the same piece in the Guardian: ‘An epidemic has affected institutions across our society… [an] epidemic rooted in the unequal power relationships that enable powerful and predatory men to exploit women and children through bullying, sexual harassment and outright violence. The only antidote is a culture of zero tolerance, backed by rules, recruitment practices, and leadership.’

‘Development agencies cannot get this wrong,’ he continues.  ‘We are dealing with some of the world’s most vulnerable people.’

The news I want to hear is how each agency is handling this issue, not just in terms of codes of conduct or investigations, but in practical terms, on the ground. I will give Kevin Watkins the last word:

‘In Save the Children, we have been working to strengthen our screening systems to keep predators and bullies out of the organisation … How do we stop humanitarian aid workers who violate our values moving from one organisation to another?’

We don’t need the hyperbole, we need people like Kevin Watkins reporting back, keeping us in the loop.

Is reason enough?

(References are to Steven Pinker’s new book, ‘Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress’, and Philip Ball’s excellent review of the book in the March edition of Prospect. Also to Philip Dodd who took on Pinker is a determined interview on the Radio 3 Free Thinking programme.)

A brief weather note to begin. Spring we thought might almost be upon us, but Siberia has chased it away, and the snowdrops are looking a little out of place, and the daffodils have all but gone to earth.

So too reason? And, specifically, the pursuit of reason in political argument and debate?

I’m reading so much about identity, culture wars, anger and estrangement – and now with Steven Picker’s new book, the Enlightenment is in the news. How can I not be a big fan? The rigorous application of reason brought to bear on all aspects of our activities. As advocated by Diderot, author of the Encyclopedie, the seminal text of the Enlightenment.

Sleep of reason

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’, from his series of etchings, Los Caprichos, 1799.

But has the Enlightenment also gone to earth? Pinker thinks not – argues powerfully against.

I’d love to sign up unreservedly to his paean to progress – things are getting better, as the statistics and graphs tell us, incontrovertibly so – we are all living longer, better educated, immeasurably better off if we take the world as a whole. But what troubles me is his ‘aversion to anything subjective’, as Philip Ball puts in his review. Pinker denies religion any role, likewise identity, tribal identity – and that means shared beliefs in progress, humanity, compassion, sometimes God. He has no place for out-there institutions, places of worship, and the collective action they often embody – action against poverty, hardship, exclusion – inspired by and acting out of love. Compassion, as I argued in a post of a few years back, discussing Pinker’s last book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, doesn’t get a look in.

Can reason be enough of itself to triumph over violence?

For Pinker man is ‘born into a pitiless universe [and] shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive’. Only reason can hold out against this. And reason finds expression in democracy as the most effective way to gain traction. Thomas Hobbes had a similar view of mankind, but saw our only hope as lying in contracting with an autocratic ruler. With Xi Jinping seeking president-and-party-leader-for-life status we’ve a good example of that alternative path closer to hand. Turkey likewise, and Hungary and Poland moving in that direction.

Reason simply isn’t enough on its own. It’s not solus reason that’s leading the charge, it’s religion, and reason together, and by religion (a maybe controversial definition!) I mean the exercise – the acting out – of an innate compassion, a rather un-Darwinian concept. Not just the compassion of mother to child, or a care worker to her charges, or a priest or minister toward his congregation, but compassion as an innate moral code that informs the wider political workings of society.

Pinker’s right in there, unworried about his PC status, arguing that the left, supposedly champions of the working-class and the left-behind, has focused too much on issues of sexual and cultural identity – and lost connection with the old working class. Marx is excluded from the pantheon but Hobbes indeed is one of the good guys. Fascinating as intellectual debate, but where is the connection with the everyday?

Reason is too chill to excite, too cerebral to inspire (unless you’re Pinker). We are where we are today because the passion and compassion of reformers, secular and religious, has consistently challenged enterprise and competition – to the benefit of all. Championing education, social welfare, safety nets in time of need. It’s when society believes in and acts out a shared morality that we move forward.

Pinker has run himself into hot water in recent weeks arguing that inequality isn’t a major issue for our times – the majority worldwide is in our times so much better off – but inequality is a key driver of social action. Inequality is tied in with a sense of being left behind, on the outside. There’s a big poker game running, but it’s (the UK) down south, or (the USA) up in the north-east, or out on the West Coast, and I’m not invited.

If society isn’t inclusive, if it isn’t compassionate, those who perceive themselves as excluded will set themselves up as ‘the majority’, will scale down compassion to actions within their own social group, and society will polarise, and nations seek out their own identities, and close borders, and all the grand tenets of the Enlightenment will be even more confined to discussion among academics.

This zenpolitics blog is about strategies for living, if that doesn’t sound too grand – I’ve summarised them before as enterprise and compassion, social justice and capability. Yes, there’s a violent side to all our natures, but it’s more our competitive instinct that dominates and drives society forward. Violence arises when we push back selfish boundaries too far.

Compassion and competition work together. If competition is centrifugal, tearing apart, at its extremes, violence, then compassion is the opposite, it is the instinct that binds – and it is innate. Pinker would scorn such notions.

Pinker’s wonderful to listen to – he signed my copy of Better Angels at a Royal Society of Arts talk some five years ago, and we had a few words back then. (Our subject – was war inevitable in 1914?) But his argument hasn’t the essential motor, the sine qua non, to progress.

It will fire the campus and the book pages. But beyond?

The Hay Book Festival 2017 

It’s May 2017. The Hay Book Festival surprises yet again. You know it will, one of the great joys is turning up to talks you may have booked in advance – but you never quite know what to expect.

And what you can do of course is not book in advance, head for the box office, see what’s still available, which is most talks, if you’re early enough, and simply take pot luck. Serendipity can have big surprises in store, and rarely disappoints.

Hazel and I took in some talks together, for others we split up and compared notes afterwards.

For anyone interested in getting a flavour of Hay Festival, and not averse to reading something of the ideas and arguments, and the sheer variety of subjects, and the passionate advocacy of many of the speakers – please do read on!

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Wednesday 31st May

11.30. I began with Cambridge historian John Guy on the subject of Thomas More. He traced the remarkable history of More’s ‘Utopia’, its influence worldwide, and disabused us of the notion that More was a serial torturer. John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, hagiography of the Protestant reformers who suffered in Catholic hands, had a vested interest in accusing More. Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall follows Foxe, but Guy holds back from criticising her too harshly. Like all of us he’s in a little in awe of her ability to brings characters to life. Guy is also an admirer of Paul Scofield in ‘A Man for all Seasons’, but he stressed that More as a man with an individual conscience that he could not deny (Robert Bolt’s spin on More in his play) is a misrepresentation. More belonged in a 1500 year old Catholic tradition, and his conscience was formed within the church’s teaching.

Why did More write ‘Utopia’? A radical democrat? The reverse is closer to the truth.  He was an elitist, who feared the demos, just as Plato had done, and saw a guardian class as the natural protectors and rulers of the land.

Hazel skipped Thomas More and took in Artemis Cooper (biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor) on Elizabeth Jane Howard, author The Cazalet Chronicle, the wife of naturalist Peter Scott (when she was still a teenager) and Kingsley Amis, and lover of Arthur Koestler and Laurie Lee. Sounds like someone it would have been interesting to know….

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1pm. We followed with Alistair Sawday, famous for his Special Places travel guides. What struck me above all is Sawday’s ability to talk in a relaxed conversational way, and I could imagine him talking to hotel and inn owners all over Europe, charming, enthusiastic, interested. Pulping 25,000 copies of an early travel guide almost brought the company down early on. He’s an enthusiast for earth closets. He fears that special places, which aren’t smartened up and denuded of character, are getting fewer. But they survive. Telling a wider world where to find them is a double-edged sword – great for the hotels, helping them survive, but a wider awareness and clientele can damage that sense of places apart.

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2.30. My day’s highlight was Cambridge lecturer (in public policy), Finbarr Livesey, in conversation with Andy Fryers. ‘From Global to Local.’ Is globalisation the only paradigm, is hyper-globalisation inevitable?

Livesey puts up powerful counter-arguments, well summed up in one comment: ‘As countries commit to harder, binding targets for emissions reductions, the ideas of reuse, remanufacturing, circularity [as opposed to the linear nature of globalisation, long lines of travel across the ocean] and zero waste will all gain more currency and increase the uptake of these ideas across industry.’ In the light of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (yesterday, 2nd June), Livesey’s comment finds an even sharper focus. Industry around the world, we must hope.

Hazel took in Mary Aiken on The Cyber Effect, on how human behaviour changes online, taking in the impact on the developing child to teen sexting. Quoting the Hay programme: ‘She examines the acceleration of compulsive and addictive online behaviours (gaming, shopping, pornography) and the escalation of cyberchondria (self-diagnosis online), cyberstalking and organised crime on the Deep Web.’

Hazel was impressed – wished I’d been there. An example of how you can’t be everywhere at Hay!

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4pm. We ended our afternoon with Hazel listening to Roy Hattersley talking too fast and quietly about his new book in The Catholics, ‘history from the Reformation to the present day’ – and I took in (Thomas More enough for me for one day!) Jeanette Littlemore, professor at Birmingham University, with a talk entitled The Way You Tell It. Her subject being non-literal expression, in this case metaphor, metonymy, irony and hyperbole, in everyday life. College students who don’t have English as their first language can radically misinterpret metaphor. Parents can enjoy themselves on touchline shouting encouragement to their children – but do their children understand? Advertisers have thought it through rather more – one example was a wonderful Boddingtons ad from the 70 with the head (appalling froth to the modern ale drinker!) combed into a quiff, with a comb nearby.

She brought in a wide range of research findings, could have been too many, but she was mistress of her subject, and handled questions brilliantly. Makes you all the more aware of the way we use language.

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Thursday 1st June

We stayed down in the Usk valley, amid pasture and woodlands, with a trip in bright morning sunshine through the Black Mountains back to the Wye valley and Hay. Valley to valley…

11.30. We began our day with an inspiring talk by doctor and pyschiatrist Lynne Jones on her work with her work in disaster zones from Bosnia, to Indonesia, to Haiti, to the Jungle in Calais. The title of her talk (wait for it!): Outside the Asylum: a Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry. PTSD and counselling is what a lot of funding goes into, but Jones provided ample evidence that listening, patient listening, is what’s required more than anything else. She recalled how a Bosnian man apparently objected to her taking photographs – it turned out he wanted his photograph taken, in front of the ruined house where his mother had been killed. He wanted someone with whom to share the experience. Where there are real and serious psychiatric problems it’s above all medication that’s needed.

Jones has a history as a passionate activist, doctor, psychiatrist. She was probably the highpoint of our Hay visit. She is only happy when involved, when engaged, and she puts politicians who rejoice in a narrow homeland focus to shame.

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1pm. Jeremy Bowen talking about his many years as BBC Middle East Editor was next. Title: Our Man in the Middle East. He’s informed, wide-ranging, tolerant, a natural talker, and I’m sure a listener, and one of the wisest voices on the BBC. That came over strongly. I’ve been critical of (sometimes angry at) the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East over the years – too much focused on immediate calamities and picking up the latest Western government line, which has often been too much focused on the horror of it all, and apportioning blame, at the expense of hard and difficult talk about solutions. Talking to a Hay audience Bowen allows himself a broader understanding, the Saudis in Yemen and Assad in Syria both perpetrators of appalling violence – taking sides and demanding retribution something he avoided. Bowen has to practise his trade in a world of instant news which sometimes runs counter to a proper understanding of the issues – and he copes with this probably as well if not better than anyone else. In short – he’s a good guy.

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4pm. Hugh Warwick, on Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife, was our next port of call. Passionate and amusing, he’s probably our greatest expert on the hedgehog which for him is an emblematic animal, which has suffered more than most from our practice of dividing the land by way of roads, canals and railways. Hedges, walks, ditches and dykes are a man-made but natural landscape in which wildlife flourished. Take out a hedge and build a fence and wall – and don’t expect to find hedgehogs in your garden. Warwick is passionate about raising awareness, and optimist about solutions such as the wild areas left by motorways along which wildlife can travel, and green areas left on the margins of cropped fields in which plants and habitats can flourish. He argues passionately against the fracturing of ‘wildlife habitats into ever smaller and increasingly unviable habitats’.

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5.30. At the end of the day Hazel headed for ‘Countryfile star and visionary farmer’, and all-round good guy, Adam Henson, on the subject of his Cotswold farm park, set up by his father (‘Like Father, Like Son.‘) And I went for something TOTALLY DIFFERENT! Physicist Roger Penrose talking to Marcus du Sautoy about string theory, which posits too many extra dimensions to be convincing for Penrose, though he’s a fan of the theory, as a theory… about quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics and their incompatibility when it comes ‘reasonably massive objects’, and the predilection among many scientists that it must be Newtonian physics that ultimately must adjust (must they be compatible?)… and about cosmology, and the origins of the universe, and his own theory that mass may ultimately simply fade away, with only photons surviving, and at that point the universe returns to a singularity, out of which a new universe is born, and that process is beyond either birth or death of the universe… I don’t claim reliability or accuracy for my summary!! Roger Penrose is like Stephen Hawking a marvellous example of mental acuity remaining as sharp as ever with advancing age. And good to see Marcus du Sautoy, who took over as Oxford’s professor for the public understanding of science from Richard Dawkins, and whom I’d not come across in person before.

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Saturday 3rd June. We decided two days were not enough. So on a brilliant sunny morning we took the road to Hay in time for a coffee and then three more talks.

10am. We began with Nick Crane and a talk based around his new book, The Making of the British Landscape. We’re back post Ice age, after the Younger Dryas period, 9,600BC and a time of rapid warming, then almost 4,000 years in the blink of an eye to the major inundation (possibly the result of giant landslides which saw 180 miles of Norwegian coastal shelf slip into the North Sea) which finally put the Dogger Bank under water, and turned us into an island. An island of only 12,000 people, on one estimate, no towns, so Roman towns were a radical landscape change. I’ll have to read the book to discover how he thinks villages changed the landscape, and to compare with WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape, which has always been my bible in the subject. One question I tried to ask – but you have to be aggressive waving your hand! – was whether he thinks the proposal to make the Lake District a World Heritage Site is a good thing. George Monbiot in a powerful and I think misguided piece in the Guardian argued against. Monbiot fears stasis, and would like to ‘re-wild’.

Crane, intentionally he said, didn’t mention either the Bronze Age or Iron Age. He put his reason in the context of politicians misrepresenting history. I should have asked a question – I am of course with him all the way. I’m assuming the issue for him is too-easy and misleading labelling.

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11.30: Hazel checked out a hero of hers, Noel Fitzpatrick, Channel 4’s Supervet, on the subject of ‘Global Health in Man and Animal’. He’s arguing passionately for ‘a single shared medicine linking human and animal health’. Cancer in a dog is almost identical to cancer in a human. Medicine would be shared between species, not one species exploiting another for its own gain. How this might work in practice I don’t know – again, wish I could have been there.

Instead I chose almost on a whim to head off to hear the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak talking about her new novel, Three Daughters of Eve. It was an inspired choice. She talked brilliantly about Turkey, about the language (modern Turkish has been pared back to exclude Persian and Arabic words, to its great detriment), about liberals and academics operating in a hostile world where loss of job or imprisonment could follow any kind of mis-step. (Turkey she pointed out has long had a sense of being threatened by hostile countries on all sides, which puts recent events in an interesting context.) English is a third language, and yet she writes her novels in English – writing in a foreign language heightens your awareness – translating, from my very limited experience, does likewise. But Shafik is operating at a whole other level.

Her novel has three Turkish girls, brought up in Istanbul, studying in Oxford. She describes,a seminar where the lecturer tries to separate the pursuit of an understanding of God from religion. Without success. I’d have asked her about the Sufi tradition in Turkey had I had the chance – how it links with the current resurgence of Sunni Islam. Shafik had earlier brought the 12th century poet and mystic Ibn el Arabi into her talk.

If you think that all this suggests she lives in a rarefied world, you’d be wrong. She’s a powerful advocate of feminist and minority including LGBT rights. A long queue formed for her book signing: when we returned to the bookshop 1 ½ hours later she was still signing – and still talking.

*

1pm, positively our last talk! QC and human rights lawyer Dexter Dias talking about his new book, The Ten Types of Human. Trying to illustrate some of the ten types in response to questions from an interviewer initially made it hard going. What Dias has done is use the structure of the ten types, all the product of human evolution, to produce a 800 page book passionately arguing for our engagement – the engagement of all of us – with human rights. The case he took up for the mother of a 15-year-old boy who died in custody, the victim of prison officer violence, was his starting -point for both his advocacy of human rights, and for the book.

I found this summary online of his work, and it’s very helpful as background to a remarkable man: ‘As Queen’s Counsel, he has been involved in some of the biggest cases of recent years involving human rights, murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity and genocide. He chaired and co-wrote the influential Bar Human Rights report to the Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM, has briefed and written reports for the UN around gender-based violence, and works pro bono internationally with survivors of modern day slavery, human trafficking and Violence Against Women and Girls.’

It’s encountering people such as this, and being inspired by them, that’s one of the glories of Hay.

**

And that’s it. Another Hay, another year. If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you – and well done. If you not a Hay habitue, then do head off there, one year, some time soon.

Hay’s slogan this year is Hay 30: Imagine the World. Hay is thirty years old this year. But Hay does more than encourage us to imagine – it inspires us to change it. Advocates of the status quo, or turning inward, of identity politics and self-interest, would get short shrift.

Taking the measure of Shakespeare

Justice and mercy – concepts which Shakespeare simply takes in his stride. His characters take up the arguments: Shakespeare himself stood above the fray. A way of avoiding arrest for sedition? ‘No, that’s not what I believe,’ he might have said, ‘that’s Angelo, or the Duke, or Isabella.’

They are concepts which weave their way through Measure for Measure, which I’ve recently read for the first time. The title refers to a passage in Matthew’s gospel: ‘…and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’

For the story in outline – read on.

Angelo, left in charge by the Duke, who isn’t too keen on worldly affairs (‘I love the people,/But do not like to stage me to their eyes…’ – a reticence many in our time could usefully copy), sentences Claudio to death for the offence of – put simply – sex before marriage. Is this justice?

At the time he’s arrested Claudio accepts his guilt – and it seems, his fate: ‘Our natures do pursue,/Like rats that do ravin down their proper bane,/ A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.’

The Duke likewise supports the rule of law and its stern implementation:

‘Now as fond fathers,/having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,/Only to stick it in their children’s sight/For terror, not to use, in time the rod/Becomes more mocked than feared: so our decrees/Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,/ and Liberty plucks justice by the nose,/The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart/Goes all decorum.’

Now, quite apart, from anything else, the language is extraordinary. As a fond father I never threatened with twigs of birch, but I did try and ensure that the baby didn’t beat the nurse – or the dad. I love the half-rhyme of ‘nose’ and ‘nurse’. Stating the supremely obvious, Shakespeare was one hell of a poet.

I won’t recount the full story. But Claudio has a beautiful sister, Isabella, a novice nun, no less. Isabella pleads for mercy for her brother – pleas rejected by Angelo – in language reminiscent of Portia in the Merchant of Venice. Compare:

(Isabella) ‘…Well, believe this,/No ceremony that to great ones ‘longs, /Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword, /The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe, /Become them with one half so good a grace /As mercy does.’

(Portia) ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:/’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown;/His sceptre shows the force of temporal power…’

But then Angelo suggests a cruel bargain. He promises to free Claudio – if Isabella will sleep with him. Back to the Bible, and seeing the mote in another’s eye and not the beam in your own. (I grew up with metaphors such as this – but I doubt if my children would understand…)

The Duke has wisely kept Angelo under surveillance, and Angelo is tricked into sleeping with his ex-fiancee, Mariana, who he has cast aside, while thinking it’s Isabella – a very Shakespearian stratagem. (Always check who you’re sleeping with – that might be the warning here!)

There’s more, but it’s enough to remark how Shakespeare supports authority, but with a light touch – reminding us of the hypocrisy which too often (I was going to say always, but maybe we should let the Duke off – he seems an all-round good guy) goes hand-in-hand with authority.

Shakespeare never preaches – he leaves that to his characters. Sexual desire is part and parcel of life, and the rough, and the tumble, and the illicit and the licit, it’s all of a piece, all part of his story. To take out sexual desire would be ‘to geld and spay all the youth of the city’ (in Lucio’s words).

I could find all sorts of parallels with our own time. We have the current case of the Culture Secretary, and his affair with a hooker, and the press of which he’s in charge of regulating claiming that they didn’t report the story before because it wasn’t in the public interest. Hypocritical tosh of the highest order.

But that’s enough – let Shakespeare speak for himself. He is the world in microcosm, and even though he was writing four centuries ago the characters who walked the stages of the Globe or the Swan still walk our streets and share our beds today.

 

Militant atheism and the spiritual path

Now that is quite a a title for a post…

I’ve just finished reading Sam Harris’s Waking Up – subtitle ‘searching for spirituality without religion’. When he claimed Chris Hitchens as a friend, I was instantly worried. And then I had the usual stuff about religions being mutually incompatible so no-one can possibly believe that ‘all religions are the same’. Well, we don’t believe they’re all the same – but we do find an underlying unity. He should have asked us first – but he hares off on the hackneyed ‘violence of religion’ tack, and even finds a Zen story where a disciple hacks a finger off – and then is suddenly enlightened.

The sad thing is that Harris has gained some kind of spiritual understanding over many years as a seeker and meditator, and he’s especially keen on, and good at describing, Dzogchen Buddhism (‘focusing on the intrinsic selflessness of awareness’). But he fails completely to recognise that it’s a specifically religious search for understanding in this life that led to the revelations that he now, as a militant atheist, has the benefit of.

And then we have the following on drugs: ‘The power of psychedelics is that they often reveal in a few hours depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.’ Having been down that route, and experienced the ecstasy, I know that selflessness – the experience of non-self, anatta – and drug-induced ecstasy are two very different things. The path – I almost want to say ‘true path’, but that really does sound too religious! – is step-by-step, unfolding, learning, consolidating – I say learning, but it’s not learning in the sense of acquiring knowledge – it is simply that awareness that opens up beyond self. And where you find a differently kind of joy and peace from anything you’ve experienced before.

And a final grumble – no, more than a grumble. This is serious stuff. Reading a review of John Bew’s book, Realpolitik: A History (premise – pragmatism dictates that the overtly and obviously moral route can’t always be the one to follow – politics has sometimes to be about compromise), there’s a reference to Barack Obama drawing on the wisdom of the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama has tried to articulate a liberal realist world view – avoiding misconceived adventures on the one hand and isolation on the other…

Why is that relevant to Sam Harris’s book? Because Harris and his like go on about the evils of religion but overlook that it’s not violence but compassion that drives religion. And that the spiritual without compassion is selfish and not selfless. Compassion has to be at the heart of politics, and I believe that Obama has tried to do just that, and his successes and failures are indicative of how hard it is to follow that path in today’s world – and yet how essential it is to try.

Religion when taken over by the power-brokers of the world for their own ends has caused many a disaster. But religion allied to compassion, in the minds of a follower, disciple or believer (however you wish to describe yourself), has been the ultimate force for good in the world. (Now that I admit is a challenging statement – and meant to be such!)

I heard Steven Pinker speak about his then new book, Better Angels Of Our Nature, a year of two back. It’s predicated (and brilliantly argued) on the role of violence in human history – how over centuries and millennia we’ve created social and political structures to contain that violence, allowing the creation of stable, or relatively stable, societies and government. (And how violence continues to decline, even allowing for two world wars and many other horrific events.)

Pinker argues that the primacy of reason and enlightenment values from the 18th century onwards allowed empathetic values, not least compassion, to find expression. The pattern of history for me is very different – violence and compassion have existed side by side throughout recorded history – compassion is hardly a recent phenomena, and it’s in the exercise of that compassion that we as human beings have found our greatest fulfilment.

Compassion and religion have always been closely interconnected. And if you’re a militant atheist, that poses a problem.

My recommendation to Sam Harris would be – get off your podium, stop preaching, and get out there in the world. And if you do, you’ll find yourself working alongside some wonderful people – of all faiths, and none, including humanists. We all work together. We just don’t call each other names.

Compassion – Zen Master Dogen and the Pope take on the world

Zen Master Dogen (writing in Japan, in the 13th century) has been a favourite of mine since I first came across him, maybe ten years ago. Discussing compassion he writes:

Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to try and argue and defeat them. On the other hand if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward. It is best to step back, neither trying to correct others nor conceding to mistaken views. If you don’t react competitively and let go of the conflict , others will also let go of it without harbouring ill will. 

Don’t act competitively – that may seem hard, but the benefits can be extraordinary.

You make the community’s heart your heart and their thought your way of thought. You make the parental heart your heart and the heart of children your heart. If you practise in this way you will be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river, or like rain in a time of drought.  

There are countless other contributions on the subject down the centuries. In recent years there’s been Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent Communication, and the worldwide movement that it’s inspired. And Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion – which I’ve signed up to.

And as of today – there’s the Pope’s comment about the wall that Trump would build along the Mexican border: “a person who thinks only about building walls… and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” And one Republican response, one Jerry Fulwell Jnr: “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country.”

From that we deduce that compassion isn’t easy. In our private lives we may find that compassion can indeed be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river. But in public – the Pope’s is a simple statement, and the only comment a Christian could make. Build bridges don’t put up walls. (Israel has not understood this – to its long-term cost.)

Religious leaders do best to keep out of politics – but when there are egregious failures of morality at a high level – when the ordinary norms are behaviour are compromised – they have to speak out, and this is such a time.

‘Make America great again,” is Trump’s lunatic war cry. America was great and can still be great if it realises that it won its previous greatness by working with and supporting countries and communities and being part of alliances round the world. Not by waving a big stick.

This is a vast subject, and best to leave it here for now. But there’s a danger that populism can shift a country dangerously right, or indeed left. And ‘stepping back’, or ‘turning the other cheek’, won’t always be the right action.

As indeed Zen Master Dogen recognises. “…if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward.” Or if you stay silent.