Richard Dawkins comes to town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hassan Akkad – a Syrian refugee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hear it for ideas and intellect

I note that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a new exhibition, opened last month, on the history of enslavement in the Netherlands and its former colonies. Shouldn’t we be doing the same? Wasn’t slavery an integral part of the socio-economic system out of which grew our own?

I’d thought until recent years that the genie was out of the bottle. There would be no going back. But that’s what our government, by attempting to repress debate, is trying to do. Ideas, intellect, social responsibility, compassion – they should be driving the modern world.

Compassion, at a government level, went missing in the years of (unrestored) welfare cuts in the Osborne era. Now after fifteen months of Covid it’s been rediscovered by the government, and commoditised. It has a value, it can be directed. ‘Penny Mordaunt, a minister responsible for social contingencies and co-author of “Greater: Britain after the storm”, wants the state to harness those who volunteered to battle coronavirus, directing them towards “national missions such as elderly care”.’ (The Economist)

These are the carers who battled away through the years of government austerity cuts. They have been there, all the time. Unrecognised. Now they have ‘utility’.

Intellect, ideas… we have a government scared of universities, scared of academic debate, scared of museums. And the mood is picked up by the dominant media (all right of centre, save for the Guardian and the Mirror).

David Aaronovitch had a considered piece on the subject of restitution in a recent edition of The Times. The Benin bronzes feature. So too the ardent decolonisers, who scorn museums as great colonial hangovers. We have the liberal leaders of the British Museum and the V&A, the likes of Tristan Hunt and Neil MacGregor, ‘with their talk of “universal” institutions.’

What he doesn’t address is the stonewall refusal of the right-wing to recognise there’s any kind of issue. But that refusal is there in the article’s headline, which I trust Aaronovitch didn’t approve, ‘We can’t allow radicals to strip our museums.’

The Times is sometimes in danger of being little more than alternative Telegraph. There is in this case nuance in the article – but the headline suggests a rant.  It’s white and black post-Brexit world where we must take sides.

Two pages back in the same issue we’d an article by a young guy called James Marriott headed ‘Academic intelligence is absurdly overvalued’. As an example: ‘I spent most of a term studying 17th century sermons.’ I did something similar in my time reading history at Oxford. But I also studied the Crusades, the American Civil War, the Renaissance, the medieval world, and I damned well thought about them – and had to get my ideas down in essays. I applied my critical faculties to history, and that’s what I still try to do.

Marriott waffles about ‘practical intelligence which is to do with the “tacit knowledge”’ of how things work and how  do get things done’. History would appear to have been a wasted education in his case.

We’d also a Times leader arguing against ‘taking the knee’. A posh white-man’s newspaper – is that really how The Times sees itself these days? It’s for the players black, white, African, Asian… it’s for them to decide. They are close to discrimination. They live with it. Not the editors of national newspapers.

John Witherow, as editor of The Times, and an employee of Rupert Murdoch, has a difficult tight-rope to walk. I can see that. The country needs a paper like The Times. I will continue to read it (and other papers as well of course!), and read between the lines.   

A day in the life … in my life – Christmas shopping, Donald Trump, The Economist, writing blogs, workhouses, and a few other matters of consequence

It was an ordinary day. A haircut, and a mid-morning shop on Cheltenham’s High Street. 10th December, a festive time, but it didn’t look or feel that way. Shops with long queues outside, and yet it seemed far too many people inside. We wouldn’t have noticed before, but we do now. We are all watching our step, watching our neigbbours. Smiles would work wonders, but our smiles are masked.

Something else brought me down. Headlines about Johnson and his meeting-of-no-minds dinner with Ursula von der Leyen. The sheer and utter stupidity of a no-deal Brexit looms ever closer. In four words – putting party before country.

I was happy to be back home to a bowl of Hazel’s parsnip soup.

I then set about writing a blog. Being a glutton for punishment. Donald Trump, as actor, as a master of theatre, stage manager and scriptwriter and leading actor – the only actor. How his script, ‘fake news’, had literally trumped ‘post-truth’. We have our own news, these days, we’re partisan, and proud of it, and objective criteria by which we might identify what is actually true (as far as that’s ever possible) – well, that’s a mug’s game. And are we all at it – left as well as right of the political spectrum?

Trump is having a last throw in Texas: the state’s attorney-general is seeking to invalidate the votes in four states including Georgia. What would happen, I wonder, if he was successful? If the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, and electoral college votes were put in the hands of Republican-controlled legislatures, and the national vote was overturned. A divided America would be fractured. And just where the fracture lines would fall – who can say?

Good material. But my blog was too wordy, and not punchy enough.

I put it to one side, and listened instead to The Economist editors’ online review of 2020, for subscribers to the magazine. Covid and the way it was reported, competence and otherwise in the way it was handled, the implications for globalism, and supply chains, and future growth. The way the editors’ puzzle over the stories of now, and what could be the stories of the future.  The increased role of the state, something that’s likely to continue. Digital culture and changes in the workplace. The threat posed by China. The US election. Biden. The role of populism. The way the old generations have cornered resources – how underspending on infrastructure and housing and education have worked against the young. And, maybe above all, the importance of retaining and reinforcing our belief in classical English (NOT American!) liberalism – of open societies and free markets. The value of reasoned debate, and competence, and ‘remaking the social contact’, between the state and the people, and state and the market.  

Sometimes I wish The Economist would reach down and get its hands dirty a little more. Be more open to alternative economic models. Speak with more passion. But it does what it does with supreme competence, and I wouldn’t have it, with so much fakery around, any other way.

After that – my Trump blog was binned. Poor fare by comparison.

But my day wasn’t over. I’d volunteered to write up the report on our local history society’s evening meeting – Zoom of course. The subject was the Stroud workhouse, and the speaker a local Labour councillor who’d down some excellent research. Stroud, if you don’t know it, is an old industrial area, focused around the woollen industry, with a long and remarkable history. It’s tucked away in the steep valleys of the western Cotswolds. I’ve lived here now for three years.

Workhouses took over from earlier forms of parish relief following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Having to seek relief became a badge of shame. Couples and families were separated. By the 1930s workhouses had become more or less infirmaries – for the aged and infirm. The Stroud workhouse closed in 1940 and its remaining residents were shipped off to any corner of the Cotswolds that would have them.

I thought of our own times, how Covid has had knock-on effects across all areas of medicine and social care. The backlog of hip operations could take three years to clear. Resources had to be directed elsewhere in World War Two, just as they are now. 1948 finally pulled the curtain down on the old Poor Law, with the establishment of the modern welfare state and the NHS.

What will the post-Covid years bring?   

Time for a late night whisky – Benromach – a birthday present from my son.

Time to reflect.

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.

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.

*

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 …

*

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.

*

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?