Travelling in India …

I began my last blog with a few words which may give a misleading impression.

‘All, on the surface, appears to be going well in India. The economy under Narendra Modi has momentum, a contrast to our own. Modi has a 77% approval rating. There was a sense of optimism among the people I spoke to.’

We returned from a two-week holiday in north-western India six weeks ago.

‘On the surface.’ I left open what might lie below the surface. India as envisaged by Nehru and the Congress Party in 1947 was to be a secular, non-aligned state. Nehru looked to the West, but also to communist Russia. India was partitioned, with terrible consequences, and the tension between India and its neighbour Pakistan is palpable, seventy-five years on, even to short-stay visitors. The army’s presence, in the areas where we travelled, is everywhere.

Over the last seventy years the Congress Party has gone into sharp decline and the fundamentalist Hindu party, the BJP, has taken hold of the levers of power, at a national and increasingly local level. The BJP under Narendra Modi has been in power since 2014.

In 1992 Hindu activists destroyed a mosque, at Ayodhya, on a site widely believed to have been the birthplace of the god Rama. If this act was symbolic of an India reconstituting as a Hindu state, the 2019 decision of the Modi government to revoke the status of Jammu and Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim territory, as a self-governing entity, and the transfer of power to the central government, was, and is, widely seen (outside India) as brutal act of suppression of Kashmiri, and Muslim, aspirations. Also pertinent is the 2019 legislation extending the National Register of Citizens to the whole country which would have the effect of leaving several million Muslims stateless.

Our own sampling of Hindu opinion during our stay in November suggested a disdain toward a Muslim population which is more and more ghettoised as threats and sometimes specific acts of violence increase. The irony of Delhi’s and Agra’s great tourist locations being Mughal and therefore Muslim forts and mausoleums, not least the Taj Mahal, seemed lost on our (otherwise splendid) Hindu guides.

All that said, India remains a functioning democracy of not far short of 1.4 billion people. We were in Shimla on election day for the state of Himachal Pradesh’s legislative assembly. We chatted to a friendly BJP teller outside a polling booth. (The BJP were noisily confident, but in this particular election they lost – and Congress won.)

The mood among the Hindu population was positive, almost aggressively optimistic. The economy is growing fast, and Modi, like him or not, is an influential figure on the world stage. The contrast I made in my last blog between the UK and India is for real.

And yet … quotes from my travel journal are apposite here:

‘Am I soft-pedalling on Modi too much? What of the Hindutva nationalist philosophy of the BJP? The Booker Prize winning novelist Arundhati Roy is no friend of the BJP. She writes in a recent book of essays of how “the holy cow and the holy script became of the chosen vehicles of (Hindu) mobilisation”. The “holy script” is Hindi…

… In The Times of India I read about a move to convert Christians among the Adivasi, India’s indigenous tribes, to Hinduism. Shivaji, the 17th century Marathi leader, is celebrated not least in movies as a Hindu proto-nationalist. The Shiv Sena movement, the leader of the local branch of which was shot the day before our arrival in Amritsar, is radical in its advocacy of a pure and dominant form of Hinduism. Muslim culture, and the Muslim population, which existed side by side with Hindu culture for many centuries, is under unrelenting pressure. And yet Bollywood still has many Muslim stars.’

Arundhati Roy, as an outspoken opponent of a regime increasingly hostile to dissent, lives dangerously. She sums up the situation, as she sees it, succinctly as follows. (The RSS is the ideological arm of the BJP.)

‘The abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, the promise of a National Register of Citizens, the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya are all on the front burners of the RSS and BJP kitchen. To reignite flagging passions all they need to do is pick a villain from their gallery and unleash the dogs of war. There are several categories of villain, Pakistani jihadis, Kashmiri terrorists, Bangladeshi infiltrators or anyone of a population of nearly 200 million Indian Muslims who can always be accused of being Pakistan-lovers or anti-national traitors.’

India has a militant China on its Himalayan border. It needs a strong army and a strong leader. You could argue it now has both. And a growing economy. But the cost in terms of its move away from the secular and open society that Nehru aspired to has been a high one.

Beyond the Red Wall

Travelling in India last month I was struck by the continuing interest in the UK. All, on the surface, appears to be going well in India. The economy under Narendra Modi has momentum, a contrast to our own. Modi has a 77% approval rating. There was a sense of optimism among the people I spoke to. And a concern for us, as for an old friend who’s not in the best of health. (Unless it’s cricket, where they acknowledge we lead the world at the moment.)

An Indian commentator (Swapan Dasgupta, writing in The Times of India) refers to a distinction made by Tony Blair between party activists and ordinary voters. With the UK and USA in mind Dasgupta continues: ‘It is largely the angry and dogmatic Right and Left who have the time and inclination for political activism. …. They can inspire the faithful but ordinary voters aren’t driven by doctrinaire concerns. The problem is that no-one can define what they want. Hence the appeal of identity politics as a fallback. Caught in the pincer movement of woke and the menacing xenophobic, liberal democracy should be worried about its own future.’

Applied to the UK, how did this work out?

The economic crisis and the years of austerity which followed brought to the fore deep divides in the UK. They were defined in various ways: north/south, city/country, as levels of education, ‘somewheres’ vs ‘anywheres’ in David Goodhart’s contentious formulation. The European Reform Group and Farage and sections of the media weaponised this divide. Notions of ‘Global Britain’ held back by the EU’s restraining hand gave a false economic credibility to the argument.

Janan Ganesh writing in the Financial Times has a useful take on the same subject. ‘People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe, they join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, of group membership, is what hooks people…’

Come the 2019 election the group identities born of the Brexit ‘debate’ and the Brexit vote were firmly established.

Sebastian Payne’s Broken Heartlands (published 2020, revised 2021) focuses on the 2019 election. Interviews across the Red Wall (northern seats which switched to the Tories in 2019) with MPs, activists, business figures and a few old political warhorses attempt to explain why people voted as they did.

The explanation doesn’t lie in hyped-up fears over immigration – that was Brexit. It is, Payne concludes, twofold. Two personalities in fact. Johnson’s can-do enthusiasm, focused on get-Brexit-done and levelling up. And Jeremy Corbyn. That takes us back to 2010, when Ed Miliband diverted Labour’s focus away from the New Labour path and opened up the way for Corbyn’s disastrous election.

Payne’s new-Tory-MP interviewees, with their big plans for their constituencies, have reason to feel embarrassed. They’ve been relying on the magic money tree, which the last sane chancellor, Philip Hammond, had kept well-locked away in a cupboard. They’ve also been mesmerised by Johnson.

Where do we go from here? All sides of the argument are focusing on the regions. Andy Burnham, Andy Street and Ben Houchen, mayors of Manchester, Birmingham and Tees Valley, are cited as examples of what can be achieved at a regional level. We’ve also had Gordon Brown’s recent report on the regions for Labour, with its big ideas, not least an assembly of the regions replacing the House of Lords.

The polls suggest people are looking to Labour for answers – but primarily for want of alternatives. They are not convinced. Sebastian Payne approves a simple formulation, arising out of a conversation with Neil Kinnock. If Labour could ‘manifest itself as the “security” party, in terms of personal security, employment, education, enterprise, national security… it would be capable of getting over the identity demarcations that produced the referendum result’.

High-flying sentiments but the emphasis is wrong. Enterprise would be a better starting-point than security – enterprise supported by education, and enterprise put in the service of transforming social care and health care more widely. Business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, and government agencies, working side by side.

Payne quotes a striking statistic: ‘just 17 per cent of over sixty-fives voted Labour in 2019…’ Security might be a watchword for the over 65s but it is surely more important to get young people engaged, and young people voting.

Politics needs to be about challenge, even exciting. (A big ask, given where we are at the moment.) It is extraordinary how the younger generations have been left out of current arguments and deliberations. If we’re to break out of our small ‘c’ conservative mindset and take on the future they have to be put centre stage. They deserve their own ‘triple lock’.

Good books, bad politics

Book festivals are, to vary a phrase, a long time in politics. We’ve just emerged from the ten-day long Cheltenham Literature Festival. While we listened there were few ripples out there in the wider world. UK gilts prices were going through the roof. Markets were in turmoil.

First off Friday evening was Jeremy Hunt, yes, that Jeremy Hunt, talking about his new book ‘Zero: Eliminating Preventable Harm and Tragedy in the NHS’. The book has been described by a junior doctor (writing in The Guardian), one of the strikers who vilified Hunt during their 2016 strike, as ‘a thoughtful, serious and well-written book that tackles an immensely important subject’. That’s how he came over to us listening in the Town Hall. He’s serious, and means well. He was Health Secretary for six years, the kind of long stint more government ministers should have in office.

Hunt became Chancellor of the Exchequer just six days later. Looking back there was an almost charming innocence about proceedings.

Saturday lunchtime, we listened to Cheltenham-born writer Geoff Dyer talking about his new book, ‘Growing Old With Roger Federer’. We reach the point in life here we have to move on, admit the great days are past. Federer is the exemplar, doing it gracefully. He is 41, Dyer early 60s. Dylan, one of Dyer’s heroes is in his 80s. After the session we headed out into the sunshine talking about our own icons (Dylan being one), and the likes of Mick Jagger and how in that one case the rules don’t quite apply. (But, Mick, they will, in time, even to you!)

(As an aside, let me mention David Foster Wallace’s essay on Roger Federer quoted by Brian Phillips in a 2016 New York Times article: he ‘advances the impossibly ambitious, totally doomed and thrillingly beautiful idea that high-level spectator sports serve an aesthetic and even quasi-spiritual function, namely to reconcile viewers to the limitations of their own bodies.’ We can muse over that wonderful notion as we contemplate our own physical decline!

Later that afternoon we heard Justin Webb talk about his new book (‘The Gift of a Radio’) with a full-on chirpy Nick Robinson. Justin and Nick work closely together on the BBC’s Today programme and are obviously great pals. Justin smooth, with an upper middle-class mum who ‘lived’ that status. Nick set himself up as a northern terrier. Drives a Ford Capri. (No, he doesn’t, but Justin is a little bit on the smooth side, in, of course, the nicest possible way.)

Sunday evening, getting dark, and the festival site quieter. I drove in specially to hear Geoff Dyer and others talking about Jack Kerouac, author of ‘On the Road’, and leading figure of the Beat Generation. It’s one hundred years since he was born. ‘Still Roadworthy? was the title of the event. Yes, the answer, the book still strikes chord. I looked up quotes back home. How about, ‘What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.’

Back down to earth…

Monday, a panel discussion focused on the topic, ‘Can Economics Save the Planet’, with Oliver Balch chairing, and Gillian Tett in full flow. Can economics shake off its obsessive focus on numbers? Are we at another turning point, where the ‘dismal science’ experiences its own green revolution, going way beyond the ‘green-washing’ of ESG (Environmental Social and Governance). Can we really have ‘green growth’? And what of the ‘no growth’ school, which argues that we can only save the planet by adopting a no-growth approach. But is that, for a moment, given all our crises and our nine billion population, remotely realistic?

After regrouping for tea and cakes it was the turn Chris Patten and Hong Kong refugee and hero Nathan Lee, talking about Hong Kong, taking their cue from Patten’s Hong Kong Diaries. But their focus was on Hong Kong now, and Nathan’s experience, and the territory’s future – and should we ever have trusted the Chinese. And now of course we’ve Xi Jinping. We cannot hide from the threat he poses. Or autocracies more widely, BUT what impressed was how neither Nathan nor Chris seemed born down by gloom. Nathan is a fighter – as we must be, fighting for liberal democracy.

Tuesday drilled home the same point. It was ‘Ukraine day’ at the festival and we listened to novelist Oksana Zabuzhko (‘Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex’, ‘The Museum of Abandoned Secrets’) talking with Rosie Goldsmith. Oksana is unstoppable, she has to deep-think herself into her replies in English (Ukraine her first language, Polish second, English third, Russian fourth…) and then she engages, and talks non-stop. Western Europe doesn’t know Ukraine, doesn’t even connect to it as part of Europe. Security is what Ukraine’s needs once and for all, in the face of Russia’s repeated predations… We had to clear up after World War Two, now we have to fight and do it again. We haven’t faced up to dictators, in Russia or China, and (reprising last evening’s message) we must.

Thursday morning, it was the turn of Steven Pinker, talking about his new(ish) book, ‘Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.’ He’s wonderful on cognitive biases, picking up from the work of Daniel Kahneman. His big question: can we by the exercise of objective reason get to something approximating to objective truth? After Chris Patten and Nathan Law, and Oksana Zabuzhko, he did come over as somewhat detached from the real world. Is the world really less violent? Can that argument be sustained? ‘Progress’ has surely only re-contextualised violence. Putin and even more Xi Jinping are by their own lights eminently reasonable.

Late afternoon, we’re into the festival again for the BBC champion ‘explorer’ (though that word almost demeans him) Simon Reeve. He was brilliant. The cerebral chat of Pinker replaced by the humour, the goodwill, the openness, the experience crossing frontiers, geographical and personal, of someone who has travelled where the world hurts.

That evening, the big news: Kwarteng is out, and our old friend Jeremy Hunt is in. And the great unwinding has begun.

Friday morning, a conversation between a long-winded Times writer (good for contrast!) and a brilliant, mercurial, unstoppable, wonderfully detailed and informed Anthony Beevor, author of ‘Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921’. Violence lay at the core to the 1917-21 implosion, Lenin single-minded in 1917, when everyone else hesitated. Single-minded again, Lenin and Trotsky, when the Reds took on the different allegiances that made up the Whites. A conflict characterised by the brutality which seems to be a continuing part of the Russian psyche when it comes to the exercise of power. Despite its length, 592 pages, a must-read: there are big issues involved, not least relating to Ukraine as it is today,

Saturday morning, a panel discussion with ‘Crisis: Ukraine and Europe’, as its subject. Bronwen Maddox in the chair. Support by way of armament is crucial. So too popular support, despite privations which lie ahead. Can we hold the alliance together? Is Macron, arguing that France wouldn’t use its nuclear deterrent in the current conflict, a weak link? Or is he just adding to the uncertainty – which is what we of course want Putin to feel. And what of those countries which still sit of the fence. Why, and how can we change their minds? We can’t change Xi Jinping. But what of the rest of Asia, and Africa?

Our last festival visit: the actor Hugh Bonneville, star of Downton, Paddington, and Notting Hill, and much else. A complete contrast – we were ‘VIPs’, courtesy of my friend Hazel, so got a free book. Hugh was brilliant: laid back, unassuming, funny, full of theatre insights and stories.

We needed that, needed him. Take a break! Even Rings of Power (Tolkien re-worked, re-fantasised for Amazon Prime) which we watched that evening is, if we take it seriously for a moment, about the rise and fall of civilisations, about good versus evil. I shall take one of Michael Bond’s Paddington books to bed with me tonight!

The Tory leadership debacle

How can we best create a compassionate and enterprising society, that functions for the benefit of all? That, surely, is a question we could all agree on as a reasonable starting point.

But not the Tory leadership candidates. All they talk about is a smaller state, alongside low taxes and their assumed natural concomitant, high growth. Compare Denmark, Sweden and Finland: all outperform the UK despite higher levels of taxation. And check out the Legatum Prosperity Index, with its wide-ranging criteria: the northern European countries come top, and we are thirteenth.

Only one candidate seems to recognise that there is a big price to pay for tax cuts. In an inflationary environment any stimulus, in the form of lower taxes, is more likely to lead to higher prices than higher incomes. Inflation pushes up interest rates… We have a growth crisis, that’s where we should be focused, and at its core is our low productivity, historically, and compared to other countries.

[‘Between 1995 and 2007 output per worker grew by around 2% a year, roughly matching the rate in the 25 richest members of the OECD. But during the next 12 years that figure for Britain was a dismal 0.4%, compared with an average of 0.9% among the rest.’ The Economist]

Moving on. You’d have thought arguing for an education system which reaches down to all levels, which achieves that balance between science, technology and culture, not just maths and English, on which a successful civilised country has to base itself – you’d have thought that might get a look in. Has anyone mentioned education? (We’ve had six education secretaries in the last six years, the longest in post a mere two years. Any good ideas come from the Civil Service, not from government.)

One benighted candidate has argued for 20% cuts across the board. NHS? That would be operating expenditure. Nurses, doctors, technicians, cleaning staff…

Or we avoid cuts, but still cut taxes, and build up deficits in the same gung-ho way that’s now argued on the Republican side in the USA. Civil service: reduce by 20%. That’s existing policy. But remotely deliverable while retaining efficiency in government? This old notion that cuts somehow generate efficiency. The ‘low-hanging fruit’ as it’s described (unless it’s the increased numbers of civil servants required to handle Brexit, no longer needed now that the damage is done) is long gone.

Climate change and conservation. The most important issues of all last autumn…. now hardly mentioned. Levelling up: of minor concern to most Tory members, so sidelined. Income redistribution: leave that to ‘grumblers’ like Thomas Piketty.

That wonderful word, ‘cakeism’. Having your cake and eating it. Small state, low taxes, and economic nirvana.

Two rallying points, both highly contentious. Brexit and immigration. Brexit: a ‘done deal’, yet half the nation still against it. Though accepting that up to a point it’s ’irreversible’. (We have a minister still seeking out those mythical mini-beasts known as ‘Brexit opportunities’.) EU cooperation: for the birds, if you believe Liz Truss, our over-promoted foreign secretary. Immigration: appalling policy, and a brutal Rwanda ‘solution’.

Arrogance, cakeism, scandal, self-interest (who really cares about levelling up?). They should guarantee that the Tories will lose the next election, if Labour and the Lib Dems (the one up north, the other down south) don’t mess up.

(The Economist reminds me of that famous quote from the Renaissance humanist, Erasmus. ‘In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ We have to make very sure that we never inhabit the land of the blind, however much the right-wing press might seek to lead us there.)

Candidate selection procedures it seems automatically exclude the brighter, more socially committed, more hard-bitten real-world candidates. Would anyone of real ability want to put themselves forward? He or she, more likely than not, would have to deceive any selection panel should they have wider goals or a broader sense of our shared humanity – shared across all classes, all races, all countries.

So we’re back to that wider issue – our shared humanity. Who we are in the world. Not just as a nation, but individually. The financial crash, Brexit, Trump, Covid, Johnson. The old certainties challenged.

And now with Ukraine – under existential threat. Just 1,300 miles away.

Humility. A difficult concept for the Tory tight. A little would go a long way. We might then come up with serious answers as opposed to all this embarrassing braggadocio.

‘Avoid anyone with ideas’

Isabel Allende in her wonderful novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, highlights the extraordinary achievement of Pablo Neruda in arranging the transportation to Chile of two thousand refugees from the Spanish Civil War on an old cargo ship, the Winnipeg, in August 1939. The decision on who or who not should be accepted lay with Neruda. He cast his net wide to include ‘fishermen, farm and factory workers, manual labourers, and intellectuals as well, despite instructions from his government to avoid anyone with ideas.’

A cross-section of working populations would today look very different, but there is one category which governments feared, now as then, and that is ‘anyone with ideas’.

The market as understood by neoliberalism, epitomised probably better than anywhere else by Pinochet’s Chile, after the 1973 coup, but still pervading so much of Western, and especially American, society, has little time for ideas. Chile is a classic case where ideas, and freedom of expression, were pitched against market forces, and market forces won.

Tom Clark focuses on neo-liberalism in an excellent book review* in the current edition of Prospect. One point (of many) that caught my attention: ‘….a lot of the neoliberal agenda can be thought of … as akin to the historic enclosures of common land, excluding some in order to strengthen the property rights of others’. Readers of my blog will remember my review of Nick Hayes’ ‘The Book of Trespass’. Tom Clark goes on to remind us of ‘the American intellectual property regime that (prior to a 2013 court ruling) developed to allow 4,300 genes to be patented as if they were inventions’.

At an everyday level we have ‘other audacious enclosures’ which ‘have blocked most Britons from watching live football of TV and obliterated awareness of cricket from the young’. (Recent England internationals on free-to-air channels have been so bad that watching is best seen as an act of penance. Cricket on the other hand has been superb – and should have been out there on free-to air TV.)

Isabel Allende in ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ sums up the situation in Pinochet’s Chile succinctly. ‘The government had decided public services should be in private hands. Health was not a right but a consumer good, to be bought and sold.’

This ties in neatly with Clark’s conclusion: ‘Only with a “property first” rather than a “freedom first” reading of neoliberalism can we …. grasp how [Friedrich] Hayek would defend the 1970s coup against an elected socialist government in Chile, which brought Pinochet’s murderous regime to power.’

The irony is that ‘ideas played an important part in the neoliberal story’. Its great proselytisers, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, thrived in that environment. But in Chile the coup closed off debate, closed out ideas, put an end to freedom of expression. Property (traditional landowners and American-owned mining companies) usurped freedom, when ultimately, in a democracy, the balance has always to be toward freedom.

The ‘audacious enclosures’ referred to above may seem small beer by comparison but as we’ve seen they are part of the same debate. Market forces are part of our lives, they drive our economies, but when they’re allied too closely with wealth, to property in the form of land and investments, as opposed to the incomes each of us earns, on our merits, in each generation, they over-reach – and the challenge lies in containing that over-reach. And for that we need, more than ever, an open market in ideas.

* ‘How the rich ate us’, reviewing books by Francis Fukuyama and Gary Gerstle

‘A man without trust’

See also my last post, ‘The Mandate of Heaven’.

In the West we have no over-arching sense of the political and spiritual spheres conjoined. They have over two millennia been mutually engaged but never (despite the Papacy’s best efforts) combined in one individual. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God, the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22, 22.) The divide is clear. Think back to the Papacy versus Empire, in the Middle Ages, or Henry VIII versus Rome, ultimately a marriage squabble, in 16th century England. Secular and spiritual rest uneasily, or at worst, violently, together.

Our politics in the UK have long been pragmatic, mercantile, self-interested. God treated as a justification ex post facto. Our political system, and that of other Western countries, is underpinned not by divine sanction but by the rule of law. Compare the Confucian order, where there is no place for a legal system as we understand it. Confucius believed in moral education as the best way of creating a just society.

However radical their differences it is true to say that at the heart of both systems, Western and Confucian, lies the basic concept and imperative of trust. An acceptance that justice will ultimately be done. Tibet, the Uyghurs, and most recently Hong King, all demonstrate how far China, where moral education is equated with the diktats of the Communist Party, has departed from Confucius.

Michael Wood, in ‘The Story of China’, quotes from the diary of ‘an old Confucian farmer, teacher and mine manager’, Liu Dapeng, writing near the end of his life, and under Japanese occupation, in the 1930s.

‘The superior man must be trusted before he can impose labours on the people….Confucius said, “I do not know how a man without trust can get on.”’

The old order was already under terminal threat.

*

But Confucius does have relevance for us, here in the West. Trust remains a universal requirement of open government and, if we define ‘superior man’ as someone who governs, and with no wider sense, we can see how it might apply to our own time, to our own politics, in the UK, in early summer 2022.

We have no mandate of heaven in our politics. We elect MPs to a House of Commons, we don’t elect a ‘president’ as they do over the Channel, with parliamentary elections following later. The MPs have the mandate. And they need to ensure that the ‘superior man’ is someone we can trust.

This you might argue is no more than a squabble, a ripple on the vast ocean of history. But ripples are indicative of what lies beneath. Without trust in individuals, and more broadly in a political system, people will disengage. Liberal democracy is a balancing act and trust is required to maintain that balance. Take away that trust and the way is open for the apparently simple and crude solutions of the populist.

We need only look across the pond to the USA to see the consequences, actual, and still worse, potential, when trust breaks down.

‘Putin, Russia and the West’

The series ‘Putin, Russia and the West’, dusted down by the BBC, has been compulsive viewing over the last three weeks – the last episode was on Wednesday night. Made in 2012 it was highly controversial at the time. It was described by the UK-based Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky as ‘nothing less than a party political broadcast for Putin and his United Russia party’. An article in the Moscow Times suggested that the makers of the series viewed ‘Putin’s anti-democratic crusade [as] largely a legitimate reaction to the hostile policies of the West, especially the United States’.

It’s ten years on, and that’s not remotely how I’d describe the series.

The USA under George Bush does come over as being naive, and outwitted by Putin – in that first episode. (Bush argued that he had been able ‘to get a sense of Putin’s soul.’) The many interviews given by Russian government ministers were all very plausible. But they all fell then, and even more so now, into line behind the boss.

Episode two tells a different story– 2004 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putin is shown as being devious in the extreme, and still he lost out. Georgia, and its attempts in 2008 to reclaim the secessionist and pro-Russian areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is the subject of the third episode. Russia held all the cards, Georgia could be wiped out militarily if it chose, and the Georgian president, Saakashvili, was more than rash to take him on – however justified it might have seemed.

Honours even, maybe, up to that point. But if you watch nothing else – watch episode four. Medvedev is president, and new president Obama reaches out, and it’s all smiles and mutual understand. You get to like Medvedev. He signs a new START agreement with Obama. We have brinkmanship on both sides. But Medvedev signs.

He and Putin had, however, an agreement – one or other would be president after the next election in 2012, and Putin won their United Russia party over to his side. Medvedev’s attempts to open up Russia to the West, to Silicon valley, to Western-style media – all sidelined, ultimately crushed by Putin.

What is so galling – we, Russia and the West – we got so close.

By the end of episode four you know the die is cast. The invasion and occupation of Crimea and the Donbas came two years later. Now even the Russian Orthodox Church is arguing the cause of Mother Russia: ‘God’s truth’ is on Russia’s side.

A rapprochement with Russia would have been an example to the world, with very practical consequences in the case of Syria, and for China given the unholy alliance it has now forged with Russia. That said, how much it would have reduced the Western world’s obsession with its own self-interest is debatable. Many if not most of the world’s problems would be as they are now, albeit in a different form.

There is one overriding conclusion I’d draw, and that is the danger of ‘great men’, or ‘strongmen’, to use Gideon Rachman’s term in his new book, ‘The Age of the Strongmen’*. They can come to characterise a nation, as Putin is now attempting to characterise Russia. And we are tempted to judge the Russian people as we judge him.  When we make judgements, draw up sanctions and cut economic ties we need to keep this in mind. Why ban Russians from playing at Wimbledon if they are avowed opponents of the regime? Why stop playing Russian music?

Putin is Rachman’s archetype for the ‘strongman’. Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary all fit the bill. All maintain friendly relations with Putin. And Marine Le Pen?

Remember Dmitry Medvedev? My final image has to be of Medvedev, at a session immediately before the invasion of President Putin’s 30-member security council, of which he’s now deputy head, parroting his master’s insistence that Ukraine is a natural part of Russia. He looked strained, and his other recent pronouncements suggest a degree of brainwashing.

How could the reasonable man of 2011 fall so low?

* ‘The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World’.

Reading the Telegraph

Buy a newspaper you don’t normally read ….

Last Monday (11th April) it was the Daily Telegraph. The headline of an article by Tim Stanley had caught my eye: ‘The French establishment is not fit for purpose.’ In this context it is the French ‘centre’, and Emmanuel Macron, he’s referring to.

That word ’establishment’ again. A club no-one owns to being a member of. Think … the MPs’ expenses scandal, think Brexit, think ‘us and them’, with the Telegraph, the ‘us’ brigade par excellence, trying to kid ordinary folk that they, the Telegraph, represent ‘them’, the outsiders, the done-down.

I turned to the centre pages. To the left, an article by Theresa May’s old right-hand, Nick Timothy, and indications of Tory infighting. He agonises about complacency in the Tory party. That Johnson, he suggests, should survive is absurd. The Party is deluding itself. ‘Johnson has deliberately formed a third-eleven cabinet, to avoid creating powerful rivals.’ (Having played third-eleven cricket when I aspired to the first eleven, the analogy hits home.) Timothy is talking sense.

Only so far – he indicates support for the government’s despicable plan to despatch asylum seekers to Rwanda.

To the right, a typical Telegraph, gung-ho, latter-day-Thatcherite leading article. Under Thatcher a ‘defining characteristic’ of the Tories had been ‘an unashamed celebration of self-made success’. The Left derided this as a ‘loads-of-money’ fixation with wealth. ‘Right’ and ‘Left’: this dumb polarisation of Right and Left. We have, it seems, to be one or the other, when most of us are somewhere in between. But the Telegraph and the right wing of the Tory party aren’t comfortable without an enemy. 

Read on. ‘The government is ‘fearful of doing anything that might benefit moderate or high earners’. It is ‘like Labour obsessed with the distributional impact of its policies’, though the fuel tax cut in Sunak’s recent budget would suggest otherwise. If there was any (re-)distributional element in that budget it passed me by.

At the bottom of the page we have the article I mentioned above, by Tim Stanley, about France and last Sunday’s French election. The centre in French politics is it seems ‘zigging about like a jelly on a wild horse’. Marine Le Pen has been ‘detoxified by the French establishment’. It seems the centre and the establishment are, once again, one and the same. That old trope. With an immigrant issue that has been massively politicised by the hard Right, one hand, and a radical left galvanised by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Bernie Sanders of American politics (that may be unfair on both of them!) on the other, the centre in France, if it is to hold, has a fight on its hands.

Le Pen has said that she ‘would quit NATO’s integrated military command and seek a closer alliance with Russia if she were elected’ (New York Times)

That’s where a better and wiser journalist than Tim Stanley would be focusing his attention.

Trespass – good or bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decline of an empire?

Almost three weeks on. The USA is out of Afghanistan. Recriminations continue, and pundits have their say. Tony Blair called it imbecilic, and argued the West should stay to protect its gains. Niall Ferguson looked to historical analogies, and specifically Britain’s experience after 1918, focusing on the idea of decline of empire. He quoted Winston Churchill bitterly recalling a ‘refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the state.’ He quotes this against Biden, when it could be quoted in his favour. Biden has always been consistent on Afghanistan – see my last blog.

Ferguson as always gets to the heart of the matter but I’m not convinced by analogies. My experience as an historian tells me to enter caveats at every stage. Ferguson raised the spectre of American economic weakness, and the size of American debt.  But with a strong internal economy in no way is its economic situation comparable to Britain’s in the 1920s.

And what are the ‘gains’ the West has achieved in Afghanistan? We established a thriving outpost, with less than friendly counties on all sides. Abandoning it is a calamity, and it was massively mismanaged, but it had an inevitability about it. The Afghan army without the all-important bond and commitment of a national (as opposed to tribal) identity was always an artificial construct, and unlikely to hold together under duress, as the Taliban proved.  

It sounds as if I’m writing with the advantage of hindsight – which I am, of course. But the military reality should have been perfectly clear to the Americans. To Biden it may only have been the sheer speed of the collapse that took him by surprise.

The Economist was forthright: ‘America’s power to deter its enemies and re-assure its friends has diminished.’  ‘Its withdrawal is likely to embolden jihadists everywhere.’

Is that right? The Taliban will have no truck with terrorists. To have their success seen as a rallying call for Al-Shabaab, or any branch of IS, is in no way in their interest.  They made that mistake back in 2001. Their leaders know a little of life in Qatar.

It’s in the West’s interests to engage with the Taliban, to release (subject to conditions) the World Bank funding that is currently suspended, and to allow food programmes, specifically the World Food Programme, to continue, without conditions.

The first condition must be to show that the Taliban can assert its authority over all the whole country, and hold it together where all previous attempts have failed. The second is humanitarian – above all women’s rights, with regard to education and employment.

The Taliban may go part way, testing Western resolve. Our approach has to be pragmatic.

Biden, and Trump, and Obama, were all right: the USA has to focus on the Pacific, and China, while Europe and NATO ups its game in Europe. The oil imperative is not what it was. The Middle East and by extension Islam and Afghanistan no longer need to be theatres of Western operation. And we now know that the wider world doesn’t look upon Western-style democracy as some universal panacea.

Impose values (however sure we may be that they are right) and resentment, and then outright opposition, are likely to follow. We need to remind ourselves that we lead best by example.

And that, turning the focus back on ourselves, is a hard hard road.