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 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.

Museums – first steps toward censorship

A quick note this sunny bank holiday morning. Get the serious stuff off my mind before enjoying the day.

My last blog took in Empire and trade and how we handle our colonial legacy. I mentioned that Oxford’s Oriel College had decided not to ‘begin the process of removing’ the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Instead they’ve outlined a series of initiatives which will take the controversy as a starting point – a strategic plan for improving equality, diversity and inclusion, a tutor to cover the same, scholarships, an annual lecture, student prize…

This has to be the right way forward. The focus on context. By understanding context the college and by extension the university and indeed anyone who will listen can move forward.

The following report from the Independent has a very different story. It speaks for itself:

A trustee who backed the ‘decolonising’ of the curriculum has been purged from the board of a prestigious museum group, triggering the resignation of its chair in protest. The refusal to reappoint Aminul Hoque – a leading Bangladeshi-British academic – at the Royal Museums Greenwich is being seen as the latest example of the government’s ‘culture war’.

Likewise this item from the Museums Journal, highlighting a letter sent to national museums by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden which stated that ‘publicly-funded bodies should align with the government’s stance on contested heritage’.

‘The government did not “support the removal of statues or other similar objects” and told recipients (of a letter sent to national museums) that he “would expect arm’s lengths bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position”’.

This is simply sinister. The issue here is not the removal or otherwise of statues. It is the wider agenda implied. It represents an attempt to influence research into and the presentation of our cultural heritage which is simply unprecedented. That heritage, the impact of colonisation on the world, is what it is. And it needs to be centre-stage if we’re to understand the world we live in, and change it for the better.

Dowden insists that museums ‘continue to act impartially’ and by so doing interferes in an unprecedented and highly partial and dangerous way.

It is consistent with attempts to stir up a wider opposition to the BBC as a licence-funded operation, using its news coverage, which is to an impartial observer (check out opinions from other country’s on this!) remarkably impartial in an ever-more divided world, as an excuse for turning it into just another subscription channel, and thereby losing its identity as a national channel – leaving British TV open to market forces, which has of course been Rupert Murdoch’s aim all along.

The Diana/Martin Bashir story is almost twenty-five years old but is being treated as if it’s current news. By the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press. Murdoch is of course about to launch Times Radio to compete with BBC Radio.

We live in dangerous times, with the Americanisation of our media, and the serious consequences that could result, a real possibility. The tabloids and Telegraph and Times won’t help us. Their owners ensure their readers are unaware of the hard realities. Journalists and writers to get published need to toe the line. The BBC likewise must toe the line: it cannot make a case for itself. Social media is a deeply divided and contentious space.

Those of us who can must make our case as best we can. The wider public, most certainly in the case of the BBC, is on our side. Open minds and impartiality have become part of our DNA. We must not give them up lightly.

More thoughts for the day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flying the flag

In yesterday’s news we had government minister Robert Jenrick ‘flying the flag’ on UK public buildings (the government will be making it a regulation), and displaying the flag prominently behind him in a BBC interview – and gentle comments from BBC journalists about the prominence of that flag being turned against the BBC. All staged in the cause of the new hard-right Tory jingoism.

Cass Sunstein’s new book This Is Not Normal is just out. Timely: it’s what Jenrick and other revanchist (meaning ‘recovering lost territory’) Tories are about. Trying to change the ‘normal’. Taking us back. Politics as a battleground. He won’t change the younger generation, so why polarise other than for electoral advantage – unless he really believes that we can turn back history by endless harping on about the past.

I’ll give no ground to anyone when it comes to pride in country – and that means patriotism. I’m English, and I’m British.  But I’m not lost in past glories, nor do I believe that we as a nation are better than other nations. What I want our focus to be on what we can offer other nations – and what they can offer us. Bringing the world closer together, while retaining our identities.

We polarise at our peril. We desperately need shared conversations and shared conclusions.

Zen is about being comfortable in the moment, and that means not grasping on to something – ‘grasping’ is a good word here. Not craving something you can’t have – in this context, the past. Or trying to define the future in terms of the past.

You can’t go back there. You can prop up all the ancient statues, send demonstrators down for ten years according to new draft legislation – but you can’t go back to the past.

Statues commemorate ‘heroes’ who died a natural death. Let their statues do the same. They occupy some important public spaces. Maybe a 50-year year max lifespan before they’re taken down – a hundred years for a big hero?

I’m being fanciful, but life is so much more fun that way. I came upon the following from a Buddhist commentary yesterday:  

‘But, if you have genuine insight and see clearly this bundle [life in all its aspects], constantly changing, now laughing, now crying, now being afraid, now having the silliest notions, now being quite sincere, now being very willing, now being compassionate: and you will see this bundle constantly changing through life; well, that is how it will go on.’*

I also read about a monk who would  ‘without breaking stride … gently close a gate that had blown open, and carefully pick up things that had blown down’. ‘Without breaking stride.’ Not easy I appreciate, but there’s a message here. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.

A quote from Sam Harris (see his app, ‘Waking Up’), an ardent secularist who learnt much from his stay in a Buddhist monastery, also caught my eye: ‘It’s in the nature of everything to fall apart… everything from our bodies, our relationships, our institutions, our understanding of the world … everything requires continuous maintenance…’

What struck me was that phrase, ‘everything requires continuous maintenance’. That’s what parliamentary democracy, deliberative democracy, open democracy, or whatever you call it – that’s what it’s all about. We’re in the here and now, and there’s much work to do here, not in some distant dream world.  

*from a commentary by the Venerable Myokyo-ni on ‘The Record of Rinzai’

Poetry and politics out of San Francisco

Ferlinghetti and Hirschman, and remembering also the Turkish writer, Ahmet Altan

Back in the 1950s and 60s people were living on the edge, as they are now, in Covid times. The threat of nuclear war was ever-present. And by the 60s many of us were engaged in a fully-fledged protest movement. But we could be out there, talking, drinking, smoking, demonstrating. And a whole lot more.

I’ve been reading two San Francisco poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Hirschman. Back in 1953 Ferlinghetti founded the City Lights Bookstore, and in 1956 he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and after he was prosecuted famously won a court case asserting the right of free speech under the First Amendment. Some forty years later, in 1998, he was named the first San Francisco Poet Laureate. Hirschman, in 2006, was the fourth.  

I had a Hirschman book on order… this was last Monday. The following day there arrived an email from a friend over in the States with a PS – had I seen the news, Ferlinghetti had just died. Aged 101. I’m sad, really sad, he’s gone. Amazed he was still alive.

Remember Howl? OK, you don’t remember. We weren’t alive or we were too young. But it’s a manifesto for anarchy, of a very 1950s and 60s kind. Not the destructive anarchy of the New Right of our own time. It’s the dream anarchy that the world will somehow set itself right. It’s just that ‘America’ is getting in the way.  Ginsberg celebrates ‘the best minds of his generation’, they’re ‘angel-headed hipsters … who poverty and tatters and hollowed-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz’. It’s political – but it doesn’t have a prospectus. It just wants you to know that it scorns the whole crazy moneyed apparatus of society.

Ferlinghetti also had the anarchist instinct but he was a practical guy. Founded the bookstore, published Howl, won that court case. But he also knew how to hit home: his is a ‘concrete continent/ spaced with bland billboards/ illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness’. (A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958)  Come 2007 he was more relaxed, the gentrification of San Francisco a big issue. But he was still campaigning for ‘poems that say something supremely original and supremely important, which everyone aches to hear, poetry that cries out to be heard, poetry that’s news’. Maybe the mass media might just print it, if it was ‘a new kind of news’. Though maybe ‘poets would still be ignored by our dominant culture, because they’re saying what our materialist, technophiliac world doesn’t want to hear’.

He was also asking that big question – what exactly what is a poet? He’s like an acrobat ‘on a high wire of his own making/ … a little charliechaplin man/ who may or may not catch/her fair eternal form’ when she comes swinging toward him. That’s from ‘A Coney Island’. His ‘Challenges to Young Poets’ from forty years later keeps it simple: ‘Write short poems in the voice of birds.’

Hirschman was something else, a Street not a Beat poet, a radical communist. (His book, ‘All That’s Left’, arrived yesterday.) ‘It was the Street poets who united with common causes…’ He celebrated SF’s Cafe Trieste, where you’d find ‘local radiances like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’, and ‘the older Beats and Baby Beats and the commies, the surrealists, the anarchists, the socialists, the jazzmen, the urban screwballs, the walk-in weirdos’. From another age he remembered ‘Federico, who would die for poetry’ – Lorca was a hero. ‘The sinking house of the setting sun’ was how he characterised New Orleans after Katrina. And, remembering the Virginia Tech massacre of thirty-two people, he wrote, ‘and now you know what a market/in old Baghdad feels like.’.

By contrast, the latter-day Ferlinghetti could be whimsical, a poet to smile and relax with in poems such as the ‘Green Street Mortuary Marching Band’. But he was still the same man. ‘To the Oracle at Delphi’ talks of America as a ‘new Empire … with its electronic highways/carrying its corporate monoculture/round the world’. (San Francisco Poems, 2001)

Hirschman never let up – hasn’t I’m sure to this day. You may or may not appreciate his encomium on Fidel Castro. But in the case of Mumia (Mumia Abu-Jamal) he drills his message home. Black Panther background, sentenced to death for murder in 1981, commuted in 2001, still in jail, many still arguing his case and his cause. Mumia has studied, taken a degree, written books, and inspired, all from jail. Hirschman imagines his final victory – ‘your victory will be the priceless uplifting of the human spirit’.

He refers to Mumia as the ‘Nazim Hikmet/of the American grain, that Turkish poet who/spent 26 years in prison…. No amount of bars/or shackles can chain/the revolutionary impulse/of the human heart’.

Mumia’s case still divides America, along party lines, Right and Left. I am, over in the UK, in no position to comment on the rights and wrongs of his conviction. But the reference to Nazim Hikmet does strike home.

In our own time, as some of us are planning holidays in Turkey, we have the extraordinary and vicious incarceration of Turkish journalists and writers (and teachers and lawyers and many others) under the Erdogan regime. One is the writer Ahmet Altan, arrested in 2016, then released and re-arrested the same day. Now serving a life sentence. In his book (smuggled as extracts from jail), ‘Never will I see the world again’, he writes:

‘Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends…I would not be able to listen to a violin concerto or to go on a trip or browse in bookstores or buy bread from a bakery or gaze at the sea…’

It’s a long paragraph. And it hit me hard.

Getting yourself noticed

My recent reading has as always taken in various reviews, articles, books. One day last week they seemed to come together, on the theme of ‘getting noticed’. But not in the sense of shouting from the rooftops. This blog is after all combining ‘zen’ and ‘politics’. In politics you do have to make yourself heard. Zen exists below the radar. And ‘getting noticed’ doesn’t mean you won’t be as quickly forgotten.

Mary Wollstonecraft did get noticed in her own time. And then she was all but forgotten. Proto-feminist, author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, resident in Paris during the Terror, she was also mother of Mary Shelley, by William Godwin. (Grandmother of Frankenstein you might say.) She died in 1797. Godwin’s biography of his wife published the following year did her no favours. The opposite. ‘The more fully we are presented with the picture and story,’ Godwin wrote, ‘the more generally we shall find ourselves attached to their fate, and a sympathy in their excellencies.’ He was wrong, desperately so. Robert Southey accused Godwin of ‘a want all feeling in stripping his wife naked’. (See Richard Holmes’ This Long Pursuit.) That was mild compared to other execrations.

It’s taken two hundred years, but in our time she’s celebrated.

For someone totally different – I chanced on Hans Keller, refugee from Hitler, BBC musicologist, influential post-WW2 and through to the 1970s. Keller was in the Reithian BBC tradition, which had as its aims to ‘educate, inform, entertain’. Classical music was party of that educative purpose.

Wollstonecraft has found herself on the right side of history. Not so Keller. He wrote in 1973: ‘If we can bring ourselves to learn and practise the art of not listening to the radio, of turning it off… radio can become a cultural force of unprecedented potency.’ ‘As Nicholas Grace reviewing a new biography of Keller concludes: ‘Keller’s island of Reithian paternalism was soon to be swept away by a digital tsunami.’ (London Review of Book, February)

He may be all but forgotten, but how we listen to music, and how we concentrate when listening, they are still issues, and extend well beyond the confines of music.

Wollstonecraft and Keller brought to mind a few heroes of mine. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who became a leading Civil Rights campaigner in the USA. George Orwell of course. He understood the absurdities of power better than anyone. It’s why he remains a point of reference for so many of us today. One example in my reading from last week. ‘Nationalism,’ Orwell wrote in 1945, is ‘the political doctrine of a delusional fantasist.’

People had hopes back then that we’d seen the back of the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. But nationalism still rides high. And Orwell remains as relevant as ever.

This is where where I could so easily veer away from Zen, from the pursuit of wisdom, if you will, to raw politics. I could list the hyper-nationalists of our time. From Putin across and down. Or the petty nationalists. I could include the UK reducing its foreign budget, and that would take me right back into the mire.

Also, in an earlier version of this blog I had Ed Miliband and Keir Starmer not getting heard. Rafael Behr in the Guardian suggesting that part of Starmer’s problem lay in ‘a lack of rudimentary storytelling’. In UK politics Covid and Brexit are the dominant stories. The story of the old Toryism of Major, Heseltine and Clark has all but disappeared: no-one is doing the telling.

They will find their way into future blogs. This blog has been about under the radar. We could all add the names of poets and novelists and adventurers and scientists. Just for now, Wollstonecraft and Keller, Orwell and Merton must suffice.

Fog and politics

A single bird was in unusual and glorious voice in thick fog at the top of the Common this early morning.  It’s the first day of February. I slowed my run, and listened. As if to a nightingale in the silence. Also this morning a coup in Myanmar, and by lunchtime indications that the South African version of the virus has touched down in the UK. We’ve incipient vaccine wars with the EU, who I want to support, but who’ve made fools of themselves, turning on Astra-Zeneca, and threatening UK supplies.

Back home, after breakfast I take refuge from all that’s happening and about to happen by putting, with my partner, Hazel, a few more pieces into our 1000-piece jigsaw. Jigsaws like early-morning runs (pilates for Hazel) can be surprisingly therapeutic.

I needed a little therapy. It’s a morning when the news gets you down. Might the answer be to walk away from it all? Does politics, as a discussion in the current edition of Prospect, has it, really matter? Academic Freya Johnston is pitched against old-school politician, Malcolm Rifkind.

Politics for Johnston is inseparable from the public dislike of politicians. ‘One reason that polls demonstrate indifference to politics is the public contempt for politicians.’ Rifkind accepts, as I do, that ‘normal people are more interested in their own well-being than by what happens on the national stage’. But on the plus side he quotes the vision of the politicians behind the launch of the NHS. Johnston ripostes that ‘rather, it responded to increasing social and cultural pressures’. Politics is of course the interplay between the two, politicians and public. Aneurin Bevan, who championed the NHS in parliament, was a good guy, and a hero. (We do need more like him.)

The exchange was depressing, with both sides reduced to quoting Jane Austen. Johnston needs reminding we are in a world of stark dualities, good and evil, compassion and cruelty, and, yes, liberal democracy and various forms of often brutal autocracy (and Trumpian shades inbetween). We can take nothing for granted. Public opinion does need to engage, whether it likes it or not.

Both the Economist (23rd January) and TLS (8th January) have featured a new book, ‘Out of the Ordinary’, by Marc Stears, which doesn’t shy away from voters’ disdain for politics and politicians. On the one hand we’ve the ‘technocrats’ of the Blair/Cameron era, on the other the ‘ideologues’ and zealotry of the Labour left. In both cases it’s ‘direction by others’. (Brexit has landed us instead with the zealotry of the Tory right, and their market obsessions.)

Stears argues for another approach, ‘the politics of the ordinary’. He likes the JB Priestley of ‘English Journey’. Nothing sentimental. Ditto George Orwell. We’re reminded of the Orwell aphorism that ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’. Community engagement is fundamental to the picture, but I’d argue it’s not enough. Nor is the top-down, vote-buying capital investment the Tories talk about.

A genuine change of direction won’t come about by asserting that good sense and communitarian spirit will somehow win out in the end. But it would be helped by connecting ordinary folk, the you and me, and the next road, and the estate beyond the main road, with the economic and business as well as the social life of a community.

It would require a revival of a style of local government and local engagement that underpinned our politics until quite recent times. It would also involve short as well as long supply lines. Local suppliers employing local people to provide goods produced at a local level, alongside local services. Creating a landscape, a literal landscape, of SMEs – small and medium-sized enterprises, with government money supporting local business in a way people can connect to.  

It’s a direction of travel, not an easy answer. And it doesn’t discount the need for political and economic expertise, elites if you will. But it does require, and here I’m with Stears, that elites aren’t self-referential and self-serving, that they’re always connected, and don’t automatically renew.

I’m not arguing we turn our backs of the global world, or that we shouldn’t trade with Japan or South Korea or even China, but we do need a fundamental shift in the balance.

In this context I can’t let Freya Johnson get away with her ridiculous statement that ‘indifference [to the business of government] isn’t necessarily something to be lamented. It might even be strength’.

A few old-style ‘tribunes of the people’ might help. Marcus Rashford as he might be in a few years time. Trade unionists, remember Ernie Bevin and Jim Callaghan, brought hard experience from street and factory floor to government. It’s not so easy these days, but it’s that kind of connection from the street level via councils and other assemblies right up to parliament and the Cabinet that we need. I’m not against the occasional toff – we just need to mix them up with a few folk who’ve cut their teeth at a local level, and can bring a certain street-fighting capability to the business of government.

The obfuscations of 24-hour news, the miseries of Murdoch and Fox Media, the oddities of the Daily Mail – we have to do better. We thought the half-truths of social media were bad enough. Then came alternative truths, with conspiracy theories hot on their heels. We need an entirely different route, and disengagement Freya-Johnston-style from the process would be utterly foolish.

She’s an easy target, Freya Johnston, and I should dwell on her. Best to end by repeating that Orwell aphorism, ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’.

Imagine yourself at the Cabinet table…

Maybe I should begin with Joe Biden, sworn in as US president yesterday. But I will come to him in a moment. First, by way of contrast…

Yes, you’ve made it to the top. Johnson is presiding. Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, rambles as he did on the BBC Today programme this morning. ‘Can we have clarity?’ barks the PM. ‘Command your brief, and your audience.’ ‘Do not make promises you can’t keep.’

Do you imagine this happens in cabinet, or privately? From the PM, or any minister? Rishi Sunak is a banker, not a natural interrogator. Gove has his own agenda, and as for the rest…

Look over the pond. Check out Biden’s appointments to his cabinet. (See below.) He’s not reliant on members of Congress, he can pick whoever’s best for the job, which includes of course members of Congress. It wouldn’t matter in this country if parliament attracted the best people. But with local party selection committees often representing hardliners, the best people don’t put themselves forward. The range of opinions among MPs has narrowed down, especially after the last election. The more moderate Tories were all but wiped out. Where now are the contrarians?

I mentioned Williamson. He has, I concede, a tough brief. So too Matt Hancock. Johnson is hopeless beyond repair. How about Robert Jenrick, as Housing and Communities Secretary?

He is a lawyer and property developer. His contribution this week has been a resort to populism to hide the shambles. He’s announced that removing statues will require planning permission once legislation has been passed by parliament. You may or may not agree. It’s his language I abhor, with references to ‘baying mobs’, ‘town hall militants’ and ‘woke worthies’. (As an aside: the Victorians had a unique ability fill town squares with statues and churchyards with gravestones: is our sense of our history such that they must remain there forever?)

This is Trump speak. Maybe now we will see less of it. Michael Gove’s ‘warm and generous friend’ has been outed and ousted. For America’s rust belt read England’s ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England. Might alarm bells now be ringing that resorting to populism doesn’t guarantee your political future?

Remember the old phrase, ‘divide et impera’, from your schooldays? Divide and rule. Time to put it to bed. Part of the strategy was to undermine the civil service. But Cummings was removed before he’d got too far with his ‘shit list’. So traditions of good advice, whether or not heeded, will at least be maintained.

The election of Joe Biden has given us hope. We’re having to pinch ourselves. The Democrats even won those two Georgia seats to give him control, by a single vice-presidential casting vote, of the Senate.  

‘We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.’ I won’t forget Biden’s shades-of-Lincoln inauguration speech. One small detail noticed by The Times: Mike Pence, departing vice-president and his wife ‘were escorted down the steps of the Capitol by (Kamala) Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff. They paused for a minute-long conversation during which Mr Pence and Ms Harris both laughed.’ One small detail, and a week or two back, so unlikely.

I’ve had a look at Biden’s cabinet appointees, to see what their backgrounds were. We won’t, I’m confident, be getting the partisan language we got from Trump appointees. What the list tells me is that they’ve been out in the world, and earned their place in his cabinet the hard way. I’ll conclude this post with a few examples, courtesy of the US PBS Newshour:

Connecticut Public Schools commissioner and former elementary school teacher Miguel Cardona to be Secretary of the Department of Education.

Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s administration and a key adviser on the administration’s response to Russian incursion into Crimea in 2014, to be Secretary of State.

Merrick Garland, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to be Attorney General. He was Obama’s nominee for the 2016  Supreme Court vacancy.

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to be Secretary of the Department of Energy. Granholm served as governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011, the first woman to hold that role.

Janet Yellen to be Treasury Secretary. She served as head of the Council of Economic Advisors under Clinton and became the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, in 2014.

William J. Burns to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. Burns, currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, previously worked in government as Deputy Secretary of State.

You can check all the appointees out via PBS. It’s an impressive list.

Hard truths about a hard Brexit

I’m helping making marmalade at the moment. Messy but satisfying. An early New Year diversion from Covid-19 and the Brexit-induced mess of our politics.

We’ve left, and Zenpolitics needs to put a marker down. This blog has been going eleven years, and it can’t let the Brexit Agreement pass without comment.

As a first and most basic proposition, we will achieve far more if we have the widest perspective – as citizens of Britain, of Europe and of the world. The one naturally folding into the other. We are foolish to think otherwise. Recent events represent a closing-in not an opening-out of our society, whatever the absurd and grandiose claims of the Johnson government.

Our Brexit divisions have often been compared to fractured personal relationships, where the only hope of coming together lies in attempting some understanding of the other side’s position.

I go along with that. It is after all what Zenpolitics espouses. But it’s hard when you’re dealing with a series of false promises, a disregard as it suits for truth and precedent. Michael Gove has expressed the hope that the agreement will see politics move away from the bitterness surrounding the 2016 referendum. He and his like fed that bitterness to serve their own ends. We are a polarised society, and that is unlikely to change.

Looking across the pond, we see Republican senators still trying to undermine Biden’s election – with no chance of success but taking what they see as a longer-term perspective – hanging in with the hard-line Trump agenda, however divisive the consequences. Brexit has bred a similar though less extreme cynicism. But the direction of travel is the same.

Johnson talks of friends in Europe, when insulting and misrepresenting them has been his trademark over twenty years.  There will be no easy coming together. Insofar as it happens it will be the pro-Europeans, who will never give up on working closely with old allies, who will be responsible.

Pro-Europeans will never abandon their position or their loyalties. They – we – know where the future lies. There must, if we are to hold any position in the world, be a coming together again with Europe. We will need another, wiser government before this happens. Taking back control is an absurd slogan – Brexit is by definition a losing of control, a losing of influence, a diminution of status, a constriction of sovereignty.

Yes, we are off-shore Europeans. We haven’t been invaded, or lost wars. We’ve no sense of needing to escape from our past. Our links with Europe are born of sympathy, common culture, convenience – not of necessity. Many of us are, as de Gaulle reminded us, closer to USA and Commonwealth countries than other European countries. But that gave us the priceless benefit of being a bridge, which we can be no more. Brexit has exacerbated an ‘outsider’ instinct, which will serve us ill.

This isn’t to downplay the issues which pushed Brexit up the agenda. Immigration was perceived to be out of control. Between 2008 and 2019 the UK’s Polish population more than doubled. Cameron’s government consistently aspired to and failed to bring the numbers down, and that helped focus the issue further.

In previous decades the failings of Common Agricultural Policy dominated debate. It rewards scale, guarantees the supply of food, and holds down prices, but in market terms it’s highly inefficient. But food was abundant, and prices were low. So it wasn’t a key issue. It wouldn’t resonate with voters.

The Leave side looked elsewhere. Fishing, however small as a sector of our economy, became a totemic issue. ‘Metropolitan elites’ likewise. The EU ‘elite’ and the ‘metropolitan’ became merged in the public mind.

Leave attached itself to the innate social conservatism of the ordinary voter. The Tory party as the party of Leave has been the big beneficiary. Opposition to overtly ‘woke’ behaviour has become a rallying cry in the popular press. Likewise, four years on from the Brexit vote, opposition, not always covert, to Black Lives Matter.

The likes of Douglas Murray stir the waters with articles in The Spectator and elsewhere. AN Wilson sounds off in The Times against the Archbishop of Canterbury. Johnson would rather be above all this but, being one for whom popularity is the ultimate aim, he will bend before the party wind as much as he needs to.

There’s always that sense we’re governed for the benefit of party, to ensure the Tory Party retain its role as the natural party of government. That’s an old accusation, party before country, but it rings true.

Jeremy Corbin and Militant Labour lent a big helping hand. For the Tories to sustain their northern vote through to and, they hope, beyond the next election a big south-to-north transfer of funds will be required. We thought we were dealing with a party which believes in hands-off government. All the more so since free marketeers staged their internal coup (and radically reduced the Tory talent base at the same time). And yet – we now have free marketeers becoming big-state spenders. They’re the ones in cabinet. The true diehards remain on the fringes.

The government’s language is palpably foolish. They talk of Global Britain. The country has ‘changed beyond all recognition’.  It now has ‘global perspectives’. There’s a notion spread about that the EU is somehow inward-looking. Yes, in the sense that it is more stubborn and hard-nosed, as Brexit negotiations have demonstrated. It has to be, in a world where the real battleground is between the three great economic power blocks, the USA, China – and the EU.

Both sides of the Brexit debate trade statistics on the relative performance of the UK as opposed to the wider EU economy. The hard truth is, to quote The Economist, ‘Britain’s recent performance has been poor, and Brexit will be a further drag on growth.’  Taking the most recent statistics from the House of Commons Library, ‘compared with the same quarter a year before (that is, Q3 2019) [UK] GDP was -9.6%. In the Eurozone it was -4.3% and in the US it was -2.9%.’

The current edition of The Economist further underscores the hard realities: ‘Since 2005 British firms’ share of world market capitalisation has fallen from over 7% to 3%, a much greater slippage than any other large European economy. Over the same period the share of the stock of global cross-border investment attributable to British-headquartered multinationals has fallen from 10% to 6%, also a bigger drop than for any other major economy.’

It is indeed curious how a government so committed to ‘free trade’, so focused in their aspirations on our future economic performance,  should have allowed ‘sovereignty’ and the 0.1% of our economy that is the contribution of the fishing industry to be the make-or-break issues in the final months of the Brexit negotiations. The multitude of new restrictions we now face as a result of leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market were treated as secondary considerations. For a brief summary of (some of) what we face see below.*

Services, including the financial sector, along with foreign policy and defence, are not part of the agreement just concluded. In great part the Brexit deal is defined by what is leaves out.

We won’t get better deals than we got under the EU. Brexiteers thought to court China. But investment in China is now the subject of close scrutiny. The EU has, as of last week, confirmed a China trade deal after seven years of negotiation. The best we can hope to get is a mirror image. That said, China has a long memory of Britain’s arrogance in our 19th century China dealings. Hong Kong doesn’t help. And China is happily wreaking vengeance on Australia for being the first to demand an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus epidemic.

We also have a weakling foreign secretary.

That touches on another big issue. We have a weak government of Brexit conformists, with free market attitudes which do not connect to the realities of our times, and abilities which fall well short of the abilities their briefs require. Raab, Truss and Patel were key figures behind the 2012 book Britannia Unchained. ‘The British are among the worst idlers in the world,’ is one quote I remember. Their subservience to Cummings told its own story.

Along with ‘Global Britain’ we have a ‘brave new future’. There’s something pathetic in these rallying calls. We’ve seen them all through Covid. Big statements and then they row-back, change tack, always positioning themselves behind the curve. (This should be a case study for future students of politics.)

We’ve had a defence review where hard decisions are helped by a big expenditure splurge. We will shortly have a much-delayed foreign policy ‘integrated review’. We will have to see what it says. We do of course have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We’re the second biggest contributors to NATO.  We have language on our side. But match that against a big reduction in the esteem in which we, and our democracy, a direct consequence of Brexit shenanigans, are held around the world. False pride is a biblical term that comes to mind.

Students of British politics in Europe, the USA and elsewhere will also be wondering about Scottish independence, and the likelihood of a united Ireland. The Johnson government is blind to what might well be realities, and further bitter divisions.

One lesson of history is that events never deliver on expectations. And the more radical the disturbance to the status quo the more disruptive the outcome. (Disruption was of course Cumming’s avowed aim). Brexit supporters back in 2016 thought we’d get a soft Brexit. A hard Brexit was for the extremists. And what do we have?

Another lesson is that you achieve by coming together, and not by splitting apart. A third would be that you don’t define your nation and your economy on the basis of its past achievements. We didn’t win 20th century wars on our own. We dispensed with Empire long ago, and we need to dispense with hangover imperial attitudes and sensitivities. We built our 19th century economy on cheap labour and captive markets. India had no choice but to buy our cotton manufactures. We don’t have those advantages now.

The sub-continent and Asian ‘tiger’ economies got their own back in the end. We have our expertise in specific sectors, defence, aviation, high tech, chemicals. But old Ricardian notions of comparative advantage mean very little these days. Tiger economies have shown how readily they can find investment funding, and how quickly they can overtake us in areas where we thought our advantage was well set.

Trade with our biggest partner is, by a vast margin, our best guarantee of future prosperity. At the same time we need to retain a healthy degree of cynicism. The idealism of the early years of the Common Market, when aspiration and market realities readily matched, is long gone. As a major driver of reform we have done the EU a disservice by leaving. That is, ironically, another reason for wanting to remain.

We won’t of course be rejoining in a hurry. But as and when, and if, we do, the EU in all probability is some shape or form will still be there. Many Brexiteers anticipated a wider fragmentation, precipitated by our departure. They have already been proved very wrong.

We have cast ourselves as outsiders, and it’s not a good place to be.

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*Quoted from an article by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform:

‘Most British people have no idea how hard Brexit will be…

Manufacturers and farmers will face irksome checks at borders for things like customs, VAT, safety and security, plant and animal health, and much else. Services companies will lose access to the single market unless they set up subsidiaries within it. British airlines and freight firms will no longer be able to operate freely within the EU. Citizens will lose the right to travel for as long as they wish, work, study or reside in the EU. Industries and institutions that have become accustomed to employing EU citizens – including farming, food processing, hospitality, care homes, construction and universities – will face difficulties. Britain is leaving a plethora of EU agencies, such as those that deal with medicines, chemicals, air safety and food safety. The British police will lose direct access to many EU criminal databases.’

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.